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July 14, 2014, 10:50 a.m.
Reporting & Production
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Report around the clock: How some news orgs use time zones to their advantage to operate 24/7

Early mornings are a challenge for news sites: big audiences, not much fresh content. Some outlets are stashing staff around the world to keep content fresh.

It was well past midnight the morning of June 14 on the East Coast of the United States when Los Angeles Kings defenseman Alec Martinez slammed home the Stanley Cup-winning goal deep into the second overtime.

In hockey-mad Finland, the deciding game was played in the dead of night, with the final goal coming after 7 a.m. local time. But the first game story many Finnish fans read that morning wasn’t written in Los Angeles, or even Helsinki — but rather Sydney, Australia where it was already past 2 p.m. Sunday when the Kings’ celebration began.

Earlier this year, the Finnish news agency STT-Lehtikuva shifted its overnight shifts from its Helsinki headquarters to Sydney. It’s only one of many news organizations around the world that now use time zones and a kind of geographic arbitrage to their advantage, covering breaking news and managing their websites during the overnight hours.

With mobile devices booming — and with a quick scroll through headlines while still in bed becoming increasingly the norm — readers are demanding news content earlier and earlier, and that doesn’t line up with how most newsroom schedules have traditionally been structured. As The New York Times’ internal innovation report complained, “the vast majority of our content is still published late in the evening, but our digital traffic is busiest early in the morning.”

“A couple of years ago, it was enough to [have fresh news] at eight or nine,” Mika Pettersson, STT’s editor-in-chief and CEO, told me. “Once they were at work, they’d open their desktops at eight or nine. But now they open their mobiles when they get up. News agency clients demand us to be very alert in the morning, reporting what has happened during the night.”

Outlets with global reach, such as The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, have staffers working around-the-clock in locales from New York to London to Hong Kong to Manila to Sydney. Other European organizations, like Germany’s Bild, have bureaus in Los Angeles to man the overnight hours. And there are five European news organizations, including STT, that have their overnight staffs working in the headquarters of the Australian Associated Press in suburban Sydney. (The AAP’s overnight staffers are based in London.)

STT sent four Finnish journalists to Australia in May. Along with their improved ability to cover overnight news, STT will save up to €60,000 ($81,800) annually in overtime expenses because it no longer has to pay Helsinki reporters to work overnight shifts; that’s enough to hire an additional staffer, Pettersson said. And the Australia-based reporters are able to do virtually anything a reporter in Finland could do. They’re not only covering sports, but things like crime and political news as well. The only practical limit, Pettersson said, is “if something really big happens in the capital, in the Helsinki area, you can’t really go out from the office and cover news. But this happens so rarely — it happens once every two years or something.”

A training opportunity

At many news organizations, these international “overnight” jobs are plum positions — who wouldn’t want to trade a Berlin winter for one in Los Angeles? — but the postings are often temporary, and staffers will be there for as short as a few months before heading back to their home base.

Rotations at the German tabloid Bild’s Los Angeles office typically last about five months, and a stint working the overnight shift in California is seen as a way of training journalists in digital reporting.

Bild bills its Los Angeles coverage as Bild.live@Night, and it features a banner atop its homepage with a news ticker every night broadcasting the fact that the site is being updated from California. The L.A. team even has its own Twitter account. (It just retweeted this photo of Rihanna celebrating in Rio with Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger.) As a result, the five Bild staffers in L.A. need to be versed in all areas of online journalism — from social media and SEO to video and photography.

Bild_LA

“It’s not just about the nighttime traffic or saying we’re in L.A., but it’s also about a change management thing — to say, of course everybody knows what the future is like and that we need to change, and need to say that we’re investing into digital,” said Daniel Böcking, deputy editor-in-chief of BILD.de. “But the easiest way is to say, I’ll just go to L.A. and do online for five months and once I get back, I am able to do everything, because we are such a small team [in Los Angeles], I need to learn everything.”

A global approach

Though Bild is Germany’s most-read newspaper, its audience is fairly localized in Germany, so it’s enough to have a small group of staffers in Los Angeles edit their website until Berlin wakes up. More complicated is an organization like The Guardian. With editions aimed at the U.K., U.S., and Australia, Guardian staffers on three continents are always managing their homepages. And though things can change based on breaking news, here’s how the Guardian websites are managed over the course of a typical day:

United States

  • 7 a.m. EST to 7 p.m. EST: New York
  • 7 p.m. EST to 9 p.m. EST: London (Midnight BST to 2 a.m. BST)
  • 9 p.m EST to 2 a.m. EST: Sydney (11 a.m. AEST to 4 p.m. AEST)
  • 2 a.m. EST to 7 a.m. EST: London (7 a.m. BST to noon BST)
  • United Kingdom

  • 7 a.m. BST to 1 a.m. BST: London
  • 1 a.m. BST to 7 a.m. BST: Sydney (10 a.m. AEST to 4 p.m. AEST)
  • Australia

  • 7 a.m. AEST to 7 p.m. AEST: Sydney
  • 7 p.m. AEST to 7 a.m. AEST: London (10 a.m. BST to 10 p.m. BST)
  • The key to a system like this is ensuring a smooth handover between the different global desks — you don’t want editors repeating tasks or making things difficult for one another, said Wolfgang Blau, The Guardian’s director of digital strategy. One of the most difficult challenges editors face is deciding what is newsworthy in other countries. The Guardian, for instance, can send push notifications specifically to certain regions, and Blau said some of the toughest decisions are when editors must decide when to send global alerts, regional alerts, or no alerts at all.

    “It’s not easy to have news judgment for a country you haven’t been living in for a long time,” he said. “You can read as many publications from that country and wire services and observe social media from that country, but it still requires a very skilled group of editors to do that well.”

    Moving beyond the basics

    With print editions in Europe and Asia, The Wall Street Journal has had editing presences around the globe for decades, and with the advent of the digital age it adapted its London and Hong Kong headquarters to also be able to run its website.

    But in the past year, the Journal has staffed up those bureaus to create global editing hubs in conjunction with its headquarters in New York. Now, the Journal is running video, graphics, and social media desks around the clock. In the past, more of the Journal’s web operations were U.S.-oriented, so there would often be a queue to get content to editors in New York or delays in getting social or interactive components added to stories. Through these hubs, the Journal has also set up global reporting teams around certain coverage areas like mergers and acquisitions or technology.

    “Right now, as news breaks, it can immediately be edited and delivered to all appropriate platforms at the right time through these hubs,” said Almar Latour, the Journal’s executive editor.

    “We’re committed to growing our audience and one way in which we can grow our audience is by reaching international audiences, by reaching readers outside the U.S., and on top of that we are shifting to becoming a much more digital operation than we’ve ever been before,” Latour said. “That requires us to be alive as a news organization and switched on as a news organization 24/7.”

    Photo by leoplus used under a Creative Commons license.

    POSTED     July 14, 2014, 10:50 a.m.
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