Latin American newsrooms adapt operations as new coronavirus spreads across the continent

As the new coronavirus spreads across Latin America, newsrooms in the region take steps to prevent contagion and protect their teams. Among them, placing journalists who recently arrived from abroad in quarantine, avoiding face-to-face interviews and, when possible, working from home.desk

In Latin America, the first case of the new coronavirus was recorded in Brazil on Feb. 26. The first death occurred in Argentina on March 7. This map of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas shows the current case counts in the region, revealing that the disease is already present in virtually all countries.

The president of the Inter-American Press Society (SIP), Christopher Barnes, recommended that media outlets in the region implement and observe the benchmarks of the health protocol. In a note, he wrote:

“Regrettably, unlike our other private sector counterparts, we are on the front line of this battlefield and are unable to shut down operations completely. We should not take for granted our staff's concerns regarding exposure; empathy, communication and transparency where that is concerned will go a far way to keep them motivated to do their critical work.”

In Brazil, the country's largest newspapers, such as Folha, Estadão and O Globo, have been adopting preventive measures, while seeking to maintain a standard of coverage of the crisis itself. The largest country in the region, it also has the highest number of cases of the new coronavirus.

On Tuesday, March 17, the first case of the new coronavirus was confirmed at Editora Globo, which publishes the newspapers O Globo and Extra, in addition to Revista Época and other publications. The employee works at Vogue magazine, based in São Paulo, and is isolated, as are other employees who had contact with her.

The company, however, started preventive measures the previous week. Since Friday, the 13th, employees have been instructed to work from home when possible. Globo's editorial director, Alan Gripp, estimates that 40 percent of the newsroom is in this situation, which he believes should increase in the coming days.

“For now, we provide masks for those who would feel safer [using them], although experts point out that the use is only recommended for people with symptoms. We are also acquiring other equipment suggested in international protocols set up to cover the pandemic. But as a general rule, we will avoid exposing our employees to risk,” Gripp told the Knight Center.

La Voz del Interior

Redacción de La Voz del Interior sin muchos de los periodistas, que están trabajando desde sus casas (Photo: Ramiro Pereyra/La Voz del Interior)

In Argentina, all outlets of the Cimeco group started this week to test a model in their newsrooms of working remotely. The company publishes the newspapers La Voz del Interior (Córdoba), Los Andes (Mendoza), the magazine Rumbos and the site Vía País. The group's editorial director, Carlos Jornet, told the Knight Center that the newsrooms should become almost entirely remote over the next few days.

“For now, we are conducting pilot tests in which approximately a third of the print editions staff works from home every day. In the case of websites, in some of them, the whole task is done remotely. And in others, only editors-in-chief go to the newsroom,” Jornet said.

He admitted that one of the challenges is to maintain the levels of quality and quantity of reports and articles while these measures are implemented.

“As circulation is restricted and the number of cases in our coverage areas grows, so also grows the concern of those who have to work in critical areas, such as hospitals, laboratories where tests are performed and airports. This encompasses both reporters and photographers. And for this we have developed action protocols that we are beginning to implement,” he said.

Also in Argentina, Diário Huarpe, from San Juan, started this week to adopt preventive measures against the new coronavirus. The editor-in-chief himself, Abel Escudero Zadrayec, is under mandatory quarantine after returning from a trip to the United States.

“There are several tools to do decent work while maintaining ‘social distance’: from phone calls to social networks, through messaging services and the collection of information through other media (radio, TV, sites, etc.). If there is any special case, the protection mechanisms recommended by specialists are analyzed and determined,” Zadrayec told the Knight Center. "Until now we have not detected a negative impact. The newsroom strengthens its efforts in critical times to continue serving the audience with ethical and quality journalism. That is our inalienable mandate."

In Colombia, one of the largest newspapers in the country, El Espectador, told almost all employees to work from home, according to digital manager Edwin Bohórquez Aya: “Most of us moved to telecommuting for reasons of public health. Remote work then, even for design and style correction, as journalists are already accustomed.”

Smaller outlets: accustomed to working remotely

In addition to traditional outlets, many of the new digital media that were born in recent years in Latin America are also taking preventive measures. This is the case in Brazil, of Agência Pública, JOTA and Congresso em Foco. The three closed their newsrooms completely. In the case of Congresso em Foco, which specializes in covering the federal legislature, journalists are prohibited from entering Congress.

“Since Thursday [March 12], we have left Congress and we will not return, nor will we return until the risk passes. We have good access to politicians, to the sources we need, which are parliamentarians and their advisers. (...) Congress represents a very big risk. Parliamentarians travel a lot, hug, kiss, pick up [children]. It is an activity of contact with the public,” Sylvio Costa, founder and editor-in-chief of the website, told the Knight Center.

At JOTA, which covers all branches of government, the measure was facilitated by the fact that the company, which is five years old, already has a strong culture of working remotely, including its main leaders. Only recently have the newsrooms in São Paulo and Brasília moved to their own space – until then, they had been operating in co-working spaces.


JOTA's empty newsroom in SP (Juliana Moreira/JOTA)

“Our reporters often need to be at the institutions they cover. This is the most difficult case to solve. Our guidance, sent last week, is for everyone to work from home and for exceptions to be analyzed individually,” Felipe Seligman, founding partner of JOTA and also Chief Revenue Officer, told the Knight Center. He also said that since some of the institutions covered by the team have also suspended their activities, the coverage will prioritize behind-the-scenes information and other issues related to the new coronavirus.

At Agência Pública, the main measure was to suspend work in the newsroom starting on Monday, March 16. “The most important thing, in addition to the health of our team, is to fulfill our social role to prevent the peak of COVID from being as damaging as it was in other affected countries. We are focusing our investigative coverage on the topic, especially in terms of data, but everything is being coordinated remotely. We intend to maintain the pace and quality of publications in this way,” Natalia Viana, founder of Pública, told the Knight Center.

At La Voz de Guanacaste in Costa Rica, the team of nine people was also instructed to work from home. The idea, as in other media, is to test how remote production will work and to identify and fix flaws they encounter along the way. However, executive director Emiliana García anticipates an increase in unforeseen expenses should the crisis continue: “Journalists, when working from home, are using their own cell phones and Internet connection, which represents a new expense that La Voz will cover and that is not within our budget,” she told the Knight Center.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has issued a safety advisory for tips on how journalists can protect themselves while covering the new coronavirus. Take a look here.