Say what you like about bankers, but you know where you stand with them. While most of the world’s employers fretted about persuading staff even to contemplate a return to the office, the boss of Goldman Sachs told his he’d see them at their desks or wouldn’t be seeing them at all.
We can, as a result, walk beneath the shiny glass walls of the bank’s brand-new London offices and thrill to the pulse of Mammon. This giant hive of capitalism rises in an area populated not so long ago by journalists, at a time their businesses made money too. After newspapers fled Fleet Street, Goldman Sachs operated for 30 years behind the neoclassical façade of The Daily Telegraph building, annexing for good measure the art-deco Daily Express next door. Now that the bank has moved a block north, both front empty premises.
Newspaper offices were never empty, not when they produced morning and evening papers, not when news was always happening. But first the economic weather changed, then the pandemic arrived. The latter achieved the unthinkable, which was to force newspapers – and broadcasters and websites – to operate with most of their people at home.
Supported by new technologies, they have done a remarkable job. It turns out that all those essential newsrooms, back benches, subs’ desks, studios, green rooms, face-to-face morning conferences and features meetings are not essential after all. The papers haven’t missed an edition, 24-hour news has rolled on. Broadcasters tot up savings from sitting guests on Zoom rather than in a taxi; newspaper companies enjoy having reporters pay for broadband and central heating.
Do journalists need to come back? It’s cheaper and more efficient if they don’t, for it is as easy to contact sources from a mobile phone as an office one and better if they are out seeing people rather than sitting in front of a screen. A new generation does not derive fulfilment from pub breaks, the demands of digital have reworked the rhythms of the day. If the editorial floor is everything, how have correspondents achieved mythic status by avoiding it, coming in only to pick up expenses and bask in the adulation of their deskbound colleagues?
And yet the office, the TV studio and the radio station are central to the story of journalism, achieving a dramatic status celebrated in books and plays and films. All who have worked in a newspaper office surely thrilled to the obituary in The Times of Harry M Rosenfeld, the metro news editor at The Washington Post who oversaw the Watergate investigation and insisted that the young reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward be allowed to run with their story: “Bow-tied and with thick-framed glasses, Rosenfeld ate lunch at his desk to save time and drove his staff hard. He introduced a New York brashness to the Post’s staid coverage, once assigning six reporters to the story of a 14-year-old runaway whose boyfriend had bludgeoned her father to death with a crowbar while she watched.”
How do young journalists learn except from their peers? Where will citizens take their stories when there is no newspaper office in town? What happens to the creativity that comes from collaborative working, from thoughts shared, ideas floated, developed or ditched? Give us back that spark that comes from human contact and the magic of random ideas. Restore the benefits that come from debate.
We must avoid sentimentality, a condition to which all journalists – particularly the most brutal ones – eventually become prey. To that end, we note praise for office life from a less emotional source, the chancellor Rishi Sunak, recalling his first job. That was, of course, in the Telegraph building, though he worked as a trainee of Goldman Sachs, rather than as a cub reporter. His current boss was a journalist, but didn’t seem to learn much about shared responsibility and accurate copy.
It’s a sorry day when we take lessons in communication from business, but Goldman Sachs’s instruction to its workers was phrased with little cliche and much commonsense: “We know from experience that our culture of collaboration, innovation and apprenticeship thrives when our people come together, and we look forward to having more of our colleagues back in the office so that they can experience that once again on a regular basis.”