Webinar takeaways: Newspaper production in the time of COVID-19

Approximately 90 attendees joined the WAN-IFRA platform live from around the world Wednesday for the webinar "Newspaper production in the time of COVID-19."

Silvio Da Giau, Technical Director at Athesis, in Verona, Italy, and Alice Wong, Chief Production Editor at the South China Morning Post (SCMP) in Hong Kong, shared their experiences and lessons learned from the unprecedented events that have been unfolding during the past month with the Coronavirus.

Moderator was Ingi Rafn Olafsson, Director of WAN-IFRA's World Printers Forum.

(Note: Please take this brief survey on how your company is coping with the Covid-19 crisis.Thanks!)

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The virus situation in northern Italy (home to Athesis)

  • One of the hardest-hit areas in the world after mainland China

  • Number of virus cases mushroomed since mid-February (about 28,000 cases in all of Italy currently)

  • Government-implemented curfew in effect – nobody allowed to leave home; shops, restaurants, etc. closed. Exceptions for people who cannot work from home, for instance

  • People allowed to shop for food and basic necessities – including printed newspapers

  • Athesis is continuing to print and distribute papers

Measures at Athesis

  • Goal: all editorial, prepress operations from home office

  • Aim is to have production of all three newspapers – editorial and prepress staff – feasible from home in 10 days from now

  • Currently 80 percent of journalists and prepress staff at the newspaper in Brescia are working from home on company-provided laptops

  • Virtual private networks (VPNs) have been set up for the editorial staff. Remote connections also are in place for administrative staff

  • Only two top editors and two prepress staff members are working in the building

  • At the other two newspapers, 60 percent of the production staff are working from home

  • Employees discouraged from gathering and encouraged to use phones or laptops instead

  • At those papers, office layout was changed to guarantee distance between people of at least 2 meters.

  • Buildings are sanitized regularly

  • Critical aspect: communication among staff. Prepress people and editors used to gather to discuss changes in headlines, layout, etc.

  • That now has to happen online – big adjustment needed

  • Journalists, TV news crews are still going on location to get stories. They use masks, gloves, and glasses

Layout/production changes

  • Layouts of newspapers restructured to reduce page counts; saves effort and paper usage

  • Newspapers redesigned for maximum coverage of the crisis

  • Of 48 pages total, 15-16 pages are dedicated to local and national virus coverage

  • Little or no advertising content any more

At the printing plant

  • Great efforts to protect the printers – to avoid a lockdown of the facility, and to ensure enough healthy people to print the papers

  • To anticipate possible problems, printing on just two presses instead of three

  • Make-ready for the press, cleaning and plate-mounting activities now involve one person per tower instead of two

  • In rare case that two people are needed, mostly in preventive maintenance, personal safety equipment is used – masks, gloves, and glasses

  • All staff are asked to check for fever before going to work sites

  • Made agreement a few weeks ago with another printing company some distance away to take over printing in case of lockdown


  • No major problems at the moment, since newspapers are classified as basic necessities by the government

  • Circulation since the outbreak started has increased somewhat but not dramatically

  • Kiosk sales are normally 80 percent of total copy sales, 10 percent are subscribers who pick their newspapers up at kiosks, last 10 percent is delivery by postal system. This remains constant

  • E-paper versions are produced, but printed papers account for 80 percent of sales and printed advertisements for lion's share of ad revenues, meaning print production must continue regardless

  • User statistics for Athesis's web sites and apps have increased dramatically


  • To face future crises, need to make work process from home as identical as possible to the process of working in the office

  • Laptops and connections need to be optimized for home office work

  • When it comes to printing, we cannot afford to have it stop

  • We need to change our mindset and prepare for even bigger disasters, such as if we don't have electricity

The virus situation in Hong Kong (home to SCMP)

  • The outbreak started three months ago and until very recently had slowed somewhat

  • Earlier this week the government warned of a second wave. 14 new cases were reported in a single day this week, the most in one day so far

  • Schools are closed

  • SCMP is continuing to print newspapers except for the Young Post, which is aimed at students

Measures at SCMP

  • Office closed after suspicion of infection. On Tuesday night SCMP closed its offices after it was found that an employee might have contracted the virus

  • Entire publishing house staff is working from home

  • Internet-based publishing system was introduced two years ago to anticipate this kind of situation. If office is shut down, everybody can log in from home

  • Experimental home-office phase for editorial department had been conducted in the last several weeks, went smoothly

  • During that time, all staff were also instructed to bring their laptops home with them every night in case the office had to be closed down overnight

  • Daily conferences and other communications began to be held via Google Meet in order to reduce direct interaction among staff members

  • Internal messaging system also vital

  • People urged to reply promptly to messages


  • Journalists are still in the field and go to press events, always with protective gear

  • Sent a reporter to Japan to cover the Diamond Princess cruise ship situation

  • WhatsApp used for communication

  • Business as usual, but more use of the internet

Layout/production changes

  • Structure of the printed newspaper was changed

  • Two instead of three sections are now produced, with virus coverage concentrated in the first section

  • Easier for readers to find virus coverage – at first they had trouble finding it, but they are used to it now. Coverage consists of four pages every day, seven days a week

  • Advertising has dropped significantly, but flexibility in page layout was gained

  • Since there are no sports, difficult to fill the sports pages, so sports are included in the main section

Printing and sales

  • Print ads account for vast majority of revenue, so the paper will be produced regardless

  • Printing is outsourced – print plant was spun off a while ago from publishing operation

  • Print plant not near the publishing house, so communication was all electronic already

  • Fewer printing staff on duty

  • Contingency plans exist in case the print plant is locked down, but can't be disclosed

  • Subscription figures for the print product are increasing

  • People are keen to read the printed product, even though content is much the same as online

  • Paywall on website has been removed


  • It gives a good opportunity to learn how to work remotely, to see how staff can react to other possible disruptions

  • It is a great test for systems and stability

  • The IT department can analyse the shortcomings that are arising

  • To make home office work, everybody has to exercise self-discipline and avoid distractions


This was the first in a series of weekly WAN-IFRA Webinars addressing newspaper production during the COVID-19 crisis. Please check https://coronanewsroom.org/webinars

Anton Jolkovski

(Reuters Institute) How journalists can help stop the spread of the coronavirus outbreak


(NiemanReports) Lessons from the Italian Media’s Coverage of the Coronavirus