The newsroom transformation: Reimagining the distributed workplace

Months into operating as distributed newsrooms, editors are distilling how COVID-19 has impacted their newsgathering and production. At the Asian Media Leaders eSummit, Fergus Bell, CEO of fathm, Mitra Kalita, Senior Vice President of CNN Digital Programming, and Warren Fernandez, Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times, Singapore, discussed key lessons learned and what to do going forward.

In distributed mode: CNN's SVP for Digital Programming Mitra Kalita (top right), The Straits Times Editor-in-Chief Warren Fernandez (centre), share lessons from the lockdown with moderator Corinne Podger (top left) of the Digital Skills Agency.

by WAN-IFRA External Contributor | July 28, 2020

By Debbie Goh

COVID-19 put an immediate focus on the safety of CNN’s newsgathering team, Kalita said.

“Getting our PPE together for the folks in the field and also being able to know where everyone was at all times was something we stressed to managers,” she said.

They also had to look out for their sources.

“There is the additional burden of making sure that it’s not just our staffers who are okay, but their sources around them,” said Kalita. “That is a different position, for a reporter to be protecting their sources in this physical way.”

More flexible scheduling

With schools and day cares closed and parents struggling to manage work and childcare, Kalita’s staff were able to swap schedules to work nights and weekends, she said.

“A lot of our traffic on digital on the weekend is just as significant as the weekday and there’s just as much news, especially right now, so I actually welcome having extra staffing by people switching their schedules for nights and weekends,” she said.

Bell said newsrooms need to be ready to handle absences when people go off for an extended amount of time with little or no notice. It is important to make the actions of colleagues and managers visible so that others can step in, he said.

There are benefits to this flexibility.

Fernandez said that before the pandemic, they had assumed it would not be possible to put out a product if they worked in a distributed fashion. “Now we know we can and that means that we can hire people from anywhere. We can hire individuals who prefer to work from home because of family circumstances,” he said.

Better content

The lockdown also sparked new content that benefited their news brands, said Kalita and Fernandez.

CNN launched a series called Coronavirus Diaries, in which CNN staffers shared their own COVID-19 stories. Kalita herself shared a piece about moving into her parents’ home after her father had a stroke right before the lockdown in March.

“I’m running the newsroom from my parents’ home while I’m dealing with my father’s feeding tube after a stroke. I’m home schooling the children. I share this externally for the world because people very much identified with what I was going through. But I also think internally for our team to see managers as vulnerable and accessible through these moments,” – Mitra Kalita, CNN

Singapore held a general election during the lockdown, which made The Straits Times accelerate its adoption of multimedia, said Fernandez.

“Because people couldn’t go out to rallies, couldn’t engage with political players, we decided that we would bring the election to them. We had a lot of live crosses to press conferences, to events, to things happening in the community,” he said.

Pushing that content enabled his paper to connect better with its audience and “we saw our engagement and our numbers go up,” he said.

Connecting with colleagues

Being in a distributed mode made it difficult for conversations and mentoring between journalists and editors, the panelists said.

“We had to consciously remind everyone you have to spend a lot of time briefing and debriefing because the tendency would be to do it over WhatsApp or very quickly over the phone. We felt that was something that we’re missing out on – that brainstorming, that collaboration and coaching of our younger folks and even onboarding of new staff into the newsroom.” – Warren Fernandez, The Straits Times

Kalita agreed. “Journalism is so much about the conversations that shape our work so in my team, we started a Slack channel that was intentionally not about work but about life and the ability to share and form relationships in this new reality.”

To ensure healthy teams, managers must be realistic and accept that productivity won’t be as good and might be different, said Bell.

“We are working differently now,” he said. “Give people defined objectives and see how they fare in this environment. And make sure you give staff down time.” He urged managers to “be kind.”

“Acknowledge that your team is working really hard and a thank you might go a long way,” he said.

Connecting with sources

Maintaining external ties is equally critical. Fernandez warned against “burning social capital” and stressed the importance of cultivating sources when working remotely.

Journalists need to stay connected with their sources so that they will be comfortable and continue to trust them, he said.

“Many of the things we are doing now through social media and through Zoom and platforms like that are only possible because we have personal relationships. We have built up social capital which we are now using,” he said.

Think long term

Moving forward, newsrooms should not disband the digital workflows they built or implemented during the pandemic, said Bell. Rather, they must consider how these can be sustainable in the mid-term and offer growth opportunities in the long term.

“The reality is that there’s always going to be a feeling, if not a structure, to a distributed setting or a hybrid in the future and we’ve got to think about being able to move between the two,” said Bell.

The Straits Times has tasked a managing editor to collect key learnings from this experience to embed in its workflow, said Fernandez.

“We have all gotten used to doing morning and evening conferences virtually so when we all go back to the newsroom, why can’t we continue to have conferences that are virtual?,” he said.

“We have learned to go live to an event as it is happening or immediately after a press conference. Why should that not be embedded in the way we do things? Those are the things I want to become systematized in the newsroom and hopefully, when we can return to the newsroom, we don’t revert to the status quo.”

About the author: Debbie Goh, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Culture, Media & Performance at the California University of Pennsylvania.

WAN-IFRA External Contributor

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