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April 13, 2020, 1:51 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The coronavirus crisis will eventually end, but the distributed newsroom is here to stay

The newsrooms that will thrive in a post-COVID-19 world will be the ones that embrace the shift to distributed teams. Here’s a guide how.

Over the past few weeks, social distancing policies and travel restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19 came into force in countries across the globe, impacting billions — journalists included. Almost overnight, news publishers had to find a new way of functioning that didn’t revolve around physical newsrooms. To add to the pressure, many newsrooms are simultaneously facing an existential financial crisis of lost advertising revenue and subscription revenue at risk from a global recession, resulting in layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, and closures at an unprecedented rate.

In this moment of crisis, though, we have a opportunity to chart a path forward proactively for our industry: The newsrooms that will survive and thrive in a post-COVID-19 world will be the newsrooms that embrace the shift to distributed teams.

They’ll develop and refine distributed workflows, processes, and structures. They’ll work to instill an online organizational culture in digital spaces. They’ll strategize carefully about the technologies and tools they use. They’ll have a plan for how to continue the professional development through distributed training. They’ll explore new kinds of editorial products and audience engagement initiatives. They’ll be ready as quickly as possible to get back to the business of reporting everything their audiences need.

While some organizations may return to physical workspaces after the end of COVID-19, the digital infrastructures put in place now must be nurtured and developed to function alongside physical spaces. In doing so, we can capitalize on all the things that can make distributed work so effective — the sustainability benefits, the enhanced diversity and accessibility of our newsrooms, the new opportunities for engagement, and the increased flexibility — while also retaining and supplementing the advantages of in-person interaction offered by physical newsrooms.

The benefits of distributed teams

  • At a time when many news organizations are facing existential financial challenges, a very practical benefit of distributed teams is saving the cost of maintaining a physical office. Depending on the size and scale of an operation, it’s likely that property costs (including insurance, maintenance, utilities, security, and property-related staffing costs such as janitorial staff) run into six or seven figures. Distributed teams come with their own costs — subscriptions to software, equipment costs for staff — but they pale in comparison with the annual burden of maintaining a full-service physical newsroom.

    If you’re a startup organization, you could easily forego investment in a physical space and instead invest in revenue-generating activities like content production and new editorial products. If you’re a large outlet, downsizing the physical newsroom may mean being able to retain editorial and commercial staff by generating savings elsewhere.

  • Journalism has long faced a crisis of diversity and accessibility. A young journalist wanting to work for a national newspaper in the U.K., for example, is faced with balancing exorbitant London rent and living costs with the starting salary for a journalist — ensuring that often it’s only those with financial means who can enter the industry. The obvious consequence is that young people from ethnic and minority backgrounds, who are much less likely to be able to afford to move to London or accept unpaid or low-paid internships, face many more hurdles in becoming journalists than those who are white and middle class. The same is true of those with disabilities, for whom required physical presence in a newsroom may mean they don’t pursue jobs in journalism.

    This has vast implications for the type of reporting your newsroom is likely to produce and its relevance to audiences. Operating as a distributed newsroom will make your organization more accessible to diverse talents, which can directly benefit your reporting and thus your sustainability.

  • Understanding the information needs of your audience has never been more important. Audience engagement specialists are among those most familiar with directly addressing a distributed stakeholder — i.e. the people sitting at home or on the bus, reading and engaging with your stories. But in this new distributed setting, reporters and editors who are usually stationed at their desks in the newsroom can find new opportunities to lift the curtain on the inner workings of their operation and develop a new form of engagement with their audiences.

    We’ve already seen this shift in situation drive some wonderful creativity in engaging audiences in new ways. For reporters, the value of social newsgathering — learning how to search social networks for stories and sources, how to verify digital content and accounts — has come to the fore, allowing newsrooms to develop new “muscles that will outlive the current crisis. This editorial adaptation is not a “nice to have” — it’s an essential, foundational ingredient of a commercially sustainable newsroom operating in a low-trust, noisy information ecosystem awash with disinformation and misleading claims.

  • There are many other conceivable situations in which we might need to work (or benefit from working) as a distributed team. Natural disasters, future pandemics, breaking international events, national elections — these are all stories where newsrooms can take advantage of distributed teams to provide original and creative reporting. If we maintain and develop our distributed teams, we can move more nimbly to covering essential breaking stories for our audiences.

Overcoming the challenges

When you think of a newsroom, the image evoked is inherently physical: huddles of desks bustling with reporters, editors, and producers discussing upcoming stories, planning how to cover the day’s events, surrounded by TV screens flashing breaking updates and the latest analytics. Translating that energy to the digital world is a significant challenge. The phrase “remote work” can conjure up an image of a lonely lighthouse keeper, dutifully replenishing lamp fuel and trimming wicks in near total isolation.

Implemented poorly, digital newsrooms can indeed feel isolating and remote, without the satisfying and energizing bustle of the news desk, lacking the laughter and emotion that often accompanies our work as journalists.

But implemented well, as a distributed team instead of as a collection of “remote” workers, digital newsrooms can be engaging and vibrant spaces that develop their own cultures, enable new ways of working, and support productive collaboration and high-impact journalism.

At Fathm, the media consultancy I co-founded, our years of experience running large-scale collaborative pop-up newsrooms — Electionland, ProFact Moldova, Verificado and others — has meant having to come up with creative workflows and processes for distributed teams of journalists, editors, fact checkers, and producers. Working with experts across a range of fields, we have distilled our experience and lessons into the Distributed Newsroom Playbook — a free, modular guide detailing best practices, strategic considerations, and pitfalls to avoid when moving to a distributed set up. It’s our hope that this playbook can help you and your organization rise to the challenge of implementing distributed teams — and reap the long-term benefits.

Across all aspects of life, moments of crisis force us to break with our established practices, with business as usual. On a human level, COVID-19 will bring unfathomable tragedy to families around the world. On a journalistic level, COVID-19 will likely see the closure of hundreds of newsrooms and thousands of journalists left out of work. As Rasmus Kleis Nielsen puts it bluntly: “Business as usual is suicidal for the news industry.”

In this new setting, we must adapt, and seize the opportunity to carve out a new future — a sustainable future, a future that embraces diversity, a future which serves our audience first — for the industry. Now more than ever, our audiences need and demand that of us. Embracing and nurturing the distributed newsroom beyond the current crisis is an essential step on the path towards that future.

Tom Trewinnard is co-founder and chief operating officer of Fathm, a digital journalism consultancy.

Illustration by Andrew Garthwaite.

POSTED     April 13, 2020, 1:51 p.m.
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