“The newsroom is inside everyone’s head or rather their electronic device”
Will future cities have newsrooms? Marianne Thamm, acclaimed author and assistant editor of the Daily Maverick on the new newsroom in South Africa.
The word ‘newsroom’ may conjure several mental images for the reader. Kryptonite soldiers pouring over state secrets and explosive scandals. The rise of short-form journalism and online publications has made us rethink the newsroom and its future. This democratisation of news poses both challenges and opportunities for the newsroom as the ‘story’ so often goes viral before even reaching the newsroom. The privilege of setting the news agenda within four walls no longer exists. The continuing evolution of the newsroom also speaks to the financial hardships of the 21st century Fourth Estate. We may redefine the newsroom not as a physical space but instead as a virtual space – existing on laptops and mobile devices.
Agent of social change
Historically, the newsroom has had a role as an agent of social change. In his celebrated memoir, My Traitor’s Heart Rian Malan recounts his life as a roving reporter for The Star in 1970s Johannesburg. The daily was based on the East side of downtown Johannesburg and printed anti-apartheid editorials. The newsroom would become a drop-in centre for beleaguered citizens keen to share their stories: ‘African women would wrap themselves in blankets and sit in the lobby in mute suffering, waiting for a chance to tell their troubles to a white reporter that might save them.’
The Sunday Times newsroom was also based in downtown Johannesburg on Main St in the puzzle of SAAN buildings. The iconic title was downtown when Sandton (today’s de facto CBD) was still a mink and manure retreat. The newspaper was therefore positioned at the epicentre of social change in South Africa. The area was enveloped by ‘grey areas’ as State President, PW Botha relaxed the Group Area Act, which barred non-whites from living in certain areas. Downtown would offer a window on this racially-charged society paralyzed with a succession of States of Emergency.
The once-glamorous downtown would continue to provide an engaging backdrop for foreign journalists during the embryonic stages of democracy in the 1990s. Descending into an almost apocalyptic landscape it would become haunted by white flight, urban decay and spiralling crime. The Sunday publication would instead surrender its strategic downtown position amidst this rich tapestry of urban life. The newsroom’s retreat to Rosebank in the privileged forest of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs is devastating given the newspaper’s editorials on the iniquities of apartheid.*
There was no such existential angst to endure in deciding a newsroom address for staff at the Daily Maverick – styled as South Africa’s answer to the Huffington Post. Assistant editor, Marianne Thamm explains: ‘We don’t have a physical newsroom anywhere. The newsroom is inside everyone’s head or rather their electronic device.’ Thamm recognises that ‘Independent writers and journalists don’t need a regular physical workspace; it is all inside your portable device. You can file from a hotel room, a court, a car.’ The epic courtroom battle of Oscar Pistorius is the most striking example in South Africa. The blockbuster court case was captured on TV with updates shared instantly via live tweets.
So does this mean that the traditional newsroom is dead? Not necessarily. Thamm elucidates the point that the newsroom has a role in facilitating the professional development of new recruits: ‘the spaces will always exist and are perhaps necessary when dealing with a younger or more junior newsroom with different demands to those presented in terms of a publication like the Daily Maverick.’ Therefore there is no size-fits-all newsroom as each publication has specific needs. The Sunday Times writer, Len Ashton states that newspaper columns follow the inverted pyramid method and that by contrast, the magazine column is the pyramid. Dick Haws mirrors this view of professional development in Touring the Newsroom, Haws states that ‘in the best of worlds, the newsroom should be something like the ideal kindergarten.’
The design of the newsroom is also integral in achieving this ‘ideal kindergarten’. Thamm concedes that: ‘I have only ever worked in open plan offices…there is a dynamic to news gathering and writing that is conducive to this.’ Representations of the newsroom in popular culture also support this view. In the politically-charged US series, House of Cards, Kate Mara’s rookie reporter abandons her position at a prestigious newspaper title to join the ranks of a web rival. The cubicles and private offices of her previous employer act as a metaphor for the ailing newspaper’s reluctance to embrace change. Her new workplaces instead rejects this design model of office hierarchy and instead the newsroom comprises of bright, comfortable open spaces that are conducive to staff collaboration. Elsewhere cultural representations of the newsroom that fail to acknowledge the zeitgeist of social media and mobile journalism have left critics cold. Aaron Sorkin’s news-based series, The Newsroom was branded ‘outdated’.
Thamm, currently reporting on the Shrien Dewani trial appreciates that a packed court gallery is not the only obvious writing space. Thamm favours the tranquillity of traditional spaces: ‘I write my news, opinion and pieces of analysis from my office at home.’ She maintains that ‘when writing on complex issues in depth, one does need quiet and silence.’ The office space is a necessary physical manifestation for what the late writer Nadine Gordimer sees as the distinction between the life-space reserved for the writer and the ‘socio-biological life’. Gordimer observes that emotional life is an unsuitable term as there are ‘strong emotions in the product of writing.’ Gordimer wrote from the comfort of a personal office in her sprawling Parkview home in Johannesburg – yet not all publications invest in physical workplaces.
Thamm’s online publication is spared the insurmountable property costs, rent and maintenance that a traditional newsroom demands. This also means that the news organ can invest more in content and in securing talent. The Daily Maverick currently relies on a donor model – elite news publications in South Africa face financial challenges in a nation heavy with News24 readers. Daily Maverick CEO, Styli Charamboulous explains that South African journalism can no longer rely on an advertising revenue to survive.. Furthermore, Branko Brkic – Daily Maverick editor has rejected a pay-subscription model for the publication. The controversial model has all but destroyed the online credibility of Johannesburg’s Sunday Times.
Studies also point to the newsroom as an endangered source of employment. In 2011, newsrooms in the United States had lost 28% of their staff since the turn of the century. In South Africa the controversial dismissal of all sub-editors at the Independent Group has filled newsprint in recent months. Although there are rare signs of investment in the South African newsroom. Media24 recently announced R15 million façade plans for the Naspers Centre situated in the Foreshore District. The offices of the media giant have long been derided as an eyesore.
In lieu of a traditional workroom, publications are also making use of public spaces. The Daily Maverick recently hosted a successful series of discussions at the OpenBook Festival at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town. Thamm acknowledges that ‘any public space is good when people are hungry for debate. The Daily Maverick has successfully hosted several “Gatherings” in Joburg where we have been able to bring a collection of thought leaders together to debate and discuss pressing issues under our banner.’
The effective use of public spaces for engaging audiences also speaks to a vacuum in other local media forms. The state broadcaster, the SABC for example continues to face derision and radio broadcasting only offers the most fleeting intellectual output. Thamm illustrates this: ‘The lack of such engagement on a communal level – let’s say TV for e.g. – has made this particularly appealing, it seems, for readers eager to engage personally with journalists, writers and other panellists.’
A recent investment by The Guardian newspaper speaks to this engagement on a communal level. The left-leaning British newspaper will develop Guardian Space – a physical 30, 000 ft civic space in a grade II-listed building in central London. The publication has also secured partners in elite higher education institutions, Kings College London and University College London to coordinate courses. The new space will also foster social engagement in hosting events and discussions.
Unfortunately we should not expect to see a duplicate of Guardian Space in South Africa any time soon. Thamm concedes that ‘we don’t have that kind of money in South Africa….we tend to create these spaces on an ad hoc basis where readers can interact with us. I suspect that this will remain so for the foreseeable future.’ The effective use of public spaces and the evolving nature of the newsroom responds to changes in news-gathering and our battered economies. Finally the emergence of locales such as Khayelitsha and Soweto as engines of economic growth (the informal economy may already account for 28% of the country’s GDP) mean that they are potential sites for the newsrooms of the future.
* HCI Properties recently announced that they will redevelop the former SAAN buildings as inner-city housing.
Marianne Thamm is a columnist and Assistant Editor at the Daily Maverick. She is also the author of several books including ‘‘To Catch a Cop – the Paul O’Sullivan Story’’ published by Jacana in 2013.