The brave face of JoongAng Ilbo’s COVID-19 response

By Changhee Park

Joongang Ilbo

Seoul, South Korea

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At least the first round of panic is over.

The per capita rate of increase in the number of confirmed patients in Korea is falling. We have succeeded in flattening the COVID-19 curve.

Seoul has lost its characteristic dynamism, but all its functions remain intact. The empty streets are not due to government enforcement but the result of voluntary choice by citizens.

Daegu production team responds to the high risk

The fear related to the coronavirus climaxed four weeks ago at the end of February. For days, nearly 1,000 confirmed cases of infection were being reported, involving a religious group and a nursing home in Daegu, Korea’s third largest city with nearly 2.5 million people. The number of deaths from the coronavirus began to rise amid reports there were not enough beds and respirators to deal with the infected.

About JoongAng Ilbo

JoongAng Ilbo (in English, “The Central Times”) is a Seoul-based daily newspaper in South Korea.

First published in 1965, JoongAng Ilbo is one of Korea’s most prestigious newspapers with more than 700,000 circulation and a dynamic digital footprint. The company aims to be a news brand of record with a focus on politics, economy, social affairs, and culture.

It also has a high profile internationally with its 20-year-old Korea JoongAng Daily that aims to be the English-language world’s “window to Korea.”

International partners include The New York Times, Google, Dow Jones-Reuters, Yahoo, MSN, and Nikkei.

JoongAng Ilbo is a corporate member of the International News Media Association (INMA).

Daegu is the site of one of JoongAng Ilbo’s four major production plants. A single case of infection would mean having to shut down the entire facility.

JoongAng Ilbo focused on the following strategy to deal with COVID-19: 

  • Minimise the likelihood of infection among workers.
  • Maintain the utmost business efficiency.
  • Do not overload the system to ensure sustainability. 

In the case of workers in Daegu, commuting would expose them to the risk of infection. At the same time, a shutdown had to be avoided. Dozens of newspapers that entrusted their printing to JoongAng Ilbo were depending on us.

That’s when we received the alarming news from Daegu: Every single employee at the Daegu plant had decided not to go home but to isolate themselves at the printing facility.

The idea here was to avoid the possibility of infection by eliminating the process of commuting. Instead of working from home, they chose to live at work. All the necessities for this temporary measure, including individual tents for all 24 employees at the plant, were provided. The facility turned into a makeshift campsite.

Makeshift tents inside the Daegu production plant of JoongAng Ilbo served as the homes for production workers who decided to isolate themselves rather than go home.
Makeshift tents inside the Daegu production plant of JoongAng Ilbo served as the homes for production workers who decided to isolate themselves rather than go home.

Two weeks later, we learned that the wife and daughter of one of the employees tested positive for COVID-19. If that employee had commuted from home, he could have picked up the virus. This could have meant the shutdown of the entire printing facility. 

Focus shifts to Seoul newsroom

We were fortunate enough to overcome the Daegu crisis, but JoongAng Ilbo teams in Seoul were still exposed to the coronavirus. There was no surefire way for reporters to avoid it. The bottom line was to minimise the possibility of shutdown for the Seoul-based headquarters building.

We did that by: 

  • First checking the temperatures of everyone entering the building. 
  • People without face masks were not allowed entry into the building.
  • We covered elevator buttons with antivirus films. 
  • We took extra care in cleaning and disinfecting the building.  
Nobody with an abnormal temperature is allowed to enter JoongAng Ilbo offices. Everyone passes the camera, which automatically measures the person’s temperature. The computer screen tells you if you have a fever — and whether you can enter.
Nobody with an abnormal temperature is allowed to enter JoongAng Ilbo offices. Everyone passes the camera, which automatically measures the person’s temperature. The computer screen tells you if you have a fever — and whether you can enter.

We had to be prepared for the worst but at the same time, work was work. We came up with a compromise plan. For teams that had to work from the office, we had half the workforce take turns coming in or working from home. Members of the newspaper editing team who have to work from the office were divided into two teams working in two separate locations.

However, efforts to minimise the risk of transmission were not enough. Our goal could not be 100% remote production as that would mean giving up on the quality and efficiency of the newspaper production process. There were swift decisions to be made and work to be implemented based on the fluid COVID-19 situation.

Helping employees manage stress was also vitally important. Amid the coronavirus spread, protective face masks have become a luxury item with prices soaring and demand overwhelming current supplies. Anticipating this situation, JoongAng Ilbo decided to purchase 20,000 face masks early on in the outbreak and distributed them to all employees. Given the seriousness of the COVID-19 crisis, some would say the masks were more welcome than even a pay raise — not because they were guaranteed to block the virus but because they were regarded as a crucial ration item in what felt like a time of war. The masks offered psychological comfort to our employees.

Antivirus film was placed in the elevators of JoongAng Ilbo as research shows the buttons are carriers of germs generally. The film also is easier to clean.
Antivirus film was placed in the elevators of JoongAng Ilbo as research shows the buttons are carriers of germs generally. The film also is easier to clean.

Second wave of worry: revenue and industry survival 

Seoul now faces the second wave of this crisis. We were lucky during the first wave. Fortunately, none of our 3,400 employees were infected. Advertising revenue, which fell 10% short of our first quarter target, should be recoverable if business gets back on track in the second half. But that’s assuming everything is under control by the latter half of the year. 

That being said, such a recovery seems far from easy. The coronavirus is not expected to die down so easily. In fact, we may have to get used to the “new normal” of living alongside the virus. A prolonged lockdown around the world may paralyse global systems, which would strike a fatal blow to the survival of the media industry. It is difficult to fathom how detrimental such a blow would be. 

Therefore, gearing up for a long, protracted war against the coronavirus is inevitable. Cash-focused

management is essential, so we prioritised projects based on revenue creation. On the other hand, we are developing customised marketing strategies in anticipation of retaliatory consumption post-COVID-19. Our role as a quality stabilizer informing our readers of what is truth and what will be beneficial in the long term is still our top priority.

Korea, Wonderland?

This, too, shall pass. And the world will find stability again. Seoul is surprisingly calm, and the city is maintaining its composure during this time of turbulence. For this, I give credit to our citizens. 

When Daegu was facing an explosive rise in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus, we had doctors and nurses from around the country rushing to the region to volunteer and treat the infected. Daegu citizens, for their part, remained in Daegu instead of trying to avoid the virus by moving to other provinces. 

In this context, it’s easy to understand the voluntary decision by employees at the JoongAng Ilbo Daegu plant to quarantine themselves at the printing facility. The tone of the video titled “Korea, Wonderland?” may seem a little too emotional, but there’s no denying the outpouring of emotion as we all come together to overcome this unprecedented crisis.

About Changhee Park

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