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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Inspiration in a storm: three initiatives to help managers cope with Covid-19

April 29, 2020 | By Corinne Podger—Director, Digital Skills Agency @corinne_podger

Managing a media outlet right now is a job from hell. You’re working from home, maybe for the first time, possibly while home-schooling your kids. The only way you can see to your core people is via a computer screen. And you are trying to steer your business through a financial crisis that is costing thousands of jobs and forcing the closure of hundreds of newsrooms worldwide.

The good news is that resources are cropping up that offer ideas and networking opportunities to help you survive a catastrophic fall in advertising income, sick staff, furloughs, layoffs, and redundancies. These resources can also help you respond to challenges that predated Covid-19 – and will persist after the pandemic – like revenue diversification and product development.

Splice ‘Low-Res’ – a virtual media online check-in

Splice Low Res is one way to keep your networking alive and share ideas on how a post-pandemic media landscape might look. These live webinars are held every two weeks, and are hosted by Splice Media co-founders Alan Soon and Rishad Patel.

Each webinar features speakers and thought leaders sharing insights and answering questions on innovation, financial resilience, and new approaches to raising media revenue. They attract hundreds of editors, reporters and media leaders from Asia, Europe, and the US. They can be joined live via Google Meet or viewed afterwards on YouTube.

“I think our timing was right, because people were recovering from the shock of staying home and not being able to travel,” Soon says. “This gave them an opportunity to connect with people around topics they care about.”

Splice is also running an ongoing global survey of media managers. It has drawn responses from dozens of editors and managers from more than 30 countries. Nearly half say they expect job cuts in the next 12 months.

Soon encourages managers to plan for the crisis persisting into 2021. “The first move should be to assume a 50 to 80 percent drop in revenue over the course of this year. So, you need to build as much financial runway as you can,” he says. “Hoard as much cash as possible. Make sure you’re sending out your invoices quickly, and that you’re chasing up on those. Defer your costs as much as possible. Could you re-negotiate your rent to be paid out later in the year? 

“At the same time, start imagining the new products and services you’ll need next year – including what the post-Covid world will need. And start leaning into that because that’s really going to be a new chapter for journalism.”

The Online News Association’s “Community Circles”

ONA has launched guided conversations to help editors develop detailed strategic responses to Covid-19 and beyond. The idea emerged after ONA’s CEO, Irving Washington, emailed the entire membership on March 19th with two questions: “Are you okay? How can we help?”

Five themes emerged from the hundreds of responses that flooded back: self-care, management and leadership in a time of crisis, covering a fast-moving pandemic, revenue and fundraising challenges, and building and launching projects that still need to be realized if outlets are to stay agile, innovative and viable.

“These are pretty deep questions,” says Trevor Knoblich, ONA’s Chief Knowledge Officer. They include: How do I keep my team engaged? How do we report on coronavirus and not lose track of our long-term focus? What do we do now that advertisers are rolling back their relationships? “These are nuanced and complex questions that might have different answers for different types of newsrooms.”

To accommodate that complexity, ONA created “Community Circles.” These align members with an interest in one or more themes to groups of around 20 people, and assign a host for each group to convene regular online discussions.

Knoblich says the groups use tools like Slack, Google Docs, and Zoom. Beyond that, the conversations have a free rein to share ideas and problem-solve. “At least a third of the groups are looking at making a concrete resource that can be shared, or commitments that they’re aspiring to,” he says.

The first Circles began meeting this week. The program is already oversubscribed, but Knoblich says a second round could open in May. The Circles model is simple to adapt and adopt. And Knoblich says that he’s happy to answer questions if another outlet or organization wants to try something similar.

Fathm: The Distributed Newsroom Playbook

Newsrooms have switched from office-based hubs to decentralized working practically overnight. To help them make a success of this new way of working, the news lab and consultancy Fathm created the Distributed Newsroom Playbook in less than 10 days.

The Playbook contains six straightforward modules with associated toolboxes. They cover such topics as how to manage and train a distributed team, how to design workflows, and editorial structures when most of your staff are working from home, and how to maintain and boost audience engagement. It also includes a section on tools and technologies to support distributed working.

“The Playbook is designed for the type of manager who doesn’t have the luxury of strategic thinking right now, because they’re trying to keep the operation afloat,” Fathm co-founder Fergus Bell Bell says.  “We know that the news industry does quick fixes that end up being the long-term solution. So, we wanted to create a resource that offers a quick fix that will work for the long term. Thus, we limit the number of fixes managers actually need to do.”

The Playbook is designed as a resource you can dip into to drive and support critical decisions. These include issues like “how to run a newsroom when you can’t see or interact with your staff, and let them get on with their jobs at the same time as checking in that they’re okay, and how to respond to issues like sudden sickness and absences.”

Bell says the Playbook has had enthusiastic take-up by newsrooms in Europe, the United States and South America since it was published on April 6th. And the team is using feedback from users to help the Playbook iterate and expand.

Consolidate now to weather the storm

I’ll say it again: It’s a hell of a time to be a media manager. There’s no map for this terrain. The last time editors had to navigate a global pandemic of this magnitude was at the tail end of the First World War, before the invention of television or the internet. But the huge upsurge in public demand for news is a clear sign that communities want and need journalism to survive. In some towns they’re fighting to keep newspapers open.

So, yes, look at cuts and savings. Explore some of the forums for sharing ideas mentioned in this article. Seek and find inspiration. But also look at how you can give your users a clear pathway to help you keep the lights on and stay open.

Check in with them to see if they need products and services that you can provide. Make sure you’ve made it easy for them to subscribe, donate, and advertise. Do what you can to strengthen your relationships with your community, in a way that makes it possible for them to support the survival of journalism through Covid-19 – and beyond.

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