Telum Talks To... Matt Deighton, Editor of The Advertiser about working through the COVID-19 crisis

Telum Talks To... Matt Deighton, Editor of The Advertiser about working through the COVID-19 crisis

The Editor of The Advertiser on how the only metro paper in town is rising to the challenge of being an emergency broadcaster

How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted on newsroom operations?
Pretty much 70 per cent of my staff are now working from home. At the moment, we're fully shut down one day a week, which is just preparing us for what's coming. But other than that, most of my guys where possible are working from home. So it's changed the whole way we operate. It's been, I don't know, would revolutionary be the right word? It's been just a complete overhaul of the way we've operated. We've had to change and get creative really quickly just to deal with putting out a metropolitan newspaper and websites around the clock. But I'm pretty lucky that I've got a great team. Generally, it's been pretty smooth and I don't think we've missed a deadline.

What do you think the South Australia-specific stories or angles are for this crisis?
They're closing the borders, which is massive. The figures I received after [Sunday] night's changes from the government, which obviously were essential, is that this is going to impact tens of thousands of workers, which is a massive part of our economy. There are national stories, but everything we're focusing on is very much local. What it means to our pubs, our clubs, our unemployed, our vulnerable. What it means for businesses that are still going, how we support them and how people know that they're still operating? So for us, it's all about the local impact first, the national impact second, and the international impact third.

In normal times, any one part of this crisis would be front page for a week. So how do you and your team go about putting a front page together at the moment?
I'll give you an example. I get a phone call at 12 o'clock [on Sunday] about the fact that they're going to close the borders. Any day of the week, that's a one, four, five splash. Massive. Never happened. Three hours later, they postponed the AFL season. Never happened. Three hours, or four hours, or five hours later than that, ScoMo comes out and says pubs and clubs are closed, gyms are closed. You're talking about three once in a decade type news stories happening in an afternoon.

[For the front page] you wait till the last minute. You've got to give yourself a fair bit of flexibility at the moment because that could change in a heartbeat.

This news cycle is like nothing I've ever seen in my life and hopefully, we won't see it again

The Advertiser is the only metro newspaper in town. So as an Editor of a metro paper, how do you balance reporting everything that people need to know, whilst not also inciting panic?
For me, it's not about upsetting or panicking people, but by the same token not being a Pollyanna either. You've just got to be really straight. What's the story? What's the information? What's the message? Be really clear and really concise about what you're trying to do. But also, I guess, we're performing a role almost like an emergency broadcaster for Adelaide at the moment, as we did during the bush fires. There are people looking to us as a trusted source of information to tell them what's going on in a really timely and fair and balanced fashion. And I think we're doing everything in our power to fulfill that promise.

Are you seeing increases in audience and audience engagement during this time?
We’re seeing a massive increase. We've unlocked a lot more content. And that is because I see our role in a city like Adelaide as an emergency broadcaster as really important.

Does having this kind of audience growth and engagement at a time like this, proving that people want and need the news you are producing, make the long hours and tough days a bit easier?
I think it's a privilege to be in this position at a time like this because you can actually give people the information they need. You can give them information that can actually help. I don't think anyone in the newsroom has ever worked any harder than they are at the moment.

What's the best way for people to actually get in touch with the newsroom at the moment? Is directly to journalists or to the News Desk?
I’ve got people that have really defined roles:
  • Claire Bickers in Canberra looking into the politicians and the Prime Minister’s Office.
  • Matthew Smith looking after the political team with Dan Wills.
  • Chris Russell looking after education.
  • Lizzie Henson looking after trade.
  • Jess Galletly looking after the hospitality industry.
So what we've done has been really disciplined in the roles we're giving people. So they have a direct line to the people in need. The online teams are obviously working around the clock, they're getting feedback on Facebook, on comments, on articles, passing things along all the time. And we're getting phone calls [into the newsroom]. But I think for us, it's just being really clear about who's doing what in the newsroom.​​​​​​​
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Have you heard any good news stories in the newsroom from your team that you think people should know about?
Our Sunday editor, Jess Leo, is running this campaign called OK SA, which is all about the kids that are sitting out the front of the shopping centres getting toilet rolls for old people. So there are a million good stories in there that we will tell about people. Any crisis brings out the best and the worst in people. So you see the worst in people with the complete idiocy around the toilet rolls and the fights in the supermarkets, and people behaving like idiots on the road. And then you hear these great stories about people that are just so selfless and giving so much of themselves to help people in need. I think there's a real need to tell those stories.

The key for me is, how do I balance that against the reality of the situation that our hospitality industry has basically folded overnight. How do I balance good and bad news? I think the only way to really do that is just to try and play it as straight as you can and just to be as fair as you can.

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