NC Local for May 5: Back to the newsroom, and with a new theme — flexibility

CHarlotte Observer newsroom, pre-pandemic
The Charlotte Observer’s pre-pandemic newsroom, in the NASCAR building uptown

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from May 5, including details on a philanthropic buy of 20 Colorado newspapers, The Daily Tar Heel’s new general manager, resources and training for diversifying sourcing, a new partnership of digital outlets Southerly and Enlace Latino NC, and the Chatham News + Record’s new Spanish-language print edition of La Voz de Chatham. Sign up to get NC Local in your own inbox every Wednesday. 

By Eric Frederick, NC Local newsletter editor

For Reinstatement Day (which has turned out to be No-Reinstatement Day — sorry, Mr. Trump), I thought I’d check in on the status of another momentous restoration: North Carolina news staffs’ plans to return to physical newsrooms. When will reporters and editors gather again in front of a single desktop screen, and what will be different when they do?

I heard from five of those newsrooms. The theme: Flexibility.

◼️ The Charlotte Observer’s return will depend on community COVID conditions and state/local guidance, president and editor Sherry Chisenhall said. But there will be changes when it happens — including a yet-to-be-determined new location (The Observer gave up its newsroom in NASCAR Plaza downtown last year).

“We’ll have a more mobile workspace,” she said. “Our expectation will not go back to a culture/environment of being anchored or tethered to the office. Space and facilities will be there as staff wants/needs them, and conferencing space to host visitors and sources. But the expectation will not be that everyone shows up every morning physically in the office, and anchored there for the day. We’ve become more reliant on Slack and video calls, and those communication channels will help us be a more mobile, flexible team.

“While everyone hates the total isolation of working only from home, people have also found some possible keys to better work-life balance. We want to figure out how to keep those silver linings, while having space to reconnect our team physically.”

(I always loved the bank of screens in the former Observer room in the NASCAR tower downtown, which I snapped, above, during a visit in 2016.)

◼️ The High Point Enterprise has had employees in its office since late last spring, editor Guy Lucas said. “We maintain social distance, and the past few months employees have been asked to wear masks in the office.”

Lucas doesn’t foresee major changes in routine, saying they “will depend on what the agencies and organizations we cover will require.”

◼️ The News & Observer/Herald-Sun staff expects to return to its downtown Raleigh office in “July-ish,” president and editor Robyn Tomlin said. Masks still will be required in the office, and virtual options for meetings will be offered as needed.

“We don’t expect every person to be working in the office 9-5,” Tomlin added. “We expect many to split time between the office and working remotely. We want staff members to feel comfortable and safe, so we’re going to give team members the leeway and support they need.”

◼️ At The News Reporter in downtown Whiteville, the newsroom never fully closed, publisher Les High said, and staff members have rotated office time with remote work, with some learning “the value of writing in a quiet space like home.”

The News Reporter has moved from a hardware-based server for news, advertising, and accounting to one that is cloud-based, to be better prepared for another crisis, High said.

◼️ Chrissy Beck, general manager of The Chronicle at Duke, said its campus newsroom was partially open throughout the pandemic and probably will “reopen in full” by August. 

Beck said she wasn’t sure whether or how workflows would change, but “we will do lots more training virtually as well as some meetings. We can also be more flexible with staffers who need to be away from the office for various reasons.”

The pandemic’s cost? “We are missing a broader sense of work community that we hope to regain.” The upside? “We were able to recruit and train new staff, and retention didn’t suffer.”

    ➵ Kristen Hare of Poynter has been writing about the return to physical newsrooms, including new options and what we’ve learned from remote work: