Newsroom communication in the time of COVID-19

Columbia Missourian Remote Budget Meeting

By Fred Anklam Jr.
Senior Editor, Columbia Missourian

Columbia, Mo. (April 20, 2020) — The COVID-19 pandemic has newsroom managers facing an extraordinary moment in journalism – our entire profession forced to adjust on the fly to how it goes about its daily work.

Meeting that challenge here at the Columbia Missourian – with an entire newsroom staff working remotely, many in different states – requires clear, effective internal communication. Admittedly, we have a younger, less experienced team (all university students). The steps we have taken can apply to any size newsroom and are worth sharing.

What we have done:

Select one newsroom communication channel

It’s one thing to use a rambling combination of email, text messages, phone calls, digital channel conversations – even calling out loud across the room – to stay up to speed when your team circulates through the newsroom every day. Stay at home restrictions forced us to recreate that convulsion of conversation and information transfer in one new digital place.

There are many messaging options, and a newsroom should use what’s handy and comfortable. We already used Slack here for some conversations. We simply made it clear as everyone began operating from their own safe space that ALL communication would begin in Slack: reporter check-ins, story pitches and tips, photo requests and so on. We required everyone to sign up, sign in and stay engaged.

By forcing conversation to one internal communication channel, the editor and reporter are in step on the progress of a story, photo and graphics can weigh in with their offerings, and copy editors and designers have a better sense of what’s expected. Everyone is automatically in the loop and able to get their work done more efficiently, with a record of the story’s progress.

Use a video calling service for meetings

Get something that fits your organization’s budget and is easily used by all. As part of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, all our editors and students had access to Zoom.

Columbia Missourian Remote Budget Meeting
Columbia Missourian Remote Budget Meeting

The image at right is from an 11 a.m. newsroom budget meeting where we talk about what has been published and discuss story assignments. Our reporters are called on to talk about how they went about reporting a story – addressing obstacles they had to overcome or providing tips to colleagues on what worked.

This video conferencing has real advantages:

You can see who’s talking and who’s about to talk so there is less talking over each other;

Important information – the story budget for the day, for example – can be shared in real time;

You can see a colleague’s reactions to what’s being discussed. Seeing heads nodding in agreement helps maintain newsroom camaraderie in difficult times of isolation.

Add another meeting

I know, the last thing anyone wants is another meeting. But communication is crucial. When editors can’t walk over and huddle about a story in the newsroom, meetings help force the critical communication that makes sure everyone is on the same page.

At the Missourian we added an editors’ meeting to start each day at 8:30 a.m. It’s an opportunity to hash out who is going to pursue a story, what the expectations are and who has sources or ideas about how to execute the story. It ensures reporters will clearly understand the scope of their stories.

Stay in constant contact

As the editor managing daily general assignment reporters, I stay in touch more than ever before. I tell reporters I need updates on how the reporting is going. When I don’t hear back, I reach out. That means I put a few administrative details (like writing this column) on the back burner. If reporters are in the field – we do very little field reporting now and always at a socially responsible distance – they know to alert me when they are on the scene and update me on how things went before they leave. We have to ensure that we get what’s needed when we have these rare in-person events.

Recently I was Slacking with a photographer off and on over a 20 minute period, providing information about a photo shoot at a dairy processing plant: What we had been promised for access, what we hoped to illustrate through the images, how much time to spend on the assignment – all things we normally would have covered in the newsroom. The benefits are obvious when the stories arrive well executed with no surprises and illustrated as best as can be expected in today’s circumstances.

These tips have proved effective and are hopefully helpful as we all learn new ways to do our jobs. Underlying basics like these are a good foundation for newsroom communication in a time of COVID-19 – and maybe well beyond.

About the Columbia Missourian

The Columbia Missourian is a digital-first community newsroom that covers news and sports. The paper is supervised by professional editors and staffed by Missouri School of Journalism students who do the reporting, copy editing, design, photography and multimedia. This hands-on teaching of learning-by-doing is called “The Missouri Method.” The published work is optimized for social media, mobile and web, with the print editions delivered five-days-a-week. The publication was founded in 1908 as a community newspaper.

Updated: April 27, 2020

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