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Learnings for dealing with COVID-19 outbreak from Singapore’s The Straits Times

The COVID-19 pandemic is set to be a long, draining crisis, requiring resilience from newsrooms and editors. Here, Straits Times’ Editor-in-Chief and World Editors Forum President, Warren Fernandez, shares how the newsroom is operating amid the outbreak, and how the experience with previous epidemics has shaped and informed the approach.

by Simone Flueckiger simone.flueckiger@wan-ifra.org | March 23, 2020

Photo: Singapore Press Holdings

In a WAN-IFRA webinar last week, newsroom leaders discussed the impact of the novel coronavirus on their newsrooms, their operations, and their staff. In this interview, Warren Fernandez, Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times and one of the panelists, explains what measures the news organisation has taken to be able to continue its operations, what kind of products and services best engage the audience, and how newsroom leaders can support staff covering the outbreak.

WAN-IFRA: How is your newsroom operating amid the coronavirus outbreak?

Warren Fernandez: We decided against going into full remote operations. We felt that would be difficult to sustain over many months, as we might be required to do if the outbreak is a prolonged one. We felt our product would suffer if we could not continue to hold news discussions and brainstorm as we do during news conferences in the newsroom.

So, what we did instead was to have most of our reporting staff work from home. We then formed two groups of key editors, an orange and a blue team, each with about 15 editors in various roles. Either of these teams can run the newsroom and we alternate them doing so, to avoid burnout. This way, even if one team is hit by the bug, the other can step in to do so.

And when some member of either team is unwell, we can draw in someone from the wider group at home. This “distributed network” strategy is more robust, we feel, and makes us less vulnerable to being taken out by the virus.

We had some scares recently, when a couple of editors had family or friends who were served quarantine notices. As a precaution, these editors stayed at home, so as to safeguard everyone else on the team.

But as we had this “distributed” approach, those editors could step out and be replaced by someone from the wider network, without the whole group being taken out.

What learnings were you able to apply to covering COVID-19 from your experience with SARS in the early 2000s?

During SARS, we split the newsroom in two, with both groups working in separate locations.

But that is also highly risky, because all you need is for one staff member of the group to fall ill, or come into contact with someone who is ill, and the whole group might be served a quarantine order. So we decided to adopt the more distributed strategy mentioned above.

We also learnt from SARS the things we need to do to keep our reporters safe, so our ops folks were quick to ensure we had sufficient stocks of things like hand sanitisers and face masks.

What kind of stresses and anxieties are you seeing among staff?

Anxiety about the rapid spread of the disease and being focused intensely on the issue for many hours can take a toll. We have to keep up spirits despite the grim news. Working from home can also leave people feeling isolated, so my editors and I try to stay connected with our reporters through emails, whatsapp messages and hangouts. Not just for work, but just to stay connected in general.

How can newsroom management support them? Are you doing anything specifically?

By ensuring that reporters have what they need to function effectively, and safely, on the ground. And also making clear to them that while we want them to get the story, their safety matters more to us. We want them to live to tell the story, over and again.

It’s also important to have prepared our reporters well. Earlier this year we organised a safety training session with WAN-IFRA. I am now glad we found time and resources to do that.

What is most challenging for your editorial management team right now?

The complexity of the issue – this is not just a story for the health beat or the science reporter. It is a pandemic, but it has major economic, social, political impacts.

Trying to capture all of that, while also reflecting the human emotions and suffering that arises from the crises is a big journalistic challenge. We have only so much resources to do so and teams are all very stretched.

What products is there a hunger for from the audience?

News updates on the number of infections and how they caught the bug. Explainers on the science of the pandemic and how to stay safe, especially in video format. We also did a video panel with experts discussing the virus outbreak with our seasoned Health Correspondents, which drew a huge audience.

Some newsroom leaders have said that too many updates on the disease were provoking stress among readers. What’s your publishing frequency like? Have you come to similar conclusions?

There is a danger that you can overwhelm the audience with too many alerts and especially scary headlines. Some medical research is published in academic websites and meant for a small closed circle. Some could be put up without being peer reviewed. When the media turns these into news reports, without context and caveats, in a desire to be first with the news, we can cause needless panic and concern.  It is also quite misleading and some might call us out for fake news.

We have chosen not to do that, but to get added views and inputs, to give proper context to the findings, before we run such reports. At this critical time, it’s especially important to get content that people can trust and rely on.