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“No Negative Monday” and other ideas from South Asian newsrooms addressing local challenges: A WAN-IFRA study

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WAN-IFRA’s “State of Newsrooms in South Asia” report published earlier this month, is the first comprehensive study of the issues faced by newsrooms in the South Asian region. 

The report deals with issues ranging from the relatively recent (technology in the newsroom and fake news), to older ones (newsroom productivity and gender parity).

It “provides a glimpse of what editors and owners of newspapers and websites in the region perceive as the biggest challenges they face; also, how they plan to address these challenges,” in the words of Mukund Padmanabhan, Chairman, World Editors Forum, South Asia Chapter.

Here are the key highlights:

Lack of technology in newsrooms, a serious challenge

Digital disruption has meant that newsrooms have to keep pace with fast changing technology more than ever before. Out of the 38 participating newsrooms operating in various languages across South Asia, more than one-third (36.8%) found ‘lack of technology in newsrooms,’ a serious challenge. 

The report recommends integration of titles and sharing of resources for seamless flow of news as a starting point. Here integration stands for various titles in print, web, magazine or radio arms of the same group working together and sharing stories and resources. 

Most newsrooms are semi-integrated but the number of newsrooms that are not integrated are greater than those that are fully integrated. Awareness about the benefits of integration is high and close to 80% of the respondents plan to go further with it this year. 

Pawan Agarwal, Deputy Managing Director, Dainik Bhaskar, India says, “The print and digital arms are working closely. But making content available well on time to the desk is a challenge. To ensure an integrated newsroom, a dedicated team has been introduced in the system to work as a bridge 24×7 to exchange content as per the requirement and to make it available on time.”

Content like match scores, videos, multiple photographs of events, and reference content which cannot be published in the print media due to space constraints, are available in their digital versions, to prompt users to access the digital arm. This integration helps to provide extensive content and retain brand users.

Pawan Agarwal, Deputy Managing Director, Dainik Bhaskar

Most respondents felt that integration aided seamless sharing of resources and content, improved performance, offered rich content, saved time and resources, and contributed to operational efficiencies and cost. 

Communication between platforms and content creators “an area for improvement”

Over half of the media houses publish many of their stories on the web. Over 70% believe that web-first is the right way for breaking news. 

Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) have become an important part of the news ecosystem. More than 75% of the publishers use them to distribute their content to a wider audience. 

Many believe it is an efficient way to improve reach and is critical for getting more traffic to the content. But a notable percentage is still uncomfortable with posting content on third party platforms first as they feel direct reach is more important. 

The apprehensions of ‘giving content away freely’ prevents them from taking this route. Even among those who have adopted the platforms, concerns persist.

We do publish stories on these platforms because the major chunk of present users come from social media and Google. However, there are concerns too. For example, the censorship by these technology companies is a serious concern for us. We also get a lot of direct traffic. So we are more focused on building that, instead of depending on the social platforms.

Ramesh Chandran, Associate Content Producer, Digital, Malayala Manorama’s English website Onmanorama

Zafar Subhan, Editor of Dhaka Tribune points out that Facebook, “seems to have very idiosyncratic rules for what stories it allows to be published via their Instant Articles platform, and we are frequently falling foul of their rather mysterious and opaque criteria for what they will allow and not allow. Communication between such platforms and content creators such as ourselves is certainly an area for improvement.”

Multi-pronged solution for curbing fake news

Fake news is a major concern across newsrooms. Almost all publishers make some effort to curb it. Most of them follow the conventional way of checking multiple items with the sources, ensuring sources are authentic and flagging non-reliable information during editorial meetings. 

Several newsrooms have formed dedicated fact-checking teams, training editorial staff to identify potential fake news and consulting with external fact-checking website/teams. Many publishers also use tools offered by Google to check fake news. 

At The Quint we have been running a fact checking initiative called WebQoof, and hundreds of readers write in every month sending in stories for fact verification. We also have a citizen journalism initiative – My Report – where citizens from across the country are sending us stories to be published. I have no doubt that we have a strong, loyal community of readers that trusts us. 

Ritu Kapur, Co-founder and CEO, The Quint

While online and agency sources are common in the digital news reporting ecosystem, most newsrooms in the study lay great emphasis on ground reporting. 

Close to 65% of newsrooms see a higher percentage of ground stories compared to wire stories, whereas around 20% see a 50:50 share between ground and wire stories. 

Given that most newsrooms rely on ground reporting for the larger share of stories, it can be assumed that they are in a relatively better position to combat disinformation and fake news. 

Innovations driven by readers

Reader feedback is considered very seriously by most newsrooms. Letters from readers are frequently published by these organizations. Publisher feels they are the more involved section of the audience and deserve to be engaged meaningfully. 

Participating newsrooms cited examples of incorporating new segments of stories using comments for ‘web’ articles to further develop and enhance the story. There are also instances of running focus groups with readers, starting new columns and following up on readers’ grievances. 

Dhaka Tribune a compact-sized newspaper, launched its business section on January 1 as a broadsheet pull-out in response to a reader survey.

Dainik Bhaskar introduced the concept of ‘No Negative Monday’ early in 2015, based on reader feedback. According to Agarwal, “The concept is to begin the week on a positive note, saying ‘no’ to negative thoughts. 

The idea is that no negative news is to be published on the first day of the week, and that’s why we have named it ‘No Negative Monday.’ If any big negative news comes in, it will be published with a tag – Only that negative news which is essential for you to know.”

Pawan Agarwal, Deputy Managing Director, Dainik Bhaskar

Considering that this year’s Reuters Digital News Report found that readers are increasingly avoiding news because it has a negative effect on their mood, Dainik Bhaskar may have hit upon an effective strategy.

“Just a few senior hands in the right places”

Shortage of experienced editors, reporters and reporting resources are among the most pressing issues faced by South Asian newsrooms. The report notes that smaller newsrooms have less experienced staff compared to larger newsrooms. 

70.56% of smaller newsrooms (less than 100 editorial staff) had less than 30% of staff with over 15 years of experience. 

78.4% of larger newsrooms (more than 200 editorial staff) had more than 30% of editorial staff with over 15 years of experience. 

Most newsrooms agree that training and upskilling of journalists is the best way to enhance productivity. The Quint has “rolling training workshops on all things multimedia through the year. Our senior editors are part of these sessions – learning when they are not training,” says Kapur.

Subhan comments, “The key is to invest in training up the young talent and not just leaving them to sink or swim. I have also found that to make the team work optimally, we need a handful of extremely experienced team members at the top.” 

“Just a few senior hands in the right places makes all the difference, I have found,” he adds.

The report recommends segmentation of newsrooms according to functions and drawing up clear reporting lines for trained talent for enhancing and streamlining output and thereby optimizing productivity.

Several newsrooms are also moving to a 5-day week to help their employees achieve a better work-life balance, which would contribute to newsroom productivity. 

Dhaka Tribune claims to be the first in Bangladesh to adopt a 5-day week. In India several media organizations have started moving in this direction fully or partially. 

Subhan says, “We are confident that it is the right thing to do, despite the challenges. And I do believe that productivity and quality of work has improved as people get a full two days to recharge their batteries.”

In conclusion, the authors of the study state, “Though technology has made great inroads into newsrooms and reader habits are changing, the report calls for readers and reader requirements to be the drivers of change, and not technology.

“It also calls for skilling the newsroom to address these changes. Journalists should show the right attitude to adapt to the changing needs and to technology. That would help quality journalism thrive in the years to come.”

Download the full report from WAN-IFRA:
State of Newsrooms in South Asia