When The New York Times (NYT) announced in February 2020 the expansion of its breaking news desk with a new London-based team, little did it know it would be waiting eight months before the team was ready to roll.
The move was part of a bid to be fully 24/7; expanding NYT's breaking news desk to include a UK team would mean there was always a team logged in and no one would need to be pulling midnight shifts.
But of course, the coronavirus pandemic threw those plans in the air, as reporters retreated to their homes amid national lockdowns in the UK and the US.
Erin McCann, the deputy editor of NYT's breaking news team, express desk, finally made the transatlantic trip in October 2020. But since jetting over, she has barely seen the inside of the newsroom as lockdowns restrictions continue.
The breaking news desk is now operational but looks nothing like you would imagine; there is no frantic clacking of keyboards, editors in a frenzy over a lead, or even simply colleagues being able to turn their necks to speak to one another.
In a podcast with Journalism.co.uk, McCann reflects on the atypical working situation of managing a breaking news team from home.
Nothing buried in emails
The number one rule is to have an open channel for team decisions, as opposed to having information hidden in emails. This way, when McCann is taking over in the morning from the previous team, she knows what decisions were made during the night.
"Something happened, I need to see. Did we see it and pass, or did we see it and throw some resources at it to investigate? What did we decide to do?"
In her case, it is a Slack channel called the 'breaking news hub', where she can co-ordinate coverage on an event by tying together different desks. Her decisions, equally, need to be communicated to other colleagues.
Before the end of her shift, McCann produces a quick version of a story and then informs the incoming editor about the leads and what calls have been put out. It might result in a backlog of messages to catch up on but that is still better than the answer sitting in the inbox of a now fast asleep colleague.
Typically, a reporter is either always scanning Tweetdeck and Dataminr for breaking news leads, or is working on a story assigned by the editors.
Even if there is not urgent breaking news happening, McCann said there is always trending news which can be a great back-up source of story leads.
The Slack channel is full of updates about who is working on what, and new developments. The trick is to assign new tasks to reporters depending on their workload.
"You are working on something that is not urgent but you are available to pivot if there's an earthquake. Or you are working on a [non-urgent] daily but you need to get that out today, so we won't pivot you for breaking news."
Having different reporters working at different speeds and levels of flexibility means output is varied enough between instant updates and more substantial insights.
Minding the work-life balance
The competitive nature of breaking news means that staff might be tempted to stay on to get their job done. McCann accepts that reporters do want to simply control their own story.
But this year, when breaking news has been so constant and mentally draining, staff are told to trust that The Times is resourced well enough so that they do not need to go beyond their call of duty.
"No one is going to say 'get offline'. You think about expectations," McCann says.
"Is the expectation that you are logged on 24 hours a day? Is the expectation that if something happens you are the person to respond to it? Or is the expectation that you can hand off and can trust someone else to be on it?"
At the same time, the stories often follow the rhythm of the timezone where they are taking place. For example, during the 2020 Californian wildfires, even the firefighters went to sleep at some point and the story would simply continue the next day.
Want to receive journalism news and job updates straight to your phone? Subscribe to Journalism.co.uk on Telegram on our jobs channel for latest job opportunities and our news channel for a weekly digest every Monday morning.
Free daily newsletter
- Predictions for digital journalism: audience, diversity and newsroom leadership in 2022
- Could “prebunking” be the cure to helping audiences spot false news?
- David Bornstein on closing down the New York Times' Fixes column
- How the covid pandemic changed digital journalism
- How has the pandemic changed media recruitment?