‘Adapt or die’: Newsrooms amid COVID-19 pandemic

Editor and consultant John Crowley shares initial results from a survey investigating how journalists are coping with COVID-19, and what the news sector might look like once the pandemic is over.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | April 29, 2020

Illustration by: Andrew Garthwaite

The advent of COVID-19 “may well get journalism to shed a lot of old skin and proceed remade in the future”. That is one of many impassioned responses I’ve received to a global survey of journalists to assess how they are coping with lockdown.

Working from home, being furloughed and having to deal with relentlessly grim stories is having a pronounced effect on the mental well-being of reporters. But the replies I’ve received underline how this moment represents an opportunity to speed up digital workflows and co-opt innovative tools. In other words, the need to adapt or die.

As well as asking rank-and-file reporters and freelancers about their own situation, I am seeking their thoughts about how the industry should evolve post-lockdown.

So far, the survey has received responses from the Philippines, India, Brazil, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Ireland, the US, the UK and more. Responses have come from data journalists, videographers and reporters. I also want to appeal to young and diverse members of our industry for their views as much as newsroom leaders.

Two years ago I ran a survey to investigate how journalists were wilting under the weight of the emails, alerts, and notifications they were receiving. As part of the European Journalism Centre’s News Impact Network, I published a piece of research on the findings to illustrate how they were being overwhelmed by the information they process in their working day.

Back in 2018, the responses triggered a surprisingly emotional response. Right now, it has come like a torrent. In less than a fortnight, 100 journalists have taken the time to complete my anonymous five-minute survey. The insights ‘from the shop floor’ have been frank and unvarnished.

Asked how they would like their news organisation to change, one said: “More focus [is needed] on staff well-being. It shouldn’t take a pandemic to acknowledge the intense pressure we are under and always have been, topped up with uncertainty of shifts and work in the long term.”

One colleague I spoke to questioned whether newsrooms were “1970s constructs” which were out of kilter with today. “The idea that you need to sit round a news hub is different to then. Digital technology has changed how you disseminate information.”

Another told me their news organisation had said they would assimilate the cost of “sorting out your workstation from home”.

Not all newsroom staff have that luxury. Many respondees thought the pandemic would usher in leaner office workspaces. “They… will be comprised mainly of a few editors and specialist writers – the rest will be contracted out,” was one typical survey response.

Others were pragmatic: “I’d like to see us working remotely to save money on office rental to secure our jobs. Reporters are still able to get out and about. I’d combat this with a monthly team meeting in person and team-bonding exercises.”

Clearly, the journalistic wheels hadn’t come off after going to distributed working. One said: “Some of the key benefits of COVID-19 that I would like to see remain are less meetings – and the ones that are held should be kept result-focused. We are seeing collaboration between departments and bureaus that didn’t happen before. Less vertical management nonsense. Also, less bullshit stories with more focus on news.”

How to integrate journalists back to work figured prominently in people’s thoughts. Respondents also raised questions about how newsroom floor plans might be changed to accommodate social distancing. But many believed newsrooms were still needed.

Others said they yearned for one-to-one contact with interviewees – which they felt yielded better journalistic copy: “I miss meeting sources in person. I miss events where I can meet new sources instead of cold-calling them when I need to write it,” said one reporter in lockdown.

Another overriding desire was the need for more flexi-working: “More flexible hours and additional support in my position would be great. We are a rural paper with, at most, 12 journalists,” said one member of a local news outlet.

Freelancers who had lost guaranteed work overnight said their voice needed to be heard amidst the clamour.

The survey also prompted some darkly humorous observations about the ‘new abnormal’. “More WFH, better communication. I’ve not missed our editor’s childish outbursts!” opined one. Another declared: “Less bullshit, less time wasting, more co-operation, less presenteeism.”

No news organisation, however venerable and illustrious, has the divine right to exist. One dominant theme was the need to ‘future-gaze’ about how their news org could adapt.

“I’d personally like my newsroom to embrace more innovation that will help our publication retain its long-term viability. We need to embrace a membership, people-focused mindset, be willing to think more digital and embrace a more fluid mindset to journalism.”

One further respondee added: “[I want] more inclusion and diversity in journalism. More remote working which brings the work closer to communities and therefore brings more inclusive reporting.”

And as for the person who said journalism should shed its own skin, they added this proviso: “Truth telling and reflecting will never cease to be essential. Truth requires courage and stamina.” Amen to that.

John Crowley is an editor and consultant who writes and advises on tech, business, newsroom management, burnout and disinformation. He is a trustee of the Journalists’ Charity. You can fill out the survey here. The findings will be published in an independent report.

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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