Newsroom in New Media Age: Mobile Desks?

By: Steve Outing

Most newspaper office environments look pretty much the same as they have for years: large open spaces with desks everywhere, separated by nothing or by low partitions, meant to facilitate communication while not affording much in the way of privacy. But as with so many other areas of the news business, the physical office space occupied by newspaper staffs is beginning to change and adapt to the arrival of new media.

What works for a newsroom full of editors and reporters isn’t always best for new media workers. The people who produce the online component for a news organization are a different breed; they belong to a different culture, in large part. That tried-and-true newsroom desk set-up doesn’t work as well for them.

Of course, in the early days of new media at traditional news organizations, the new media folks typically got only a couple desks tucked away in a far corner of the building. Today, new media is a significant operation at many newspapers, and news executives are beginning to redesign their office environments to accommodate the needs of their digital workers.

Call in the architects

Boulder, Colo.-based consulting firm Blevins Harding Group has long been helping newspapers design their physical plants. Recently, it’s branched out to aiding publishers in integrating new media operations into existing and newly planned newspaper facilities. Blevins Harding is primarily a specialty architectural firm serving the newspaper industry, although recently it also has moved more heavily into business strategies consulting — much of that work now involving integrating new media into the mainline news business.

Ken Harding, president of the consultancy, says that new media workers have different needs that require appropriate office environments. The typical new media worker is part journalist and part technologist, and they need more privacy than full-time reporters and editors. Performing programming tasks requires a place where the worker can shut out the rest of the world. At the same time, new media workers typically work in teams more than do journalists, so the ideal office environment includes quiet places where team members can meet.

Such needs are seldom met by the typical newspaper office environment of today. Many newsrooms utilize modular office furniture that only with some serious effort can be adapted to changing work conditions and staff growth; reconfiguring is a task best left to office furniture specialists. Harding says that in the new media workplace, complete flexibility is the ideal. Workers should be able to move desks and tables around by themselves to accommodate new projects or an impromptu meeting; they should be able to pull across a privacy barrier for their workspace when embarking on a task that entails intense concentration.

An important point to keep in mind when designing office space for new media workers is that their projects change often. Projects are dropped frequently; new ones are developed; new and different teams are created. And the workers tend to do varying tasks, so a single configuration of computer and furniture isn’t always enough.

Harding says that new furniture systems are available that are completely portable. Desks and tables are on wheels, so an impromptu configuration can be created for a meeting or temporary project. A whiteboard can be wheeled in to take notes.

In the ideal new-media-equipped office, computers and phones can be moved around easily, too, with simple one-plug connectivity features. This way, a worker who needs privacy for a project can take his computer with him to a temporary work set-up.

Harding points out that in Japan, many office workers have mobile phones, so they aren’t tethered to a single desk. Use of laptop rather than desktop computers also is more prevalent in that country. The trend is being repeated but at a much slower pace in the U.S. Harding expects the newsroom of the future to include this type of portability and flexibility for workers.

Of course, the down side to this office utopia is that the portable furniture is expensive. Expect to pay 50-100% more per seat to outfit your office with “personal harbors,” desks on wheels, and modular phone and computer connectivity. (This expensive portable furniture still maintains good ergonomic design, so you don’t have to exchange portability for worker comfort.)

Harding says that a less expensive option that still accommodates the needs of new media workers is to make selected pieces of furniture mobile. Design in more community spaces to accommodate meetings, and put work/meeting tables on wheels to serve multiple purposes. That can raise per-seat costs a more reasonable 15-20% above standard-issue office configurations.

‘I need more space’

New media workers tend to need more space than do workers in traditional newspaper jobs, says Harding. Because of the teams work required in new media, more community space must be designed in. Since most newspaper offices are already packed, publishers are looking for ways to find additional space. Harding offers these possibilities:

Claim space left by newspaper departments that are being eliminated by technology, such as paste-up areas. Design new workspace configurations for employees who travel or spend most of their time out of the office. For such workers, 10 of them might share five work spaces, for example. For workers who are out of the office frequently, downsize the amount of space they get. Someone who works full time in the office might get a larger office area than someone who’s on the road most of the time. The saved space can be put into community areas. When appropriate, allow workers to work from home. Those who mostly telecommute can have common, shared desks with plug-in connectivity for when they are in the office. Laptop computers take up less space (and of course support more mobility), so a move away from desktop workstations can lessen the need for larger work areas. However you reclaim space, devote it to community areas that support an appropriate new media work environment. “Most everyone is finding that new environments take more space, not less,” says Harding. Newspapers also are struggling with incorporating Internet access into the newsroom. Harding says it’s not uncommon to see an editor’s desk with two computers on it — and neither one connects to the Internet. While ultimately, every newspaper staffer should have Internet access on their desktops, an interim solution at many papers is creation of central “media centers,” where a journalist can go to get Web access, watch a TV broadcast, send a fax, etc.

Harding also thinks that as more newspapers partner with other companies in non-print media ventures, copy desks will be redesigned to support the various media that a newspaper company publishes to — print, radio, TV and the Internet. An example of this is a central media desk created at the Orlando (Florida) Sentinel, which supports print, broadcast and multimedia.

Contact: Ken Harding, kenbhg1@aol.com

New editor for WashingtonPost.com

Leslie Walker is leaving her position as editor of WashingtonPost.com and will return to the newspaper later this summer. Taking over as editor will be Doug Feaver, a 28-year Post veteran who since last fall has been serving as chief liaison between the print and online editions of the Post.

Walker says she is returning to her first love, writing. She will join the Post’s team of journalists covering the Internet and how it affects the business world. In addition to covering the cyberspace beat as a reporter, she will write a regular column.

No column on Monday

Due to the Memorial Day holiday in the U.S., there will be no Stop The Presses! on Monday, May 25. The column will resume normal publication on Wednesday, May 27.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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