Telum Talks To... Stéphane Delfour, Bangkok Bureau Chief, Agence France-Presse

Telum Talks To... Stéphane Delfour, Bangkok Bureau Chief, Agence France-Presse

Can you tell us more about yourself?
I am a 48-years old Journalist and Business Developer in the media sector. I am passionate about living through the changes of our times. It’s complex and dangerous in many ways, but full of new opportunities too. Challenging and exciting at the same time. Whenever I can, I enjoy spending quality time with my family, playing tennis and seeing as many art exhibitions as I can. I also call myself a foodie – well, I am a Frenchman – and my new home Bangkok is just the place to be in that regard! I look forward to the day when the city can resume its activities again, once the COVID-19 crisis is behind us.
 
How did you start working in the media ? Can you tell us more about your journey to date?  
I joined Agence France-Presse ​​​​​​in 1998 after I graduated from journalism school in Paris. At the time, I was hired to join a team of TV anchors working in partnership with Bloomberg TV. I did this for three years and was then trained as a Video Journalist at AFP just as they decided to establish a video department to cover the news for all our clients.
We were just a handful then, now AFP employs 1700 reporters worldwide, and delivers quality content to hundreds of major media organisations like KBS in South Korea, the BBC, CNN, etc..
Thanks to our 200 bureaus around the world, as AFP staff you have so many occasions to be stationed in different countries if you want to or are able to relocate. I myself lived for three years in Washington DC during Obama’s first term when AFP launched its international operations. I then moved to Brussels where I worked closely with the EU institutions, as head of video for our on-demand subsidiary AFP-Services. Before moving to South East Asia last year, I also headed the AFP video team in France for five years, at a time of multiple disruptions: the Paris attacks in 2015, the election of president Macron in 2017 or the Yellow vest movement in 2018.  Those last years of coverage in France were the most intense and instructive years of my life.
 
What are your areas of responsibility for AFP right now? I’ve heard that you also oversee AFP Services? 
I am the Chief of the Bangkok Bureau, which is our main base in South East Asia. I oversee a team of about 40 people, with country bureaus in Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia. In all of our bureaus, we have newsrooms with text Reporters, Photographers and Videojournalists, We are assisted by several key support departments: IT, administration and sales. I focus more on business development, innovation, human resources and finance. Delivering fast and trustworthy information is at the heart of the mission for a global news agency like AFP. I would say that our job is to provide the best possible coverage of the region. This means being in permanent interaction with our sources, always listening carefully to our clients’ needs, maintaining a high presence of our journalists on the ground, producing innovative and meaningful stories, and smart decision-making.
 
Regarding AFP-Services, which is our content production subsidiary, this is a totally separate operation from our newsgathering. My role as Bureau Chief is to help the company develop all its activities in the region, including AFP-Services.  In South East Asia, AFP-Services has joined forces with a local creative agency to offer a very competitive end-to-end brand content solution to businesses, NGOs and institutions. With the booming of the digital economy, we see a growing need of all those actors to produce high quality multimedia content to address and engage their audience and communities. The purpose of AFP-Services is to assist them in this transformation. We believe the South East Asian market is a very dynamic one, and the first results of our strategy are very promising.
 
We’ve heard that AFP has several new projects in the pipeline – what  can you share with us? 
I can share with you that globally, AFP is going to launch its new website very soon (www.afp.com), which will improve our capacity to showcase our content.
Among the projects we are working on more specifically in South East Asia, we have launched a photo contest in Laos that will go on through all of 2020 and is open to everyone. It was initiated by the French embassy in Vientiane, and AFP as a partner is in the jury and will publish the winning photo on its website. We are also working with other media to develop workshops and conferences on fake news. We have stopped using that term to be honest, and we prefer to call it fact-checking, or even digital verification.  I think we can say that AFP is recognised now globally as one of the main experts in this domain.
 
Can you tell us more about the AFP Fact check site?
The AFP Fact Check blog was launched in early 2018 in response to a growing tide of online disinformation, specifically on social media. We seek to help the public and newsrooms come to informed conclusions about information they find online, whether from social media posts, news articles, videos or statements. We are now operating in 30 countries globally. We publish reports in eleven languages: English, French, Spanish, Polish, Czech, Slovakian, Portuguese, Arabic, Bahasa Indonesian, Bahasa Malay and Thai. In Thailand alone, where we started fact checking last November, we have published almost 50 reports so far. We have several countries in the pipeline for 2020.
If you allow me, I would like to share with your audience a global report that we published last week on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which can read here : https://factcheck.afp.com/debunks-novel-coronavirus-prevention-cures-treatments   
 
Any challenges you have faced as an organisation working in the digital disruption age?  
It’s no secret that the news industry is currently going through a massive crisis. The audience is leaving the traditional media, advertisement budgets are going down, and the news (regardless of their quality) are available online at all time, and most of the time for free. So what we have seen in the few past years as a result is the market value of content dropping dramatically. So what does it mean for news agencies, whose business model is to sell subscriptions to media? It means their revenue will melt like snow under the sun if they don’t adapt quickly and innovate. The main challenge is to switch from a print culture to a digital culture, which includes diversifying your activities, updating your technologies, developing your staff’s skills, and putting in place a more agile organisation.
To give you just one example, at AFP, we believe that visuals are an essential part of our coverage. In more and more of our bureaus, including in Bangkok, all staff – not only the journalists – have been trained to shoot, edit and transmit photos and videos (even live!) for breaking news using their smartphone. In a few years, our video operation – AFPTV – has become a global reference in the broadcast industry, and is a major growth opportunity for AFP.
 
What are the strategies / tools used by AFP to tackle the changes in the audiences, particularly that of the younger generation? 
What we are trying to do is first to change the way we approach a story. Take plastic pollution for example. A few years back we would probably have written a very interesting article with the best experts explaining what is at stake with lots of figures. Today, we still need those experts, but we will have a more human-centric approach. How does this issue affect me as a human being, and what can I do about it? Last summer we told the story of this Thai teenager Lily, who goes every weekend on a paddle and cleans the canals of Bangkok, and we first reported it as a visual story in a digital format. We saw a huge impact in the uptake and circulation of this story by our clients. It doesn’t mean we have to do only stories like that, but it means when we have a good character, when the topic is strong, and the format of narration is innovative, we are more likely going to reach the young audience. So we have identified several broad topics that we are trying to focus on - future of the planet, digital age, unfairness - just to name a few.
In response to concerns of AFP clients, who are seeing the youth market flee traditional media outlets in favour of social media to get their news, we have also launched a “New Audiences” group last year. Its role is to help AFP production better reflect our times. The group is composed of 10 journalists named by regional editors in chief to represent our staff’s diversity and to give a voice to a younger generation.

In the midst of Covid-19 situation, how are you managing your team? Can you tell us more about how AFP as a whole is managing this extraordinary situation?
This situation is in many ways unprecedented and handling it as a Manager is a real challenge. Experience from previous crises was helpful to some extent, but not sufficient. The key point is communication with the staff. Any important decision regarding office rules is made as collectively as possible, prioritising health. At the very beginning, we made sure we had enough stock of masks and hand gels. We distributed them to all staff members and made them available throughout the office space. Then, we introduced new rules ranging from self-quarantine for staff returning from infected zones, to leaving the main door of the office open to minimise surface contact. Quickly, as the outbreak was reaching Thailand, we introduced teleworking as an option to all staff, and finally made it mandatory on March 22nd when it became obvious that a state of emergency was coming. It was announced a few days later. We also introduced extra safety rules for our reporters, especially for our photographers and videographers who are the most at risk. In some cases, we considered safety was not guaranteed and decided to give up on the coverage.

The government issued the Emergency Decree and advised people to work from home. Does the remote working policy poses any challenges for a media?
As mentioned, at AFP we made work from home mandatory even before the decree was in place.  But of course, it poses many challenges for us as a news agency which we are working to address. First, we needed to put in place a new organisational structure that would guarantee business continuity. We cannot just stop covering the news!  Some of the measures mentioned above have helped us, such as journalists conducting interviews via skype, ensuring our photographers and videographers are well-equipped for safety using goggles and gloves, and in some cases full body gear, there was also a technical challenge: delivering the news is highly dependent on the technology. It was imperative to provide everyone with a laptop and a fast and reliable connection to the Internet whether at home or on their mobile phones, as well as to ensure that our servers are always under close maintenance.  There was also an administrative challenge: how to make sure we can do all the paperwork on time, sign and certify documents, etc. And most importantly, there is a human resources challenge: how do we function efficiently as a team when everybody is working from home? Again, communication is key. Regular videoconferencing is very useful, but I also try my best to have one-on-one contacts, to ensure that no one feels “abandoned” and that everyone keeps a good spirit. In the long run, this is where we can be most at risk.

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