A view from India | Reporting from the frontline: the structural impact on newsrooms

Tuesday, 12 January 2021 15:59 GMT

REUTERS/Sanna Irshad Mattoo

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While remote working has been catching on in news start-ups and the digital media, print newsrooms have largely continued to function in a linear way – morning meetings, reporters going to their respective beats, a second round of editorial meetings in the evenings, followed by the production of newspapers.

By March, newsrooms were in a fix – will remote working be the new norm? If so, then how do they move forward? While bigger news organisations enabled employees to work from home, the relatively smaller ones struggled with software and the crunch of resources.

Remote production continued to be a challenge for a number of newspapers. So, while reporters were granted opportunities for remote working, the production desk continued to work from offices in many organisations.

Despite not having to report to the office, there were umpteen challenges for reporters. Even before the nationwide lockdown was imposed, reporters struggled to get entry into ministries, as they cited the threat of COVID-19. Reporters needed specific appointments to get into ministry buildings which proved to be a bigger challenge for the newsgathering process.

Once the nationwide lockdown kicked in, it was unsettling. There was the dilemma of one’s own safety and the source’s safety, with very little information to guide journalists. At several places across the nation, journalists faced trouble moving around even with their identification cards. Later, the government issued an advisory that journalists should be able to move around smoothly.

Accessing transport was the biggest challenge. For those without private transport, the only option left was office cabs. Here, I must point out again that what may be basic resources for bigger organisations is often a challenge for smaller ones. Resources were scarce with printing of several papers suspended and revenues plummeting. So many organisations struggled to afford the basic amenities previously offered to their employees.

 To my knowledge, television reporters did receive PPE kits. As far as print journalists are concerned, I do not think many organisations provided them. However, this would vary from one organisation to another. But from my overall experience, there was little dialogue on the safety of journalists.

In terms of physical distancing, the concept was a luxury for many newsrooms. Most organisations started scaling down from April. Many newsrooms shut shop at smaller locations, unable to afford either the salaries of reporters/sub-editors or the rented accommodation, and in some cases both. Salary cuts were across the board. Salary payments remained delayed in most organisations, and job losses were reported at most news organisations.

Because of the massive structural changes impacting the newsroom, both editors and reporters perhaps tried to cope with new ways of storytelling. A lot of us had to opt out of regular ground reporting, and instead settled for telephone interviews which we would not do under normal circumstances or if we had more resources at our disposal. We also moved to data and research-based stories in order to make up for the void of the buzz of on-the-ground reporting. Some organisations, including the print media, are now encouraging reporters to travel and move towards mobile journalism.

One thing that needs to be addressed immediately is the mental health condition of journalists who continue to function with the looming threat of job loss or having already suffered job loss, the paradigm shift in the practice of journalism, and the lack of conversation around it.

-Journalist based at a major Indian newspaper, Thomson Reuters Foundation Alumnus

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