Operating amid the pandemic and continuing to produce content at the expected rate and standard has certainly been a challenge, both for editorial staff and newsroom management. But moving to a distributed model also represents an opportunity for news organisations to speed up digital workflows, save costs, improve diversity and accessibility, and better engage their audiences.
To help news organisations on their journey, news lab and consultancy fathm, supported by the Google News Initiative, launched the Distributed Newsroom Playbook, a practical resource outlining ideas for future workflows, tools and technology, team management, newsgathering, training and engagement.
In this interview, fathm CEO Fergus Bell, shares advice on how newsrooms can capitalise on the current situation and reimagine the way they operate post COVID. Along with the team behind the Distributed Newsroom Playbook, Fergus will also participate in a discussion on the future of newsrooms during WAN-IFRA’s World Media Leaders eSummit, taking place 15-18 June.
WAN-IFRA: Is the curtain falling on traditional newsrooms?
Fergus Bell: It’s been clear for some time that the curtain is falling on the traditional business model of journalism – the COVID crisis has only accelerated these trends. So the traditional operating model of large, centralised newsrooms – and all the associated costs that go with them – is now under unique pressure. Working as a distributed, decentralised team will have clear sustainability benefits for some newsrooms, e.g. lower property costs, potentially lower hiring costs (as staff will no longer have to be located in expensive capital cities).
Some newsrooms, however, will still need hubs for the foreseeable future. Broadcasters, for example, require substantial physical infrastructure, so the challenge for them will be transitioning successfully to a hybrid newsroom, where physical spaces function cohesively with distributed teams.
What have been the lessons from the big, global, work from home experiment?
The first lesson is that even journalists who have traditionally been newsroom based can work from home and it is possible to deliver essential information to our audiences without battling to get to the office at all costs when news breaks. The second lesson; we should have foreseen that all this was possible much earlier, could have started the transition when other industries did and could have avoided the chaos of making a very fast transition. Lesson three; we can do this now but we don’t need to put ourselves in this position again.
We must always be looking forward and as research from the Reuters Institute is starting to show – audiences now want something else beyond wall to wall COVID coverage. They have come to us, newsrooms must do whatever it takes to keep them.
For a newsroom reimagining the way it operates post COVID-19, where do they start?
Any strategy put in place now has to consider the long term. We aren’t ever going to go back to the way things were and new processes that are established now must account for anything that might come up in the future. COVID-19 will likely impact the way we live and conduct business for years to come and our recent experience shows us that things can change quickly and we have to prepare for the unexpected.
Newsrooms need to start by thinking about all of their operational elements without being bound by pre-covid newsroom structures, physical office layouts or reporting beats. It doesn’t matter if you only brought in new processes, structures or desks in 2019 – they aren’t going to be optimised for 2020 and beyond. Working in a distributed way is an opportunity to see how the flow of information through an organisation can be improved, how different clusterings of staff and management structures might be better for creativity and collaboration, and start to think about how we can get back to innovation in storytelling. Newsrooms can also start the process by thinking about how these changes can create a more diverse and inclusive workplace when you are not restrained by a workforce tied to a major city or hub.