Battening Down The Hatches At TPM

Today is the last day TPM’s offices will be open for the foreseeable future. The entire staff, including the editorial, tech and business teams, will begin working remotely tomorrow.

We started making plans for this two weeks ago today, when the CDC held its sobering press conference warning businesses, schools and other institutions to begin preparing for the inevitable spread of COVID-19.

My anecdotal sense from friends and acquaintances is that a lot of companies were spurred to action by those CDC warnings. Those same warnings enflamed Trump and prompted much of the administration’s downplaying and downright misinforming about the public health threat. But at some level, the CDC’s message got through despite the White House and Trump. That’s not to give the Trump administration a pass. But it suggests to me that sophisticated stakeholders — institutions, state and local governments, and at least some employers — were able to pick up the signal amidst the noise. That there was any noise in the first place is unforgivable.

We had our first meeting the same day to begin making preparations. Two days later, we alerted staff to the possibility of extended remote work. Late last week, we decided to close our offices in New York City and Washington, D.C., beginning March 11.

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We definitely wondered whether we were jumping the gun. But by this weekend, I began to worry whether we had moved quickly enough. In the end, I think we threaded the needle about right for a company of our size and with the operational needs we have.

Obviously not all companies have the luxury of working from home. Retail businesses, manufacturing concerns, service industries, companies with complicated operational functions have to find other ways to make it through.

To be clear, we’re not completely shutting down our in-the-field reporting. We’ll still have reporters on the Hill and potentially in courthouses and other official venues in order to do the work we do. We’ll make careful case-by-case decisions on when and where to deploy the team.

But we are lucky that most of the institutions we cover are probably more conservative and have access to better information than we do. I don’t expect Congress and the courts to gut it out past the time it’s prudent to shut down and force me to make tough decisions about whether to pull my people back.

Other businesses, especially in the health care realm, will not be so fortunate: lots of difficult decisions ahead weighing business necessity, the health and welfare of employees, and the common good, especially for businesses that provide essential goods and services.

The trickiest part of these calculations is operating with no real endgame in mind. When can we return to the offices? At this point I have no idea at all, or even a sense of what the standard will be for resuming normal operations. It’s an open-ended decision to shut down the offices, and then just a wait-and-see approach until circumstances dramatically improve.

Will the brushfire of COVID-19 sweep through in three weeks or three months? Will it have disparate regional impacts? Will DC and NYC have similar experiences with the disease? Will a significant percentage of our staff be sick? How will we operate with a fraction of the staff healthy enough to work?

We’re a tiny company with a unique setup so the questions we’re grappling with aren’t a particularly good proxy for other businesses. But they overlap to some degree with what everyone is grappling with, professionally and personally. What will I do with my kids if schools close? How will I tend to my elderly parents if they take ill? What if I get sick, too? How will I keep TPM going? What if all of it happens at the same time, as seems plausible?

It’s all very real. And it’s about to get a lot more real very quickly.

One way or the other we will be here throughout the epidemic, in some shape or form. That’s our commitment to you. Keep us posted on what you’re seeing and experiencing. It will help us do a better job serving you. Godspeed.

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