On the COVID-19 front line, how South China Morning Post protected its staff

By Brian Rhoads

South China Morning Post

Hong Kong

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The coronavirus outbreak is a massive news story with global implications, and it has dominated headlines across the globe since it first broke. SCMP has a front row seat to how the situation is evolving in China, and we strive to provide fair and balanced coverage across our stories.

Contextual background: Hong Kong experience with SARS 

Hong Kong was ground zero when the SARS outbreak fanned out across the world in 2003, stretching for months and claiming 299 lives in the city. For a generation of Hongkongers, SARS had a devastating psychological impact.

Informed by that institutional memory, Hong Kong is better prepared and is expected to be more adept at handling the current coronavirus epidemic. 

This three-step reminder is shared throughout the building.
This three-step reminder is shared throughout the building.

While the government responded with procedures to contain and control the spread of COVID-19 way before confirming any cases, the habits ingrained by the painful memories of SARS were more effective. Hongkongers reacted quickly, adopting familiar patterns and kickstarting daily measures such as universal mask-wearing, disinfecting public surfaces and shutting down public facilities. Schools were closed as early as late January.

Editorial operations

Before Hong Kong was hit by the virus epidemic, SCMP had already been operating on a digital-first mindset, enabling journalists to be connected to work from virtually anywhere. Editorial staff were trained and encouraged to be agile and dynamic, with our teams using smartphones, laptops, and Google Suite to cover stories on the go.

This allowed SCMP to operate efficiently and effectively during the outbreak without any major trade-offs.

When it was announced that Wuhan was going to be shut down on the eve of Lunar New Year, towards the end of January, we immediately got our reporters out of Wuhan and quarantined them for two weeks. The Editorial team started to put into action its plan for the newsroom to operate in split teams to maintain effective operations while reducing the chance of community spread.

Antibacterial handwash, vitamin C tablets, and hand sanitizers are available across departments, meeting rooms, and common areas.
Antibacterial handwash, vitamin C tablets, and hand sanitizers are available across departments, meeting rooms, and common areas.

SCMP headquarters in Hong Kong: To better coordinate coverage, every team had at least one representative in the office every day. People were also asked to remain on their floors to avoid cross-contamination.

SCMP global newsrooms: The Post also has smaller operations in the United States (New York and Washington, D.C.) and staff working remotely from elsewhere in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Thailand, and Portugal. Bureaux in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai also share the workload with our bigger Beijing office.

For the Post’s larger offices in Hong Kong’s Times Square and Beijing, the split office arrangement was administered. Some teams were divided, with half working at home and the other half in the office. The bulk of reporting teams worked from home. The Post worked to supply large monitors to key staff, ensuring quality wouldn’t suffer. 

How SCMP has been covering the Coronavirus story

It has been a coordinated effort across multiple desks and international bureaux to ensure our stories are globally relevant. Justas with any major story, our desks are vigilant in getting these stories right. It is especially important to inform and educate our readers about the coronavirus situation in China and its regional/international impact.

The goal of our newsroom was to keep readers updated and explain to the world what is happening in China and the rest of the world. We managed to do this with a combination of breaking news, infographics explainers, comprehensive wraps, and analysis pieces to help readers understand the situation in China more comprehensively.

SCMP has been dedicated to covering the issues, impact, and implications of the coronavirus outbreak to educate and inform our global readers. Now, more than ever, citizens of the world need to have a comprehensive and informed point of view on the story. 

What the world needs now is swift and objective coverage from credible news sources and focus on transparency and education to prevent overreaction and panic. We also need to be especially vigilant about fake news. We have a dedicated coronavirus topic page dedicated to all of the above.

Arrangements for SCMP employees

Work From Home (WFH) arrangement: The company informed staff as early as January 28 to start working from home. Everyone had already been equipped with laptops. Offices remained open for essential staff, while IT help desks stayed on call to assist with technical issues as people got used to a different working environment.

Travel: Business travel to and from mainland China was suspended, while management had to approve travel to other countries. Staff returning to Hong Kong from mainland China had to inform their managers, then work from home for 14 days. People also had to tell their department heads about any personal travel outside Hong Kong.

Visiting the office: Employees were asked to wear a mask to and from work and as much as possible while in office, and to wash their hands regularly.

While working from home: When working from home, employees were asked to check in regularly with their manager and teammates by Slack, e-mail, or phone. Employees were asked to be easily and readily accessible via primary communications channels during all work hours.

Conducting meetings while working from home: Video conferencing was available via Google or Slack, meaning meetings could continue as scheduled. Employees were strongly suggested to host meetings over video rather than relying on audio alone.

Transition back to office: The company transitioned staff back to working from the office, ramping up starting the week of February 24. SCMP arranged to have about 50% of staff back to the office from Monday, February 24, and then move up to 100% by the week of March 2. 

SCMP offers dedicated bins for used face masks at the office.
SCMP offers dedicated bins for used face masks at the office.

Maintaining vigilance: Employees were asked to avoid crowded places or receiving visitors at home. The work-from-home arrangement was meant to help us minimise unnecessary physical contact for better protection.

Employees were asked to maintain good personal hygiene and food safety, to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly, to avoid consuming raw or undercooked animal products, and to consult a doctor and notify their manager if they experienced any symptoms of respiratory illness.

About Brian Rhoads

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