Tuesday, September 1, 2009

We're All in This Together ... Newsroom, or Not.

Gawker features a little blurb that brings more bad news for young print journalists. A survey issued by the Associated Press Managing Editors said that layoffs and buyouts in the newspaper industry were particularly common for the 18-35 age group. That’s me! (*Sad face.*)

It doesn’t help that J-School keeps sending me reminders to read this article in the Village Voice. Even if you elect not to peruse its content, the headline says it all: “You Just Graduated From Journalism School. What Were You Thinking?” And that’s supposed to assure me that I made the smart choice in choosing Columbia?

We all know that the industry is transitioning, but what to exactly? No one knows. Living in the murky unknown, we seem almost immobilized by the possibility of change. What’s more, no one has come up with a viable business model for online media. (Hint: Advertising is not the answer.)

I can’t speak on behalf of other journalists, but for me, one of the most frightening things about the switch to digital media is the dissolution of the newsroom. As far as theater criticism is concerned, long gone are the days you see critics running down aisles during curtain call, hopping into a cab to rush back to the office, and pumping out copy in under two hours. (For a wonderful account, however, read the opening of Frank Rich’s “Exit the Critic.”) Now, we have the luxury of time, but also that of space. We can sleep on our thoughts about a show and then point and click our review to print. In many cases, we serve as our own copy editors.

Most of my reviews for Columbia Spectator were written somewhere between the hours of 1 and 4 AM as I was lounging on throw pillows and gulping down vitamin water. The following morning, I would make some quick edits before attaching the document in an e-mail and sending it off to our alias.

It’s no secret then that working from home takes an incredible amount of self discipline and there’s no shortage of distractions. (Before I sat down to write this post, I took a spin around town and caught up on an episode of Mad Men. Two hours of solid procrastination right there.) But with a deadline we eventually move past the fear of starting on an assignment. What we actually lose when working remotely is that essential element of human interaction.

We’re a social species, so I do believe that we’re doing ourselves a disservice by getting our daily fill of conversation on gchat instead of at the water cooler. But the internet is all-encompassing, allowing us to ignore those tips from time management disciplinarians. And let’s be real here, who actually sets aside specific slots in their day to respond to e-mails?

But new research shows that perhaps we should be more wary. A recent study found that the average worker’s IQ dropped by 10 points if she was constantly plugged into her laptop and other electronic devices that go beep in the night. I was also particularly fascinated by one scientist’s comment about how the brain responds to digital stimuli. John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, says that the brain elicits “a dopamine squirt” every time we use a device like our BlackBerry or iPhone. (Dopamine is a neurotransmitter similar to adrenaline that facilitates cognition, attention, and learning among other things.) If this dopamine release phenomenon is true, then at some level we have a neurological addiction to these gadgets—an acquired ADD, Ratey claims.

While this scientific evidence explores what’s happening in our brains when we use these devices, it doesn’t make any specific conjectures about how our office environments affect our frequency of use. But to a certain degree, by working at home, all we’ve got are these mediums through which to communicate. We miss out on that requisite office socializing, and direct face-to-face contact is eliminated. Plus, feng shui tells me it’s bad when your desk becomes your bed.

One day I do hope to get paid to work in the company of other journalists. Newsroom, or not. Call me a cockeyed optimist, but maybe what this industry really needs is a dose of camaraderie. We may not know what direction we’re heading, but we’re all in the same boat. I’d just like to know who I’m with.

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