Tips for running a distributed newsroom

The coronavirus pandemic has forced news organisations across the world to move to a distributed newsroom model. During WAN-IFRA’s World Media Leaders eSummit, panelists shared insights on how best to function in this new environment.

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by Simone Flueckiger | July 16, 2020

To help news organisations on their journey, news lab and consultancy fathm, supported by the Google News Initiative, launched the Distributed Newsroom Playbook, a free resource outlining ideas for workflows, tools and technology, team management, newsgathering, training and engagement.

During a session of WAN-IFRA’s recent World Media Leaders eSummit, moderator and fathm CEO Fergus Bell was joined by Ingeborg Volan, VP of newsroom strategy, publishing and visual journalism at Norway’s DN, Tom Trewinnard, co-founder and COO of fathm, Federica Cherubini, head of leadership development at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and John Crowley, editor and media consultant, to discuss some of the playbook’s key points.

Reorganising the newsroom

“We’ve been quite careful to use the term distributed newsroom and avoid the term remote work,” Trewinnard said.

“We think it’s really important that, as you make this shift, you still feel like a team, you still feel like an organisation, and you don’t feel like a remote worker operating in a bubble isolated from everybody else.”

For more takeaways and analysis from the World Media Leaders eSummit, download our easy-to-digest slide deck report (free for WAN-IFRA Members and available for purchase for non-members).

As part of working in a distributed environment, he put forward the idea of moving from news desks, which are typically very vertical focused, to more functional news hubs with the goal of bringing together people who work on similar functions, and making sure there is opportunity for replacement if necessary.

While the production and assignment hubs are core hubs that are likely to be common across most distributed news operations, news outlets can also create a range of other hubs, such as newsgathering, audience, or fact-checking, depending on what type of organisation they are.

According to Trewinnard, the “verticals hub” is particularly useful for coronavirus coverage, as many stories have numerous facets and implications, and touch on several different beats simultaneously, such as health, business and tech.

“Rather than having separate news desks, the reporting desks can operate as a hub, which can be a Slack channel or a WhatsApp group, whatever platform you want to use, so that people can communicate and collaborate in a shared space.”

Managing distributed teams

“News organisations are actually better placed to work in distributed teams than other industries,” said Crowley.

“Nevertheless, the news hub is perceived as a setting that thrives on physical interaction and robust discussion.”

So how can news organisations and newsroom leaders operating in a distributed model manage teams, keep in contact with staff, and keep up morale?

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While there is a plethora of tools available to communicate with distributed teams, Crowley cautioned that staff can quickly become overwhelmed if information is being delivered on too many channels at once. In terms of meetings, he recommended reassessing previously established schedules as many countries are now coming out of lockdown, while also keeping in mind that meetings start losing value exponentially after half an hour.

He also pointed out the importance of regularly checking in on staff to see how they are doing, and how they are coping with working in their respective home situations. This includes making sure everybody has access to a properly equipped workstation, and providing help if necessary.

“A check-in doesn’t have to be a long convoluted process, it can just be saying hello and seeing how you’re doing,” Crowley said.

“Make sure someone is checking in on senior staff as well.”

As for keeping up morale, genuinely thanking staff for their hard work during these trying times can go a long way towards lifting everybody’s spirits, he said.

Audience engagement during COVID-19

During the pandemic, consumption and demand in news has increased online, for TV, and on social media.

“In a crisis more than ever your audience needs accurate and reliable information,” Cherubini said.

With this in mind, she recommended reassessing how audience needs might have changed, determining why audiences are coming to your website and what you are providing, and making sure all segments are being served.

To this end, some publishers have dropped their paywalls for coronavirus coverage, as well as created new dedicated products, such as newsletters, podcasts or data-driven projects.

“But you also want to think about who you’re not reaching,” she said.

“Reevaluate how you’re serving every single part of your communities, as well as the underserved communities you could reach.”

She shared an example from a group of independent news outlets that are finding ways to meet the needs of immigrant communities that are under threat during the crisis.

Meanwhile, Danish media group JFM has created a “hotline” for businesses that are struggling with the effects of coronavirus, allowing business owners to share their concerns or ideas with editorial staff.

“This is something that’s valid not just in distributed settings or crisis times, but make sure that if you’re asking your readers and your audience to share with you their experiences you have someone dedicated to reader interaction, and to really make sure that there is someone else on the other side who is listening and answering,” Cherubini said.

Naturally, audiences have lots of questions surrounding the pandemic, which means news organisations should ensure they are set up to listen and answer them when they are approached directly, while also optimising articles for Google Search.

“The thing that the algorithm wants is for you to be able to provide the best result for the query of the audience,” Cherubini said.

“It’s not just a way to get traffic, it’s really a way to serve your readers if you have a very good, optimised SEO, and you help your readers find what they’re looking for.”

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