In the month of January, things got a lot more crowded at work. In an area maybe 12 feet by 10 feet, we went from five reporters to seven.
The two people who were added are well mannered, courteous, skilled reporters. But reporters, as a rule, are loud, constantly hectoring and sweet talking sources over the telephone, easily two dozen calls on a deadline day.
Crowding reporters and editors together into big open pens called newsrooms has been pro forma at American newspapers for a century or more. Outside of journalism, additional workers and managers were brought under the newsroom school of design throughout the 1990s, particularly at young tech startups, with the justification that it bolstered communication and collegiality. That it helped saved money and left more room for executive suites was a pleasant side effect.
It is sacrilege to say so, but I think the open newsroom needs to go the way of the alcoholic, high-school-dropout journalist and bribed sources. People complain that the news media is shallow, inaccurate and sensationalist. But that's precisely the output you'd expect from people whose workplaces are optimized for bragging, bitching, interruption, and brief, difficult conversations. Being surrounded by noise can be energizing, but it impairs deep, methodical mental craftsmanship.
The importance of isolation has been established in studies of a computer programmers, who have an even greater need for uninterrupted mental work than reporters. Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister's seminal Peopleware, which Microsoft recommends for its managers, cites statistics from a series of Coding War Games conducted with more than 600 developers from 92 companies. Of the top 25 percent of performers, 57 percent said their offices were acceptably quiet, and only 38 percent said people often interrupted them needlessly. Of the bottom 25 percent, only 29 percent said offices were acceptably quiet, and 76 percent said people often interrupted them needlessly.
And if you think journalists make too many mistakes, consider this statistic: of the programmers who completed the war games exercises with zero defects, 66 percent said the noise level in their office was acceptable, while among workers with one or more defects, only 8 percent found their noise level acceptable.
DeMarco and Lister stress the concept of flow, an extremely productive but extremely fragile state characterized by gentle euphoria, in which the worker is largely unaware of the passage of time. Such a state is critical for "high momentum" tasks that require a period of concentration, time to organize, say, a collection of facts or variable names in one's mind. Such high-momentum tasks, say DeMarco and Lister, include "engineering, design, development, writing (and the) like."
"There are some prevalent symbols of success and failure in creating a sensible workplace. The most obvious symbol of success is the door. When there are sufficient doors, workers can control noise and interruptability to suit their changing needs ... work-conducive office space is not a status symbol, it's a necessity."
The software industry essayist Joel Spolsky has written extensively and compellingly on this issue as well. In fact, he recently designed an entire office around DeMarco and Lister's ideas. As DeMarco and Lister point out, if hotels can design themselves with windows and doors for every resident, there's no reason we shouldn't be able to achieve the same in office buildings.
I have worked in several large, open newsrooms since I graduated college four years ago. The only place I've worked that had something approaching individual offices for reporters was Time Inc.'s Business 2.0 magazine, which had "hotel row." Hotel row was four smallish offices all lined up in an alcove, each with its own door and window onto downtown San Francisco. They were space efficient and close enough to one another for collaboration, but provided privacy for productive writing and planning sessions. (Other editors and writers had their own larger offices with windows around the perimeter of the building, while most staffers, including reporters and newer writers, were housed in fairly standard cubicles.)
The next time you spot an egregious error or uninformed piece of claptrap in a magazine or newspaper, do write an angry letter to the editor. But do the writer and all her future readers a favor and close the excoriating letter with something like, "One almost is forced to conclude your 'journalists' are in fact more like a bunch of cattle content to be herded together in a pen than considered academics holding forth from serene campus offices."