What have we learned about distributed newsrooms?

distributed newsrooms
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by Damian Radcliffe, International Journalists’ Network

The impact of COVID-19 meant, as Hannah Storm, Director of the Ethical Journalism Network has pointed out, that “news organizations had to reinvent decades of working practices in days.”

One obvious manifestation of this was the move to working from home, with many distributed newsrooms being established overnight. And since the COVID crisis showing no signs of ending any time soon, this new way of working will likely continue for some time. At many outlets, this may just become standard journalistic practice. 

“The coronavirus crisis will eventually end, but the distributed newsroom is here to stay,” predicted Tom Trewinnard, a co-founder and chief operating officer of the digital journalism consultancy Fathm, in April last year.

If that’s the case, what are the key considerations for newsroom leaders and journalists? 

Here are seven strategic areas and lessons to focus on: 

(1) Recognize that there are many technical challenges

Lockdowns and stay at home orders meant that the shift to remote working happened quickly. Inevitably, this meant that many challenges emerged that included a range of technical and people-based considerations. 

Technical issues included: access (internet, equipment, power), specialist equipment (cameras, editing software etc.), unexpected financial costs and space considerations. 

As I discovered in my recent report for the Thomson Reuters Foundation on the impact of COVID-19 on Emerging Economies and the Global South, for journalists in developing countries, a recurring challenge was the reliability of home internet connections, as well as the unanticipated costs associated with remote working. These costs sometimes came on the back of salary cuts, or fewer freelancing opportunities.

As one journalist in Zimbabwe explained

“There was a time when I would work from home and this posed a great challenge… in terms of internet issues these include exorbitant data charges and a poor network. COVID-19 also affected my income which was cut by almost 50%.”

(2) People challenges are just as numerous

Asia Alvarez Zeller an education reporter at the Lake Oswego Review in Oregon, explained to me recently how — at the start of the pandemic — both she and her husband were working from home, which at the time was a studio apartment. This meant that if they both needed to be on a call at the same time, one of them had to retreat to the closet. 

Others have had to share their work space with their children, pets and roommates, leading to inadvertent Zoom bombing and other interruptions. 

More widely, other complexities that many journalists and their newsrooms had to contend with included addressing issues related to workflows, tools, technology, training, management, newsgathering and engagement — both with each other and their audiences.

For my students, graduating in the middle of a pandemic, this has meant completing internships or starting full-time jobs without ever setting foot in the office or meeting their colleagues face-to-face. Onboarding, allocation of assignments, feedback and all other aspects of their work have been completed entirely remotely. 

(3) Collaboration is key

Against this backdrop, work culture is crucial. Remote collaboration may mean using new tools and developing new habits. 

Some of the most obvious manifestations of this have included: storing your work on the cloud, ensuring that you provide clear language/instructions to your peers and team, embracing chat  and messenger apps (like Slack) to improve internal communication, and using tools like Google Docs and video editing software that are purposefully built for collaborative working.

Remote working tools organized by category

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