Meet San Francisco Chronicle reporter Benny Evangelista, who writes about his messy desk appearing in the upcoming thriller “Contagion.” It might have made an appearance because it’s in a central location in the newsroom, Evangelista writes, but it’s also “Hollywood’s stereotypical idea of a reporter’s desk.” It is, he notes, “in a perpetual state of clutter. I like it that way.”
I’m not so sure about that. In the photo accompanying the article, I can the desk’s surface. Not a lot, but some. There’s the requisite coffee cup and stacks of papers plus two computers (!) and a small TV.
I’ve worked in newsrooms for 14 years, and there’s always been at least one reporter like Evangelista in every newsroom. I think it’s a requirement. One of my colleagues in Jacksonville, Florida, had such towering stacks of papers that they began to crest, like waves, and would appear to be ready to break and crash to the floor. He’d shove them back into place and continue working, unfazed.
I’ve never been a believer in the idea that a messy desk is a sign of genius. (Evangelista jokes that his sign, “A Clean Desk is the Sign of a Sick Mind”, has disappeared amid his clutter.) Rather, I think an overcrowded space makes it tough for its occupant to work effectively and with focus. Denizens of cluttered desks also waste a lot of time searching for missing files, papers and phone numbers.
But I’d never hold reporters to my organizing standards. Many are organizationally challenged because they’re handling high volumes of material on tight deadlines. They also have very little storage space and relatively tiny work areas, usually just cubicles.
They’re expected to produce material daily, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for filing and tidying. My Florida colleague covered City Hall, which generates a staggering amount of paper, press releases, ordinances, codes and edicts. I’m surprised he could even fit a chair in his bulging cubicle.
And the newsroom culture values constant productivity. A suspiciously neat desk might just lead an assigning editor to believe that a reporter has a little too much time on her hands, so why not send her out to the next breaking news story?
As a legal affairs reporter, I followed dozens of criminal and civil court cases and kept track of courthouse gossip and news. I filed materials for each case and kept them labeled, in alphabetical order, in a drawer. It didn’t take long and was invaluable when I was on deadline or needed a case number. I couldn’t have covered my beat effectively without that level of organization. There was too much going on for me to not be organized.
Fortunately for reporters like Evangelista, newsroom culture–which has always tolerated oddballs and revered quirky characters–embraces the messy desk too.
And I have to confess that in addition to this blog and my usual organizing clients, I’m in the thick of three articles for three publications. At this minute, my desk doesn’t look much clearer than Evangelista’s. Screen test, anyone?