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A new working culture
Many newsrooms have introduced remote working for staff, either as a precautionary safety measure or to comply with government-mandated social distancing guidelines or lockdown procedures. Out of 104 respondents, close to 30 percent say the entire staff is working from home. The functions that are still most commonly driven from the physical newsroom include the news desk, editorial management, and the production desk.
While some newsrooms have been doing “work-from-home” test weeks to prepare for an eventual full remote scenario, having to abruptly adapt to this new operational mode can be challenging.
“Because we didn’t have a lot of time, it was bumpy the first few days,” said Robyn Tomlin, Executive Editor, The News & Observer and the Durham Herald-Sun, who manages 11 newsrooms in four different southeastern states.
“We had a lot of staffers who had laptops and WiFi, but they might not have had all the applications that they needed for IT. They didn’t know how to use hangouts, they were confused by some of the communications that were coming out, and quite frankly, they were dealing with a lot of their own personal circumstances as schools started to close down and they had kids at home.”
Additionally, dealing with the relentless pace of the 24-hour news cycle, being unable to escape negative news, and having to handle additional tasks, such as homeschooling children, can prove difficult and take a mental and physical toll on those working from home.
To monitor the well-being of remote staff, some 83 percent of 90 respondents say they have daily check-ins, while 38 percent say they have guidelines for maintaining mental health, and some 35 percent have access to a health hotline / resource.
“I think newsroom leaders have to be very reassuring about the future,” said Javier Garza, a journalist and safety advisor for the World Editors Forum board.
“I know sometimes even editors and managers don’t know, but it’s important to stress the team effort of a difficult coverage such as this one. Editors have to be the bridge between the newsrooms and top executives, and will have to advocate for their reporters and editors when the crunch comes.”
Pandemic gives rise to new products
In response to the coronavirus outbreak, many news organisations have launched a range of new products and services to better inform and engage readers about the pandemic.
According to the survey, more than half of 91 respondents have done so. Newsletters are the most common product, with some 55 percent saying they have launched them, followed by infographics (49 percent), and videos and live blogs (30 percent).
And these new products are often proving very popular. At The Washington Post, a collection of infographics explaining how coronavirus spreads has become the organisation’s most-viewed story ever.
Dutch online newspaper NU.nl, part of media group Sanoma Media, has created a coronavirus push message sent out at 9.30 pm each day, which directs users to a summary of the day’s coronavirus news pinned to its liveblog. Currently, some 245,000 people have subscribed to the service. NU.nl’s monthly reach usually stands at 7 million unique visitors per month, but went up to 9 million in March.
At The Straits Times in Singapore, explainers on the science of the pandemic and how to stay safe, especially in video format, as well as a video panel with experts discussing the outbreak have drawn big audiences.
Some 83 percent of 42 respondents with a paywall in place also say they have made their coronavirus coverage available to non-subscribers.
This move has paid off for US magazine The Atlantic, which, despite lifting paywall restrictions on its coronavirus coverage, brought in 36,000 new subscribers over the past four weeks. With more than 87 million unique visitors in March, it also more than doubled its previous month-long record.
Some survey participants also noted that they have been experiencing a surge in traffic.
Pre-Corona, leading Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter had 1.1 million daily readers. But Martin Jönsson, Head of Editorial Development at DN said now, “it’s much higher than that: it’s up to between 1.6 and 1.7 million (Editor’s note: Sweden’s population is approximately 10.3 million).”
By April 14, in the span of about six weeks, DN added 20,000 new subscribers.
Additionally, a recent campaign to open up the DN site until early May to users who register, led to 115,000 new registered readers.
“This is a record number for us,” he said. “In the previous times when we have tried this, such as with the general Swedish election, we’ve had 40-45,000, so this is enormous.”
DN has also increased video viewing numbers by 400 percent, and is drawing more traffic from search, social, referrals and newsletters.
In the UK, Reach, which has a network of some 70 national and regional news websites including the Mirror, Express and Star titles, said it has had more than 10 million page views above average during the pandemic.
Traffic to Mirror.co.uk is up 60 percent year-on-year, while the Express website had a record month in March.
Traffic to the Financial Times website has grown 250 per cent year-on-year over March as coverage of the coronavirus crisis has broken new records for the daily title. The online engagement has smashed previous records set during the EU Referendum.
Restrictions on journalists’ freedom of movement
Journalists are considered essential staff in many countries, meaning they are allowed to continue their work during the outbreak despite lockdown restrictions. But out of 94 respondents more than a fourth say journalists at their company aren’t allowed to move around freely to report. While some news organisations aren’t sending their staff out at all due to safety precautions, official forces in certain countries have been preventing journalists from doing their job under the guise of enforcing protective measures or curbing the spread of disinformation with regards to COVID-19.
In response to these developments, Reporters Without Borders launched Tracker19, a tool aimed at evaluating the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on journalism, and monitoring instances of government censorship and deliberate disinformation. In several countries, such as Chad, DRC, and the Philippines, journalists have been subjected to violence by the police or threatened with detention and fines for reporting on the coronavirus outbreak.
Newspaper production and distribution mainly running smoothly
Most news publishers have taken preventive measures to ensure continuous production and distribution of newspapers. Out of 95 respondents, some 73 percent say the pandemic hasn’t affected their companies’ ability to distribute and publish the newspaper.
At The New York Times’ College Point printing facility, where most staff can’t work from home, temperature screenings are being conducted for every person entering the facility, high touch point areas are being cleaned and sanitised more frequently, and social distancing guidelines have been implemented to eliminate gatherings in break rooms, cafeteria, and the locker room.
Singapore Press Holdings, which has two printing facilities within the same location, deployed split-plant and split-shift operations by February 14, creating physical distance between staff so as to minimise their exposure to the virus. In the event that one team is quarantined, the other team could take over and minimise damage. Each plant was also separated into the press, mailroom and loading bay, with staff from the three areas physically separated.
However, more than a fourth of respondents say the pandemic has had an impact on publishing and distributing the newspaper.