Is the remote newsroom here to stay?

Will newsrooms ever go back to the way they were before the pandemic? During WAN-IFRA’s virtual Newsroom Summit, news media executives discussed how they’ve been operating during the past several months, and which changes brought about by the coronavirus are likely to stay.

by Simone Flueckiger | October 28, 2020

“What’s striking for me is how quickly the newsroom was able to adapt and change our mindset,” said Warren Fernandez, Editor-in-Chief of The Straits Times and World Editors Forum president, during the Summit’s opening session.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, The Straits Times put a core team in the newsroom with the rest of staff working from home, rather than splitting the newsroom into two separate groups (which they did during the SARS outbreak) due to the high risk of either team getting taken out by someone catching the virus.

At one time, The Straits Times had to send all staff into remote work in order to comply with government regulations, before being able to bring back a larger number of people into the newsroom when an election was called.

“I suspect going forward in the next few months, it will be about dialling up and down and responding to the situation,” Fernandez said.

Increased flexibility ‘will help with staff recruitment and retention’

Overall, staff seem to appreciate this new approach to working, with eight out of 10 saying they would like to either continue to work from home or be offered more flexibility.

The Straits Times has since turned morning, night, and weekend shifts into hybrid arrangements, meaning that staff have the choice to work in the office or remotely. Additionally, staff can attend conferences either in person or dial in from home, depending on what they prefer.

“It will help us with staff recruitment and staff retention, especially for colleagues who have families and young children. It will also help us with recruiting from anywhere in the world,” Fernandez said.

At Norway’s Aftenposten, the newsroom is more divided, with some reporters wanting to continue to work in a more flexible manner, and others preferring for things to go back to the way they were before, according to Managing News Editor, Tone Tveøy Strøm-Gundersen.

“From a management point of view, I would prefer things to be more flexible,” she said.

“We have seen that there are a lot of new ways of working that work well for us. The production is high and the quality is good.”

‘Critical debate is crucial’

However, operating in a distributed setting also means fewer opportunities for spontaneous in-person interactions between staff.

“I find that critical debate is so crucial for a newsroom to have every day, and that reporters are able to challenge each other every day,” she said.

“We need to have discussion from everything on how a source tries to manipulate a story to what kind of sources are having a particular agenda right now. And these kinds of discussions are also where the best journalistic ideas arise from.

“Usually, they happen by the coffee machine, when reporters have lunch together, or when they gather in different sections of the newsroom. It might be quite spontaneous which is hard to maintain now because people are more reluctant to reach out on Slack, email or phone than they used to be.”

In pre-pandemic times, Aftenposten held a daily morning meeting, allowing everybody in the organisation to share their thoughts on the previous day’s coverage. Wanting to keep these discussions going, they moved the meeting online, with editors inviting reporters to present their journalism and challenges they faced, and ask for comments or critical questions from colleagues.

“What they found is that the participation in this meeting is increasing now that we do it digitally, although it’s harder to maintain the quality of discussion and debate,” Strøm-Gundersen said.

‘Praise your team, inspire your team, show them that you care’

To further strengthen feedback and communication, Aftenposten adopted a “buddy system,” pairing up two reporters so they can exchange manuscripts, and ask for feedback on their texts or advice on ethical issues they might face during their reporting.

Thomas Thelen, Editor-in-Chief of Aachener Zeitung in Germany, also placed a lot of importance on communication, teamwork, and adopting strategies to keep spirits high, especially as employees are starting to become tired of the situation.

“Praise your team, inspire your team, show them that you care,” he said.

Although it’s a time-consuming task, managers should actively approach employees and hold regular one-on-one talks to find out how they are coping with the situation, while resisting the urge of being overly controlling, he said.

“How can you be sure that everyone is working at home? Trust them. An atmosphere of fear where you control them too much is the worst thing that can happen.”

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