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San Fran Chronicle biz editor Owen Thomas talks covering COVID-19

May 11, 2020

Posted by Erica Thompson

Owen Thomas – Business Editor, San Francisco Chronicle

Tell us a little bit about the state of The Chronicle’s newsroom and when you decided to go fully remote?

We were deemed by the local health authorities as an essential service, but we talked about whether we’d need to be digital-only. Ultimately the health orders considered us an essential service and we saw the essential nature of our work. We printed a big banner headline that said “Stay at Home” on March 17. That same week you saw park rangers and police officers holding up the paper and saying to people, “You cannot come here.” That image really hammered home to me what it means to be an essential service at this time. 

Prior to that, we’d been talking a lot about running our newsroom virtually for a long time, but mostly with earthquakes as the main reason. We were already practicing “stop, drop and roll” drills- wherever we were at the moment of the drill we’d assume there was an earthquake happening and we would simulate coverage. It was more about practicing the line of communication. Do you know who your editor is? Do you know who’s feeding you information for that story? 

That made it pretty easy when we said, “It’s looking like we’re going to have to do that virtually.” I won’t say it actually was easy, but we had that foundation in place. The existing system was really about reporters and editors, so we hadn’t strongly considered virtual production in that process. That was where we had a bit more struggle.

I should also give credit to Tim O’Rourke, Digital Editor. His team was all working from home before the main newsroom, partly because a few members of that team had attended a conference and an attendee had tested positive. So some of those team members were already isolating at home because of possible exposure. The thing we really didn’t want to happen was for our reporters and photographers to become vectors of disease into the community.

Now that you’re home what’s it like?

There was already a big push to get on Slack. The business team had been going through a digital transformation workshop and had moved to a separate building. They mixed up their beats and experimented with some new techniques. So we tried adopting Slack since the digital team had also adopted it. We came together as a newsroom and decided this is going to be our tool for internal communications. 

The fact that we were already using a fast, digital-friendly collaboration tool made remote work a lot more possible. It’s one of many things that enables it. Our content management system used to be posted in a classic in-house data center, and it was tied to being physically in the office on the network. 

So much of reporting has to do with your sources and building those connections. How is your staff finding building and fostering those relationships virtually?

We still have reporters out in the field (in masks) talking in person to sources, but we always practice protection. We practice physical separation and we have PPEs (Personal Protective Equipment) for our photographers. I’ve heard conversations about wiping camera equipment down with alcohol after a shoot. We’ve been asked to give more time for photo shoots that aren’t breaking news. 

Everything requires a little more consideration. For instance, we had a request to have a reporter go out and talk to students who were getting laptops so that they could learn from home. We went back and forth on that since it was something we’d normally cover, but was it worth it? And can we get those quotes another way, perhaps by interviewing the kids over the phone? 

It’s not ideal, but I’d say the reality of modern journalism is that a lot of sources you talk to are already just on the phone. You often have that one coffee meeting to feel each other out, and then you just call them after that. Maybe now we’re not having those first meetings, and maybe that will wear on our ability to develop sources over time, but it doesn’t feel like a huge barrier. What you miss are the spontaneous connections, and it does put lower wage workers at a disadvantage since they’re really hard to reach unless you go out in person and talk to them. I do worry about the effects on representation of all parts of society in our coverage. I think you just have to work around that and make smart decisions on when it’s worth it to go out.

How much of your staff has moved to covering COVID? And is it hard to find new angles given how dominant this story is in the news cycle?

First thing we did was quadruple the number of health care reporters we have. 

We already had one health and science reporter in metro who has long been seen as a leading voice on HIV and AIDS, Erin Allday. I had a health care reporter, Catherine Ho, who moved over. And then we pulled in one of our senior reporters, Nanette Asimov, as an editor. I gave another reporter over to the health team, so there were two business reporters covering health more or less full time. I pulled in a sports reporter and a metro reporter to do more coverage of small businesses and the economy. 

So where before we had separate beats like retail, commercial real estate, health care, the gig economy, tech and big tech and the workforce, now it’s just people mostly covering the economy at large and the economic pain that small businesses and their workers are feeling. Those are the top big narratives. We’ve broken up the business team and put two smaller teams on those topics. 

We do try to contemplate the repercussions of a big blowup of the newsroom and all of the beats like we have done. There’s a lot of change that reporters are dealing with, so we try to keep editor/reporter relationships intact as much as we can. Our sports editor is now acting as a metro editor, but he’s brought over a lot of his team so that they still have that comfort level. Since there aren’t arts and cultural events, our sports and entertainment teams have been largely redeployed. 

There’s no shortage of COVID-related content out there. Has this made you assess the way you present stories or how you tap further into your readership?

We’ve taken a lot of the playbook from previous big news events and used it for this. For example, the wine country fires, or last year during the PG&E power shut-offs when PG&E was shutting off power to its line for the first time as a preventative measure to prevent the kind of fires from a few years ago. 

We took that live updates muscle and applied it to the coronavirus updates. Pretty much from the time that the shelter-in-place orders went down we’ve been doing live updates for twelve or more hours a day. We had them from 5:30am to midnight most days. That’s a big lift- at least one dedicated editor, and several reporters on two entire shifts per day. We had to pull reporters up to be editors because it’s fourteen editor shifts a week, and that’s about three editors and three reporters per shift. And we pulled some reporters and copy editors in to be live updates editors which rearranged everyone’s schedules. The staff’s child care needs dictated some scheduling flexibility, so some people are now working evening shifts because they need to care for their kids during the day. 

We’re seeing a lot of publishers express concerns about layoffs and not being able to support a big editorial team. Where do you fall on that spectrum?

For our newsroom, I haven’t been given a headcount but I’ve kept everyone I originally had on the team. We have a summer intern scheduled, and it’s not whether or not we’re doing the internship; it’s just whether or not it’ll be remote. I’ve seen two digital positions that we had open prior to the crisis recently get filled. To my knowledge we haven’t created new openings to beef up our coverage, but we have a very healthy newsroom. 

As a person, and as a human being, I’m horrified to see these reports of layoffs at a time that journalists are not only in need of keeping their jobs, but the public needs them to do their job. I don’t understand the thinking at this time to take that action.

Tell us a little bit about your experience with the pandemic. Who are you quarantined with, and are there any activities you’re doing to keep yourself occupied outside of work?

I live in the most beautiful city in the world, and I get to walk my Jack Russell Terrier, Ramona. We used to take a really quick, short walk in the morning before I had to scramble to get into the office, but now we can be a little more leisurely about it. She likes to stretch her legs and patrol the neighborhood. 

I’m just so grateful for our reporters and my colleagues. We are facing challenges in excess, but we’ve got a great team backing us up and working through some of those issues. We are still able to get in and tell the stories that need to be told. I think the good thing is that right now it feels like we’re doing work that feels vital every day. We wouldn’t be journalists if we didn’t feel that. 

Right now, to serve such an urgent need in our community makes all of the difficulties and inconveniences and trouble really put into perspective. What matters is the work, and reporting the truth about the state of the world. Right now we have this amazing opportunity to do that.

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