The near-empty newsroom of the Czeck News Agency in March 2020.

A lone journalist from the Czech News Agency worked in a mask in an empty newsroom in Prague in March 2020, after offices around the world emptied in the face of the COVID pandemic.

Speculation runs hot these days about a return to some kind of post-pandemic normal. Among my employed journalism friends, that raises the question: When do you think you’ll go back? In this case, it doesn’t mean back to work. A scan of events in the last year is proof enough that the work — challenging, courageous, relentless, and sometimes downright elegant — has gone forward undeterred. So when people talk about going back, it means to the physical newsroom.

A few reporter friends have written about how much more productive they are working from home without the usual distractions of a newsroom. (Translation: noise, politics, plates of cold pizza, battery-acid coffee, and a lot of needless meetings.) But most miss it. Even the smallest and most beleaguered of newsrooms crackle with creative energy at deadline or when a story breaks. The irreverent banter can seem rude to outsiders, but is a unique shorthand: How to get to that source. How to sharpen that lede. How to keep going on adrenaline and a sense of purpose. (I’ve always wondered how work-from-home freelancers plug into that force. COVID isolation has forced us all to find out.)

An especially fun piece about newsroom culture came in a Times Insider post from writer-at-large Sarah Lyall, who wrote about a year of missing the controlled chaos of The New York Times. She hits all the right notes, which leads her to this rich paragraph:

Mostly, I miss the people I work with. I’ve experienced them as disembodied squares on my screen for so long now that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be with them in real life. They’re smart, thoughtful, irreverent, friendly, difficult, brilliant, subversive, surprising. I miss our unexpected conversations in the elevators. I miss seeing the editors go in for their story conferences. I miss how, no matter what time you leave the office, Dan Barry always seems to be at his computer, agonizing over another sentence. I miss the little fish in his little fishbowl who lived in one of the meeting rooms on the third floor.

I’m sure all professional groups have their special personality. In the early days of my newspaper career, I had a close friend who was involved in theater and dance. We argued about which of our tribes was more interesting (using “interesting” in the Midwestern manner of Garrison Keillor). Non-journalist friends, no matter how accomplished in their own fields, often seem wary when surrounded by a room of newsies.

The best part of journalism is being allowed into other cultures and worlds, where people jostle to a different music. But I remain grateful to this rhythm from my world: Dan Barry parked over his keyboard in full writing agony, sandwiched between editors heading to a glass-walled office —  which we called a “fishbowl” in one of my newsrooms — and an actual fish in an actual fishbowl. Barry is as good as anyone gets in this profession. But there he is, his Pulitzers parked on a wall somewhere, laboring over his sentences and keeping company with a fish.

PS: After reading Lyall’s mention of Dan Barry’s presence in The New York Times newsroom, I couldn’t help but wonder about a line in one of his stories this week. It ran on St. Patrick’s Day — appropriate because Barry has written often of his Irish roots. In this piece, he tells of adding his late mother’s name to a marker in the land of her birth. The first sentence of the third paragraph draws us into his emotional journey:

The headstone rises to meet you at the gate of a countryside cemetery in Shanaglish, County Galway.

Do you hear it? It echoes the opening line of the Irish blessing:

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

Someday I’ll ask Barry if his language was intentional — a gentle secret shared with the alert reader — or just woven into his DNA. For now, I am content knowing that we can weave poetry into our stories.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this post was first published in the Storyboard newsletter.

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