How COVID-19 upended staff, page views, and advertising at Ekstra Bladet

By Dawn McMullan

INMA

Dallas, Texas, United States

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The rules in Denmark, as they are in most places, are changing every day. All bars, hair salons, restaurants, and the like are closing down. People aren’t allowed to be in groups of more than 10. The government is trying to support SMBs with the income they’re losing. The borders are closed. Citizens are being called back from abroad. The government actually sent three flights out on Wednesday to bring back locals who were in Morocco and couldn’t get home. 

And all of this happened within the last four days. The most efficient way to get home office supplies to suddenly homebound employees? Taxis. 

“I would say what you’re seeing in France and Germany, most of Europe, is the same,” said Ole Sloth, managing editor of Ekstra Bladet, based in Copenhagen. “The UK and Sweden are maybe one week behind from the rest of us in terms of shutting things down.” 

INMA Senior Editor Dawn McMullan interviewed Sloth via Zoom on Wednesday while he sat at his new home office in front of a big window with a lovely view of nothing going on outside.

Sloth shared what he and his staff have been through in less than a week and what the near future holds. 

Ekstra Bladet Managing Editor Ole Sloth speaks from his new home office about the changes that have taken place in the past week because of COVID-19.
Ekstra Bladet Managing Editor Ole Sloth speaks from his new home office about the changes that have taken place in the past week because of COVID-19.

INMA: Tell us how your staff is working now. 

Sloth: The whole staff went home on Friday — 300 employees. The only ones in the office are in the Breaking Center, the online edition. Usually that team is made of 40 people and now we are four. We also have a video producer sitting in a separate room; a TV host in the studio, also in a separate room; and in the newsroom, only four. So in total we are seven, including the producer. The four editorial people are together, five metres from each other. We started with 10 people in all, then we reduced it to six, then to four. 

INMA: Did you have a plan for this previously or was this created from scratch with the COVID-19 crisis?

Sloth: We did it from scratch. We started planning Wednesday evening. It came about very quickly. We got together, the management team, and started planning and organising, deciding which positions would be the key positions. Then we tried to organise which story we would work with at the moment. What about sports, for instance? All sports are closed down. No soccer, nothing. How do we manage that with the editorial department?

At our Breaking Center, for example, we have a news editor and a news hunter. That is actually something you can do from home, but it would be much more efficient if you were sitting together with the news editorial team because there is so much coordinating all the time. That’s why we started with 10 people, but we reduced it to four because we learned as we went that we were also able to manage that using Zoom and Skype. 

INMA: How is it going, producing the newspaper with the mostly remote team? 

Sloth: Today [Wednesday] we produced the whole newspaper with editors working from home for the first time in history. We had a full-sized newspaper … we did it on time and all editorial staff working with the newspaper worked from home. 

After being affected by COVID-19, Ekstra Bladet edited a full edition of its newspaper out of office.
After being affected by COVID-19, Ekstra Bladet edited a full edition of its newspaper out of office.

INMA: What is your role in all this? 

Sloth: My role is to manage what we call our situation room. The management team meets every morning at 10:15. In Denmark, by legislation, all companies have to have what we call a “working environment organisation, so both the editorial and commercial groups meet every day at 11 a.m. We are discussing who is grounded due to coronavirus. We haven’t had anybody infected yet, but we have what we call “cautious praecipe.” If you know somebody who knows somebody who is infected, then we say stay at home. But in doing that, we are getting quite vulnerable because we lose employees. Right now, I think it’s 12 employees.

We are actually going further than the authorities require. They say, ‘Go to work unless you have symptoms.’ But we found out that during the first two days, we were actually capable of getting all the stories, editing the newspaper, doing online, etc., and we can be more cautious and tell our employees, ‘Work from home, we can manage.

My responsibility is also the newspaper, and, of course, I was very happy we actually managed to do the newspaper. 

INMA: How are the logistics working with your staff working from home?

Sloth: Everybody on staff got a laptop last week. We had planned that for a long time so the timing was perfect. We supplied some employees with a big monitor, keyboard, and mouse if they needed that. We used taxis to get equipment to people. Our technical guy has been working on this for the past few days, talking to employees by phone. It went smoothly. We communicate through Microsoft, which is very efficient. 

We’d made the decision late last year that everybody in the editorial department should have a laptop. We have a lot of desks, which our journalists share instead of working with a desktop. Every time you needed to work, you had to configure your own desk. So we decided to get everybody their own laptop to have your own personal setup. Because of some delivery delays, we got them in February. We were slowly distributing them among staff, but sped that up last week. 

INMA: How is your staff doing? 

Sloth: People have very much had the attitude of ‘We’re in this together.’ It’s a rare and serious situation. We haven’t experienced anything like this since the war 80 years ago. The streets are empty. Everything is shut down. People know this is now the time to stand together and go the extra mile in terms of getting things done and making it happen, even though it’s a little more difficult. 

We try to really be in close connection with everybody. We tell everyone, our middle management, not to only talk about the stories and the journalists but also about how are your children, what about your spouse, how are you doing at home. Try to have a 360-degree conversation with every employee. 

INMA: Could this work-from-home pivot because of COVID-19 possibly change the way news staffs work in the future, beyond this crisis? 

Sloth: I believe it will. This will really be a game changer for the whole industry. There are so many perspectives in it for us as companies, as managers, on how to orchestrate the business in the future. But also from an employee perspective to have a more flexible work/life balance. I think this is very very interesting. For me, it’s impressive how, in such a short time, we managed to make this shift from having to go to the office every day. I can see there’s a lot that we’re missing, but it’s working. We also have the fact that it’s quite difficult for the reporters to get out because we’re not allowed to approach everybody and you have to be five metres from people, so that’s difficult. Nevertheless, this — how we might manage things differently — is something that we as media, as a media group, will discuss in the future. 

INMA: What have you produced in the way of unique COVID-19 content for your audience? 

Sloth: We’re doing a 24/7 live coverage on the Web. We’re trying to position ourselves as Denmark’s popular public service, and these days we do that. Last week we set a new record with 140 million page views in one week. We’re talking about a tiny little country with 5.8 million inhabitants. We set a new day record for 26 million page views. 

INMA: What about advertising?

Sloth: Advertising is going down. On Friday, we’re having a conference call with the top management team about the economic situation. Ekstra Bladet, historically, is single-copy sales. We have made the transition from printed version to online, but we depend on advertising revenue. We have a subscription freemium model, Ekstra Bladet+, and it’s increasing. But our digital subscriptions are not there yet. Advertising is a huge part of our revenue, and almost all advertisers are delaying their campaigns right now, but we are absorbing some of it through programmatic sales.

About Dawn McMullan

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