Business

The pandemic got journalists out of New York and DC. That could be good news for you.

Posted May 15, 2020 11:41 a.m. EDT

— The pandemic forced many journalists who previously crowded around media capitals such as New York City and Washington DC to abandon their offices. Some worked from home while others fled their congested cities to work and ride out the crisis elsewhere. Newsrooms quickly transitioned to remote work by adopting new tools such as Zoom.

But ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization based in New York City, was already quite familiar with Zoom. With journalists scattered across the country — in Baltimore, Boston, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh and Seattle, to name a few — the newsroom had used the video conferencing software for years for internal meetings. So when the pandemic hit, not too much changed in how the Pulitzer Prize-winning newsroom operated. On top of that, editors at ProPublica were already well-versed on the upsides of employing a staff that is distributed across the country.

"A distributed workforce has some challenges, to be sure, but also significant benefits. One is that, as a national news organization, it really does help provide a more national and varied perspective," ProPublica president Richard Tofel told CNN Business.

ProPublica's distributed newsroom has produced longform journalism focused on local issues. Alec MacGillis, who is based in Baltimore, analyzed the city's rise of violent crime in piece titled "The Tragedy of Baltimore." Ken Armstrong, who is based in Seattle, recently reported that 33,000 fans attended a soccer game against health officials' recommendations.

Between the coasts

Coastal media bubbles have often been blamed for the lack of diverse voices and content in journalism. Tom Trewinnard, co-founder and chief operating officer of digital journalism consultancy Fathm, wrote about this recently in a column for Nieman Lab in which he advocated for distributed newsrooms even after the pandemic ends.

"This has vast implications for the type of reporting your newsroom is likely to produce and its relevance to audiences," Trewinnard wrote. "Operating as a distributed newsroom will make your organization more accessible to diverse talents, which can directly benefit your reporting and thus your sustainability."

Siobhan O'Connor, vice president of editorial at Medium, told CNN Business that when she joined the company in 2018 she looked to hire journalists who lived in cities other than New York and San Francisco, where Medium has offices.

"One of the principles that we really embrace at Medium is good ideas can come from anywhere," O'Connor said. "I've been in the New York media world for about 20 years now and it can be pretty samesies, right? There's just not a lot of diversity in our industry so getting people from other [geographies] felt really good."

When choosing where to headquarter a new media company, Emily Ramshaw and Amanda Zamora looked away from the coasts. The cofounders of The 19th — a nonprofit newsroom launching later this year that will cover the intersection of gender, politics and policy — settled on Austin, Texas. The decision didn't just stem from the fact they both were already based there, Ramshaw said.

"There's a dime a dozen media on the East Coast, in New York and DC. There's a lot on the West Coast. We feel like it's really important to ensure a diverse set of voices are elevated, and I think that starts with being in the center of the United States," Ramshaw told CNN Business.

The 19th always intended to hire reporters from across the United States. The 19th editor-at-large Errin Haines is based in Philadelphia. She was originally supposed to travel the country covering the 2020 election. But now with campaign rallies on hold, Haines is working from and reporting on Philadelphia. The 19th partnered with The Philadelphia Inquirer for a series titled "Portraits of a Pandemic," where Haines has profiled a local pastor and a high school teacher.

"I think it is critically important to us that our journalism and our anecdotes and our storytelling comes out of a really regionally diverse subset of the United States," Ramshaw said. "It helps to bring new sets of readers to the table and also it exposes your national audience to the challenges that are being faced in communities around the country."

National outlets employing journalists in communities across the US can help alleviate the loss of local news coverage. As the media business becomes less lucrative, local papers have shrunk or shuttered. At least 1,300 local communities in the US are considered news deserts, according to a 2018 study by University of North Carolina professor Penelope Muse Abernathy.

Digital media outlets are facing financial pressures as well. In the last week, Condé Nast, BuzzFeed, Quartz, Vice and The Economist laid off or furloughed more than 450 staffers in total.

The 74, a nonprofit education news site, has been hiring a team of reporters to cover the local impact of the pandemic. Patrick O'Donnell recently joined The 74 to cover education in Cleveland. He was most recently at The Plain Dealer, which laid off 22 staffers last month.

"We might have a local story about Cleveland, but it factors into the national storyline. Every city is looking at other cities," said Steve Snyder, editor in chief of The 74. "If we remove that geographic filter and barrier, it opens us up to a world of experienced professionals whose deep roots in communities outside NYC and LA is not a liability but a benefit."

Office constraints

ProPublica wasn't always so distributed. Tofel told CNN Business that when the company launched in 2007 it discouraged staffers from working outside of New York and outside of its office.

"We were intent on building culture," Tofel said.

When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, ProPublica employees, like many others in New York, had to work remotely. The hurricane had knocked out the power in their office in Lower Manhattan. The weather disaster showed that remote work was possible.

Snyder of The 74 told CNN Business that he saw their offices in New York, DC and Los Angeles as places to "gather physically each day, or at least a couple times each week, to collaborate and commiserate in person."

But in March, The 74 closed its offices and has since operated remotely. While most meetings were previously held in-person or over the phone, the company has since signed up for Zoom.

"We're embracing the flexibility and agility of this setup, and while it's surely made it challenging to work from home, there's also upside in the added expertise in markets where coastal newsrooms wouldn't have typically operated," Snyder said.

Heather Landy, executive editor at Quartz and editor of Quartz at Work, said there are benefits in video chat meetings. Landy said her team used to struggle with holding productive meetings because some people were in a conference room and others were dialed in. Last year, she instituted all-remote team meetings. On January 2, Quartz CEO Zach Seward sent out company guidelines advising all meetings of 12 people or fewer operate as video meetings.

"It really equalized things and removed the variable of the conference room technology," Landy said. "It put us on an even footing when you think about the size of our faces on a screen."

Returning

Whether or not journalists return to the office remains to be seen. Snyder said his team at The 74 is embracing remote work and removed any geographic preferences for open positions. Ramshaw of The 19th said she planned for Austin to be the home for many of its employees, including the product, technology and revenue teams and some reporters. That idea is now in flux.

But O'Connor of Medium said while she continues to hire outside of New York, she misses her office in the city.

"I've been working in newsrooms since I was 21," O'Connor said. "I just love nothing more than sitting in a room with other creatives batting story ideas. I get a lot of energy from that and we're doing that on Zoom and on the phone. I just honestly miss the IRL camaraderie."

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