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 AJR  Features

From AJR,   December/January 2010  issue

Texting instead of yelling   


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

For today's generation of journalists, newsrooms may have toned down but they have hardly dried up.

From Erika Pontarelli Compart's seat at Politico, for example, she can see and hear almost every kind of journalism going on: digital, TV, radio and print. Politico publishes on paper and on the Web. Its suburban Washington, D.C., newsroom adjoins a sister TV news channel where production goes nonstop. And Politico staff members regularly hold forth on cable and radio.

In some ways, Compart says, the newsroom is quieter than those of the past. Web producers work silently and diligently at their terminals. Widespread use of headsets and earphones dulls the noise.

But in other ways, the energy level can rival anything of old, a multimedia buzz from the next-door television broadcasts, Politico staffers doing TV remotes or radio gigs and reporters constantly on deadline in one format or another.

"I'll hear some booming voice out in the middle of the newsroom, and [Politico reporter] Mike Allen will be having an animated conversation with [MSNBC host] Chris Matthews," Compart says.

Compart, Politico's deputy managing editor, has worked in traditional newsrooms, starting 12 years ago at U.S. News & World Report. Despite changes over time, she rejects the idea that hers has a more sterile admin-office feel. "I don't get that vibe at all," she says. "You get the feeling things are happening here. Stories are being reported on. Things are being discovered."

At The Huffington Post in New York City, Jose Antonio Vargas has a similar view. The newsroom itself seems calmer but new activities keep things exciting. "It's much quieter," says Vargas, who arrived in August from the Washington Post. Now Huffington's technology and innovations editor, he started in print newsrooms at age 17, 11 years ago.

Even with 40 or 45 people at work, the ever-present headsets blunt the sound, Vargas finds. Instead of yelling across the room, or even conversing across the desk, people chat and text electronically.

But less talk doesn't mean less connectivity. "It's a social-networking-era type newsroom," he says, noting he sometimes feels more in touch with his Twitter and Facebook communities than colleagues in the same room. "I'm a lot closer to the pulse of public opinion than I've ever been. I'm much closer to the audience."

And, of course, his newsroom pretty much moves with him. "My office is my laptop," Vargas says. "I don't need to be tied to my desk. Starbucks can be my office. This is institutionalizing a new emerging culture of journalism. I don't know that it's losing or gaining anything. It's just different."

The quiet also struck Kate Elizabeth Queram when she arrived in August 2008 at the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Virginia. It was her first newsroom, and in many ways she expected the happy-go-lucky tumult she'd read about and seen in movies. "It was so not like that," says Queram, a features writer. "It's really quiet. There's not a whole lot of talk. There is not a lot of phones ringing. It's sort of like an office."

But she also finds laughter and liveliness, especially when the sports staff revs up late in the day. There's enough banter that she sometimes listens to music on headphones to help her concentrate. "When there's chatter going on, it can be distracting," Queram says, "which is why I use my headphones. But if there are people throwing around ideas and brainstorming, that can be helpful." Whether it comes from the chaotic traditional newsroom or the new wireless frontiers, Vargas says, reporters and editors need stimulation.

"Journalists are a bunch of insecure, needy, egotistical people," he laughs. "We always like to play off each other. I hope we don't lose that."