Behind the Curtain: The Washington Post

This project was submitted by Richard Fanelli, AIA, CFM, IFMA Fellow — who is Principal of Fanelli McClain Design Studios, Inc., in Fairfax, Virg. — and his colleague Amy Smyth, the project manager who oversaw this engagement.

A lot of organizations these days are consolidating their facilities in reaction to economic realities and the influence of technology on how we work. And what we’re seeing as a result is that formerly disconnected, and often diverse cultures within a single organization are being brought together under one roof — and that can be a very powerful dynamic.

That’s been the case so far with The (legendary) Washington Post, which came to us last year having several goals, including:

  1. Welcome its digital staff — which had been in leased spaced in Arlington — into their historic 15th Street headquarters (where only print staff had been located) in downtown Washington, DC;
  2. Update its headquarters — which had a 20-year-old design and layout — to accommodate new technologies and the additional digital staff;
  3. Re-use as much of its existing furniture, which was still in great shape, to be both economical and sustainability-focused; and
  4. Create a more open view overall that encourages collaboration and promotes a sense of openness.

What We Were Working With

The old layout of the headquarters felt static; it was sectioned off by many small, private offices and meeting rooms, which interrupted an otherwise open view of the newsroom. Complicating those tight quarters was insufficient lighting by today’s standards; the original lighting had been optimized for screen resolutions on computers from the 80s and was far off from meeting today’s energy code requirements.

The power sources weren’t abundant enough to provide adequate juice for newer technologies and gadgets, and the general closed-off feeling that came with creating private offices was regarded as being somewhat isolating for a tech-driven, instant newsroom of 2011.

Plus, infusing light and airiness into the space was going to be essential for the transition of the digital staff, which would be coming out of a leased space in Arlington that had a lot of windows and a high-tech build-out. They already had become accustomed to the informal collaboration that comes from working in open spaces.

Overall, it felt dark and in need of an update. And, scope-wise, we had to consider nearly 100,000 square feet across two separate floors of the main building.

The Final Product

Aside from re-using the original Steelcase Context furniture, we completely reconfigured the space. Here’s how:

To open the space dramatically while re-thinking the power sources, we removed all the original power poles and, instead, used the existing concrete columns to vertically bring down power sources to the workstations. In fact, we had to supplement the vertical power sources using just a dozen core drills – which was minimal considering the vast amount of open workstation space we were addressing. This provided a clean solution with enough power sources to feed the hundreds of Steelcase Context workstations and without cluttering up the sightline of the open newsroom.

We brightened up the newsroom with new finishes, exciting design features, and better lighting that adheres to standards expected of today’s office environments. We eliminated walls and lowered partitions to maximize the amount of natural daylight that could penetrate the space. We improved the lighting by stripping out the fluorescent lights with paracube lenses that shoot light straight down, which was needed 20 years ago because everyone had glass computer screens. But now that people have matte computer screens, we used basket type fluorescent lights, which really brightened up the space substantially. (Just a few years ago, we incorporated a lot of the same lighting and layout standards in the design of another floor of the building (which had a similar function), so we adopted many of the same standards when designing the updated newsroom. Plus, the similarities in design also created a more cohesive feel throughout the building.)

Beyond the primary office areas themselves, we also redesigned a TV studio to include a live-shot area for interviews within the newsroom itself. This allows TV viewers to see staff working in the background of select interview segments. Plus, we created an oval-shaped “story” conference room where editors can come together and pitch their ideas to the editor-in-chief, who then selects which stories will be included in the paper the next day. Because this prominent room was placed near the entrance to the newsroom, the oval shape of this partially glassed-in conference room gave us an opportunity to create a dynamic sweeping entrance into the newsroom from the elevator lobby.

But perhaps the most vital element to the new layout is the central newsroom “hub,” which was essential to the digital team’s operations in Arlington and was requested by the client to be a major feature of the updated newsroom. This “hub” has evolved to be the core of the their news operations; it’s where final editing takes place in a collaborative environment. It’s also where key decisions are made about story placement and page design in the newspaper and on the website. Visually speaking, the “hub” forms a central design feature of the newsroom, which is accentuated by the layout of the Steelcase Context furniture radiating out from the center of it — almost like the veins and arteries to the heart of the operation.

To make the “hub” even more functional, we designed and specified a large, flat-screen monitor wall so people could monitor what other news channels are covering. This contributes to a media-rich, fully immersive experience that makes other media easily accessible to the hardworking, around-the-clock staff in The Washington Post newsroom.

So, we were excited to see how modifications to the existing layout were improving the news experience and promoting efficiency and collaboration right from the get-go.


The Resulting Culture Shift

This was a huge culture shift for the people who were in the newsroom on 15th Street – writers, reporters, and editors were used to static, more segmented, closed-off spaces. That’s all been opened up and the new digital folks have been welcomed into the space.

But what’s probably the most remarkable outcome of this project is the speed at which a new group dynamic and culture has been established. We’ve heard from the client that its print and digital teams are sharing information and going after stories together, which formerly had not been the case while they still were separated in two different office locations.

That instant effect has such a positive impact on efficiency, collaboration, and productivity, and it all contributes to a more dynamic process of news delivery for The Washington Post in print and online.

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