How two newsmedia companies are dealing with COVID-19

Publishers in Asia have been able to draw on plans prepared for the SARS epidemic in dealing with the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

But INMA says about half of the 56 members that responded to a survey were not prepared. Members of the US-headquartered group - which just cancelled its world congress, previously scheduled for June - are sharing experiences and best practice.

South China Morning Post managing editor Brian Rhoads says Hong Kong was "ground zero" when the SARS outbreak fanned out in 2003 - claiming 299 lives in the city - and has a "front row seat" to how the COVID-19 situation is evolving in China.

"We had already been operating on a digital-first mindset, enabling journalists to be connected to work from virtually anywhere," he says. "Editorial staff were trained and encouraged to be agile and dynamic, with our teams using smartphones, laptops, and Google Suite to cover stories on the go."

This time, the publisher got its staff out of Wuhan immediately it was announced that the city would be shut down on the eve of Lunar New Year, towards the end of January, quarantining them for two weeks.

The split of editorial teams in Hong Kong and Beijing began on January 28 - half at home including most of reporting teams, and half in the office - preferably each with at least one representative in the office every day, and staff asked to remain on their floors. Everyone already had laptops and key staff were equipped with large monitors, with IT help desks on call to assist with technical issues.

Sharing the load were SCMP's smaller operations globally - two offices in the US, and staff working remotely elsewhere in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Thailand and Portugal. Bureaux in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai share the workload with the Beijing office.

With business travel to and from mainland China suspended, returning staff had to inform managers, and then work from home for 14 days. Employees visiting the office were asked to wear a mask to and from work and as much as possible while in office, and to wash their hands regularly. Slack, email and phone were used for communication with managers and teammates, with video conferencing via Google or Slack.

Staff have been back in their offices since March 2, half of them returning on February 24, but vigilance is maintained with employees asked to avoid crowded places or receiving visitors at home. "The work-from-home arrangement was meant to help us minimise unnecessary physical contact for better protection," says Rhoads.

At Singapore Press Holdings - where there are eight newsrooms under one roof - head of media strategy Eugene Wee says plans aimed to balance the need to keep newsrooms fully operational with keeping staff safe.

Teams were also split, with one in the newsroom and the other anywhere else - avoiding cross-contamination - although there were differences in the way the teams were split.

"The Straits Times operated with a relatively small Team A, made up mostly of 'coordinators' - mainly senior editors and desk editors who remotely managed Team B members," says Wee. "Where possible, their deputies are part of Team B so that if Team A falls, there is a group of editors who can come in and take over."

Reporters (in Team B) can work and file from wherever they feel comfortable, with sub-editors helped with moving their large displays and desktops home, and some with high bandwidth requirements - such as video editors - given space in SPH's print centre, half-an-hour away in Jurong Port Road.

Team B members who didn't want to work from home - "Some have young kids, while others may have slow broadband connections or be easily distracted," says Wee - were offered alternatives, including a vacant office which was outfitted with desks, TV screens for the cable channels, copiers and whatever was needed.

"Having this space was important to us because we realised it was not sustainable to have staff working from home for extended periods of time," he says.

The 30-strong newsroom of SPH's print-and-digital New Paper is working entirely from home - at least for a trial couple of weeks - while Business Times, runs with just two or three people in the office and the rest from home.

Technical issues included buying more VPN licences and increasing bandwidth between staff and servers, with training sessions to make sure staff set up equipment and use collaboration tools.

Making staff feel safe at work was also key, with a temperature screen station at the main lobby, and team members identified by lanyards - orange for Team A and blue for Team B - and guided by signage. Teams also used the two cafeterias in shifts, where QR codes on tables tracked use so that contact tracing would be easier in the event of a confirmed case.

Travel plans are also tracked so that arrangements can be made if a country suddenly becomes a hotspot, as happened for reporters attending Milan Fashion week when North Italy was suddenly shut down.

"Management needs to reinforce the message that staff need to be socially responsible," says Wee, "and emphasis on being socially responsible comes from the highest levels."

Daily meetings were chaired by the chief executive during rollout, and to gather feedback. "All heads of departments are then informed of any breaches or non-conformity to the safety measures and HR also sends frequent advisories to update on new measures and protocols".

INMA executive director and chief executive Earl Wilkinson says cross-enterprise task forces are rapidly transforming how business gets done in either a virtual environment or in a more tightly regulated in-person workplace.

Some 56 per cent of the companies surveyed said their primary pain point involves balancing different strategic priorities - health and well-being vs. commerce and revenue vs. travel restrictions and policy vs. longer-term matters.

"This eclipsed the 29 per cent who cited 'fear and misinformation' and 27 per cent who cited lack of structured guidelines to manage the coronavirus response," he said.

Among the unusual tasks news media companies worldwide are dealing with is hygiene education.

Companies were confident of their ability to set up work-from-home environments, but Wilkinson says "a long chain of questions" was being worked out as the shift occurs. "Anecdotally," he says, "this may be the biggest impact to employees, most of whom have never worked consistently from home."

Also, once unthought-of practices such as no-handshake policies, provision for personal protection supplies, quarantines, asking staff to provide personal travel histories, thermometer testing for external visitors and on-site doctors are emerging. "While companies are more stringent about sick employees staying away from the office, they are adapting to more people out without stigma."

Some 40 per cent of respondents have suspended non-essential business travel internationally and domestically, while another 45 per cent have just suspended international travel.

He says video "will only rise in importance".. for work-from-home meetings, sales calls and journalist interviews.

Beyond the SARS experience of Singapore Press Holdings and South China Morning Post, other companies had experience such as VG's production of the newspaper from a hotel after a 2017 terrorist shooting and a number of publishers had tightened security following external threats.

Many respondents were consistent in their answers about accelerating digital delivery of news and information, while others mentioned hubs, third-party vendors, and postal delivery - even staff delivery on foot and helicopter drops.

Wilkinson says INMA believes fuller attention will soon turn to filling the revenue hole created by cancelled advertising contracts which an uncertain environment always brings.

"As a general rule of thumb in major disruptions and economic downturns, advertising revenue is far more at risk than reader revenue," he says. "Companies still reliant on advertising will be harder hit than companies reliant on subscriptions."

Of the respondents, 62 per cent said they had already experienced a sudden drop in advertising - notably branded content, travel, events, programmatic and tourism, although some reported that food and grocery advertising had increased. Only one respondent reported declines in reader revenue as a result of the coronavirus.

SCMP chief executive Gary Liu wrote to supporters and partners in late March after a freelance had tested positive for COVID-19 the previous week, leading to the temporary closure of the Times Square and South Island Place offices. Other staff who were in close contact have all tested negative. "The daily challenge we now face is to operate business-as-usual while we keep our colleagues safe," he says. "While some adjustments are necessary and unavoidable, our dedication to our partners and clients has not changed."

Liu says early signs of recovery in China are encouraging, and "any extensive spread" of the virus in Hong Kong has been avoided. "Through all of this, the SCMP remains committed to independent and trustworthy journalism, and with your support, we will continue to serve our readers all over the world."

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