The 'Newspapers are dead' discussion looks set to drag on (and on) without any real conclusion or particularly illuminating insights but there is a side debate that does interest me: Do we still need newsrooms?
I read the Journalism Iconoclast blog regularly and was intrigued by a post there recently that suggested: Telecommuting can replace the office. Basically, it asks why we still need expensive newsrooms in a networked age.
And it's an interesting question; I confess that I look around my newsroom sometimes, as I sit on our new central hub in the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo HQ, and wonder whether we all need to be physically 'at work' to be at work.
Newspapers have already discovered they don't need to have their HQ in a city centre. It's a thorny subject, but I have no issues with journalists being based in purpose-built, modern unit by a ring road any day; it's not geography that connects us with our audience - it's how we engage with them, and our willingness to do so.
How would a newsroom operate in a virtual world? Theoretically, I don't think it would be particularly tricky; the biggest challenge would be convincing people it could be done.
You could conduct news conferences and meetings via webinars, use Skype to talk to colleagues/contacts for free, log into the system remotely - whether you're a designer working at home or a reporter filing from the town hall - chat to colleagues via Gtalk, hold group discussions in Friendfeed rooms, use Yammer, Ning, Twitter, Seesmic to interact and add that important social element to the working day. Of course you'd need an office base of some description, and there would always be some hardy souls who would have to use it, for real-world meetings, training, appraisals and other mundane workday issues.
But would workers accept it, perhaps even welcome it? There's the argument that says, you get creative people in a room together, add a bit of banter and gallows humour, and you get better newspapers. And then there's the argument that says better newspapers come from being connected to the issues that affect those communities they serve.
Personally, I'm leaning more towards that latter argument as time goes on. I've never done the telecommute thing in earnest (just on odd days - usually thanks to the weather or transport problems) but I know journalists who have, and who found it made them more productive.
So in considering the question, I have to try and separate what I think could be a working future for journalists from the nostalgic glow I have for newsrooms. Because they can be the most bizarre, wonderful places to work - I've seen typewriters thrown through (closed) windows, found reporters sleeping under desks after a night out and witnessed an impromptu whippet race on a lull in an election night. I have also sat and learned from some of the wisest, most tolerant and generous journalists that ever made a shorthand outline.
I would be sad to see newsrooms go the way of the office pub, but I think it's inevitable - and we will see it start happening within the next couple of years, as the economy picks up and property prices begin to recover.
The loss of the newsroom bubble could be the catalyst that really gets journalists using online social media, becoming more like beat bloggers in their respective patches (be that geographical or specialist subject) and engaging with communities.
I don't think anyone would mourn the loss of a newsroom if it meant journalists, and the newspapers that employ them, were more connected, successful, interactive and aware of the issues affecting their readers.
* By the way, if you like the cartoon it's from this site.