A Matter of Space: Designing newsrooms for new digital practice
Over the past decade, technology has driven unprecedented change in news audiences and news organizations. News organizations have experimented with business models, integrated new technologies, adopted digital platforms and established digital-first workflows.
Yet in too many newsrooms, the physical spaces are stuck in the late 20th century.
Now some newsroom leaders are redesigning their workplaces to better support the behaviors, workflows and attitudes required in an adaptive, modern media company.
When The Virginian-Pilot undertook a sweeping organizational transition to digital-first publishing in 2016, editors led an in-house redecorating effort. Vibrant paint and a newsroom-wide decluttering were just part of the DIY effort. It helped re-energize the space and expresses an “out with the old, in with the new” philosophy.
Consider also Atlantic Media Group’s Quartz, which has been acclaimed for rethinking the modern newsroom. The digital-only, mobile-centric news organization developed a unique culture as its team grew, without any baggage from a legacy past. Its newly redesigned workplace reflects the personality of a successful, wildly innovative newsroom.
And at The Dallas Morning News, Robyn Tomlin and other leaders knew their new home in the former Dallas Public Library building would have to convey that the staff is part of a digital newsroom.
“Space and behavior,” Tomlin said, “go hand in hand.”
This paper, part of the American Press Institute’s series of Strategy Studies, is based on some 20 interviews with newsroom leaders and staff, site visits, and reviews of research from leading architectural firms.
It describes how a workplace redesign can express the unique culture and personality of a news organization. It tells the stories of news outlets great and small. And it includes a range of no-cost, low-cost and aspirational designs, with ideas about how to adapt your newsroom when faced with limited time and resources.
Whether you are solving logistical challenges, downsizing, overcoming space limitations or trying to to encourage new ways of practicing journalism, this research suggests space renovation is a valuable exercise in identifying your organization’s core culture and personality. Not only can renovation make your space more efficient and support new workflows, it can encourage collaborative behaviors and help raise employee morale.
Space renovation is a valuable exercise in identifying your organization’s core culture and personality.”
Start by identifying the problem you need to solve
“We wanted more light and less vermin.”
Executive Editor David Shribman was blunt about why he needed to move his staff out of the historic offices of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where journalism had been practiced since 1927.
For some newsrooms, relocation or new construction offers the best solution to several types of problems, whether it’s dealing with a newsroom emptied from rounds of layoffs, making room for future growth, or creating a workspace tailored for new digital practice. For the Post-Gazette, it was a way to walk away from the past and not look back.
“We had the worst newsroom in history — old building, no windows, divided up into little warrens because of weight-bearing walls,” Shribman said. “It wasn’t conducive to anything. Ugly, dirty, depressing.”
Moving also made economic sense. Besides needing to replace the paper’s “antediluvian presses,” Shribman recognized the value of the real estate on the banks of the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh.
“We were sitting on the best piece of land in Pittsburgh,” he said, “and we felt we could make some money by selling it.”
Robyn Tomlin, managing editor of The Dallas Morning News, had a similar opportunity. The company could invest in the newsroom’s future by moving from a historic building in a prime downtown location — and letting go of nearly $1 million in annual maintenance expenses.
“We have been in the same building since the 1940s, a wonderful downtown building with a lot of history tied to it,” Tomlin said. The building’s signature feature is a three-story-tall inscription chiseled into its stone facade, known as the “rock of truth.”
Like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the News needed to distance itself psychologically from the past and its “crazy little hovels and hallways” as it transitions to a new way of practicing journalism.
Staff are preparing for their move-in this fall, while the new space is being renovated. In the current building, “it feels like you’re walking into the 1940s when you walk in here,” Tomlin said. Although the inscription on the building still reflected the important work going on inside — “Build the news upon the rock of truth and righteousness” — the rest of the building did not.
But a news organization need not move to innovate its space. For many, it makes sense to stay put and brighten the space, but also rearrange furniture and reorganize teams to reflect new ways of working. For the staff of Treasure Coast News, the building and location near downtown Stuart, Florida, were fine. They chose to refresh their newsroom design as they shifted to digital-first publishing.
Each of the media organizations interviewed for this study had its own, right-sized approach to renovating its newsroom — from small, DIY efforts that started with a can of fresh paint to elaborate architectural solutions that re-envisioned the newsroom from the ground up. Although the solutions varied in scope, several themes emerged as newsroom leaders detailed their shared quest to reboot physical space for digital practice.
First thing, you need a goal. What are you trying to achieve?”
Top reasons to renovate or move a newsroom
Make room to grow
“We had a vision of having our newsroom on one floor,” Washington Post Deputy Managing Editor Tracy Grant said of Editor Marty Baron’s goal to unify the newsroom.
But no building in Washington, D.C., offered a footprint large enough for the Post’s robust, growing staff to reside on one floor. They saw an opportunity at 1 Franklin Square, nicknamed the “Batman building” because of its two towers like Batman’s ears.
“We blew through the walls to connect the east and west towers,” said Grant, which coalesced 111,000 square feet of real estate across the seventh and eighth floors into a newsroom that spans three quarters of a block.
A centralized, two-story-tall editing “hub” is the nerve center of the newsroom. Open and vibrant, it’s an elegant design concession to the division of labor across two floors, offering easy passage and clear views from one floor to another. Moving the editing hub to the center of the newsroom connects teams and activities from across the organization and emphasizes the Post’s silo-busting and digital focus.
In contrast to the Post, Quartz was a startup within an older company, Atlantic Media. It had rapidly outgrown its open-floor newsroom and was ready to move to its third location in New York City in as many years. Its staff had grown from 36 in 2014 to 151 and counting. While some employees are in remote locations as part of a global team, the space needed for the staff in New York had tripled.
Zach Seward, executive editor and senior vice president of product, sought a space that would accommodate his growing team and maintain its open layout. He settled on the fourth floor of 675 Avenue of the Americas in the Flatiron District.
Seward was able to keep his team on one floor — for now. “I rue the day when we will have to be on more than one,” he said.
Reduce footprint after consolidation
At The Virginian-Pilot the need was contraction, not growth.
In 2016, “we closed our bureaus and decided to be one happy family,” said Rachel Jones, news operations team leader for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. Jones reorganized the newsroom with a digital-first focus. Some administrative positions were cut to make room for digital hires.
“We knew we had to change our way of thinking, our way of selling, how we handle everything we do as a company,” Jones said. That included revamping the newsroom.
“We were going to build new offices,” she said. “We couldn’t afford it.” Instead, she used imagination, creative layouts, new furniture and some bright colors to consolidate and inspire the newsroom.
We’re going from an organization that had a lot of offices to one that has three offices.”
Staff dropped from 300 to 100 when the company eliminated its bureaus. Even so, Jones said, part of the challenge became, “how are we going to put all of these folks in one place?”
The Dallas Morning News is condensing its 400,000 square-foot operation into a more efficient layout of 100,000 square feet that favors multipurpose, communal space over private offices. The newsroom is now spread across three floors. The new one in another historic building will be on two floors, with an open layout and a mezzanine.
“We’re going from an organization that had a lot of offices to one that has three offices,” Tomlin said.
Without the need for so much square footage devoted to printing presses, a cable news network and all those offices, the new space will feature a more efficient digital newsroom with an integrated TV studio, one “built with intention instead of crammed into a corner.”
Bring in natural light
It’s no surprise that a window view improves employee satisfaction. But research by architectural firm RDG Planning & Design notes that even employees who did not have their own windows felt higher job satisfaction and perceived they were closer to windows when natural light diffused throughout the space.
As The Kansas City Star rethinks their newsroom design, “we want to make sure no one ‘owns’ the windows,” said Greg Branson, an assistant managing editor who leads presentation and innovation.
The Washington Post put a premium on natural light and found it to be one of the most satisfying features of its new location. The open layout and banks of windows allow sunlight to filter through glass-walled walkways into the newsroom’s central hub.
“Most people were gobsmacked by how light and bright everything was,” Grant said.
Some news outlets saw that their employees, weighed down by rounds of buyouts, needed a different type of light.
“We’re a company in a financially distressed industry trying to find some oxygen,” said Shribman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. For him, more light in a new, open space conveyed optimism and a way to face the future.
All editors interviewed for this study expressed concern for employee morale. They recognize the toll that economic uncertainty and continuing technological change have taken on employees. (This concern reflects the sort of empathy evangelized by proponents of human-centered design, discussed in “Engaging staff: User experience studies are not just for audience behavior.”)
Michael Hughes is senior manager of media design and production for Calkins Digital Solutions, which publishes the Bucks County Courier Times, Burlington County Times and The Intelligencer in Pennsylvania and was recently purchased by Gatehouse Media. For the company’s recent remodel at the Courier Times’ building, Hughes studied which paint schemes would create a welcoming environment.
“If I’m going to do things that affect people’s lives, I wanted to be sure I was doing the right thing,” Hughes said. He chose shades of blue and green for the company’s production and newsroom spaces. The company also devoted a 25-foot wall to an inspirational message.
“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” by Marie Kondo, perhaps best represents the current cult of minimalism sweeping homes — and offices — around the globe. At the heart of this philosophy is an almost spiritual letting-go of the past.
“The space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming now, not for the person we were in the past,” writes Kondo.
Substitute “newsroom” for “person,” and you have a mandate: Tidy up to make way for future ways of doing journalism.
“What an amazing metaphor for moving from print to digital,” said Jones, who guided The Virginian-Pilot through that transition. “Every single print record for which there was a digital copy was shredded.” In a budget-conscious quest for clean lines and minimalism, Jones decided at the outset, “We’re going to paint, and we’re going to declutter.”
Before the renovation, the editor’s office was walled in by cabinets. They were the first thing that had to go.
“But it’s hard,” she conceded. “People don’t want to part with their stuff.” At first, Jones said, she started with an email about decluttering, but she soon realized she had to be more assertive.
“I brought in huge Dumpsters,” she said, “and people realized, ‘Oh, they’re serious.’” She set deadlines and told the staff everything that wasn’t sorted by a certain date would go into the bins.
Each employee at The Washington Post was given two orange crates. What didn’t fit had to be shredded, thrown away or taken home by moving day.
As a concession to the distress of letting go, The Virginian-Pilot allotted one storage room with a limited number of cabinets where people could store items they just couldn’t bring themselves to discard.
“Not one person has gone back and looked at their stuff in the storage room,” Jones said with a laugh.
At the Center for Investigative Reporting, “the model for our journalism is based on collaboration,” said Christa Scharfenberg, managing director and head of studio. “Half of our content is created by us; the other half is from newsrooms across the country, so communal space is key to getting the job done.”
The nonprofit’s new location, a repurposed pipe factory, has an open newsroom the size of a football field. That’s a stark contrast to its prior home in downtown Berkeley, where staff was scattered across three floors and “squirreled away in a little room in the basement.”
The new space better supports the organization’s collegial culture. “We have a communal kitchen space in the middle of our newsroom; we call it Cozy Town,” Scharfenberg said. Cozy Town serves as an all-purpose space to hang out, work in teams, and to for informal food and coffee clubs to meet.
Architects suggest these sorts of communal spaces can bring together people who don’t work on the same team, creating new connections and sparking informal collaborations.
Another simple feature encouraging collaboration is that the newsroom radiates around the hangout space and is organized into sections instead of long rows. Scharfenberg said this layout enables people to have quick conversations with other teams nearby.
That’s a benefit of the Post’s decision to organize its newsroom around the editing hub.
“In the old building, going to the hub was a tortuous process. Now moving between [floors] seven and eight is seamless,” Grant said. “Everyone has equal access … you can yell down to the hub.”
At Treasure Coast News, a simple change three years ago created communal space at the heart of the newsroom and signaled the organization’s goal to collaborate. Editorial meetings once held in a conference room now occur at a large table in the center of the open newsroom.
“No walls,” said Adam Neal, managing editor of Treasure Coast News and its website, TCPalm. “Now we hold all of our meetings right at that table, and if a reporter hears us talking about a story, they speak up and join in.”
Foster a culture of innovation
At Quartz, one of the goals was to represent the news organization’s culture of experimentation in a physical space — to create something “quartzy.” The newsroom’s display of this is more lo-fi than high-tech. Rather than wallpapering the newsroom with flashing screens, Quartz conveys its brand of innovation through human-centered space.
Modest wooden structures delineate creative spaces such as the workshop, which feels like a playroom for grownups and features a mix of maker tools and toys. A secret love of print manifests in a library featuring actual books. These areas express, without irony, the authentic culture of playful experimentation driving this young, digitally native publication.
To balance between solo and collaborative workspaces, every organization in this survey adopted its own version of “huddle” spaces. In the Center for Investigative Reporting’s sprawling newsroom, they took the form of closet-sized rooms.
At the Post, dozens of huddle spaces, designed for two to four people, are scattered throughout the newsroom. They’re decorated with historic newspaper headlines.
“There was a deliberate attempt to say, ‘Here is everything we are and will be in the next century, and here is everything we were before,’” Grant said.
How to design workspaces that spur collaboration
News media can thank Silicon Valley for the collaboration mindset that imbues newsroom redesigns. Modern workplaces celebrate problem-solving teamwork, from the adoption of open floor plans to the use of open-source software.
But when it comes to inspiring more collaboration, architects remind us there can be too much of a good thing.
One of the challenges for companies as they seek to encourage collaboration is how to balance “me” vs. “we” space in the workplace, said Tom Price, principal architect at Strada Architecture in Pittsburgh. His firm has created innovation spaces for a variety of companies, including Google’s Pittsburgh office. Although increasing collaboration has become a ubiquitous goal among forward-thinking companies, he said companies have to be careful not to be overly invasive in encouraging it.
Although increasing collaboration has become a ubiquitous goal among forward-thinking companies … companies have to be careful not to be overly invasive in encouraging it.”
If a renovated workspace is dominated by too much common space, employees often feel like there’s too much “us time”, when “people get together either physically or virtually to brainstorm, but never seem to arrive at anything original or refreshing,” Price said. Oppressive “us time” sessions, he said, leave people “disinterested, less connected, and wondering if they actually contributed anything of value to the event.”
While different organizations use a variety of design solutions to encourage collaboration, the emphasis on increased collaboration reflects a new way of working for all — the shift from a linear mode of production for legacy platforms to a more dynamic, digital one. As Price acknowledged, this doesn’t exclude solo work; it embraces new ways of interacting in the workspace.
Three types of spaces that balance ‘me’ and ‘we’ time
Companies should create workspaces that support a diverse range of working styles throughout the day, Price said. While he emphasized there is no one-size-fits-all floorplan, he suggested three types of areas within workspaces that naturally increase collaboration, balance “we” vs. “me” time, and support innovation:
Collision — These are strategically located communal spaces where people can get food and drinks and socialize when they run into one another. “These types of spaces help people navigate their day by allowing them to relax, recharge, and connect when convenient to their schedule,” Price said. “These creative gathering places should also create an experience that is distinct from the rest of the workplace.”
Mixed-use — Mixed-use, mixed-scale, and mixed-personality rooms and furniture clusters allow users to approach their work creatively. Spaces with their own personality, such as workshop-like “maker” spaces or home-style living rooms, “inspire nontraditional modes of meeting, sharing, breaking and testing,” Price said. “These flexible spaces also empower users to modify the space to meet their immediate needs.”
Huddle — Although collision spaces are typically the largest drivers of collaboration culture, “they rarely provide the distraction-free focus space critical for thinking through problems and innovating,” Price said. Small huddle spaces with a mix of screens, whiteboards and flexible seating options not only support small-group brainstorming sessions, but also easily adapt to solo “me time” types of work.
Make design decisions that reflect your priorities and values
Creating a more collaborative newsroom is less about tearing down walls and more about tearing down silos, said Tracy Grant of The Washington Post. In considering how to design the Post’s new home in 2015, leaders decided the new building had to make it easier to collaborate.
The practices of a modern, digital newsroom “require face-to-face conversation,” Grant said. “You have to make it easy for that to happen.” If employees have to walk up a floor to talk to someone, they’re less likely to collaborate — “unless you’re a Fitbit wearer.”
She worked to ensure coworkers on the same team would be in “chair-rolling” distance, or at the most, around the corner from one another.
Grant said she pondered ideas for new floor plans for more than a year. “At first I thought, ‘I’m just going to be wild and crazy and mix everything up,’ but then I realized that having national security pods sit next to foreign relations staff made sense.”
“In some ways, the configuration isn’t hugely different,” Grant said, but now the Post has teams they didn’t have. “The social media team has proximity to the hub,” the central editing area, “so if there’s breaking news, there’s a lot of easy communication and collaboration around that.”
At first I thought, ‘I’m just going to be wild and crazy and mix everything up,’ but then I realized that having national security pods sit next to foreign relations staff made sense.”
Sumita Arora, a principal at the architectural firm Gensler, said creating strategic “adjacencies” in the workplace is a way to express an organization’s priorities. Arora leads Gensler’s “Media Practice Area,” which specializes in architecture, workplace strategy and design for media companies around the world. Its past clients include the Post and The Dallas Morning News.
The Post, Grant said, has had “enormous success with embedding engineers in sections, and making sure that graphic, photo, video and product teams are sitting closely to each other so conversations can happen organically.”
Brian Boyer of Spirited Media said “the principle that leads all of this is about increasing communication – about creating a team that talks to each other.” Boyer is vice president of product and people at the company, which runs Billy Penn in Philadelphia, The Incline in Pittsburgh and Denverite.
When Boyer headed the Visuals team at NPR, he led a grassroots efforts to transform his team’s workspace — and its culture.
Change number one was initiation of a daily “scrum,” which is part of the “agile” software development ethos he practiced at the Chicago Tribune. Boyer required his team to be on site by 10 a.m. every day for the scrum — essentially a fast-paced briefing where the team stands in a circle for the duration of the meeting.
What’s key is that the scrum was held not in a conference room, but in the center of NPR’s newsroom. That showed the rest of the staff that Boyer’s team was committed to open communication.
When you make things visible, Boyer said, you prioritize them. “There shouldn’t be any secret projects,” he said. “Everyone should know what everyone is doing.”
But that doesn’t mean you need an expensive remodeling effort. “Ours is essentially a craft project,” he said of his teams’ spaces at NPR and Spirited Media.
They have used whiteboards, markers and sticky notes, or a cork board with yarn and index cards, to map out projects for everyone to see. He refers to these visible indexes in team areas as “information radiators” that are like television screens flashing at a convenience store checkout: “You don’t have to look, but you happen to look.”
“If you have it in the space, it is physical. Instead of having a plan in a manager’s head, the plan is on the wall,” Boyer said. This creates accountability, but it also fosters empathy and an understanding of everyone’s role on the team.
What does your seating layout say about your leadership structure?
Open workspaces with creative furnishings may seem like little more than an aesthetic nod to trendy tech culture. But they’re physical manifestations of another trend: the flat organizational charts that characterize many of the world’s most innovative companies.
Research by MIT Sloan Management Review suggests flatter hierarchies are essential for obtaining true digital expertise and instilling innovation and risk-taking among employees.
According to this research, companies that are early in the process of transitioning to digital workflows are characterized by “a low appetite for risk, a hierarchical leadership structure, and work performed in silos.” Organizations that have embraced a digital future, on the other hand, have flatter leadership structures, value experimentation, and foster collaboration. This model of distributed leadership is prevalent in the technology industry, the primary influencer of the news business.
Even furniture can signal a more egalitarian culture. In the Post’s newsroom, each desk has a file cabinet with a cushion on top, which can be pulled out to sit on like an ottoman. “Now, instead of hovering over your shoulder, an editor is sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with you,” Grant said. “It’s symbolic and practical.”
Similarly, Boyer cautioned, if you’re designing for collaboration, never use L-shaped desks.
“An L-shaped desk means someone is in the back seat,” he said Boyer. “If it’s a straight desk, you are peers.”
Open-ended spaces inspire innovation
When the online news outlet Quartz relocated to accommodate its growing team, Senior Vice President of Product and Executive Editor Zach Seward wanted to create more opportunities for staff to collaborate away from their desks. Quartz kept its open floor plan where everyone sits together with the same-sized desks, but it combined that with mixed-use areas where employees can move from space to space.
“Obviously we needed desks and conference rooms, but we wanted to allow for other spaces” to encourage different ways of interacting, Seward said. “We call them Quartzy spaces.”
The new location has several casual, creative spaces where people can work and socialize, such as the Town Hall, the Library and the Workshop. Seward said they were meant to spur meetings and gatherings. But he also noticed an increase in informal solo work away from desks, which meant people were sitting next to coworkers they might not have otherwise encountered.
Adam Alter, in ”How to Build a Collaborative Office Space Like Pixar and Google,” writes that these kinds of purpose-free spaces “encourage workers to do their thinking in the presence of other people, rather than alone.”
These are precisely the behavioral transformations that architects aim for when they design communal spaces. In addition to enabling impromptu interactions that can change the dynamic between workers, they serve as a kind of blank slate, a subtle invitation to create something new and different. In other words, to innovate.
Grant said she was initially skeptical that this kind of informal gathering space would promote behavioral change. But in the new Washington Post newsroom, she said she often sees people migrate to a relaxed area dubbed the ”airport lounge” for a change of scenery during the day or to hand off work between shifts.
Newsrooms don’t need an expensive architect to transform a corner of the newsroom into an effective communal space. Jones at The Virginian-Pilot refreshed a drab lobby into something special with DIY flair, finding creative ways to save money.
“This was a very antiquated, typical lobby with plaques and trophies,” Jones said. “We needed to make people feel like there was an area they could veg out, take a call, or have fun.” So they took over the entire lobby, removed the dusty awards, added two 15-foot-long butcher block tables with bar stools, and turned a nearby closet into a coffee bar.
This multi-purpose lounge serves as a breakaway workspace, a place to take a coffee break and a place to socialize. “Everyone volunteered to bring in games,” she said. And while it isn’t quite Google, legendary for its free food, Jones said, “We put out candy, pretzels and peanuts every day, and we have lots of pizza lunches.”
Where’s my office?
More than one editor interviewed for this study said that at some point during the renovation, an anxious employee sent them a column called “Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.” In it, Lindsey Kaufman discusses the trauma of moving from an office at her Tribeca ad agency to a seat at an open table. She likened it to having her clothes ripped off in public.
A response to that piece, “Google Didn’t Get it Wrong,” counters that Kaufman missed the point by focusing on the lack of privacy in an open workplace. Kay Sargent asserts that when the execution of an open office plan aligns with a company’s goals and culture, employees collaborate and innovate more. As architect Tom Price noted in his caution to balance “me” and “we” spaces, it’s important to create flexible layouts with different kinds of spaces.
In their research on emerging work styles, architects at Gensler asked if individual work can survive in the collaborative workspace. That’s certainly an issue in newsrooms. Sometimes a videographer needs a quiet place to work through a difficult edit. Some interviews are too sensitive to conduct on the phone in front of coworkers. Other times, an editor wants to be able to turn to someone for help on a headline.
When the execution of an open office plan aligns with a company’s goals and culture, employees collaborate and innovate more.”
Gensler looked at the balance between focused and collaborative work options among software developers in a major technology company. An important takeaway is their recommendation to “empower employees to match process to place” by providing spaces and policies that support both styles. “Employees know intuitively when they are open to interaction or distraction and when they’re not,” they wrote. “Let them communicate among themselves and make their own plan.”
Gensler said newsroom managers shouldn’t try to transplant Silicon Valley workplace designs, but rather create innovative spaces that are authentic to newsrooms.
“The image of the lively, sometimes hectic newsroom may sound off-putting, but there’s actually a lot that can be learned from this,” wrote Johnathan Sandler, global lead for media practice at Gensler, in “Five Newsroom Design Concepts Every Office Should Steal.” The “craziness of a newsroom” reflects the energy of people “working together to make split-second decisions.”
A well-designed newsroom has a radial system that establishes an overall community, he wrote, but it’s “organized like layers in an onion,” where the outer rings are calmer and quieter.
“We went through a period where newsrooms were loud spaces, then they got quiet like insurance offices,” said Greg Branson, an assistant managing editor at The Kansas City Star. “Now you have people doing video and standups in the newsroom,” bringing energy back into the space.
Robyn Tomlin, managing editor at The Dallas Morning News, described how their new open newsroom will reinforce digital workflows. “Before, our offices were separate. I couldn’t see into the newsroom; I’d have to walk down a hallway to engage,” she said. That didn’t facilitate the kind of communication they wanted.
Michael Hughes is senior manager of media design and production for The Bucks County Courier Times, Burlington County Times and The Intelligencer in Pennsylvania. In 2017, as walls and partitions came down during renovation, the company moved managing editors into the newsroom to sit with their teams. Some managers may want their walls and doors back, but he said an open space reinforces his accessible management style.
“I’m in the open, working side-by-side with everyone,” he said. It helps him gauge morale and address problems when they’re still small.
“I’ve worked in both scenarios,” he said. “I welcome getting interrupted.”
Digital managing editor Jacki Gray helped address the privacy problem with a simple space hack. When managers moved to sit with their teams, she was able to take over one of their old offices. It now serves as a private work area and a conference room, outfitted with repurposed furniture and a large monitor with Apple TV to make it easy to do presentations from a laptop.
“This space is very popular,” she said. Some people will squat there for hours. “Or the video team will want to step away and look at content together on a monitor.”
User experience studies are not just for audiences
This ironic image is a classic reference in UI/UX design — the practice of designing for optimal digital user interfaces (UI) and user experiences (UX). Newsrooms have adopted these practices to better understand their audience’s digital behavior. Many of those principles can inform how physical spaces are designed in technology-driven workspaces.
User experience design is fundamentally practical in nature, focusing less on vision and more on problem-solving. One of the first steps before initiating a major remodeling effort is to identify the problems you’re trying to solve.
While managers and architects may have their own ideas about what needs to be fixed, all good design begins with understanding the user. Human-centered design is a useful framework that prioritizes user needs as the basis for any design process and expresses empathy for the people you’re designing for.
Listening to the user
Not every newsroom interviewed for this report used a design agency to survey staff and stakeholders, nor did they necessarily use formal “UX,” “human-centered,” or “design thinking” methodology. But user needs were at the forefront of their decisionmaking, and each gauged these needs in their own ways.
“We’re a newspaper,” said David Shribman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, revealing his no-nonsense approach. “This was not a graduate school exercise in relationship between light and words typed per minute. We didn’t engage social scientists to determine ratios of empty space to creative thought.”
However, empathy for his colleagues was at the root of the company’s relocation and remodel, in which they opened up their new newsroom to allow for clean sight lines and plenty of light. “We just wanted a new place where our employees could be productive and happy,” he said.
The company couldn’t afford an expensive, involved planning process. He listened to his newsroom staff and worked closely with Adrian Norris, creative director at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, who had travelled extensively researching newsroom design.
“We ordered a chicken dinner, and we mapped it out on a piece of paper,” Shribman said. “And it works spectacularly.”
At Treasure Coast News, Managing Editor Adam Neal said a grassroots approach seeded a shift to digital, which was spurred by Gannett’s purchase of the company in 2016. He thought the staff would be apprehensive after the purchase, so he wanted to make sure they were behind any changes to the newsroom.
“Corporate said, ‘Here are some tools,’” Neal said, but beyond that, the redesign was led by a committee of non-managers. That created a sense of ownership among the primary users of the space. “It didn’t feel like another corporate or management initiative,” he said.
We used market research, we used stats, analytics, we did newsroom surveys, all of that … but there is no substitution for sitting down with someone over coffee for an hour.”
In addition to seeking input from staff, the committee and managers listened closely to their audience.
“Talking to our readers was essential,” Neal said. “We used market research, we used stats, analytics, we did newsroom surveys, all of that … but there is no substitution for sitting down with someone over coffee for an hour.”
The committee of reporters and photographers spent about six months cultivating ideas and listening to readers. But they still had jobs to do. To stay on track, the committee devoted an occasional full day to plan as a team. It’s always a challenge to step out of the daily workflow, Neal said, but it was necessary to focus on the redesign.
The Center for Investigative Reporting created a whole-staff committee to figure out what they wanted out of their 2016 relocation and remodel. Unfortunately the top item on their wish list — being close to public transportation — wasn’t possible. Due to expensive real estate in the Bay area, they ended up sacrificing that for a “collaboration-inspiring” space they could afford, said managing director Christa Scharfenberg.
“It is a little off the beaten path, but it was really cool [and] within our budget,” Scharfenberg said of the former pipe factory in Emeryville, a few miles southwest of their previous location in downtown Berkeley. This bright, dramatic space offered a blank canvas for creating the kind of cool space they wanted.
One of the center’s board members connected them with Ken Fulk, who recently made Elle Decor’s 2017 “A-list” issue.
“He donated his company’s time to create the design and layout for free,” Scharfenberg said. They were “very respectful of our limited resources.” She said newsrooms should cull their communities for creative talent to aid in their redesigns.
Don’t just listen to your users — observe them
For Zach Seward and his crew, nurturing culture is at the heart of Quartz’s success. So paying attention to user behavior — staff needs, personality quirks, personal interests and styles of experimentation — was essential to making their new space work. Impressed by what Desai Chia Architecture had done for the tech incubator Betaworks, Seward selected the firm to lead Quartz’s 2016 relocation and remodel.
Desai Chia started by surveying, observing and listening to staff over several days. The firm picked up a few themes and recognized beloved elements they should retain from the old space. The staff documented this process in a series of articles that share much of their thinking, from architectural layouts to musings on culture.
“We heard that there were a lot of coffee buffs, but that in the old office coffee was terrible, so they broke away and started making better coffee on their own,” Seward said. The informal coffee club, complete with its own channel on Slack, took to making specialty coffee in Chemex brewers, sometimes with beans from coworkers’ travels.
So Desai Chia was careful to incorporate a coffee-themed space in the new location.
“We also heard about a culture of tinkering,” Seward said. “Some staff had hacked the office in the previous space, added sensors to the dishwasher.” The new location has a workshop for staff to tinker away.
Three steps to learn what your staff needs and wants in their workplace
Real estate company JLL describes three issues to address when surveying employees prior to a relocation or remodel. Whether formally or informally, each newsroom in this study conducted some version of these analyses.
Location survey: This is about whether to renovate your current space or move to a new one. The answer depends on multiple issues: financial, real estate and behavioral. Suggested topics to survey:
Favorite/least favorite features of the building
Nearby activities and amenities
Parking needs and issues
Use of amenities near the site, such as childcare, restaurants or walking trails
JLL recommends ranking responses and sorting them by age, length of employment and area of expertise. For example, a photographer will likely have different answers than someone in sales; you’ll want to keep these differences in mind as you review answers.
Workplace survey: This in-depth analysis focuses on how staff use the existing space. How well does it support — or inhibit — the work that needs to be done and how employees want to do it? Focusing on the nuts and bolts of day-to-day work, these surveys help to establish which spaces need flexibility, the ratio of open to closed spaces, traffic flow problems and other issues.
Many firms survey the entire staff and then interview representative members and key stakeholders. These surveys address a variety of factors that influence workspace design:
Practical needs: Questions like “What’s your average meeting size?” or “How much time do you spend working virtually with off-site team members?”
Culture and sentiment: “Do you believe your workspace reflects your company’s mission?” and “Does your workspace inspire you?”
Work habits and workflows: “What do you use Space A for?” and “How much time do you spend in Space B?”
Baseline survey: This step is the most challenging because it is where you and your team do the hard work of figuring out what’s next and how to get there. This survey helps establish what you want the new space to achieve, such as spur more collaboration, support new workflows or offer more flexibility. The results will determine how your objectives fit into the current workspace, effectively illuminating what needs to change.
Questions are designed to highlight existing gaps and uncover solutions, such as:
“What inhibits collaboration in your current workspace?”
“How are you adapting your workspace for changes in workflow?”
“List all the potential activities you imagine doing in Space A, B, or C…”
“For each activity, indicate the number of people that would typically participate, how often and for what duration.”
“Are there any tasks you need to perform that you can’t in the existing space?”
Designing for new priorities and practices
News is hardly the only industry disrupted by technology over the past decade. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a newsroom that doesn’t feel like it has borne the brunt of that disruption. As newsroom leaders have adapted their staff and workflows, they’ve realized traditional office spaces can’t keep pace with a business in constant flux.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution for news organizations, or any guarantee they can create change-proof environments, experts say workspaces are more likely to weather change if they’re built around two guiding principles.
Design for mobility
Mobility is about creating fluid spaces where people can move about freely and change furniture, locations and activities as needed. Those changes could be made to adapt to an employee’s varied tasks within the course of a day. Or they could be precipitated by a fundamental shift in the industry itself.
This approach requires design decisions aimed at creating flexible environments that won’t need to be overhauled in a few years.
One trend is unassigned seating, which at one extreme shifts employees from “ownable” workstations to open-season docking stations. Employees move through Google’s sprawling headquarters, for example, as their mood and needs dictate.
Mobility is about creating fluid spaces where people can move about freely and change furniture, locations and activities as needed.”
For newsrooms, a hybrid model of unassigned seating may be more appropriate. This provides “me” spaces for certain types of work — or certain types of journalists — while providing “we” spaces for collaborative work. (For more on this, see “How to design workspaces that spur collaboration“). Providing a balance of structured and unstructured areas allows employees to move between different parts of the office as a change of scenery or to shift from solo to team work.
A newsroom designed with this balance can have small, “ownable” spaces, such as a desk in an open area or a desktop station on a long table, along with comfortable, unassigned spaces that can be used in a variety of ways.
In Gensler’s 2016 U.S. Workplace Survey, researchers found that “media organizations have a higher percentage of unassigned spaces than even the top innovative companies,” said Sumita Arora, a principal and co-leader of the architectural firm’s media arm.
Arora calls these open areas “third spaces.” They give employees a choice in where they work at different times of the day and encourage different types of collaboration. This kind of flexibility, she said, is a corollary of innovation.
There are surprisingly simple ways to offer this flexibility: Use furnishings on wheels, lightweight pieces that can be moved, or modular systems that can be reconfigured like Legos.
“Designing for the future has to last 15 to 20 years,” Arora said. “It needs to be plug and play.”
Unassigned seating, mixed-use spaces and Lego-like furnishings can subtly instill a culture of innovation. When employees are surrounded by things that change in their environment, like a table on wheels, that’s a signal that change is constant and productive. Flexible, mixed-use spaces can influence behavior just like open-ended children’s toys invite imaginative play. Just as toys with predetermined uses inhibit inventiveness, having too many spaces that are designated for one activity (a lunchroom, a video studio, a conference room) diminishes the possibilities for how your employees work.
Design for agility
If ”mobility” reflects where you work, “agility” is about how you work — a mindset that influences culture and shapes newsroom practice and design.
Newsrooms are adopting design features that herald the shift from an assembly-line model of production to a more interactive, nonlinear workflow. “The spaces we had were built for a linear production process, people doing their thing and passing it on to the next person,” The Dallas Morning News’ Robyn Tomlin said. “Things don’t happen in the same lines.”
Arora refers to this as the “live-streaming workplace,” in which the focus is on fluid, continuous production and dissemination of digital content.
News organizations can encourage their employees to rethink how they do their work — even what work they should be doing — by creating incubator spaces. These areas reinforce the idea that newsrooms should be in a perpetual state of invention and iteration.
(Incubator) areas reinforce the idea that newsrooms should be in a perpetual state of invention and iteration.”
At Quartz, the Workshop serves as a purposeful play zone, a place for imaginative product development. Sam Williams, director of the Workshop, has overseen formal and informal product incubation through hacks, sensors and bots. These experiments have turned into viable news products, such as a text-message interface for Quartz’s iPhone app.
Quartz’s incubator activity expanded with the launch of the Bot Studio, led by fellow tinkerer and noted sensor journalist John Keefe.
The Alpha Group, which provides product development and technology strategy for Advance Publications, has a similar incubator mindset. But the Alpha Group is purposely separate from Advance’s newsrooms. This alternative model allows companies to pursue experiments away from the day-to-day business.
“This is more of a heads-down process,” said David Cohn, senior director for the Alpha Group. “We work independently and are supposed to be quick and build MVPs [minimum viable products], not worrying about existing audiences and legacy workflows.”
This autonomy gives them the freedom and flexibility to do curiosity-driven research that doesn’t always have an immediate application. “Once we come up with something we want to double-down on,” Cohn said, “we show it to the larger organization to get a greenlight.”
After the alpha phase is complete, Cohn’s team hands off the product to the larger media organization. “We don’t want to dictate,” he said. “We want them to feel empowered — they can take the product into directions we haven’t thought of, because they’re responding to users on the ground.”
Greater role for video shapes newsroom design
At many of the news outlets that participated in this study, agility means an elevated role for video, both in how teams are organized and in how their workspaces are laid out.
The way video is incorporated into the daily routine of modern news outlets blurs on-air and off-air space in the newsroom, Arora said. A reporter can go from filing a story for the website to discussing her findings on video, without having to leave her desk.
The Washington Post’s new newsroom has a “glassbox studio” with the central editing hub as a backdrop. Reporters can go on air from anywhere in the newsroom because the editing hub was designed with camera angles in mind.
“We wanted to create brand immersion,” Arora said.
New seating arrangements also show the importance of video at the Post. In the old building, videographers were siloed off in their own area. Now members of the video team are embedded in sections, similar to how the paper has integrated software developers and graphic designers.
In the newsroom of Treasure Coast News, an old clip file room in a back corner room was transformed into a video studio.
“We’ve been doing a decent job trying to catch up with video,” Managing Editor Adam Neal said. But the newsroom “needed to see a physical transformation to make sure everyone knows how serious we are about video.”
He’s proud “that we’re calling it a video studio — not a TV studio – even though we’re competing with TV. It’s a quick-hit video studio,” where no one needs to be trained on an expensive production system. In fact, one of their first interviews in the studio used Facebook Live.
How newsrooms are integrating analytics into their workspaces
Many of the new and remodeled newsrooms in this study incorporate screens focused on analytics.
By installing prominent screens in the newsroom, audience behavior becomes part of the work environment. These screens can display website analytics, audience engagement across social platforms and trending topics.
These insights are key to understanding audience behavior and monetizing digital content. “We focus all of our energy on the digital space,” Neal said, and these metrics show journalists how people are responding to their work.
But there are a couple notable exceptions. The digitally native Quartz took a more subtle approach to digital displays when it moved into a new space. Modestly-sized screens are as likely to display team-oriented content — such as high scores for a popular mobile game among the staff — as they are to show what’s trending on Twitter.
Brian Boyer, of Spirited Media, shrugs at the need to have analytics displayed prominently. He doesn’t believe the data is always useful or actionable.
At NPR, “we did a piece on the civil war in Yemen. It only had 50,000 hits. Not a viral hit. … For the team that built that, when they see those numbers, and we’re used to getting half a million views when we work this hard – what do you want the team to feel, that they [failed]?”
He said he’s careful to measure success in different ways. For that particular story, instead of measuring page views, his team measured how many people finished it. “It was like 70 percent,” he said. “Which is amazing!”
If you’re going to put metrics on the wall, he cautioned, measure the things that matter the most to you. “Be thoughtful about what you celebrate,” he cautioned.
In the physical space, “what you choose to celebrate impacts how your team feels and performs.”
Recommended readings on workplace design
The architectural firm Gensler has created a division focused entirely on designing workspaces for media organizations. Its past clients include The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News, The Guardian, The New York Times and others. The company has posted case studies and photo galleries of their solutions for a variety of news, media and entertainment companies.
Architectural and consulting firms frequently publish research and whitepapers on common issues in workplace design. Here are a few resources to help you make decisions on some of the issues addressed in this study.
“Me” vs. “we” space
- “Emerging Workstyles: Can individual work survive in the ‘collaborative’ workspace?”
- “Balancing Me and We: The best collaborative spaces also support solitude”
Design for change
Designing for culture
“Moving the Newsroom: Post-Industrial News Spaces and Places” offers an in-depth look at the industry’s first wave of newsroom redesign, featuring before-and-afters of the relocations of The Seattle Times, the Miami Herald, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and The Des Moines Register between 2011 and 2013.
Show and tell
Several of the newsrooms featured in this study gave their audiences behind-the-scenes looks at their renovations.
Reporters at The Washington Post took a playful approach in documenting their relocation.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette bid a fond farewell to its historic location in this heartfelt piece by Michael Fuoco. The paper also produced a video tour of the new space prior to move-in.
Quartz’s staff devoted a Medium page called The Office to their relocation, with employees candidly sharing their perspectives and problem-solving. The blog includes several floor plans that were being considered at the time and architectural renderings.
Office Snapshots is a crowdsourced resource for browsing unique office spaces and floor plans, with images sorted by categories such as lighting, digital displays, meeting spaces and work areas. Sites like this can help you create what designers call a “mood board” — a collection of inspirational photos and color references to share with staff and architects. (Here’s Quartz’s mood board.)
Cool Office Interiors showcases creative spaces around the world, including offices of technology companies such as eBay, Google and Skype.
Pinterest is another way to find examples of office designs and inspiration for everything from graphic wall art to office furniture. It can help you build your mood board as you embark on the process.
Sample staff survey
Here’s a modified version of the survey that The Center for Investigative Reporting used before its relocation and remodel. Use it as a starting point for your own staff survey.