How newsrooms around the country are handling COVID-19

COVID-19 has dominated Australian news headlines for weeks, matched by sky-high readership figures. But there’s also more pressure on journalists as they adjust to remote working and added mental and economic pressure. Mumbrella’s Hannah Blackiston speaks with leaders from newsrooms across the country to find out how they’ve changed their models to adapt to the global pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed vast aspects of Australian life, beyond the obvious restrictions put upon us by the lockdown. The inability to see people we love, or even just our workmates, the economic pressure of job losses and stand-downs, and the ongoing anxiety of a quick-spreading pandemic we know very little about.

Newsrooms have a big role to play during this time. From providing education and news updates, particularly important during the pandemic when it felt like the rules are changing every hour, but also providing other content and offering a distraction for audiences.

Michael Stutchbury, the editor in chief of The Australian Financial Review (AFR), says his newsroom was primed from the beginning to report on COVID-19.

“The Financial Review has refocussed our newsroom almost completely on COVID-19 and its fallout. I’ve told our reporters this will likely be the biggest event of their professional careers,” he says.

“We’ve thrown newsroom resources at a seven-day live coronavirus blog, a coronavirus data blog, a coronavirus email newsletter every early evening. We have aimed to provide the best coverage of the data, tracing how Australia’s early worrying signs became progressively more reassuring under Edmund Tadros, Tom McIlroy, Tom Burton and Jill Margo.”

Stutchbury: I’ve told our reporters this will likely be the biggest event of their professional careers

The AFR has focused on framing its coverage to reflect the themes that are relevant to its readers – CEOs working from home, technology to help remote workers, and the fallout of the pandemic on big listed companies. Its opinion coverage has been expanded and it’s provided full coverage of the economic impacts of the virus. The AFR journalists haven’t let the restrictions of working during this time impede their dedication, says Stutchbury, with the title’s Street Talk vertical the first to break the news about Virgin Australia’s voluntary administration.

Guardian Australia has also redirected a lot of its reporting, live-blogging seven days a week for more than 12 hours a day and increasing its news podcast output from three to five days a week.

Editor Lenore Taylor says the outlet has benefited from its international connections, giving it a good platform to provide global coverage.

“We’ve redirected our culture and lifestyle sections towards stories to help people survive isolation, including short doses of stand-up comedy to help people through and a whole new section called The Good Place for positive and practical ideas for these times. We have also been on the lookout for lighter news stories, for example, the astrophysicist who got a magnet stuck up his nose while trying to invent a corona device,” Taylor says.

Taylor: “This is the biggest story of our lifetimes”

“In short, this is the biggest story of our lifetimes and we’ve thrown everything at it, and readers seem to like what we are doing – we had record readership of 11.6m in March, according to Nielsen – the biggest increase of any publisher.”

Some outlets haven’t just had to pivot their content or add a vertical – they’ve had to complete rebrand. Junkee’s travel vertical AWOL really quickly became Activities Without Leaving – providing readers with everything they need for life inside isolation.

Junkee’s managing editor Rob Stott says the platform has tried to find a balance between providing the education its young audience needs during a complicated time and giving them an escape.

Stott: “We know what we’re good at”

“I think during events like this, a lot of people instinctively try to do something ‘different’, but that’s not always what’s best. We know what we’re good at, we know what our audience likes, so we’re just trying to do more of that at a time when people are desperately seeking certainty and stability,” says Stott.

“That said, I’m especially proud of what we’ve been able to do with our travel title AWOL. We turned the whole thing around in less than a week, and the audience and brands have both responded really well to the change. We’re seeing big increases in traffic and engagement, which is a great sign that we’re providing a valuable service during this crazy time.”

Junkee has also transitioned its Facebook show, The Junkee Takeaway, into a home studio setup, something which ins’t always easy, but Stott says the team is working seamlessly.

Junkee isn’t the only business that has had to face technical changes. A lot of broadcast-based outlets have had to pivot their operations to adapt to social distancing restrictions. A number of news programs are reflecting those changes outwardly – Ten’s The Project has split its team across studios to maintain the required distance, as have other news programs. Ten’s network director or news content Ross Dagan says the restrictions have forced the teams to be more creative to ensure they’re still bringing the news Australians expect from them.

Dagan says the Ten news teams have pivoted to remote working

“Following all government guidance and regulations, our team of reporters and presenters have had to deliver news in more creative ways. Many of our team are working remotely to gather, research, write, edit and produce their stories. Similarly one of our producers was able to direct a breaking news update from her home live to air via our Sydney control room recently. A matter of weeks ago, we would have said that was impossible,” he says.

Mamamia is one of the outlets which has moved to remote working early. In the weeks before the shutdown, editor Clare Stephens says the leadership team prepared an audit to make sure staffers had everything they needed to work remotely and independently.

Mamamia doesn’t just produce written content, it’s also one of the biggest publishers of podcasts in Australia. Now isn’t the time to let those commitments fall off, says Stephens, as more consumers are hungry for that content.

Mamamia is continuing to give its audience the content they demand, says Stephens

“From the first week, the team were on a steep learning curve, recording and editing all our podcasts and videos (in bedrooms, cupboards, and cars) from home. We knew that our loyal podcast audience would be looking for reassurance and distraction during this time, so we immediately upped the frequency of two of our flagship shows – taking Mamamia Out Loud to three times a week instead of twice, and adding bonus No Filter episodes.”

Mamamia has published more than 130 episodes of its podcasts since the team moved to remote working, never missing an episode and alternating its records to make sure all conversations are as relevant as possible.

“We are at our best under pressure, because as a medium-sized media company we can adapt and pivot in hours,” says Stephens.

As well as the changes to the content readers want and the stories they are looking for, there’s also been a change in their consumption habits and newsrooms have had to keep up with that.

Instead of the traditional peaks and valleys in readership – a jump in the morning, midday and evening and lower traffic on weekends – publishers are seeing a demand across the day. Nine Digital editorial director Kerri Elstub says pivoting is something that comes easy to Nine.com.au and that the high demands has led the way for some great content.

“We’ve seen the working week extend with an audience increase of up to 110% on weekends. For our lifestyle offering, 9Honey, one of the most popular new content series is Quarantine Cook-a-long with our presenter and food writer Jane De Graaff. She is shooting these videos at home every day. The quality is top notch and the audience feedback has been incredible. There’s nothing else out there like it in market,” says Elstub.

Elstub says being flexible has helped Nine.com.au respond to a hungry audience

Verizon Media – parent company of Yahoo and HuffPost – is also continuing its video content, choosing to focus more on social media, where Australians are spending a lot of their time in lockdown. Simon Wheeler, director of content at Verizon Media, says the publisher has had a lot of success with its new programming.

“Our video and studio teams have also had to re-think how they operate, using Facebook and Instagram Live a lot more than they previously did to distribute social-first BUILD Series and news updates in styles that are suitable for those platforms,” says Wheeler.

“The BUILD in Isolation series we’ve launched has proven to be a huge hit, averaging more than 500,000 views on our network for the first three episodes, including Jason Dundas’ video ‘The Day Hollywood Shut Down’ which shows how eerie life is in LA at the moment.”

Verizon’s video teams are still pumping out the content, says Wheeler, even through the restrictions

People have questioned whether the changes that have been brought in by the COVID-19 restrictions are likely to see a change in the way workplaces operate going forward. Now is the time when it’s been revealed which meetings really could have been emails and whether workers do work harder when they’re in the office. It isn’t the technology that usually poses the biggest challenge, it’s whether workers can adapt to the new processes.

The Courier-Mail’s editor Chris Jones says he was blown away by how quickly his team responded to the changes and adapted to the new way of working.

“In the space of a single week, we went from a world where working from home was something we didn’t think could ever work to every single person working remotely. The way the team just sucked it up and found their own workarounds to ensure we continued to get the job done and serve our readers was truly inspirational. It’s been such a success, I would suggest it would surprise our readers – both in digital and print – that not one person has been physically in the newsroom for the past month,” says Jones.

Jones has been impressed by how well The Courier-Mail team have transitioned to remote working

Stephens agrees, saying the way the Mamamia team has come together has been incredible to see.

“We’ve had great ideas come from all over the business, like a lunchtime Pilates class via Zoom, Tik Tok challenges, a ‘social chats’ Slack window and virtual drinks on a Friday afternoon.

“People want to connect with each other and there’s a broad sense of compassion and connection across all the teams. It’s been a privilege to watch.”

Broadsheet faced a bigger pivot in its editorial than some other outlets. As a platform that focuses on dining, drinking, events and lifestyle content – and with many of those things postponed for now – the team had a lot of work to do. Luckily, founder Nick Shelton says readers are still very interested in those ideas, and the way the Broadsheet community has adapted to the change forced upon it has been amazing.

It hasn’t been easy for Broadsheet or the industry it covers, but Shelton says the positivity has been a joy to see

“I’ve been really impressed with the optimism and innovation in the face of some serious challenges. I’ve seen it in our team, the community we write about and I’ve seen it in our readers.

“We’ve seen our city’s cultural industries step up and create some really truly excellent experiences and offerings in a time where it would have been easy for them to shut the doors and rollover.

“Australians are an astonishingly resilient people. I’m not aware of any other country in the world that has seen their food and cultural industries adapt and continue to provide first-class products supported by a population of people that values what they’re providing.”

As industries try to adapt to the new normal and overcome the challenges presented to them, there have been some casualties. The ad market, which was already struggling, has plummeted. A number of regional newspapers have been forced to close, publishers have pressed pause on some sections and lift outs and workers around the country have had their hours reduced or been stood down entirely.

Verizon’s Wheeler says the drop in ad dollars during this time has not just surprised him, but has disappointed him.

“While audiences are up, advertisers baulked at having their brands next to the very content that is driving the surge. The vast majority of coronavirus coverage by Australian publishers has been responsible, informative and crucial in sharing public health messages needed to keep us safe. I’m surprised, and disappointed, a brand wouldn’t want to be associated with that,” he says.

On top of that, the scale of the pandemic and the incredible changes it has had on newsrooms across the country was impossible to predict, says Wheeler.

“While this is of course an unprecedented story that is impacting the entire globe, the thirst for updates and information is still as strong now as it was when the scale of the catastrophe first became clear. Prolonged, months-long attention from readers is rare, which shows just how big this crisis is for everyone and is a credit to the quality of the coverage.”


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