Lessons learnt from Week Four of FIPP’s World Media Congress

Written by Piet van Niekerk and Pierre de Villiers. The spectre of Covid-19 loomed large over the fourth week of FIPP’s World Media Congress 2020 as speakers explored the pandemic’s effects on the industry. Another busy week also covered topics as wide-ranging as the loss of public trust in the press and looking after the mental health of your workforce. Here are some of the key lessons from Week Four.

1. Covid has made the strong stronger

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that, in times of crisis, it’s the strong that thrive. “The big learning is that the leader group is pulling ahead,” said Lucy Küng, Senior Research Fellow, Reuters Institute for Journalism at Oxford University and Non-executive Board Member, NZZ, Switzerland. “Over the last 10 odd years a group of really high performers like Axel Springer and The New York Times have laid the rails to accelerate out of the transformation. Meanwhile, digital procrastinators are much worse off.

“If you really had a good subscription apparatus in place you can just ramp it up during Covid. If you didn’t, it’s very hard to switch during the pandemic because it’s expensive and you need to recruit people.The people who have been slower to transform now have a very short transformation window. A lot of what the leader group did was complex technical changes to the social and technological architecture of the organisation – how people meet and how people performance manage, and that’s the work that has to happen now.”

Handing out advice to local publications whose revenue models have been shaken by Covid, Küng said it was crucial they become essential to their communities. “Make sure everyone in the organisation is getting close to the community – phone them up, email them, text them. Try and understand who your audiences are and get a visceral sense of what they need.

“Also see if you can find philanthropic benefactors who will finance a group subscription for, say, teachers in your community so that you are not just selling one subscription but getting people who can finance 15, 20 or a 100 subscriptions.”

2. Publishers have to focus on the EQ of their staff, not the IQ

With Covid-19 driving stress levels in media companies to an all-time high, it’s crucial that leaders become hyper-sensitive to where their teams are emotionally. “This has been a really difficult few months and you have to focus on the needs of the people who work for you,” said Lucy Küng. “Among smart empathetic leaders there is a shift happening from IQ to EQ.”

According to Küng, managing staff’s emotional well-being remotely has become a core challenge for the industry. Key to getting things right is building trust with members on your team so they feel free to let you know when they are struggling.

“Burnout is a huge issue so the tenor of conversations between leaders and members should be one that people can say when they are nearing their limit,” said Küng, adding that managers must take the lead when it comes to stepping away from work. “It’s also important for leaders to be off and show that they are off. One of the problems of working from home is the blurring of the work life and the private life and people are being grounded down by that.”

Küng said leaders should ensure mental health is not a taboo topic, must avoid abrupt announcements on big issues and have clear feedback discussions with their staff.

3. Journalists need to start preparing for the next pandemic

As many parts of the world battle a second wave of Covid-19, some in the media industry are already looking towards the next health crisis – and how to prepare journalists for it.

“The next pandemic is just round the corner and we have to cultivate very strong relationships with scientists and with public health officials because there is a shared epistemic responsibility across these agencies,” said Jaya Shreedhar, Media and Health Consultant, Writer, Medical Doctor at Internews Network. “I think we have a great opportunity for journalists to develop their skills in science reporting to really explore that universe so we can promote a better scientific thinking in the mind of the public.”

Mia Malan, Editor-in-chief/Executive Director at Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism in South Africa stressed that it wouldn’t be easy to prepare properly for future health crises. “Covid has shown us the enormity of the task and how much there is to do to report well on situations like this pandemic,” she said. “There is science knowledge required from all journalists and we should really go and train everyone. We should embrace the opportunity and take this window where more journalists than usual will be open to training.”

It’s even more important for journalists to get future health crises right, after some reporters were found wanting during the early parts of the Covid pandemic.

“There was a lot information and disinformation – not because the journalists didn’t want to do the job the right way but because they had to learn and get used to the tools, like reading a study and learning how to interpret a discussion with a scientist,” said Dennis Andre Ballwieser, General Manager, Wort & Bild Verlag in Germany, adding that his country needs to adopt a wider view in their coverage. “In Germany we are very inward looking in reporting on every topic. We are still driven by male, white Europeans and we still have huge problems getting people into our news organisations with a different background. We need to address this topic, especially in health coverage. We need to do a better job there.”

In a separate congress session, Nsikan Akpan, science editor at National Geographic, waded in on what the public messaging task and challenge for both media and health officials should be to convey the relative risks of contracting Covid-19 in an environment where people need to move out of lockdown and start returning back to work and the outside world. These messages could be as straightforward as explaining how long a person could talk to a friend or colleague on a pavement of how long it will be safe to sit at a table in a cafe or restaurant.

This will help to build trust in moving into the outside world again. “The big issue we are having is trust. When you go outside again, people might not know what kind of scenario will be safe.”

Akpan warned that the pandemic will have real and long-lasting effects on post-Covid behaviour. Many people might never return to indoor health activities such as gyms or yoga, while many might find it difficult to attend indoor sport, cultural and social events.

4. Quality content wins back trust

With statistics showing people’s trust in the media has eroded, it’s crucial that publishers produce quality content to win back readers, the conference heard.

“The work of journalism and putting out accurate information is not sexy – it takes time and you can’t be tweeting the whole time,” said Maureen Hoch, Editor and Managing Director of Digital Content, HBR.org during a panel discussion.“But quality is what people will return to at the end of the day and, if you look at newsrooms, it’s some of the editors and the managers who have to protect the time of the people doing the work. It’s the job of the people running the whole operation to make sure people understand their priorities.”

According to Matt Egan, Global Editorial Director, IDGC, USA, media organisations will get better at cutting through fake news as they catch up properly with technology. “We are going through this very rapid cycle of technology change and it’s taking a while for content providers and consumers to catch up,” he said “But I am optimistic because quality ultimately does cut through. It is about focusing on knowing who your audience is and delighting them with high quality.”

An important part of winning back trust is choosing the right platform to reach your readers, added Dawn Kissi, Co-founder, Emerging Market Media, USA.

“If I spent four months on an investigative piece that I was proud of and the goal was for it to have an impact I wouldn’t put it on Facebook first or promote it on Google,” she said. “I would put it on the front page of my paper or on my website. Are you going to trust a link that’s been manipulated and has been traversing the web for a month or are you going to trust something that in one place on a trusted platform?

“The way news organisations are manipulating a piece of AP or Reuters copy is actually quite troubling because the headline is what people are going to remember. And if it doesn’t capture the nugget of the story it can change its whole perception and there goes the journalist’s work out the window. I hope people are not going to Facebook as their first port of call.”

5. Fighting fakes will become vital to win back trust

Hazel Baker, Global Head of User-Generated Content Newsgathering at Reuters in the UK presented congress delegates with a set of videos and asked participants to decide if they were true or false. With the online responses showing deep division between participants, it set the scene for demonstrating just how complex and important it has become for Reuters to verify user-generated footage and facts before Reuters can secure the rights and distribute it to clients.

Focussing on user generated news videos, she explained how sophisticated fake videos are fast becoming more prevalent. One of the methods used to create fake videos Reuters feel they need to stay on top of is deep fake videos. Deep fake videos are realistic synthetic videos being created using computer-generated imagery created through artificial intelligence (AI).

These fakes are harder to spot because AI makes the videos far more realistic. AI also makes it possible to create these fakes in a very short space of time. While many deep fake videos are currently found in the adult entertainment industry, she said, her team at Reuters believe “there is every possibility that…deep fakes could cross over into the mainstream news agenda – with malicious intent”.

She said now is the time to educate themselves about the possibilities of deep fakes because it will help them understand which videos are likely to be deep fakes and also who would be motivated and have the skills to create these fakes.

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