The buzzing newsroom has long been the lifeblood of American newspapers. But in recent months the buzz has become virtual as the pandemic deepens the industry crisis and forces journalists to work remotely.
In recent months, established dailies such as the New York Daily News, Miami Herald, and Baltimore Sun have joined other news outlets abandoning their headquarters, amid pandemic workplace restrictions that had already left them empty.
Tribune Publishing, owner of the Baltimore daily and others, has acknowledged it is re-evaluating its real estate needs as it struggles with a difficult environment, with lower print circulation, falling advertising revenues and increased costs for health and safety.
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.
"A newsroom is a lot more collaborative than a lot of other workspaces are," said Emily Brindley, a reporter at the Tribune-owned Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, which shut its newsroom this month.
"I definitely think that it's going to have an effect on the product," added Brindley, an organizer of the Courant Guild, which represents journalists. "I do feel that there will be some intangible effects."
One of Brindley's colleagues in Hartford, Daniela Altimari, said she believes the pandemic "proved that we could all work from home and still put out a newspaper," making it unlikely the newsroom will reopen. She fears for the quality of the work.
"Newsrooms are factories for ideas in a way. There's a lot of chance encounters," Altimari said. "You get ideas by talking to colleagues. Those chance encounters can really lead to better work."
Victor Pickard, a professor who follows the sector for the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, said the pandemic "is certainly accelerating and exacerbating the journalism crisis, but this crisis predated the pandemic by years."
He said large newspaper chains such as McClatchy and Tribune "are seizing this opportunity to cut costs, as they often do in order to maximize profits," while adding that at the moment "they're not very profitable these days."
The move out of the newsroom follows a long crisis for the sector that has seen consolidation by major chains, the closing of many smaller papers, and hedge funds buying newspapers only to slash costs and squeeze out as much profit as possible.
End of the myth
For decades, the newsroom has been a mythical place whose atmosphere was captured in films from "His Girl Friday" to "All the President's Men" to "Spotlight."
"There's a sort of alchemy that happens when you have a lot of reporters in a room together," said Marijke Rowland of the California-based Modesto Bee.
"There's nothing quite as interesting, vibrant and at times weird as working in a newsroom," she said. "That's an incalculable loss, for local journalism particularly."
Some major newspapers such as the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have maintained or even boosted their journalistic staffs even as they adapt to remote journalism.
"No one doubts that (the major dailies) will reopen when it's safe to do so," said Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism professor.
But smaller local and regional newspapers are in more difficult straits and may struggle to get their newsrooms back, he noted.
"I just hope that any newspaper owner who is committed to doing a good job understands the importance of having a newsroom," Kennedy said.
But with an industry in turmoil and facing challenges from a shift to digital news consumption, some fear the newsroom will become a relic of the past.
"These trends are so structural that they have very few options," Pickard said.
"The advertising revenue model is irreparably damaged and will never come back for newspapers. For those that are not able to sustain themselves through subscriptions, which includes nearly all newspapers other than the national big three, there's not much they can do.
"It's very difficult to remain profitable, so they're going to continue to cut costs."