Newsrooms and media organizations have had to make swift and seismic changes in the last year to cope with remote working, accelerating news cycles and evolving audience needs. In our latest webinar, leading journalists from Univision, the Los Angeles Times and U.S. News & World Report discuss how they adapted in 2020 and how they are continuing to innovate and evolve in 2021.
Slow news days are not something newsrooms have had to worry about recently. But despite their workload, they have shown an incredible capacity to deliver detailed and accurate information, while coping with rapid changes to workflows and audience demands.
To get an insight into the way newsrooms have adapted, we got together with editors at the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report and Univision.
2020 is not a year they want to repeat, but the lessons learned are shaping their strategies in 2021 and will continue to do so in the years ahead.
Coping with swift and seismic change
Journalists are used to change—it’s central to lots of the stories they research and write about every day. But not the overnight, transformational change delivered by COVID-19.
When remote working became mandatory, many reporters left coffee mugs on their desks, expecting to be back in a few weeks. A year later, those mugs are still waiting to be washed up.
Understanding the personal impact of the pandemic has been a big challenge for editors and making sure people can still strike a positive work-life balance has been a priority.
We have tried to listen to our audience and our team does a lot of work on asking people what they want to know. We had a really bad wildfire season on top of everything else and we had a week where the air quality was apocalyptic. We put out a call asking people what they wanted to know about air quality and we then spent days calling experts and getting answers to their questions and spinning off stories related to this information.
"One of the focuses that we have put in place over the last year is really making sure people are taking time for breaks," says Morgan Felchner, Executive Editor of News at U.S. News & World Report.
"People have been working non-stop and we encourage our reporters to take breaks," she adds. "We force them to take vacations and we force ourselves to take vacations! As editors we can't do our best work unless we’re at our full capability and we can't do that if we've been working non-stop for an entire year."
Quickly understanding how workloads would be shared was also important. This has meant more upfront planning because people aren't constantly collaborating in a physical newsroom environment.
Morgan says her team had a huge spreadsheet assigning reporters to cover individual states as results came in on election night in November 2020. In the past, everybody would be gathered in the newsroom and write-ups would be assigned in the moment. That approach doesn't work so well in a virtual set-up.
Fernando Mexia, Managing Editor of Digital Entertainment at Univision, agrees about the increased level of pre-planning that now happens.
"Univision has awards throughout the year," he says. "Now, we're not together and we're often working from different countries. The key for us is preparation. We have to work harder than usual in advance to nail every single detail up front so that when the event is happening it goes smoothly."
It’s not that organizations weren’t prepared before, but that remote working makes it more challenging for a team to react coherently to an evolving situation.
More detailed planning has also enabled teams to make faster decisions and cope with the accelerated news cycle.
Matt Ballinger, Editor for Utility Journalism at the L.A. Times, set up a new team last year, despite everything that was going on.
He says: "We spent a good week working together, writing a mission statement, talking about how we worked as people, what our work lives are like, how we make decisions and how we communicate."
It has paid dividends, he continues: "It has given us a shorthand with each other, and we are able to say very quickly whether things align to our mission and we can move on, or we know it doesn’t and we move on."
Innovating with technology
Sometimes, the key to success is not finding new tools, but making better use of what's already in your toolbox.
What we are trying to do a lot of is data journalism where we are visualizing things for people and trying to reach people where they are. We want to offer videos on platforms across the spectrum, so Zoom conferences, Facebook, Instagram and small clips on Twitter.
Many of the technologies that newsrooms have leaned into more heavily were already available pre-pandemic.
"It wasn’t necessarily about using new technologies, but about putting everything in place to use lots of different technologies," says Univision's Hilda Garcia, VP of Digital Local News.
She adds: "Not everyone was using these technologies before and so it was important to work as a team and train people where necessary."
The focus for organizations was keeping lines of communication open with reporters, sources and audiences, and ensuring each group could interact with the other effectively.
Newsrooms also had to adapt to how other organizations distributed information. For example, the U.S. Senate started using Zoom to both livestream events and post recorded content.
When so much was changing, creating a set place that people could come to for information also became a way to offer stability and reassurance.
"We were continually updating the same story page and we found an audience that wanted to come back to that same place over and over again," the L.A. Times' Matt Ballinger says. "It was a place they could get caught up and maybe get some reassurance that they were going to end up knowing a bit more than they did the day before."
Shift in content consumption
As much as newsrooms and media organizations were under pressure, so too were the people consuming their content. Audiences were hungry for information, but also overwhelmed by the amount of new detail they had to absorb.
In terms of media consumption, last year was brutal and the audience numbers were unbelievable. The spikes in traffic were totally insane and, in our case, we saw trends that were also kind of confusing.
COVID-19 was a global news story with very personal implications. In addition to the facts, audiences also wanted guidance on how to deal with the situation and what impact they would experience at a local level.
Understanding the local agenda meant reaching out and asking communities exactly what they wanted to know. It also meant combining factual reporting with more explanatory information as audiences sought to work out what the pandemic meant for them, their families and their livelihoods.
In addition to COVID-19, there were other major stories unfolding and so it was difficult to know exactly where audience appetites would lie as they sought information about COVID-19, the racial injustice protests and the U.S. presidential election.
Fernando Mexia adds: “It was like we had to re-evaluate the audience every quarter in terms of what they were looking at.”
This reinforced the need for newsrooms to be very clear in their own purpose and to deliver on that mission consistently.
One thing we learned is that there was a lot of disinformation and so something we did was social-media cards, explaining to the audience in a very easy way, everything that was happening. I think that is something that we will continue to do as it generated a very good response.
The move to remote working has created flexibility, driven different approaches to storytelling and fostered new communication channels that are helping organizations do their job better and to be more resilient for the future.
For example, there is a bigger focus on multi-channel distribution and delivering to audiences on the platform where they are looking for content.
Formats have become more diverse and organizations are using print, video, illustration and broadcast mediums to present stories in multiple ways.
The restrictions on physical movement and contact have forced newsrooms and media organizations to find different ways of reaching people, both when gathering news and reporting it to their audiences.
In short, newsrooms have become more agile and responsive. As they get back to in-person operations they will incorporate these learnings into their future strategy.
In reality, Univision's Fernando Mexia thinks a hybrid solution combining remote and in-person approaches will become the model for the future and he is positive about the benefits it will generate.
“After a horrible 2020, we are in a position where we can do things differently and get better," he says.
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