How the Daily Mail went from newsroom to 'Zoom rooms' to defy the Covid-19 crisis

It was the day no journalist thought they would see – the miracle of the paper brought out with not a single person in the office, a totally empty newsroom.

Even on Christmas Day, our Kensington HQ would normally be buzzing with 200 or so editors, reporters, designers and subs noisily debating how best to wrestle 60,000 words into an 80-page paper that chimes perfectly with the sensibilities and interests of the Mail’s millions of loyal readers. On a normal day, there could be double that.

(This article first appeared in the British Journalism Review)

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On March 24, for the first time ever in the history of a national newspaper, there was no one. And yet by some miracle – not to mention a bucket-load of sweat and very hard work – the next day a brilliant paper emerged: challenging, informing, intriguing and entertaining in equal measure.

As for the days and weeks that followed, even the Mail’s harshest critics would be hard pushed to argue that the paper has lacked punch. It emphatically led the way on testing and the crisis in our care homes; it then made positive interventions on NHS volunteering and with Mail Force, a groundbreaking initiative to start a charity to source PPE and deliver it to where it is most desperately needed. In just a few days, more than 20,000 cheques arrived from readers and our total donations soared to more than £7million.

And all this without a single soul in our newspaper office. So how have we done it? A large part of the answer is, of course, technology.

Long before the coronavirus threat emerged, the Mail, like other national newspapers, had detailed – if dusty – disaster recovery plans in place in case some unspecified problem prevented us from attending our Kensington offices. The basic plan was to decamp to a parallel newsroom in Leicester. If that didn’t appeal, we could always head up to our Scottish offices in Glasgow instead.

But as the scale of the coronavirus crisis hit home in early March, it was clear that Leicester or Glasgow weren’t the answer. Instead, from a standing start – and in just two weeks – we embarked on a massive push to enable as many journalists as possible to work from home. For some, of course – reporters, feature writers – the challenge wasn’t so great. Our reporters and writers were already used to being out and about and filing copy remotely. They were the first to leave.

Next, with a deployment of laptops – and patient instruction from our outstanding IT department on how to connect directly into our work computers – we set about thinning out our busy news, features and picture desks. Where there had been sixes and sevens, there were now only twos or threes, with the rest dialling in from home.

Next to go were downtable subs. Again, armed with laptops and the capability to operate their office computers remotely, home working began to take root in the Mail’s production departments, too.

After a few frantic days, the Mail’s newsroom was just this: the senior editors, a handful of key executives on every desk, chief subs, designers, and the most senior production execs on the back bench – a few dozen sitting among scores of computers which seemed dormant but now sported eerie signs saying: “Do not turn off. This machine is being operated remotely.”

Even then, it seemed impossible that the senior execs, chief subs, art desk and back bench – the central functions which involve constant back-and-forth communication under the relentless ticking pressure of the clock – could do their jobs from home. And yet within days – spurred on by the unwelcome news that the night editor himself had departed with Covid-like symptoms halfway through his Sunday shift – that Rubicon too was crossed.

Technology – and our IT department – again played an essential role, this time with the rapid deployment of Slack, for quick and easy messaging between functional groups or “channels”, and, of course, Zoom. Now ubiquitous, but then unknown to us, Zoom video conferencing was an obvious answer for daily set-piece meetings such as the editor’s daily news, features and leader conferences.

Less obvious was the realisation that we could closely simulate the office environment by setting up dedicated “Zoom rooms” for each department or working group. Better still, instead of setting up specific Zoom meetings at certain times, individuals could stay in their department’s Zoom room indefinitely to mimic their normal office environment. You want to visit another department? Easy – just come out of your department’s Zoom room and go into theirs.

Sounds straightforward? It isn’t, of course. Ask any of our journalists, and they’ll tell you they are working harder than ever just now. The creative spark which can fly off an impromptu conversation is also deeply missed, as are more mundane things such as fashion shoots, parties and sporting events. The threat of a lost broadband connection is never far away, either.

But the proof of the pudding is that, after deploying 200 laptops, 74 monitors, 71 keyboards, 33 Mifi devices, 16 Slack channels and 15 dedicated Zoom rooms, the Mail is not just surviving, but thriving.

Alex Bannister is the managing editor of the Daily Mail.

This article appears in the current issue of the British Journalism Review magazine – visit bjr.org.uk for more.

Picture: Google Maps

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