How Indian newsrooms are combating the COVID-19 pandemic

As COVID-19 cases ramp up in India, newsrooms have swung into action to keep journalists safe, while ensuring a steady flow of content.


As with news publishers around the world, Indian publishers are cancelling events, dropping paywalls and leveraging technology for the widespread dissemination of news. How are journalists coping with producing double the amount of usual content while making sure the quality is not compromised?

India has recorded 519 COVID-19 positive cases and 10 deaths, at the time of publishing this report. 

Work from home and newsroom sanitisation

Two-thirds of the BBC India staff is working from home. Only critical members of the broadcast network – TV production staff, TV presenters, IT staff, engineers, digital teams and a few editors - are coming to the newsroom. The brand’s current core news output focus is almost entirely on the coronavirus and its fallout.

“We are following our Director General Tony Hall’s mandate of keeping our viewers updated in this critical time. It is our duty as a public broadcaster,” says Sanjoy Majumder, BBC Managing Editor

The Quint has rolled out a work-from-home arrangement with only a few people coming to the office for shoots and edits. Those who avail public transport are being provided with pick-ups and drops. The newsroom is being disinfected two to three times daily, and all surfaces such as door handles and wash basins are being sanitised.

The company has cut down on ground reporting, as a result of which is producing way less video content. Parents of young children and pregnant employees have been strictly asked to stay at home. Additionally, the health desk has been provided additional support from other teams.

Business Line, the financial arm of The Hindu, has enabled a large portion of its staff to work from home. From the editorial team, only those whose role involves publishing or making pages are coming into the office, and even among this small group, the company is now enabling VPN access to a few. Reporters have been told not to come to the newsroom, but the publishing process hasn't been disrupted.

“There are challenges in the way we communicate, because this is a novel situation. Reporters need to be careful and follow the best practices while out for a story. Inevitably, most of our reportage has been about COVID-19,” says Editor Sriram S.

The Indian Express has broken up its production operation, one of the most challenging areas of a newspaper operation, into several small units. Now, a part of the desk is working from home with software loaded on to their systems - editing stories and making pages.

“This has not affected the production quality, but to ensure we meet deadlines, we're producing content well in advance,” Unni Rajan Shankar, Editor, Indian Express

At The Wire, people feeling under the weather have been asked not to leave their homes. Those whose duties and workflow lend themselves to it have been allowed to work from home. Reporters can go to the field to report but must check with their department heads before going to crowded places. The office has stocked up on enough tissues and soap. Surfaces such as staircase railings, mantles, doors and handles are disinfected 2-3 times daily.

Hindustan Times has enabled work from home for both, desk staff and reporters. Citing national crisis, all employees have been asked to work seven days a week and be available on call through the day. The company has also enforced temperature checks and sanitization in the newsroom.

The Economic Times and CNN-News18 has asked its reporters and camerapersons to not come to the newsroom. 

Leveraging technology

The Wire, The Quint, Business Line and the BBC are all using Google Hangouts, Skype, etc to hold editorial meetings. WhatsApp groups have become more active with updates about various assignments.

The Wire has formed several dedicated WhatsApp groups so that employees are not inundated with unnecessary information.

The Quint's employees are touching base several times daily, to ensure people don’t feel isolated or lonely, working from home.

The company has set up various Slack and WhatsApp channels that are working on fact checking all COVID-19 misinformation.

“These groups are also great for sharing and creating memes to keep everyone’s spirits up,” Ritu Kapur, co-founder and CEO, The Quint

Content tone and coverage and oversharing

As the pandemic unfolds, the constant stream of news can get overwhelming. To counter that, news organisations are making sure they use language that is not sensational or alarming.

The Wire’s coverage has been focused on science and policy aspects, human stories and practical reporting.

“The Wire, as a policy, does not indulge in hyped up reporting,” says Founder Editor Sidharth Bhatia.

The Indian Express’ Unni Rajan Shankar says the organisation has always been restrained in its use of language in only reporting facts and not using alarmist language or spreading fear. They are following the same policy for reporting on the pandemic.

The Quint is being careful in keeping the brand’s voice in its content calm. “Fact-checking on all misinformation on COVID-19 is a top priority offering to our users,” says Ritu Kapur.

“As the world’s leading public broadcaster, the BBC only puts out authentic, verified information. We do not present sensational news and gauge through analytics what questions the audience wants answered,” says Managing Editor Sanjoy Majumder.

Exigency measures 

While The Quint is playing it by the ear and planning on a weekly basis, The Wire’s Sidharth Bhatia says, in the long run, the aim is to ensure that non COVID-19 stories also get appropriate editorial coverage.

At the Business Line, the current measures will be in place till mid-April.

“The organisation is well equipped to meet the challenges, and there's ongoing assessment of the situation,” says Sriram S.

Spike in page views; paywalls dropped

Overall, COVID-19 stories have been a huge audience puller.

The Quint’s health site Quint Fit has recorded a spike. BBC India has witnessed a massive increase in traffic. The BBC News website live page on coronavirus is visited by 30 million people daily.

The Indian-language sites are also being visited by millions of people and three of its language services – Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi – are among the top 10 at the BBC World Service Language services in terms of traffic, with Hindi at the second spot, just behind Arabic.

Business Standard has dropped its paywall for the next four months, making all COVID-19 related stories free and accessible to all.

Hard times for print journalists ahead as newspaper vendors will not be delivering papers till March 31 in parts of the country. Many top publications - and some say all of them - won't be printed out of Mumbai tonight. Is this the beginning of the end for the print? \uD83D\uDE1F

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The Morning Context, a digital news startup that publishes one story each day, has suspended its regular coverage this week and is running a special series documenting and analysing the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic across tech, business and chaos. Every story is free to read. 

The decision to remove its paywall has had a clear impact on The Morning Context's business. The company is looking at a revenue hit by switching to COVID-19 stories from regular long-form features.

"We don’t make money. It is fairly well established that nobody will sign up to pay if the content is free to read," says Ashish K Mishra, Editor-in-Chief.

Mishra says since the situation is unprecedented, it is imperative for the company to cover the crisis and its impact.

"We will bring our own rigour to the coverage, and hopefully this will help readers be well informed," says Mishra. "I believe most of the readers we serve already know this, and this helps us because we do very few free stories – only 12 a year. This will help with sampling."

Most of The Morning Context writers work from home, but have currently restricted field work.

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