WASHINGTON — I don’t want this to be one of those pieces that bangs on about how things used to be better, and they’ll never be as good again.
But, when it comes to newsrooms, it happens to be true.
“What would a newspaper movie look like today?” wondered my New York Times colleague Jim Rutenberg. “A bunch of individuals at their apartments, surrounded by sad houseplants, using Slack?”
Mike Isikoff, an investigative reporter at Yahoo who worked with me at The Washington Star back in the ’70s, agreed: “Newsrooms were a crackling gaggle of gossip, jokes, anxiety and oddball hilarious characters. Now we sit at home alone staring at our computers. What a drag.”
As my friend Mark Leibovich, a writer at The Atlantic, noted: “I can’t think of a profession that relies more on osmosis, and just being around other people, than journalism. There’s a reason they made all those newspaper movies, ‘All the President’s Men,’ ‘Spotlight,’ ‘The Paper.’
“There’s a reason people get tours of newsrooms. You don’t want a tour of your local H&R Block office.”
Now, Leibovich said, he does most meetings from home. “At the end of a Zoom call, nobody says, ‘Hey, do you want to get a drink?’ There’s just a click at the end of the meetings. Nothing dribbles out afterward, and you can really learn things from the little meetings after the meetings.”
When Leibovich got his first newspaper job answering phones and sorting mail at The Boston Phoenix, he soon learned that “the best journalism school is overhearing journalists doing their jobs.”
Isikoff still recalls how excited he was when he heard his seatmate at The Star, Robert Pear, the late, great reporter who later worked at The Times, track down the fugitive financier Robert Vesco in Cuba. “Hello, Mr. Vesco,” Pear said in his whispery voice. “This is Robert Pear of The Washington Star.”
With journalists swarming around Washington for the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner and cascade of parties, it seems like a good time to write the final obituary for the American newspaper newsroom.
The legendary percussive soundtrack of a paper’s newsroom in the 1940s was best described by the Times culture czar Arthur Gelb in his memoir, “City Room”: “There was an overwhelming sense of purpose, fire and life: the clacking rhythm of typewriters, the throbbing of great machines in the composing room on the floor above, reporters shouting for copy boys to pick up their stories.” There was also the pungent aroma of vice: a carpet of cigarette butts, clerks who were part-time bookies, dice games, brass spittoons and a glamorous movie-star mistress wandering about. (The Times never went as far as Cary Grant’s editor did in “His Girl Friday,” putting a pickpocket on the payroll.)
Forty years later, when I began working in the Times newsroom, it was still electric and full of eccentric characters. The green eyeshades were gone and nobody yelled “Hat and coat!” to send you out on breaking news. And it was quieter as it computerized.
I had had a taste of the old louche glamour at The Washington Star. When I first started, I was a clerk on the 9 p.m. shift; afterward we would go to the Tune Inn, the only bar on Capitol Hill that would serve Bloody Marys at dawn.
My job was to type up stories on my Royal typewriter, with carbon paper, dictated by reporters who called in from the field, including from the trial of the Watergate burglars; it could get rowdy — and not just because mice occasionally ran across our keyboards.
An editor sent me out for beer on deadline and then almost fired me when I brought back Miller Lite. Reporters had temper tantrums, smashing their typewriters or computer terminals on the floor.
There was an incredible camaraderie and panache about the whole endeavor, whether we were pursuing stories about murder, politics or the breeding woes of the pandas at the National Zoo.
“Conversation and competition turned newsrooms into incubators of great ideas,” said my friend David Israel, who was already, at 25, a must-read sports columnist at The Star when I met him.
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels.
Remote work is a major priority in contract negotiations for the Times union, which wants employees to have to come in to the office no more than two days a week this year and three days a week starting next year. Management, which says one thing it is worried about is that young people will stagnate and see the institution as an abstraction if they work remotely too often, has committed to a three-day-a-week policy this year but wants to reserve the right to expand that in the future.
I worry that the romance, the alchemy, is gone. Once people realized the completely stunning fact that they could put out a great newspaper from home, they decided, why not do so?
I appreciate the pleasures — and convenience — of working from home. I can light a fire, put on some Miles Davis and write at the dining room table, while getting stuff done around the house. My former assistant Ashley Parker, who became a Pulitzer-Prize-winning star at The Washington Post, usually goes into the office — “On big news days, there’s nothing better” — but she also loves the flexibility of working from home (especially since she just had a baby, Nell).
“Let’s be honest,” she said. “Political reporters have always worked from wherever, whenever, as long as they are filing good stories.”
Newsrooms have been shrinking and disappearing for a long time, of course, due to shifting economics and the digital revolution.
But now I’m looking for proof of life on an eerie ghost ship. Once in a while, I hear reporters wheedling or hectoring some reluctant source on the phone, but even that is muted because many younger reporters prefer to text or email sources.
“A problem with this,” said The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who started with me at The Star, “is that if you interview someone in writing, they have time to consider and edit their responses to your questions, which means that spontaneous, unexpected, injudicious and entertaining quotes are dead.”
I’m mystified when I hear that so many of our 20-something news assistants prefer to work from home. At that age, I would have had a hard time finding mentors or friends or boyfriends if I hadn’t been in the newsroom, and I never could have latched onto so many breaking stories if I hadn’t raised my hand and said, “I’ll go.”
Mary McGrory, the liberal lioness columnist, never would have gotten to know me at The Star, so I never would have gotten invitations from her years later like this one: “Let’s go see Yasir Arafat at the White House and go shopping!”
As Mayer recalled, when a big story broke at The Star: “You could see history happening. People would cluster over a reporter’s desk, pile into the boss’s office, and sometimes break into incredibly loud fights. There were weirdos in newsrooms, and fabulous role models occasionally, and the spirit of being part of a motley entourage. Now, it’s just you and the little cursor on your screen.”