Guest Columns
4 mins read

Why some newsrooms should never reopen

OPINION

“The illusion that the office was about work will be shattered forever, and companies that hold on to that legacy will be replaced by companies [that] embrace the antifragile nature of distributed organizations.”

In early March, with the coronavirus pandemic ripping across Europe, journalists at NTB, the Norwegian news agency, were forced into isolation. Like most newsrooms around the world, NTB had no time to ready its remote operations, and were instead heavily reliant on their current software stack to keep publishing.

But unlike many news producers lacking even the most basic infrastructure for remote work, the Norwegians were prepared. That’s because their web-based open-source CMS was designed to be location agnostic.

From day one, the news production process operated as normal. Then, the innovation began. Within weeks, NTB had fashioned an integration between their CMS, called Superdesk, and a newly created live blog, enabling automated publishing on coronavirus-related news. NTB also took advantage of their CMS’s inherent virtual collaboration features (like dual editing and track changes) and communication tools (such as direct messaging) to streamline their digital newsroom workflows.

“Our old CMS required Citrix when working remotely and was often very unstable, especially if the internet connection wasn’t great,” says Magnus Aabech, an editor in NTB’s technology and development department. “With Superdesk, we have a more stable and secure system for working out of the office, whether reporters are covering a press conference, big sporting events, or the whole newsroom is working from home.”

In fact, NTB actually produced 4% more pieces of content – 3,675 – during the last two weeks of March, when the pandemic was at its apex in Norway, than during the same period in January. Jo Christian Oterhals, the news agency’s data scientist, said “this shows we are just as productive working remotely as on-site.”

In many industries, the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the move to decentralized operations. Over the course of 10 days last month, companies representing more than $800 billion in market capitalization – from Spotify to Shopify – said they were moving to remote work for the foreseeable future. As Tobi Lutke, CEO of Shopify, put it, the era of “office centricity is over.” 

Tech and social media companies, like Facebook and Twitter, were the first to abandon the cubicle. But according to WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg, a long-time distributed work advocate, this is only the beginning. Because of COVID-19, Mullenweg says, “the illusion that the office was about work will be shattered forever, and companies that hold on to that legacy will be replaced by companies [that] embrace the antifragile nature of distributed organizations.”

The news business is also poised to move in this direction, if less by choice than by necessity. Tom Trewinnard, co-founder of Fathm, a digital journalism consultancy, says that to thrive in the post-COVID era, news organizations will need to embrace the work-from-home ethos – both in terms of workflows and technology. Doing so, he says, will help media outlets save money, enhance diversity, create new opportunities for engagement, and strengthen an embattled industry. “Embracing and nurturing the distributed newsroom beyond the current crisis is an essential step on the path towards that future,” he says.

None of this, of course, would be possible without software innovations. To cover one of the biggest news events in modern memory, newsrooms have leaned on technology that is cloud based, flexible, and collaborative. Fathm, with support from the Google News Initiative, recently published a Distributed Newsroom Toolkit to help publishers navigate this transition; it includes a rundown of some of the best tech to keep news operations humming.

And yet, perhaps the most encouraging sign for publishers and audiences alike is that news organizations are using this period of forced decentralization to experiment. In the US state of Oregon, news outlets dropped the pretense of competition to cross-post stories and eliminate the need to duplicate work. In New York City, a print lifestyle magazine used a live-blogging tool to create a virtual community of subscribers. And at NTB, in-house editors partnered with open-source software developers to automate publishing from its CMS to a COVID-19 live blog, giving customers an easier way to access the new agency’s coronavirus-related coverage. 

“Big newspapers in Norway, as around the world, are offering real-time coverage of the COVID-19 crisis – showcasing graphics, photos, text, and bullet points in a news-stream format,” says Aabech. “This was our way of being able to offer the same thing to all of our clients.”

When this pandemic is behind us, this period of uncertainty could turn out to be just the shakeup that the industry needed. As Aabech puts it: “A lot of the potential of [newsroom software] isn’t being used by agencies or publishers; many of us are often stuck in our old production routines. To break free from that stuff we’ve got to play around, which is what we’re doing now.”

Gregory Bruno
Communications Manager, Sourcefabric

About: Sourcefabric is Europe’s largest open-source software developer serving the news media industry. Headquartered in Prague, Czech Republic, Sourcefabric z.ú. is a nonprofit organisation that brings together journalists, business analysts, software developers, and communications professionals to create powerful tools that are open source and free to download. Sourcefabric’s products include Superdesk, professional live blogging tool Live Blog and radio automation platform Airtime Pro.

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