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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.

Mixed-use, unassigned seating areas, such as this flank of comfortable window seating at Quartz (top) or the comfortable space at the Center for Investigative Reporting (bottom), offer employees a change of scenery and accommodate different working styles. (Top photo by Mark Craemer; bottom photo by Rachel de Leon)

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.”

Dozens of flexible, mixed-use spaces are sprinkled throughout The Washington Post’s new building. Each space has its own personality, color scheme and aesthetic. Furniture can be moved easily to suit solo or collaborative work. (Photo by Garrett Rowland)

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​.

The “glassbox” studio in The Washington Post’s newsroom is just one of several high-tech spaces devoted to multimedia production. It reflects the Post’s high priority on video content.

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​.

At Treasure Coast News in Florida, a branded wall and a touchscreen display are part of a multi-purpose studio space for interviews, weather reports, live streaming and other video content. (Photo by Leah Voss)

“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.”

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