Tonight, I’m off to a party. Not big news, but it’s a rather special party. March 12 is exactly a year since The Age staff left the office and started working from home. Between the first lockdown and the second, there were a few weeks when some people dribbled back to the office, but for the best part of a year, journalists, photographers, production people, homepage editors, artists and video producers put out a 24-hour website and a daily newspaper from home. Many other organisations also spent many months at home and it was an extraordinary effort.
The five-day lockdown last month was a brief psychological blow, but Age staff are now beginning to return to our office in greater numbers.
I love our office in the Docklands. I am old enough to remember the shuddering lifts and sticky carpet of the old Age Spencer Street building. Our current office is fresh and clean with floor to ceiling windows, lots of meeting rooms and a kitchen area with a working dishwasher.
It’s thoroughly modern, but everywhere you look there are nods to The Age’s history, to remind us that while change is constant, and platforms and processes have been upended, and young journalists join us regularly, The Age has a tradition. We have principles that matter whether you read the Age on your phone, follow a live blog on your laptop or open the newspaper to do the crossword.
Our meeting rooms are named. There’s the Grattan Room, after legendary political journalist Michelle Grattan. The Gordon Room, for the late Michael Gordon, whose commitment to social justice journalism was unparalleled. The Tandberg Room for the brilliant political cartoonist Ron Tandberg, the Carlyon Room for the extraordinary editor and writer Les, the Wilson room for the groundbreaking sports journalist, Caroline Wilson, who is thankfully still writing for us – her weekly column during the AFL season starts again on Saturday.
As you walk into our office, there’s a giant quote on the wall from Graham Perkin, still the most famous of Age editors for his restless energy and campaigning style in the 1960s and 1970s. It says: “Take The Age. It does certain things differently from other newspapers simply because…we’re not there as a means of simply passing a word from a mouth to an eye, we’ve a responsibility to our readers and society in general.” I stop to read it when I arrive in the morning.
When we started to come back to the office, there was a time warp feeling that many of you may have experienced. We cleaned up overflowing desks, and discovered things we left behind when we vacated the building last year. This week, I came across a yellowed newspaper from Friday, March 13, 2020. On page 1 was a story about Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson contracting COVID-19 while Hanks was making a movie at the Gold Coast. The main story was headlined: “SPEND AND SAVE NATION”, in which Treasurer Josh Frydenberg urged Australians to get out and spend the $17.6b stimulus package to help “ensure the nation avoids its first recession in 29 years”. Reading it was nostalgic. Little did we know we were just at the beginning of what has proven a gruelling and in many cases life-changing experience.
I am writing this on Thursday afternoon, and for the first time, I can feel the “buzz” in our office. I have wandered over to our weekday print editor Selma Milovanovic, nervous that the change I am about to propose for front page might make her a little mad (it’s her job to say when the editor’s whim will mean the paper will be late and Selma is not afraid to make that point). Our digital editor Mat Dunckley is planning a live blog for Monday for the women’s protests around the country. I can hear our pictorial editor Danie Sprague discussing how a project we are preparing will work visually. Reporters are writing for our 8pm online edition and for the morning edition.
This pandemic may well see a permanent shift in office life and for many people, that will be a good thing. Many of us don’t have to come to the office five days a week and for those with small children or horrid commutes working at home for a day or two helps with the juggle. We have published many stories about the future of the office, the resistance of some employees to return and the strains in our CBD and the Docklands.