Into the Issues: Papers close offices, partly to keep from closing entirely

By Al Cross, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

When the only local newspaper also served as the only local job printer, many people would refer to them as "the printing office." Job printing went elsewhere long ago, and few papers do their own printing. Now many of them don't even have offices.

Publishers were already selling their real estate, their greatest hard asset, and moving to smaller quarters. Then the pandemic hit, forcing most news work to be done remotely, and that seems to have made more publishers question the basic idea of a newsroom.

Many news outlets have abandoned their newsrooms in recent months, "amid pandemic workplace restrictions that had already left them empty," Thomas Urbain reports for Agence France-Presse. "But many journalists say the loss of the newsroom has changed the nature of their work and worry that newspapers may not re-establish newsrooms even after the pandemic."

That's happening to weekly newspapers, too. Paxton Media Group, based in Paducah, Ky., has closed several of its weekly papers' offices. One of those was across the Ohio River from Paducah, where The Metropolis Planet lost its office and its Superman-themed icon. It was given to the local Chamber of Commerce, which placed it next to the statue of Noel Neill, who played Lois Lane in the "Superman" TV show. She was a frequent guest at the town's annual Superman Celebration, and moved there shortly before her death in 2016, the Chamber reported in the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors newsletter in October.

Newsrooms have long been central scenes in movies and TV shows, Urbain notes, quoting Marijke Rowland of The Modesto Bee: "There's a sort of alchemy that happens when you have a lot of reporters in a room together. There's nothing quite as interesting, vibrant and at times weird as working in a newsroom That's an incalculable loss, for local journalism particularly."

Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy told Urbain that major dailies will reopen newsrooms after the pandemic, "but smaller local and regional newspapers are in more difficult straits and may struggle to get their newsrooms back, he noted." Kennedy said, "I just hope that any newspaper owner who is committed to doing a good job understands the importance of having a newsroom."