New tech, fewer reporters: Challenges facing South Asian newsrooms post-COVID

Editors from several South Asian news publishers including The Quint (India), The Hindu (India), Times of India (India) and The Daily Star (Bangladesh) recently took part in a WAN-IFRA Webinar (according to Chatham House rules) to discuss the immediate business and editorial challenges facing the region’s news industry, and how they see things developing in the months ahead.

by Neha Gupta | May 26, 2020

  • Integration and paid content

Even though the time now seems right for publishers to monetise digital content, many newspapers are still sending out free e-papers on messaging platforms. A few news organisations in India such as Business Standard, The Ken and The Hindu tweaked their paywall offerings around Coronavirus-related content.

The Daily Star was on the brink of transforming its newsroom into an integrated one when the pandemic hit. Newspapers are a tangible commodity that people have been paying for, for years. Readers assume a right over content because of it being freely accessible for so long, and search algorithms. The company has now reduced its print production from 20 newspaper pages to 12, with work-from-home operations. The cover price of an edition of The Daily Star is far less than its production cost. The newspaper sells at 12 Bangladeshi taka (approximately € 0.13) but the cost per copy is more than 20 taka (about € 0.22). However, The Daily Star says it is a trusted news source in Bangladesh and that paying for quality digital content is the future of news, owing to the inevitable decline of print.

The Quint does not face the challenge of integration similar to traditional newsrooms, by virtue of being a digital-only newsroom. The brand believes consumers must have a reason to pay for news, because readers rarely subscribe to more than one platform. The aim at The Quint is to have a distinct product that people will want to pay for. Likewise, BloombergQuint, a joint venture of Bloomberg News and Quintillion Media, has emerged as a strong paywall contender with competitive pricing in a short period of time.

Most media houses in India are experimenting with reader revenue strategies, albeit still narrow revenue streams. At Times of India, ET Prime and ToI Plus bring in reader revenue. The question they pose is how well news organisations can tap into analytics and expand these narrow consumer revenue streams into lucrative offerings.

  • Collaboration between news organisations

Journalists and independent media houses in many countries are collaborating, finding ways to share resources and as much information about the Coronavirus as possible. The biggest effort comes from First Draft, best known for fighting misinformation, which is pulling together previous and existing collaboration partners to work on COVID-19.

First Draft's COVID storytelling efforts

First Draft’s COVID storytelling efforts

Likewise, as the outbreak hit the USA, the NC News Collaborative, in North Carolina, began working on a statewide reporting effort. The collaborative is made up of more than 20 newspapers across the state. In a similar effort, a group of news organisations in Oregon has also come together to cover the pandemic, according to Nieman Lab. Collaborators include Bend Bulletin, Statesman Journal, Pamplin Media Group, KGW-TV, Malheur Enterprise, KOBI TV, Lund Report, Oregon Public Broadcasting among others.

However, such an initiative has not materialised in India to date. In light of social distancing, the logical next step is to send out only a couple of reporters who can question the authorities, attend press events and circulate that information in a collaborative effort across companies. However, according to Times of India, reporters tend to have a competitive streak of getting an exclusive take on a generic event, which prevents healthy collaboration. For The Quint, news organisations are desperately looking for revenue sources and the first step to content collaboration is to evolve revenue sharing.

  • Layoffs and newsroom post COVID

As revenues have fallen, media houses may be forced to rely on leaner teams in the immediate future. What does a post-pandemic newsroom look like? Do newsrooms focus more on value and outsource work to specialists, or hope to return to the pre-COVID world?

For The Quint, there is no going back to the old status quo. The company has completely moved away from keyword, search, volume, commodity news, and wires, towards enterprise journalism. The brand now depends completely on its reporters and developed sources, and is focusing on producing unique content.

The pandemic has forced the news business in India to look at new newsroom structures, and The Quint might move away from the traditional bustling newsroom to a distributed model.

The Daily Star is looking at decentralisation. The company said it is taking economic precaution and will possibly rent out the newsroom and have reporters working from home.

The global impact of the pandemic prepared journalists to expect inevitable layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts. The execution boils down to how each newsroom handles the financial crunch. Like newsrooms elsewhere, most newsrooms in India are requiring employees at the highest salary levels to take the largest pay cuts.

At The Daily Star, the company is faced with the immense challenge of salvaging its entire business model, as it doesn’t see advertising coming back to its once-strong level and circulation shrinking.

The panel of speakers all agreed that now, more than ever, journalists must evolve and get familiar with new technology. The post-COVID newsroom will require journalists who are capable of offering deep dives into content to become knowledgeable voices across an array of topics while developing a niche to be a domain expert. The financial stress might translate to news organisations subscribing increasingly to wire services and doing away with reporters, who are quick to write stories pertaining only to their beats.

  • Resources, tools and technology

The Quint had been experimenting with mobile journalism, yet had to rapidly adapt to new emerging technology during the pandemic. The company is pulling in page views through two types of stories – FAQs, which are handled by domain experts (and eliminate the need for reporters to step out), and fact-checking, particularly relevant in India because of the barrage of communally coloured misinformation. And it has done this internally in the face of the challenging economic situation, letting go of its wire/agency subscriptions.

Quint's COVID story strategy

Quint’s COVID story strategy

Subsequently, ground reporting has also taken a hit. Pitted against legacy media’s deep penetration and fleshed out source network, The Quint is combating frustration of not being able to put out enough content. Regional reporters, local newsrooms and stringers struggle with a lack of access to technology. The brand has always been reliant on citizen journalism, therefore verifying stories, for example, about hunger or distress of the migrant labourers is proving to be a challenge.

The craft of storytelling was already undergoing a change and the divide between commodity and non-commodity news was growing bigger when the pandemic hit. In fact, online discussions at The Daily Star are now more intense than in-person newsroom meetings. Even though reporters are not in the field, they are better connected, while maintaining the newspaper’s intellectual capital. The transformative nature of the virus has given rise to a higher number of stories.

  • Non-COVID content

Like many news organisations around the world, The Quint’s readers have experienced some COVID content fatigue, asking for more positive news. The problem with reporting during this time is that nearly every event has a connection to the pandemic in some form. Yet the brand ensures that the editorial desk minimises the sense of gloom while correctly analysing the situation medically and economically. The team has also registered a higher open rate for stories that have positive headlines.

Neha Gupta

Multimedia Journalist

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