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What's A Newspaper Without A Newsroom? Many, Like The Wichita Eagle, Are Finding Out

Jeff Eaton
flickr Creative Commons

The one constant in the newspaper industry over the last decade or so has been change.

The shifting media landscape has led to significant staff reductions at most newspapers, many of which no longer produce a print product seven days a week.

Dozens of newspapers, including The Wichita Eagle and Kansas City Star, have sold their longtime headquarters, contracted with a different paper to do their printing and moved into smaller office space.

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The latest industry trend has newspapers closing their newsrooms entirely. Instead, reporters, photographers and editors will work remotely, as many have done since the pandemic started a year ago.

The Eagle will vacate its office space in Old Town next month. Its editor, Michael Roehrman, said the company intends to have an office again in the future. But when that might be, and what the new space might look like, is uncertain.

“The newsrooms of the past are just that: They're a construct of the past, and we're a predominantly digital company now,” Roehrman said. “And so what space is appropriate for a digital company is what we'll be considering.”

The latest industry trend troubles some former journalists, like Buzz Merritt. He spent more than 40 years in a newsroom, including nearly 25 as executive editor of The Eagle.

“I think we lose a whole lot when individuals who are supposed to be collaborating on producing something like good journalism are distant and not … interacting directly, physically, with each other,” said Merritt, who began working in a newsroom when he was 15.

“I think there's something missing there.”

Credit Courtesy
KMUW News Director Tom Shine in the old Eagle newsroom, where he worked for more than 30 years.

Nikki Usher agrees. She’s an associate professor at the University of Illinois who has studied the connection between where journalists work and how they cover the news in their community. She even wrote a book on the topic: “News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism.”

Usher said good reporters don’t spend much time in the newsroom anyway because they’re out looking for stories. But that doesn’t mean newsrooms aren’t important.

“Having a physical place where people can come together to bounce ideas off of each other, to discuss issues and concerns, to spot those who are struggling, I think that those are all things that come out of being in a newsroom,” she said. “I think that being in a newsroom facilitates better editing, it facilitates better conversations.”

Usher said not having a physical newsroom also can make it difficult for the public to know where to meet with a reporter if they have information to share or concerns about something happening in their community.

“Giving the public a sense of where you can find a journalist physically is like the starting point for that whole engaged journalism,” she said.

Lorraine Ahearn worked in newsrooms for more than 30 years, many of them at the Greensboro News & Record in North Carolina. She’s now an assistant professor at the University of South Alabama.

Credit Courtesy
The bustling Detroit Free Press newsroom

She said in a newsroom, reporters knew what stories other reporters were working on and could pitch in if they needed help.

“That’s camaraderie, but it's also collaborative,” Ahearn said. “Everybody's working on the same mission. And if you get stuck, you can talk to the person next to you.”

Like many businesses, newsrooms have turned to Zoom or other technology during the pandemic to replace in-person meetings and discussions between journalists. Merritt — who calls good journalism the "plasma that democracy needs to function" — thinks that’s a poor substitute.

“We remain living, breathing, loving, hating human beings,” he said, “and to expect a complex organic process that gathering and reporting news well really is, to expect it to be a bloodless, technological process is inviting disaster.”

Merritt said he worries that another valuable benefit being lost when newsrooms go remote is the mentoring of younger reporters. He said he was in high school when he started working in his first newsroom.

“I sat within arm's length of the managing editor, who was a brusque, tough, but very smart guy,” Merritt recalled. “Just the presence and hearing him talk on the phone to a reader or some … source, hearing him talk to the other reporters – much less him talking to me and then critiquing what I was doing – that was a truly valuable experience, even for a 15-year-old.”

Ahearn, the professor at South Alabama, said the loss of newsrooms is more than just a sentimental longing for the past.

“It's not really about nostalgia,” Ahearn said. “It's about the role of the media organization … a strong voice in the community to get us through tough times, like the pandemic; to get us through the vaccination process.

“How does everybody get on the same page when there's not a strong voice, and when this voice is becoming smaller and smaller and fragmented and just atomized?”

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.