Virtual Newsroom: getting journalism done in a digital age

At this moment, I am at my dining room table in Los Angeles with two laptops, a cellphone and an iPad. I work with staff writers who live in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and just outside of Tampa. I also talk virtually with Poynter faculty, adjunct faculty and freelancers who write for us, some of whom live in Florida, but some who do not.

As the future of news is still inventing itself and the nature of news remains in transition, there’s one thing we can say definitively: We’re no longer working the way we did 10, 5 or even 2 years ago.

With technology, we can — and do — report on the news at greater speeds and larger volume. The Web, cell phones, tablets, wearables, and other devices allow us to give audiences what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.

Downsizing of staff, added work duties, reduction and relocation of workspaces and other expense cuts are also contributing to the upheaval that thousands of journalists have endured in recent years.

This all has led to the era of the virtual newsroom. By working virtually, I mean journalists can function outside the office, perhaps in their home or in a coffee shop or in a shared space, and produce work for a news organization or website that operates at a distance.

As I prepare to transition out of my interim role as Poynter.org editor, I’m writing what I hope will be the first of several posts on the virtual newsroom, a guide and conversation with you about the challenges of working remotely for a news organization.

For decades, journalists have worked in bureaus far from the main newsroom or they freelanced from home, sometimes thousands of miles from their editors and colleagues. But today more journalists are working independently or, even if they remain on payroll, outside of the typical newsroom. Technology makes it possible.

Working virtually is also expanding in part because digital news jobs are growing. Pew Research Center estimates in its report on digital reporting that news outlets born as digital-only operations have created nearly 5,000 full-time editorial jobs. Often these are small and lean operations run by fewer than four people. And, those journalists may all work in different locations.

In a virtual news operation, all of the advantages that an editor can draw on by walking across the room disappear: the face-to-face contact, reading of body language, and connections that form when we share a physical space.

If you’re a writer, similar conveniences are gone if you work remotely. When you have a question about a change in your story, you can’t simply sidle over to an editor’s desk to have a chat. Or if you need the phone number for a source, your colleague who can help may be in another state rather than at the next desk.

For editors, the tasks of giving out assignments, negotiating story lengths and deadlines, arranging visuals, editing and fact-checking all take on another level of difficulty when communicating virtually. For those who do the work, there’s the challenge of fully understanding what’s expected, dealing with unforeseen events, electronically delivering their stories or images, and getting feedback on their work. On some days, communication goes awry and there’s little one can do to fix things from afar.

But there are practices and approaches that can take some of the pain out of the process. I communicate with my Poynter colleagues, for example, by ways that are most efficient or most comfortable for the writers, and it generally works well.

Still, I only occasionally see the Poynter.org staffers in person, and I can’t attend staff meetings at Poynter regularly. Instead we hold Google Hangouts or I listen in to meetings via conference phone.

I don’t get to know all of my colleagues as I well as I would like. Rather we learn about each other by email or phone calls and during my infrequent visits to St. Petersburg.

On the other hand, I don’t spend hours commuting each week and can use the time to work instead. I take my coffee breaks by walking five feet to the kitchen and I’m back in a flash, available for any requests for edits. In my ongoing quest for work-life balance, I can take care of home chores without impacting my work production.

I’m convinced after working on news websites for over a decade, that journalists with certain skills and personalities best adapt to working this way. Hiring and coaching for a virtual newsroom take on added considerations, but I’ll get more into this subject in a future post.

If you work virtually or manage those who do, tell me about your experiences and concerns. Jump into the comment box below or email me at ssoshiro@gmail.com and let’s talk. You can also catch me on Twitter: @sandraoshiro.

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  • skyshoes

    I can go on and on about how foolish commuting is in this day and age with the technology available. I designed a label for a drink bottle to the millimeter by with the customer over Skype. I have consulted with a friend in Indonesia over music (Skype). I have stumbled onto a way to scan and link to stories from the West Coast (Alaska and Hawaii as well) to the East Coast the United States in three hours. I am working on trimming that time.

    I was contracted to make a site for a homesick overseas government employee who just wanted to see what was going on in his local community. As it developed I was shocked at how fast I could verify, dignify or trash news stories and do follow up easily. The technology is there, we have to learn how to direct it… I now have the top 50 and over 72 of the top television markets, their Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and all social media links from across the country, I click around the map.. While sipping my coffee. http://nastalja.net/map/nastalja.html

    If this comes off as a shameless plug I apologize. Be sure and delete. I think the future is a click away.

  • http://www.mobilepaymentstoday.com/ WillMPT

    I just started working from home a couple of months ago as an editor for a trade pub, and it can be a challenge, to say the least. I do feel disconnected at times, but we also have two other editors who work remote. We spend a lot of time communicating on Yahoo Messenger and Skype. I’m still trying to find a routine and eliminate most distractions. I think the best thing I’ve done is wake up and prepare as though I’m going to commute to an office, but instead just settle into my office chair. That works on the days when I manage to do it.