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Is the Newsroom Environment an Indicator of Success?

It’s probably what I miss I most about working in news, the clear absence of the chill factor. In simpler terms, I’m referring to the common zoo-like culture that would occasionally or even regularly surface when major events or breaking news hit the newsroom, or story elements were late, even non-existent or it was simply a Tuesday.

Having worked in more than a half dozen different newsrooms over the years and across a handful of platforms, it was an environment I rather enjoyed. While I can scarcely be described as an adrenaline hound and certainly never a news junkie, I have been told that I do at times enjoy conflict and even a bit of pandemonium occasionally.

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Don’t believe me? Let’s argue about it.

True, to a point, I certainly appreciate it when things are happening. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the story itself but more the drive, the angst, and yes, even the panic that ensues when trying to cover the things that are happening. That frenzy, I have found is usually stirred up by a management source, either a middle-level supervisor trying to look active or even an upper-echelon boss who would be of better benefit to all by staying in their office with the door closed, pretending to be on the phone.

I have been witness and I suppose party to those unhinged settings over time. You can still be useful while drinking in and relishing the fervor and I have to be completely transparent here because as a former street cop, my impressions generally take on a different tone as my priorities might be slightly askew. What many in the business consider critical and vital are seen as important yet not generally stroke-worthy by yours truly.

“Can we confirm and get this on the air before everyone else?”

“Will the crew get to the precinct before the perp walk?”

“Is the pool photographer sending it out to everyone at the same time? “

This is all important stuff, don’t get me wrong. It’s the business and the nature of newsgathering and beating out the competitors is a valuable achievement. I simply don’t see it in the same light, or maybe I don’t feel it with the same illumination.

“Is anyone going to die or get hurt if we don’t succeed?”

“Are we screwing up someone’s life if the story airs after rivals air it?”

“Is our credibility and reputation adversely impacted by coming in second this time?”

Those were and still are the questions my brain asks.

Feel free to call me a vocational snob.

While those contrasts are worthy of examination all by themselves, my wonderment delves deeper these days. What is the better newsroom environment to be a part of, if that option even still exists?

Does the manic, crazy newsroom workplace translate into the most successful one? Or is the more fruitful provider a more serene setting, one sparsely populated with only the sounds of keyboards clacking, an occasional printer whirring, and a muted phone ringing at an unstaffed desk?

I would venture to say that the latter is by far the more common one these days. Reporters are out in the field, with or without photographers by their side. Crews are launched from outside the stations, and editors, fewer in number stowed away in booths and control rooms occupied by half the numbers they used to be.

The newsroom has taken on a vastly different feel. My last two stops in radio and TV saw newsrooms with far more desks than people to occupy them. I could spend the majority of an eight-hour day as the only occupant of my last radio station and in a TV setting that could scarcely put together enough people to get a good checker game going.

What good is a newsroom if nobody’s there?

And don’t say it’s good because everyone is out doing their jobs because with few exceptions you and I know that is simply not the case.

In New York City, the press has been fighting the encryption of the NYPD’s radio broadcasts, something that would render the monitoring of newsroom scanners pointless.

Why are they objecting to it?

Because somebody is still there to listen to and act upon what’s happening.

I almost went completely insane after years of listening to scanner traffic in the Bronx and Brooklyn but, nevertheless, they were effective tools for the news outlets.

Again, because there were people there to hear it.

Of course, in other areas of the country, countless newsrooms are no longer as fortunate.

Newsrooms are empty, and hours on the assignment desk cut. So, who exactly is gathering news and where are they doing it from?

At this point, we know why this is the case so I will not subject you to another rant about layoffs, cutbacks, and poor fiscal management. But you can suffer other kinds of losses, too, in the current climate.

Spirit, momentum, and enthusiasm.

I took the opportunity to partake in some informal discussions about the concept of environment and achievement. The subject transcends far more than just the newsroom but I asked those in some of my former markets and the general consensus is that a quiet newsroom is a stagnant newsroom. Remove the people, expel the action, and take out the sense of immediacy and my guess is your outlet is number three in a three-horse race.

Number one likely includes those who are way overcaffeinated, running into the occasional wall and on some evenings barking at the moon. These are places that had overhead light fixtures removed from the ceilings because staff were trapezing around the room.

You can not replace passion with technological efficiency and the daily editorial Zoom meetings are no match for the honest exchange of ideas that come from a loud, overcrowded conference room or even shouts from the assignment desk.

There’s still room for respect and civility, in fact, it should be fine-tuned by now to the point where bringing the team together at certain times of the day should be welcomed and strongly pursued.

Ideas and options should be voiced for all to hear, the regular reminders of why people are doing what they do.

Trust me, the first time I yelled out “breaking news” from the desk and was later told just to send a station-wide flash email instead, I knew it was over for me.

(I never actually yelled out the words “breaking news”, it was more like “clean up on aisle seven!”)

In any case, I knew then and there that a long vacation and a change of scenery was in order. Mind you, I didn’t seek out a setting of serenity or a deserted island.

If I wanted quiet, I could have just stayed in the newsroom.


Bill Zito
Bill Zito
Bill Zito has devoted most of his work efforts to broadcast news since 1999. He made the career switch after serving a dozen years as a police officer on both coasts. Splitting the time between Radio and TV, he’s worked for ABC News and Fox News, News 12 New York , The Weather Channel and KIRO and KOMO in Seattle. He writes, edits and anchors for Audacy’s WTIC-AM in Hartford and lives in New England. You can find him on Twitter @BillZitoNEWS.

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