The Post-COVID Newsroom: Big Ideas for Better Journalism¶
On July 22, 2020, Sourcefabric hosted a conversation with leading experts in audience and media development to discuss how COVID-19 is changing the news industry, and how journalists can turn the crisis into opportunity. From shuttering physical newsrooms to collaborating with cross-town rivals on technological infrastructure, journalism’s existential crisis has spurred a wave of new thinking that will reinvent how news is made.
What follows is a transcript of this engaging 60-minute conversation. To watch the full video of the webinar, visit our YouTube channel.
Hi, everyone, and welcome to our webinar today. My name is Anna Rohleder. I'm the head of communications here at Sourcefabric. This is the second webinar in our special series marking our 10 year anniversary as an organisation dedicated to making open-source software for journalism. But instead of reviewing the past, we really wanted to look ahead and see what the future holds for the news media, especially now, when the coronavirus pandemic has raised the stakes for the survival of journalism even more. Which brings us to the subject of today's webinar, "The post-COVID newsroom: Big ideas for better journalism."
Our moderator today is my colleague Greg Bruno. Greg has spent more than two decades in and around journalism as a reporter, editor, author, and communications professional. As a writer here at Sourcefabric, he believes that a strong media industry starts with solid technology. When Greg's not crafting blog posts or tweaking the next newsletter, he's either enjoying nature or working on his own writing.
So, before I turn it over to Greg, just a couple of brief notes about our session. If you'd like to ask a question, please use the chat function in Zoom and address all panelists and attendees. Also, we will be making a recording of this for anyone who can't attend or would like to watch later. And so with that, please take it away, Greg.
Well, thanks, Anna, for that introduction. It's wonderful to see so many people on the webinar today, including many friends that we've worked with over the years here at Sourcefabric.
As we no doubt recognise at this moment, Covid-19 is a trigger event that is deeply affecting our industry of journalism. Six months into this crisis, we're living through a journalistic extinction event like no other in modern memory. No news organisation is immune from this threat, regardless of size, as we learned last week, when The Guardian announced plans to cut 180 jobs, including 70 from editorial. The good news is that this period of journalistic disruption is accelerating innovations and providing fresh thinking from those within the news industry. We've long been told journalism needs a new business model. What might that business model look like? Well, the panel that we have today has some answers. They are some of the best minds in journalism and they are here to help us ponder the big ideas that can shape our industry’s future.
Let me briefly introduce the panelists who are with us today. Our first panelist is Emily Goligoski. She is the Senior Director of Audience Research for The Atlantic, where she works to understand readers' needs and to help the magazine grow. Before joining The Atlantic, she was the research director at the Membership Puzzle Project at New York University. And before that, she led user experience research at the New York Times.
John Crowley is a digital editor and journalist with 20 years of experience in the industry managing teams and budgets across a variety of titles. He was the digital editor for The Wall Street Journal in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and also previously worked for the Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, and the International Business Times in the UK.
Kunda Dixit is the founder, editor, and publisher of Nepali times where he joins us from today. Nepali Times is an English language newspaper based in Kathmandu, Nepal. He's also the author of several books, including one on environmental journalism, and he's one of the leading experts on the media industry in Southeast Asia.
Patricia Torres-Burd is the managing director for Media Advisory Services at the Media Development Investment Fund. She's based here in Prague, where I am. She and her team provide technical assistance to more than 100 newsrooms in 42 countries. She also serves on the advisory board of SembraMedia Jack J. Valenti School of Communications.
And finally, Tom Trewinnard is the co-founder and CEO of Fathm, a digital media consultancy, formerly director of programs at Meedan, Tom led Check Global initiative dedicated to developing innovative open source tools for journalists and researchers. Thank you very much for being here, all of you. So let's dive right in. We're here to talk about solutions. But I think in order to do that, we need to first set the stage. I'd like to ask Patricia if she could help us frame the challenges that we're trying to solve. How has COVID-19 affected the journalism industry as a whole? And are we seeing challenges and problems on a broad geographic scale? What are we seeing?
I think globally, we can say that there's probably not a single media organisation that hasn't been affected by this in terms of loss of revenue. In our portfolio of clients that we work with, we’re seeing conservatively 30 to 60%, and in some cases as much as 75%, loss in revenue. And that is, you know, putting not only undue pressure on companies as far as their sustainability, but how do they keep providing the news that is so critical at this time, and in many cases will save lives. So, I think globally, you can say that blanket revenue has dried up. Many had diversified revenue sources, such as events – look at us, we're on a Zoom call – but we can't meet up personally anymore. In terms of the things that media organisations are having to do globally, I think that does vary. It varies greatly, depending on the part of the world that they're in, it depends greatly on the type of government that they work under and how affected their area has been by COVID. We know that there are some countries that have done very well and others are now seeing the worst of it. In addition to that, I think that you add into it the, you know, economics of each one of the regions and the ability of people to be able to support a media organisation, even if they want to, then it becomes very, very complicated.
I will say that one of the things we have seen, and this is probably obvious, but if somebody was already struggling or having issues, this crisis has just magnified it. And so what we have seen is those who were already ahead of the curve, those that last year somehow or another had already implemented new ways of innovating, new ways of reaching audiences like Emily will talk about, new ways of engaging reader revenue, new ways of doing things, they are doing much better today, even though they're still affected, because it wasn't a matter of starting from scratch in probably one of the worst situations ever.
Those are significant numbers that you're talking about, huge losses in revenue. Paradoxically, we're seeing these falls in revenue at the same time that readership numbers are going through the roof for a lot of news organisations. That just underscores the importance and the value of the information that journalism, local journalism in particular, is providing.
Yes, but as we know, most advertisers don't want to have their name associated with a pandemic. I think advertisers are gonna have to find a different way also. I think this is going to create innovative ways of approaching advertising, of approaching your audience. And we're already seeing great innovation, so I'm dying to learn from the panel.
Well, let's stay with you for a moment longer. What are some of the ways that MDIF clients are innovating? You touched on new ways of hosting events, you touched on advertising. What are some specifics?
First and foremost, the ones that are able to listen to their audience and able to see what else the audience needs, apart from that COVID news, and retain them, those are the ones that are finding new opportunities, you know, there may be finding that they now have a cultural or book section, or a finance section or economy section that maybe before wasn't so important, and they've been able to, you know, attract audiences to maintain that and I think we hope that the ones that are doing it right will be able to maintain this audience and keep these numbers far beyond COVID.
But we also are seeing some of our smaller regional clients who have done virtual funerals, for example. Honouring those people that they've lost has been a real way of showing respect for what people are going through. And also engaging. There are also media organisations that have been very strategic. And I think strategy and being strategic, forward thinking, is going to be the key or has been the key for success in saying what we do today, and how we react today and how we work with advertisers, and or small business enterprises is going to bring us returns in relationship, credibility, trust, and hopefully business once this thing is over, whatever that new normal looks like. It's amazing that everyday, you know, we see what a client is doing and think, ‘Wow, they're being so innovative.’ For instance, there's a small group out of our South African innovation program that realised that there's people in far remote villages that don't have access to the internet. And so they did news via what they're calling radio via WhatsApp, because most phone services provide free WhatsApp in South Africa. And so people are having access to information that can save lives.
That’s really interesting, thanks Patricia. Let's go to Kunda, now. Your newspaper is living this as we speak. Take us down to the newsroom level. How are you managing this crisis?
Well, I'm trying to stay positive. But you know, there's a lot of doom and gloom. As luck would have it, we are marking our 20th anniversary this week of our newspaper. But back in 2000, when we started, we were actually an online publication first. So we already have quite a strong digital footprint. But then when this crisis hit very early on in March, we stopped our hardcopy printing. We had to very reluctantly close down our printing facility, which was a family business. We sold off all our machines. And these were perhaps steps that we were planning to take anyway in the next three, four years, you know, in the digital transition, but the pandemic just brought the date forward. It was so sudden that we were not yet fully prepared to pivot to digital-only products so soon. So 80% of our advertising was still in print. And many of them are very reluctant to shift to online so far. I think it'll take us time to adjust to this new reality.
But you know, since I'm the publisher as well as the editor, I'm forced to look at this crisis both from a management as well as an editorial perspective. And there is really no other option but to ride it out and to make our savings last. We have started exploring various ideas, collaborations, but it's the time to really strengthen our content and build our brand, as Patricia was saying, through new kinds of content and new exclusive original content. And as you said also, Greg, the readership has hit the roof. But while Patricia was saying that MDIF clients have between 30 to 60% drop in advertising, we've had 100% drop in advertising. Revenue is zero. And in fact, in the six months since the crisis, things are actually looking bleak. We just have to cut our losses. We have cut costs to the bone, and just try to survive the next few months at least.
You mentioned collaboration. Is this opening up new opportunities for collaborations with other newsrooms, for instance? Kunda Dixit Newsrooms not so much, but communication organisations, definitely. And I think it's borne out of necessity. You know, it'd be very expensive to invest now in new video content, you know, in house, or data journalism or podcasting. So, we're exploring possibilities of collaborating with institutions which already do this. They need a platform to get wider readership, whereas we need content to go into our system. It would be a win-win. But everyone’s hurting. So it's, it's, you know, it's very difficult to actually convince everyone that we are in the same boat and we have to ride this out together.
Thanks. Let's go to Tom, who has been working with a lot of news organisations that are, like the Nepali Times, adjusting in real time. One of the hallmarks of this moment, especially during the early lockdown period, was working from home. For news organisations, in particular, this presents a serious challenge to the status quo. Newsrooms conjure up images that are bustling with lots of people. But you are of the mind that perhaps this is a moment to question that model, or at least to give news organisations tools so the physical newsroom isn't the only model. You've recently published, with the support of the Google News Initiative, the Distributed Newsroom Playbook, helping news organisations move to a distributed model. You don't like to call it remote, but distributed. Walk us through what this means for the industry.
Sure. First, some background. A lot of my work over the past five years has been at the intersection of editorial collaboration, which sort of de facto requires distributed workflows. So when Fergus Bell and I started to lock down, we were thinking about what insights we had that could be valuable to newsrooms. We are very familiar with working on editorial initiatives, sometimes big editorial initiatives, without the central newsroom space, and so we really wanted to try and distill, with the help of experts like John and Federica Cherubini and others, distill some of the lessons that we've learned and some pitfalls to avoid. And we wanted to do that in a way that was not simply, how can you survive lock down, but with a view to how can you capitalise on this moment and restructure your organisation in a way that can have longer term benefits, which I think that there are many for distributed working.
And so, yeah, we have a playbook that's open access, and we are also taking kind of survey requests and working with newsrooms all over the place to try and provide targeted advice on how do you, beyond kind of survival mode, how do you operationalise distributed working, particularly when that might mean a hybrid operation where you have a physical in-person newsroom, but you also need a kind of parallel structure. And looking ahead, how can you innovate effectively in a distributed setting? I think one of the things that a lot of people feel is lost [when reworking in a distributed fashion] is a sense of serendipity and moments of creativity, which, you know, are very organic things to happen in newsrooms, and I think newsrooms are creative spaces. When you translate to a distributed newsroom, you have to be a bit more intentional with how you set up those interactions in those moments and how you facilitate them. So it's been extremely interesting, and the response to the playbook has been great.
I think one thing that we were, in getting survey responses, a lot of the respondents, they have focused on the kind of operational challenges of working from home and communications, and, you know, quite functional things. But a lot of the responses have also touched on the business challenges around lost advertising, which, you know, it's hit everywhere as far as we're hearing. And so I think that there's an interesting kind of intersection of, is there a way to take the opportunity of the distributed newsroom and build sustainability around that? So yeah, I'm really happy to be part of this discussion, and I think there have been very rich insights already.
When your distributed newsroom playbook came out, you published a piece in Nieman Lab, talking about a lot of the things you just mentioned, like the fact that physical newsrooms are physical assets that require a lot of money to maintain and run. One place where news organisations can save money is by being distributed and not having that physical space. That's one idea I find interesting, because it's very practical. But not everyone likes the idea. I was speaking recently with a media development expert from the Global South who pointed out that newsrooms are all about power in a lot of places. And we can all recall a time in our newsrooms, I’m sure, when somebody important would walk through and go to the editor's office and we're all sitting around our desk, working furiously to put on the day’s news. And that's intimidating. For news organisations that are owned or operated by either political interests or have some government support, that power element is completely gone in a distributed model. I wonder if you could talk about that a little bit and whether or not this is a one-size-fits-all solution.
I don't think I'm necessarily suggesting doing away with the physical newsroom, although I do think it's important that we have in place structures that can, you know, if there's a second lockdown in October, we need the same structures that we just built to still be existing and I think beyond it doesn't make sense to me why you would kind of do away with the work that you've put in. Take the recent slimming at The Guardian. I've been a Guardian supporter for as long as I can remember. A digital subscriber, member, everything. And, it's so painful to see the cuts there. You know, from my perspective as a reader and a member, I would rather that those people were still in place.
And that maybe, you know, the office or the physical presence of The Guardian, which is amazing – they have a gleaming office outside King's Cross, it's beautiful, which speaks to that kind of power dynamic – but would I rather they had a smaller office in Manchester where they could save, you know, how much money would be saved in that kind of thing. Also, fundamentally, the physical cost of the newsroom, they don't contribute revenue, which is the crux of this. I was listening to one of the WAN-IFRA e-summit webinars recently. I can't remember what his role was, but he was very senior at Le Figaro. And he was kind of speaking to this power issue and the need. He said that Le Figaro had transitioned quite well to a distribution model. But it was unthinkable really for him for Le Figaro not to have an office, a physical presence in the heart of Paris. But what he did say, which I thought was really interesting and for which he didn't have an answer, he was now no longer sure that the best use of that space was to have 150 people sitting behind computers. And so I think this is kind of a moment and opportunity for creativity. Maybe there is a way to turn those physical presences, which do have benefits, benefits for work for sure, benefits for that sense of power, is there a way of making that a revenue-positive contribution as well? I think that the sort of acceleration of trends that existed pre-COVID, at the moment, are kind of pushing to the fore new thinking around those kinds of questions, which is what I'm really excited about.
Great. Thank you for those valuable insights. I want to bring Emily into the conversation. So far, we’ve discussed challenges from the business perspective. But Emily, you spent a lot of time considering the concerns and questions of your audience. You're dealing with audience research, understanding the changing habits and desires and needs of The Atlantic's audience at this time.
It's an excellent question and I will get to your fatigue and new product question. I want to back up just a little bit and take us back to early February. We had a writer, Dr. James Hamblin, who published a piece, 'You're Likely to Get the Coronavirus'. And in audience interviews and in conversations with our readers, we heard that pieces like this really served a need that they had at this time for clarity and context that feels straightforward. Readers said it feels like it's talking to them without drama. And a big part of that is the altitude that we and other organisations aim to publish [content that is] approachable. Even if you're coming into the topic with no background in epidemiology, as is the case for most of us, you can still make sense of a complex and thorny topic.
There is some great advice from the Engaged Journalism Collaborative, called Gather, on this. And one of the things that they say is, keep asking your community for their questions and check in with them about their information needs.
With that in mind, there's a couple of different things that we did starting earlier this year. The first is the recognition that this is not just a science story, of course, is a topic that affects culture, family, economics, employment, of course politics. And that has ramifications for us well down the line when we think about non-COVID coverage, and even potentially breaking the barrier on some of what we had historically thought of as section-specific coverage. The second thing we did is take down the paywall for much of our COVID coverage. And this was because we felt that there's a public service mandate around doing so. The third thing that we did, and this is really a low fidelity approach, is that across our research team and our editorial organisation, we created a shared spreadsheet of all of the questions that we were hearing across Instagram, across calls to our customer care representatives. We hosted a survey for readers, where we got about 1,400 responses from around the world. And if you came to our Help Center on theAtlantic.com, you would see basically a call to help us keep you informed about COVID-19. And what we started doing as a sort of cross disciplinary team is cataloguing questions as they came in from readers, such as 'Can I fly on an airplane?' 'Is it safe to get a tattoo?' 'In addition to masks should I wear gloves? And if so, what kind.' And then having a reporter answer them in our most-read newsletter, our daily newsletter. I should mention, by the way, we're not alone in this approach. The Washington Post similarly has an FAQ on its site for easy access to commonly-asked COVID questions.
It was really fascinating and just a few things that I wanted to share from the data. What were the considerations from early in the pandemic that our readers had? The first most common was medical coverage and transmission questions. Here we heard things like, quote, 'I find it difficult to decipher the conflicting and changing guidelines from different medical experts.' I don't know that that has changed necessarily. And second, we heard country-level questions and political questions. So, ‘In my country, I'm unclear of who to trust.’ Third, and fascinatingly, were questions from would-be subscribers about alternate payment methods. This was not just, you know, 'I live abroad and want to be able to use my debit card.' This was, 'I have lost my employment and I want to be able to pay you for your work. Is there some other sort of arrangement that we could get into, a monthly arrangement?' And then we also heard as you would expect significant questions about social distancing, regional requests and service coverage, economic ramifications. And lastly, questions about the history of pandemics globally.
All of this has us thinking a lot about, well, what are the implications for The Atlantic's potential for other service coverage. So, thinking about, you know, are there ramifications here that can be really positive as we think about telling the story of climate change around the world, which I would liken to a similarly terrifying experience where people sort of throw up their hands and don't know what to do.
In thinking about COVID coverage fatigue, which is absolutely real, early in the year, we saw that, especially for readers under 35, three-fourths said that COVID-19 coverage was their main reason for visiting The Atlantic on desktop or on mobile. Then in April, reader motivation started to shift exactly as you would expect, with most people saying, you know, this is one of several topics I'm following but not the only one. That has sort of continued. In regards to open ended questions about specific types of coverage that readers are seeking from The Atlantic, we heard above and beyond – and keep in mind that most of our readership is domestic in the United States – understanding how the US and other governments are responding to the crisis. Second, information about how the virus is spreading and its potential impacts. And then, third, analysis of how people are living through self-quarantining and social distancing.
The last thing that I quickly will say, is when we are thinking about audience listening and audience engagement, my goal is for us to become an audience-informed news organisation. Everyone has opinions and opinions will not run our newsroom; we still run with absolutely a strong editorial sensibility that does guide what we cover. But at this time, I think, you know, as my four-year old would tell you, turning on your listening ears is a really powerful act, and one that's incredibly important for the financial sustainability of our organisations as well.
I wonder what risks news organisations run when they tailor content toward the emotional needs and instincts of an audience, and how to avoid so-called clickbait. Talk a little bit about how, from an editorial perspective, The Atlantic uses your insights to help move the newsroom in a way that doesn't erode editorial integrity.
Sure. And the point is well taken around coverage that can feel like it's really sensational. I'll give you an example, to pick on my former employer, the New York Times, which had a story in the past week about the births of premature babies being down during the coronavirus and had a line, 'researchers think this could possibly be because mothers are not commuting, they're not stressed about work, and they're spending more time relaxing and getting support from family.' On the face of it, I thought that is not the experience of any person I know. That is lazy reporting, because I simply am yet to see that bear out. The story, and this is very devastating, but the story did not also talk about the incidence of stillborn births, which is a really important thing when we talk about premature birth. How has that rate changed?
And what I would say to get to your question, the risk is, in our desire to kind of feed the beast at this time, and to remark on something that on the face of it seems really positive, maybe there are more babies being born to term, is that we are potentially checking some of our research rigor and fact checking rigor at the door as an industry. I understand why this is happening. I think we're all exhausted as we'll be talking about further in this call. Like, the risks of staff resiliency at this time are real. And I think one thing that, and again, to come back from the great recommendations from Gather, one of the things that they say is keep your audience in the loop about the challenges of reporting at this time. If there's ever been a moment to show our humanity, like letting them know that we're citing the best information that we have, we'll work quickly to give them updates if anything changes. It's really important to speak up for journalism, to talk about our processes, our goals, our ethics, and, frankly, how our staff is doing in a moment of unprecedented layoffs.
Great, thank you. John has been waiting incredibly patiently, so we're going to drag him into the conversation now. And it's a very good segue to do that, as if we almost wrote it.
John, you've spent a lot of time in these last few months surveying journalists themselves, asking them how this crisis is affecting their industry and how they would like to see their industry adapt. I wonder if you could give us a sense of the results. You wrote in a piece previewing your findings that this moment is essentially a do or die one for news organisations. Explain that a little bit. But also, if you could, just touch on some of the challenges journalists themselves are going through – the mental health challenges, the exhaustion and whether or not news organisations have support for those types of challenges within the newsroom.
Thank you for having me on here, and just listening to everyone has been amazing. I'll try to keep this very brief. I think, first of all, the reason why I did this survey was because I was burnt out myself and I think that people sort of don't always admit it. Two years ago, I did a similar survey into workplace burnout because I certainly felt and I could see with my colleagues that we were being overwhelmed by a tsunami of emails, push notifications, different platforms to keep on board. And then when COVID and lockdown came, I thought this might be another opportunity to kind of ask people on the shop floor, journalists on the shop floor, how they felt. And I think that there's a lot of newsroom leaders who kind of talk about doing things and pivot and change direction. But I feel that there aren’t many journalistic surveys that really get the opinions of people who are in the trenches, so to speak.
It's hard to kind of trace that back and kind of push that up the chart of things that need to be done, and by God, there's a lot of things that need to be done. But I think, you know, workplace well-being needs to be in that conversation and it shouldn't demand too much time or resources from newsrooms. It just needs a bit of 360-degree awareness and just kind of knowing that people are suffering. They're writing about unremittingly depressing news. They're scared about their jobs, people are being made redundant. They've been forced to work from home, either on their own, which is kind of difficult, not having any physical interaction with people, or with everyone on top of them, like family, young families, kids. You know, we've seen kids walking into Zoom calls, and that's just the funny aspects of it. But then we all go away, and we have to kind of manage our work in our lives. So in that sense, it's a big deal.
In terms of my survey findings, I think it was something like 94% of journalists felt the newsroom would not return to normal; 87% said they felt that the workplace, the newsrooms, or their newsrooms leaders had a responsibility to check in to their well being, which is a kind of an interesting thing; 50% felt their productivity in terms of working from home had been impacted; 58% were either worried or depressed with regards to their new work situation; and 36% said it had impacted on their relationships, either with family members or people they were living with.
So, it's kind of a live subject out there. As Kunda said at the top, you know, 100% of revenue has been lost. And I think journalists' wellbeing isn't seen as, obviously, as as a revenue driver. You can't trace that back. But if you don't have a functioning workforce, if the whole workforce is burnt out or is approaching going in that direction, then they're not able to do their jobs.
In terms of kind of the wider notion about going forward, the feedback that I got was that they wanted, and again, this is people on the shop floor, they wanted direction, they wanted a vision. And they feel that in a lot of news organisations, newsroom leaders don't give them a vision at all. Where are we? Where are we going? In the same way, if you look at a company like BP, it has a 20-year vision about how it's going to become carbon neutral. If I said to a newsroom leader, ‘What's your 20-year vision,’ I'd be laughed at. They'd say, well, we're, you know, we're struggling so much right now, we don't have time to kind of look into the future. But I would argue that perhaps not 20 years, but certainly we need to look one year, five years, maybe even 10 years into the future, about where your newsroom organisation is and what it’s doing, and then communicate it to the staff. Because, again, that's the feeling from the shop floor that I'm getting, a lot of anger. We don't know what's going on. We don't feel that we've been catered for. The other thing, flexible working and I could I could go on, but probably best if I stopped there.
No, please continue. I'm curious about solutioning. You've identified a lot of challenges, and those of us who have been journalists, worked in newsrooms, you know, complaining is kind of part of the trade. But these times feel different, right? The wellbeing of staff at a moment where resources are stretched thin and content needs are higher than ever is stressful. How to solve it? I'm just curious what types of solutions the news organisations that you communicate with are doing – such as working from home, flexible hours. Talk a little bit about that.
Okay. Well, first of all, we need to have a conversation about the ad model, which has kind of sustained the news industry for [a long time], but it’s irretrievably broken. Perhaps we don't have enough time for that in this talk, to go into it, but it's in a bad state of mind at the moment. And the difference, I think one of your questions was, is COVID more of a threat to journalism than the internet was, and I think COVID will, could hasten the demise of a lot of news organisations.
But the difference with COVID is that the whole world is in a recession. There's so many industries in a recession, including the ad industry. So, if people think the ad industry is going to charge, a white knight in shining armour is going to come and rescue news organisations and kind of spend money again, they're mistaken. The defence of the internet was it didn't cause a recession. I think everyone on this call will agree that the, you know, digital storytelling, the way of reaching new people has been completely transformed. But it's our business model that is broken, and we're kind of, everyone is kind of thrashing around for a solution. I think we have to accept that, you know, that notion that Google and Facebook would send all our content to the masses and the money would pull it obviously that that hasn't worked. We have to think about membership subscription models, how that can fund us. We have to look at bigger questions as well, about news organisations’ status. In the UK, where I'm based, there was [a study] to look into government funding for news organisations, because as soon as governments start funding you, if it's not kept at arm's length, how can you hold these people to account? There's obviously parts of the world where you wouldn't get funding from a government or it’s autocratic, so there's not a one-size-fits-all solution. But I think looking into news organisations’ status, potentially as a charitable status for local news organisations. In other words, thinking in terms of building out sustainable business models, but then thinking of other forms of funding through philanthropy, platforms, charitable institutions. And that involves, you know, what Emily was getting at, kind of getting people to rethink what journalism is. The problem is at the moment, we're being demonised, the fake news, leader of the free world is, you know, is attacking us. We're being assailed from all sides. I think we need to have big conversations around that.
Let's stick with this theme, big ideas, big conversations. We promised that this was going to be a conversation about big ideas. And obviously, solving all of the challenges that we've laid out requires lots of little ideas, and maybe some really big ones. But let's go back to Patricia if we could. MDIF has done a lot of work in the last couple of months with recommendations for clients in terms of how to weather this period. Talk about the suggestions that you've put forth, that MDIF has put forth, and what solutions are really working.
The management team at MDIF got together immediately as this thing was beginning to be a reality. And I think it's important to highlight that MDIF was created in a crisis mode. So, it's actually an organisation that deals with clients that are always in crisis because they work in difficult political environments or difficult economic areas. And so, the decision was made to make a set of recommendations to be put out immediately, because oftentimes, crisis happens and, as John pointed out, information to your staff about how you're going to work and what you're going to do, tends to sort of be the priority rather than, you know, hoarding cash, which was one of our recommendations. Or, thinking about if you do have to lay people off, thinking about it immediately, how will you repurpose your staff?
Of course number one was always the health of the staff and management. But how will you work remotely? What will you do in order to continue the work, making sure that everybody was highly, highly prepared for this onslaught of news consumption that we did see coming, because people were going to be desperate for more information, as every single one of us was, and as Emily pointed out.
We've been very fortunate that the recommendations were shared far and wide and in between. And we did something else, which I thought was really critical: we held a crisis management call where we had all of our media executives join a call and it was just sort of, you know, an intimate call that wasn't going to be made public, for everybody to share what they were doing, and how they were dealing with the crisis, and also as a way for them to, you know, let go of a little bit of, this is, ‘my God, what's happening to me?’ feeling. And from that we even had more recommendations. One of them was, we've added to a recommendation list, which I think is important: ‘This is a marathon, it's not a sprint.’ You can't just run, run, run work 24 hours a day using that news adrenaline that all of us news junkies have. That will kill you after a certain amount of time.
There is a news organisation that we work with in Kosovo that had this brilliant idea to schedule their staff to work three days on, two days off, and then they had one day where they had to answer audience questions that they might not be able to fix, you know, but they could guide people to the right source. So what did that do? It gave them a respite from that incredible push to constantly be informing, but also allowed them the time to stop and think and rest. And then that one day of audience answering and engagement, we thought that was brilliant, we could have never come up with that on your own.
First and foremost, I think what this crisis will have done in terms of businesses, to John's point, is that it will have put a focus on business. Journalism and content creation and delivering it to those audiences is a business, no matter how you look at it, and therefore business truths apply. I'm stealing a quote from one of our colleagues: ‘The healthier you are now, the better you will be able to survive situations such as this.' So, I would hope that in the future, whether it's our recommendations or the recommendations of everybody that we've seen here, people will begin to understand that you can't live day to day without trying to find a grant and how are you going to pay the rent. You've got to run your organisation as a business. You've got to find a way to be sustainable, because this will not be our last crisis. And if this isn't the lesson, I don't know what will be.
I do want to add something else that I mentioned on another webinar. I think this crisis is also going to force newsrooms to really dig deep, take a deep look at themselves and make sure that they are diverse. Because in crises such as these, the community that is coming to you for information is quite diverse. Their needs are varied. And unless you understand those things, your ability to inform them will not be possible and you won't be successful.
Those are fantastic observations. Thank you, Patricia. Let's pick that thread up on diversity and bring it back to Tom. One of the things that you talk about Tom, in your Nieman Lab piece, is for the distributed model to actually increase diversity of thought and potentially even diversify the types of journalists that you might be able to recruit and work with. Can you talk about that?
Yeah. I completely agree with Patricia in that there's a kind of mission need for newsrooms to be more diverse. I think the case I made in the Nieman Lab piece is to think beyond the physical newsroom. I'm from the UK, and if you want to work for a national newsroom in the UK, you've got to move to London, which is by far the most expensive place to live in the UK. That means that the pool of people who can afford to do that is very small, it’s tiny. And this is also true in the US, right, where people have to move to New York, LA, maybe DC. These are the most expensive places to live. And we know that the proportion of people who will be able to do that from minority ethnic backgrounds is much smaller than it is for white people. So, there's kind of this economic limiting factor that is inherent with the physical newsroom and physical newsrooms' locations in capital cities.
But if you can move beyond thinking about that physical requirement to be in central London for your work, then you're going to be able to hire people who can be located anywhere. It sort of removes this very basic barrier to access for employment, which I think has so many benefits. One is that your talent pool is instantly much, much wider. The second, and this is a kind of business challenge, you have to pay people a lot more in London than you would to do the same work anywhere else. And that money just goes straight into the hands of landlords who charge exorbitant rents to live in these places. That's just not a good use of money. And the third benefit, the most important benefit, is that you open access to people from more diverse economic backgrounds, diverse ethnic backgrounds, diverse geographic backgrounds.
I lived six years in the US and three years in Arizona, kind of small-town Arizona, and the sense that you have when you live in one of those places is that The New York Times doesn’t really understand what's going on in your town. And so your coverage is weaker if you're really heavily focused in a capital city or a major metropolitan area. And so, the distribution newsroom, just as a kind of concept, allows you to draw on input and talents and collaboration in a much, much broader sense. I don't know why that wouldn't be an opportunity that newsrooms would grasp with both hands.
Great, thank you. Kunda, now I want to loop you back in. We're talking about journalism and news content as a product and news organisations as businesses. You run one of these businesses. If you could wave your magic wand and take all these suggestions or even elevate one or a couple of ideas to help the Nepali Times, what would you do?
Well, I think these are some great ideas. I was furiously taking notes here. One of them is maybe go for a non-media source of revenue. So, you know, Tom talked about The Guardian having a fancy office in the middle of London. You know, rent that out and then run your very skeletal operation out of that. I think that's a great idea. The other is the diversity of the newsroom, the fact that you don't really need a physical newsroom. You can farm out editing, for example, desk work elsewhere, maybe even in a completely different time zone, so that helps you. But you asked us to look for big ideas. Maybe this is not the time for big ideas. I think we need small ideas, small ideas like that and small outfits need to be even smaller to survive, so they can be nimble and flexible. And that's what we're trying to be in order to get through this crisis. You know, 65 million years ago the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteorite. They were the biggest reptiles. So, you know, the bigger the media, the greater the business it needs to drum up to survive. And the problem these days is that what is good for online business needn't necessarily be good for journalism. As Patricia said, we have to focus on business. Absolutely right. But I think it's not going to be business as usual.
I think that's absolutely right. Truer words have never been spoken. In the spirit of bold ideas that are potentially ready to be experimented with, one thing I'm really eager to see is supporters of our journalism underwrite access for others. Many news organisations are fortunate to have at least a percentage of people who could afford to extend their own membership subscription or donation to someone else. Is there a role for almost matchmaking, people who would be interested in the coverage but don't have the means to access it, and those who could underwrite their access. You know, it's just an idea that feels like it's time has come, when we think about making connections where there is need and where there are finances.
I love that idea; That's a great one. We have just a few minutes left and I want to use that to try and wrap up this whole conversation by posing a big question, maybe a small idea, but a big question, on collaboration. We've talked in various webinars, various conversations, about news organisations getting together to solve their technological challenges or editorial challenges. I am curious as to whether or not this crisis is the existential crisis that journalism needed to collaborate. Historically, news organisations don't work together. Things have been very oriented on individual scoops, on individual profits, individual news, individual audiences. Has anything changed? I open that up to anybody. We've got four minutes left.
I think that maybe collaboration in terms of content will not always be possible. But there are other ways to collaborate. And so what we're doing today is collaborating and sharing ideas and being open and transparent. I think journalism stories and collaborative stories have a greater impact. And that is a great way to do it. But that's not always possible. So why not find other ways to share information, staff or whatever it is, and I do think this will force people to do so.
With the discussion on the ad revenue side, one interesting thing: It's maybe a pseudo collaboration but I think the Zeus projects from the Washington Post, which is kind of an alternative ad tech stack that supports more ownership of the ad management by the publisher, and is now being used by a bunch of local newsrooms, people like Snopes, the Dallas Morning News. This is kind of relevant to Sourcefabric. I think the opportunities to collaborate around pieces of the technology stack that can support our business is one area that is not editorial or content based but has really clear business benefits where maybe there's not the same element of competition around reporting.
One thing that I would mention is that last year, I worked for an organisation which is called First Draft, which is a not-for-profit, which tackles disinformation. And I worked during the UK general election. And we successfully in the end got news organisations to work together to share content around disinformation. Our argument was to prevent duplication, if you see something, you know, trying to game journalists or game people out there, why not share that all together in one place. We worked on a Slack platform. That was all that we used. So, the argument was you can keep your scoops about the election to yourself. But when it comes to fake news, we don't like using the term fake news, when it came to disinformation, you could come together and say, look, I've seen this piece of content out there, someone claiming this, is it true? And then we actually got news organisations and it was hard at the start. It's like pushing a boulder up a hill, just to say, well actually just relax. You're not going to give away the keys to your kingdom or whatever. But this will save you time. So, if you can knock this down and sort this out, then you can concentrate in your scoops. I think that's a way to look at it. But just to add to Patricia's point, you know, competitiveness in terms of stories is in our DNA. And I think that that's our distinctiveness. So I think if we were sharing editorial content, then each organisation would lose their distinctiveness. That's felt by lots of people. But I think there's back office functions, commercial functions, other ways to collaborate and combine.
On that point, Emily, you brought up an example of The Atlantic doing an FAQ [on COVID-19]. You know, the Washington Post did an FAQ, the New York Times did an FAQ. Those aren't scoops. Why not collaborate on that type of editorial?
I think it's a great point. There's also, and I had mentioned earlier, the importance of our staff showing its humanity at this time. I am not trying to make light of a devastating situation, but there have been some really creative examples. I'm thinking here of Direkt36, the Hungarian investigative reporting centre. One of their co-founders, who's a music expert, curated global playlists for times of social distancing. There are ways that I think we can lend credence to staff in their other areas of expertise. [Readers tell us they] want to know what else our staff is reading beyond research for the pieces that they're reporting on. So, I think showing that we are full people who have a lot of interests, including and beyond this pandemic, is really important.
Great. Final word, Kunda.
Well, I asked my finance guy, what should I say? And he said three words: ‘Liquidity, liquidity, liquidity.’
Well, that's a good place to end – with three words, three very big words. Hopefully this year you will be able to make your finance guy happy.