Scott Brodbeck had a lot on his mind after coronavirus emptied his newsroom in March. How would his company Local News Now continue to collect revenue through a pandemic? Would it be able to maintain its nine-person workforce? There were, he says, lots of “dark nights of staring up at the ceiling.”
One thing that didn’t come up a lot among employees was nostalgia for working in the same office. The company, which publishes ARLnow, ALXnow, RestonNow, and Tysons Reporter and provides tech and sales services to PoPville, has occupied a series of office spaces up and down the Orange Line corridor, from Rosslyn to its current home in the Ballston coworking spot TechSpace, where most of the company’s editorial and sales staff kept desks before Covid-19 blew a hole in the status quo.
Now, his publications’ ability to maintain strong, high-tempo coverage of their communities from home has Brodbeck wondering whether Local News Now needs an office at all. “It’s like the world’s most expensive post office box,” he says. So like the national newspaper chain McClatchy, which recently announced it would abandon physical newsrooms in seven cities for at least the time being, Local News Now is imagining what a headquarters-less future might look like for the company.
“My team has been doing exceptionally well just working from their houses, and they don’t have to worry about commuting to the office,” Brodbeck says. “They just get to focus on the work and taking care of themselves.” Even after a vaccine for the coronavirus emerges, he says, “I think the office is going to be a place you work from a couple times a week.”
Local News Now’s current office space isn’t big enough for everyone to return and maintain appropriate distance, a concern across many workplaces. Brodbeck’s agreement with TechSpace is up in August, and the companies are in discussions about what they can expect from each other in the future. Still, he says, the value of having an office is not zero. His company has benefited from “a bit of an afterglow”–the staffers all knew one another already, so it hasn’t had to acclimate any new employees to its culture. How you’d pull that off in an office-free world is not clear, he says: “I don’t think that being 100 percent remote is sustainable.”
But even a 90 percent remote office creates the possibility that local reporters might be able to cover their communities from afar, say a locale where the cost of living is much lower than the DC area. But Brodbeck says having photographer Jay Westcott in the field every day through the pandemic has been essential to the sites’ coverage—a reminder that you still need boots on the ground, even at a time when many journalists have forgotten what proper shoes feel like. “I’m not in favor of covering Arlington from Anchorage,” he says. That doesn’t mean people can’t do a lot of their jobs from elsewhere–a theory Brodbeck may test from the beach for a few days later this summer.
The economic crisis born of this pandemic has crushed lots of news organizations, and it has not spared Local News Now. All staff, including Brodbeck, have taken a 10 percent pay cut, a situation he hopes to reverse this summer. The company couldn’t get in on the first round of Paycheck Protection Program funds before it switched to a smaller local bank that helped it land funding in the second round. Now, the prospect of a future without expensive office space, or with less of it, offers a rare bit of optimism for a local news outlet. “Ultimately, if there’s a silver lining for the news world, and there’s few to pick out,” he says, “that could be one.”