How lessons learned during Covid-19 will shape the future of journalism

How lessons learned during Covid-19 will shape the future of journalism

The media industry has experienced its fair share of challenges as a result of Covid-19. The pandemic, which led to South Africa going on its first hard lockdown in March 2020, saw many publications closing down, while several people lost their jobs.

Newsrooms had to adapt to adapt fast to the changes brought by Covid-19, while also trying to find new ways of telling stories to their readers. This article explores some of the challenges faced by editors, news editors and journalists in the last 19 months, and some of the lessons they’ve learned during this unprecedented time.

 When the pandemic started

The newsroom was “noisy and full of life” before the pandemic, according to Athandiwe Saba, deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian. But things took a drastic turn after Covid-19 came into the picture. Saba explained: “We had to move from highly social beings to working in silos.” Yanga Soji, who’s the news editor of the Daily Dispatch believes that Covid-19 tested structures that were already in place. “Structures in place already were exposed,” she said.

At the Mail & Guardian, the strategy was to set up WhatsApp groups, Slack channels and more meetings were introduced in order to deal with Covid-19. “This was all to facilitate communication which is vital in the work we do. We had to focus on the security of our communication channels and training for staff who had never used some of the applications,” Saba shared. Before moving to the Daily Dispatch in February 2021, Soji worked as the night news editor at the Daily Sun. For her team, WhatsApp groups became the main form of communication.

A lot of companies used WhatsApp as a way of communicating with employees during the pandemic. Image: Siyathemba Ben

For both managers, a big priority was staying connected with the teams. To achieve this, Saba explained that they spent an excessive amount of time on devices, whether texting or calling. “Everyone had to adjust to working from home with all the distractions there.”

Doom and gloom

The uncertainty that the pandemic brought to the newsroom also meant making other changes, and moving with the technological developments in the industry. “This applies to how the business is run, how the newsroom is managed, how we get the news to the readers and subscribers and how we interact,” Saba said. Meanwhile, the pandemic, for Soji, was a test of grit and leadership. She said there was a period where she was trying to get her team not to worry about their jobs and debt. “It was gloom and uncertainty,” Soji revealed.

She said managers across industries don’t get enough credit. “People are under enormous pressure, especially because of the fear of job losses. We write about job losses while the media is also worried about itself.”

 In 2020, Media 24, Caxton and Associated Media Publishing announced the closure of several of their popular titles, leaving several people without jobs.

Drum (print), Cosmopolitan and Bona are just a few of the magazines that were closed in 2020. Drum, however, is now available online only. Image: Siyathemba Ben

Managing people

Keeping journalists motivated, while their industry colleagues were being retrenched, was not an easy task for Soji. She shared: “People got so demotivated, I think it’s one of the things that I picked up when I got here [Daily Dispatch]. What demotivated people was things like retrenchments… I think the biggest challenge was keeping reporters motivated in the space of fear and uncertainty. These are people with families.”

While Saba had been managing people before the pandemic, like Soji, she also got to experience a different side of her role because of the pandemic.

Before Covid-19, it was easier for her to support and guide journalists because they were all in the same space. “That all changed. This has had an enormous impact, especially on the younger journalists who need more guidance and direction.

“And as editors, we have to be mindful of that. Children were at home. Colleagues lost loved ones or got sick themselves,” she said. People were also faced with mental health challenges as a result of the heartbreaking stories that they were reading and reporting on. “The mental health of reporters took a knock because they were writing about death, seeing death,” Soji shared. She likened Covid-19 to a warzone. “There was no soldier, the enemy was just an invisible one.”

Time management

How did newsrooms adapt? Saba explained that they had to change their working hours to accommodate employees. While journalists were able to adjust to the new systems introduced, they struggled with time management and story formulation as they weren’t able to meet with sources, according to Saba.

“We had numerous meetings about time management where deadlines were not met. The team decided that working ahead, as we are a weekly and daily news platform, would be crucial going forward.”

Although being away from the office environment presented the Mail & Guardian with various difficulties, Saba believes that they have “successfully integrated” working from home. According to her, the publication’s ‘people-focused’ culture worked to their advantage during this time.

Better journalism 

Saba is of the view that the pandemic has presented their newsroom with the opportunity to improve in a number of areas. “We are using the internet to do better journalism.” She mentioned that they were now doing more, not only because of  Covid-19, but also due to the changing patterns of their readers and subscribers.

“The pandemic has forced the whole world onto the internet, and paper sales are consistently declining. Being aware of misinformation, fake news, and how we can rebuild our credibility as journalists has become vital in our work,” she shared. Saba believes that using data journalism and being informed of how the creators of fake news and disseminators of misinformation work is essential in the future of journalism.

Affirmation goes a long way 

On a personal note, Saba credits the pandemic for how she has improved in the area of managing her time and working well with others.

“Before working in this position, I was not a team player. I could deliver complex data journalism projects on my own. I have had to learn the value of teamwork and how to get the best out of each person on the team.” She’s now aware of how essential encouragement and validation are in keeping staff morale up.

Soji, on the other hand, has learned the value of affirming people. “It’s important even if you’re not a manager. Affirmations go a long way in the workplace, particularly in this pandemic. People want to feel like their lives still make sense, their jobs still make sense,” she said. She believes that the pandemic has also made managers reimagine how to skill their newsrooms.

Soji explains this in detail in the audio clip below.


Everything needs to change

Post-pandemic, Saba, who has a background in data journalism, thinks that everything will be digital-focused in journalism. “Not for the screen, but the phone. The whole newsroom is being geared for massive changes that the pandemic has only accelerated. At the same time, we will be rebuilding the trust in the media.”

Soji agrees that there will be a “digital first” approach in the future. She added that while the story will always be there, the way it is told will have to change. “Even the person who’s buying the paper is evolving. There will always be a need for news because people will always want to know what’s happening,” Soji concluded.

Saba highlights the fact that the pandemic has only accelerated the changes that were coming for the media industry. According to her, everything – from the business model to the writers to the editors and funding models – has to change. “How we view our work, and the quality of it has to change.”

Three journalists from different publications were also interviewed about their experiences at work during the pandemic. They are; Khanyiso Tshwaku, senior sports reporter at Sport24, Marcia Zali, a health journalist at The Mail & Guardian and Brenda Masilela, a general news reporter at the African News Agency.

Tshwaku said when the pandemic started, everything was done from home. “We got phone allowances, but that was pretty much it. It felt like the office had moved into the household.” Zali had a similar experience. “During the first lockdown, we were advised to minimise going out to interview people,” she said.

When lockdown regulations were introduced, employees around the world had to turn their homes into offices as they could no longer go to work. Image: Siyathemba Ben

Dealing with challenges

Not being in the office created some problems for Tshwaku. He explained: “The art of virtual communication became a challenge for an industry that was/is dependent on facetime communication.”

Coming up with fresh story ideas that would interest readers was a bit difficult for Masilela. She shared: “Bearing in mind that sometimes stories didn’t have interviews but relied heavily on research.” However, her editor was available to assist wherever possible. “We would bounce ideas around on how to execute some stories.”

For Zali, time management became an issue. Fortunately, there was a way to work around this. “My employer would sometimes extend my deadlines to allow me to submit my work at night, which was most convenient since I had to look after my kids during the day,” she said.

While she believes that remote working has been a success, she is also of the view that the mental health of employees has suffered. This, according to Zali, is due to the long working hours and increasing workloads.

In 2020, the Human Science Research Council conducted a study that looked at how Covid-19 had impacted South Africans’ mental health. The study looked at different things such emotions such as fear, anger and loneliness. The results can be seen in the infographic below.

 An opportunity to learn

Despite the obstacles, the journalists agree that the pandemic has brought newsrooms an opportunity to approach things differently. According to Masilela, Covid-19 highlighted the fact that newsrooms can operate without reporters being in the office.  Tshwaku feels that the pandemic has taught employers how to improve on their communication skills and manage work flow better.

While managers had to strengthen certain traits in order to work better, journalists were also forced to learn some lessons. “I’ve made sure my communication is very clear and concise. Communication is the basis of everything,” Tshwaku said. For Zali, a big lesson has been being okay with not chasing each story that comes her way. “I have learned that meaningful stories are usually stories that are informative rather than sensational.” She added that she’s now even aware of the fact that misinformation and disinformation were more sophisticated than “we had thought”.

Since the pandemic started, there has been a lot of misinformation about the virus on the internet. Researchers have been working hard to debunk Covid-19 myths. The below video, shared by Nature Video –  a platform that covers research and science news – on YouTube, takes viewers on a quest to uncover the impact of misinformation and how to put an end to it.

These trying times have also shown the journalists a more understanding side to their employers. “They understood when I needed time off or when I couldn’t submit on time because my family needed me at the time,” Zali said. Masilela mentioned that her editor understood that coming up with stories every day was a challenge. “He tried by all means to give me story ideas or how to shape the story I’ve suggested better,” Masilela said.

What does the future look like?

Post-pandemic, Tshwaku suggests that newsrooms should shift rotation to ensure that people are alternating between working from home and from the office for “mental freshness”. Zali agrees that there should be more effort placed on strategies that support employees’ mental health. She added that working hours needed to be established because people seemed to be working longer hours now.

Will newsrooms be the same after Covid-19? Masilela doesn’t think so. “Newspaper offices might never go back to what they used to be, chances are offices will shrink and not all staff will be expected to be at their desk five days a week.”

Featured image credit: Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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