COVID has changed newsrooms forever

The COVID-19 pandemic has decimated lives and businesses, with a profound impact on every aspect of life, including working life.

These impacts have changed the way we work, mostly for the worst. But there are lessons we can take from the crisis, particularly in how it has broken down barriers and divisions among departments that need to work together but face a traditional reluctance to do so.

In the media world, the COVID pandemic accelerated many of the trends that were already occurring: Revenue generally fell even more steeply than before as businesses shuttered and advertising declined. People went out less. In-person events, which were growing as a business for media, went online or disappeared altogether.

The pandemic also accelerated the digital transformation that was underway in many media houses. Faced with an enduring crisis, there was a new urgency to quickly transform for the new norms of the digital world.

Though most of what has emerged from the crisis is appalling, its impact on digital transformation has been profound. This is particularly true of its influence on changing the culture of newsrooms — one of the most resistant elements of any transformational process.

If people don’t see the need for change, transformation is likely to fail. And if they didn’t see it before the crisis began, they certainly did afterward.

Media houses traditionally struggle with the interdisciplinary cooperation needed for successful digital transformation. Newsroom personnel responsible for protecting independence often distrust proposals to work with non-editorial departments. Some even dismiss the proposition that some cooperation is possible without reducing their independence.

In many newsrooms, this distrust has been reduced by the pandemic, mostly because the negative impact on the business leaves little choice. There is a growing realisation in a crisis that everyone in a company should be allowed to contribute ideas, and innovative thinking can come from anywhere.

Take, for example, the impact on in-person events. When these shut down, many companies turned to Zoom and other platforms. This was seen as a temporary solution, and little thought was given to the format — just put the panels and discussions online.

But Zoom fatigue is real and, let’s face it, online events can be boring. New thinking is needed and not only about the editorial content of the event. Events involve technology, they involve promotion and marketing, and they attract and add value to subscriptions. So why not bring together people from each of those departments to change the concept of events to make them more attractive?

These collaborations are producing entirely new approaches to events, including construction of purpose-built studios and conceiving events using animators and elements that make them more like a television broadcast. This is much more interesting than a static Zoom panel.

The concept is likely to have lasting value: Even when in-person events return, a hybrid concept, with some audience online, is likely to remain. And the more attractive the event is for both those in the room and online, the more valuable it will be.

But more importantly, the crisis is encouraging all departments to work together across the organisation, with results offering proof that this kind of cooperation does not reduce editorial independence. This makes it easier for leadership to break down the walls between departments and allow everyone to contribute to new digital products and ways of working. One could say the pandemic changed the culture.

This article was also published on the INMA Media Leaders blog.