Sustaining the team during a pandemic is critical

COVID-19 has devastated media revenue but it has also provided an opportunity to drive innovation in online media products.

This information emerged during a frayintermedia webinar entitled “Managing in a Crisis” with leading editors Pamella Sittoni, Executive Editor, Nation Media Group (Kenya) and Nwabisa Makunga, Editor, Sowetan (South Africa). The webinar was facilitated by frayintermedia CEO Paula Fray.

The editors outlined how the Coronavirus outbreak had an immediate impact on their newsrooms.

“We've got our first case of COVID pretty much around the same time as the region around us,” said Sittoni “I manage a newsroom that has about 120 journalists. Even before the lockdown was announced in Kenya, we had our own preparedness plan because we always have our business contingency plan in place and part of that plan was how we were going to react if it actually broke out in Kenya,” she said.

Sittoni said media leaders swung in to action immediately.

“So there were three things that we had to take care of. Firstly as an individual of course was to keep myself safe and alive. And then how do we also keep our staff alive and safe and healthy. And lastly was how we were going to take our responsibility of informing and educating and maintaining Kenyans most seriously by ensuring that we give them the right information all the time to enable them to make the right decisions about their lives?”

The organisation immediately set about ensuring that staff were able to work at home with only a skeleton team at the office.

“We sent all our sub editors and all our production people home because we did not want to risk infection at work,” she said.

But this meant investing in technology to ensure everyone had reliable wifi.

“And then we also had to do the usual safety measures in the newsroom. We had to ensure that anybody who comes in wears a mask, they have their temperatures taken and they sanitize at every station so that people are continuously washing their hands and sanitizing to keep safe,” Sittoni said.

“So that is one side of things. And then as part of our duty to society, we actually launched a campaign even before the government of Kenya made it mandatory for Kenyans to wear masks in public. We launched a campaign educating Kenyans about the importance of masks and asking them to start wearing masks,” Sittoni said, adding that they worked with other media organisations to support citizen education programmes.

Editing the Sowetan during a Pandemic

Nwabisa Makunga had just arrived to take up the Sowetan editorship in Johannesburg from Port Elizabeth where she had led the editorial team at The Herald newspaper and she described the ensuing weeks as a defining moment in her career.

Makunga described the moment as deadline with three key crises simultaneously: a technological crisis as staff production processes were changed; a financial and economic crisis staff and then the terrible crisis of a global pandemic.

Like many media across the continent, the lockdown led to a sudden drop in advertising and sales.

“That meant that our revenues have shrunk for both circulation and advertising,” said Sittoni, noting that they had to debunk a rumour at one point that newspapers could somehow transmit COVID-19.

“Many people actually stopped buying the physical copy of the newspaper and we had to quickly look at strategies that would enable us to continue making some money to sustain ourselves as a business,” she said.

Steps included staff across the organisation taking a payout as well as increased promotions of their e-paper that included partnerships with Safaricom to allow people to buy the e-paper with airtime.

Part of the challenge during the lockdown has been a reduction in face-to-face interactions which posed a problem for management.

“And so you have to have a conversation as a leader with your team that basically says guys ultimately I'm asking you to work far more for much less,” said Makunga “and I think for me that has really been quite a challenging one because you have to walk a very tightrope of actually why explaining to people the situation but also allowing yourself to listen to them when they want to lash out.”

It was essential, Makunga said, for managers to remain empathetic and reach out to staff to ensure that they were dealing with the psychological effects of the pandemic.

Like a war

“If there's one lesson that I think I've learned personally is that whatever happens in a time of crisis you're going to war. And when you go to war you never ever leave your foot soldiers behind because you need your team to be able to rally behind something and say guys I am I'm being totally transparent I don't to know what our future holds but I do know that we can influence it by the decisions that we make today,” said Makunga

Sittoni noted that when she realised that staff at the office were concerned that the were being exposed while senior members stayed at home, she made a point to work at the office to “show solidarity with the people who have to come to the office every day”.

“Besides that we put certain protocols in place about what where our journalists can go and where they cannot go and if they are going into a very risky area - like we had some colleagues who actually went into the wards where the patients are - and they had to be properly briefed about how to protect themselves how to wear the protective gear and how to take it off,” she noted.

The organisation also has a plan in the event a staffer testing positive that includes a second team to do the work and an off-site location for production.

They acknowledged that the pandemic had pushed online innovation and the steady march towards generating online income that includes paywalls and generating sales of other online products which fits global best practices.

Both noted that looking after themselves was important. They did so by following social distancing rules but by also taking time to look after themselves mentally and physically.

Sittoni acknowledged this has been a stressful time.

“I try to understand as much as possible; to read as much as possible; to watch as many clips as possible from experts just to try and understand what I am dealing with and hopefully that will then help me to offer some solutions to the country and by extension to the world.”

The challenge is find solutions quickly.

“You must innovate. But besides that, it's really about the people that you looking after and the one thing that I've learned is that when people realize that you are with them like you are in need with them you it's not you versus them then they will give it their best. I see my team really going out of the way to come up with brilliant ideas and I feel it's because they feel we're in this together.”

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