On the morning of January 1, as millions of people across India were staggering out of (or into) bed, an innocuous-looking piece of news appeared on page 18 of the Hindustan Times. In 78 words, it described a mystery virus that had affected 27 people in central China, with symptoms remarkably similar to the SARS outbreak that had claimed 800 lives in 2003.
In exactly two weeks, the virus made its way to the front page of the newspaper. At the time, one person had died of the yet-unnamed disease in China, and doctors were cautioning about the possibility of human-to-human transmission. HT newsroom discussions had already begun tossing around end-of-the-world possibilities.
It would be another two weeks before India’s first patient emerged. By then, the coronavirus was already a household word as it ripped its way through Asia, then Europe, and, ultimately, the United States. It inspired fear and panic in its wake on a scale not seen since the plague outbreaks in the Middle Ages. When the pandemic finally crashed into India, HT was ready.
Pivoting coverage to the pandemic
Early in the outbreak cycle, HT’s leadership recognised that COVID-19 and its associated fallout would change India forever. Chronicling this period would be, quite simply, the biggest story of our lives.
On March 19 — one day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first address to the nation — HT decided to radically reorganise the newspaper and dedicate 90% of its print space to cover every possible aspect of COVID-19.
In addition to the city, nation, world, business, and sport sections, a new science page was dedicated to the most significant pieces of global research being published that day, explaining their significance to the lives of millions of HT’s readers. The same day also saw the inaugural edition of a new column by Editor-in-Chief Sukumar Ranganathan, which distilled the news and developments and anchored the day’s coverage.
As a result, HT’s coverage of the pandemic has been both intensive and expansive. Three main strands of thought encompass the coverage.
The first was a ruthlessly scientific approach. This meant not just thorough vetting of all claims coming from various corners of India, but also of numbers and theories from the government. Zero consideration was given to “miracle cures” or “wondrous herbs” peddled by various groups and individuals. The inconsistencies in the compilation of official data led HT to establish its own national tracker of cases, deaths, and recoveries, collated by state correspondents, which kept the newspaper ahead of others.
The second was a focus on in-depth storytelling — whether it be in the form of narratives or data visualization. Each edition of HT over the past few weeks has carried at least three multi-state reports tracking key sectors across the country — agriculture, essential services, small businesses, and factories key among them — and brought to the reader granular details of the fallout of the epidemic and the associated lockdown.
This has also been a time of rich visual storytelling — from full-page photo essays that capture the extraordinary transformation of this 1.3 billion-strong nation to graphical and data visualisations that explore national and global news and the right way to put on personal protective equipment. In addition, we have featured articles busting fake news and helping readers understand whether the global infection curve was flattening.
The idea was to give readers a snapshot of global and scientific trends of the epidemic they were living through. At a time of panic and misinformation, we wanted to make the newspaper a repository of trust and reliable information, with prominently placed FAQs, helplines, and large charts chronicling what is closed and what is open.
The third was underlining the human suffering and resilience in each report we carried. This was most pronounced in the coverage of the migrant crisis. Our correspondents fanned out deep into the hinterlands to walk alongside workers and chronicle their stories. Care was taken to not stigmatise people contracting the infection, busting commonly held prejudices while holding to account people who flouted the rules or disregarded norms because of powerful positions.
This was also a time when some of the most vigorous debates in the newsroom centered on the question of naming patients. Factual and sober reporting was complimented with many stories carried by the newspaper of resilience and extraordinary kindness.
Indeed, from the second week of the special coverage, the newspaper decided to earmark space for stories of people in recovery or those at the frontlines of the fight against coronavirus. We were reporting on a pandemic, yes, but we were also reporting on the greatest human tragedy in decades — and our stories were told through the eyes and ears of the common person.
The high personal cost of COVID-19 coverage
The past month has been one of tremendous tumult in people’s personal and professional lives, and keeping up the extraordinarily high bar of coverage has come at a steep cost for many journalists.
With the country hunkered down and many services disappearing or curtailed overnight, journalists have struggled to tide over personal responsibilities while dealing with additional work burdens. This has often meant waking up two hours early and doing the dishes and sweeping the house before running off to cover an 11 a.m. press conference. Or doing two quick dashes to the local grocers for cans of water and bread before the office car picks them up from your home.
For many journalists, this has translated into a steady worry of running out of clean clothes (or, in some cases, alcohol).
In a time filled with fear and suspicion, journalists have fought with overzealous Resident Welfare Associations or at police pickets, straining to convince people the services they render are essential and that they’re putting their lives in danger to bring credible information to the country. Even when some of the journalists found their apartment complexes or colonies sealed, they continued to work from home.
Because the virus takes no breaks, neither can HT’s teams tracking its spread. Days often begin at 7 a.m. and end at 1 a.m. because the newsroom not only looks at every international development. Our editorial team also feeds the Web site in real-time at a time when many people are not receiving their daily newspapers and are looking for news updates many times a day.
A key consideration of the newsroom leadership was the health of HT’s journalists, so it was decided early on that operations would need to be increasingly remote. This was a significant challenge in an organisation that employs thousands and puts out 30-odd editions across the country.
Reporting and production moved painstakingly online as tech and design worked around-the-clock to upgrade software. Many in the newsroom stumbled through Web conference calls (several “hot mic” situations provided much-needed mirth in otherwise grim meetings) while the number of staff in physical offices dwindled.
By the first week of April, operations were almost completely handled remotely, and many of us were just one fat thumb fumble away from sending unseemly memes or dubious family WhatsApp forwards to sober work chat groups.
Of course, this came at a time of a precipitous drop in advertisement revenues and circulation shocks. With the size of the print newspaper reduced because of shrunken revenues and a shuttered economy, editors struggled to pack as much content as possible in fewer pages. Vendors spent hours negotiating police permissions but still weren’t successful in distributing the newspaper widely.
With more and more scientific research discrediting any speculation of newspaper being carriers of the infection, one hopes that expanded circulation will enable the tireless work of HT’s newsroom reach its readers.