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Conference Rooms Kill Creativity

Conference Rooms Kill Creativity


In our quest to figure out why daily newspapers are failing maybe we overlooked the obvious. 

It isn’t only because newspapers are run by liberals. They are, of course, but that’s always been true.

It isn’t just because of the internet, either.

Or 24/7 cable news.

It could be due - at least in part - to the foul air in newspaper conference rooms. 

Let me back up. 

I spent 42 years in daily journalism - from its post-Watergate salad days until 2017 when most papers were circling the drain. Around the same time advertising and circulation began to crater I noticed something: Executives and editors were spending more and more time in meetings with each other and less and less time brainstorming in the newsroom with reporters.

And where did those endless pow-wows take place? In conference rooms sealed so tightly that no matter how close we lurked to the doors, we couldn’t hear a word being said by those who held our careers in their hands.

From these stuffy rooms polluted with CO2 and let’s be honest, methane gas, came some of the stupidest ideas known to journalism.

An end to actual beat reporting, for example. I know, let’s have our court reporter sit in the newsroom all day and call lawyers to reconstruct what happened in court! That’ll make for some great reading!

Boneheaded “inclusion” stories. I know, it’s Easter. Let’s do a front-page feature on Wiccans.

Torpid political coverage.  I know, let’s stop covering political campaigns like horse races and start treating them like job interviews. Everyone loves job interviews!

For years I believed the editor who wanted to trade colorful campaign coverage for candidate questionnaires was a raging pinhead. But after reading a story in The New York Times, “Is Conference Room Air Making You Dumber?” I realize that he was probably just another victim of too many meetings, not enough fresh air.

Scientists that have studied the air quality of air-tight conference rooms, with new carpets that leach chemicals and ergonomic chairs doing the same thing found that problem-solving abilities diminish as the air quality drops.

“Inhalation of carbon dioxide at much higher levels than you’d ever expect to see in a workplace has been found by biomedical researchers to dilate blood vessels in the brain, reduce neuronal activity, and decrease the amount of communication between brain regions...

Higher CO2 levels — say, above 1,200 parts per million (ppm) — often indicate a low ventilation rate. Worrisome substances emitted by new furniture, office supplies and carpets could be accumulating in the air.”

Scientists in Denmark administered problem-solving tests to subjects over a period of days, increasing the indoor pollutants.

What we saw were these striking, really quite dramatic impacts on decision-making performance, when all we did was make a few minor adjustments to the air quality in the building,” said Joseph Allen, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who led the study.

“Importantly, this was not a study of unique, exotic conditions,” he added. “It was a study of conditions that could be obtained in most buildings, if not all.”

Maybe it’s not too late to save American newspapers. We’ve just got to get the people making truly bad decisions - I know, let’s save money by laying off all of the experienced journalists! - out of conference rooms. And back where decisions were made during the heyday of American papers: saloons.

It couldn’t hurt.

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