Haaretz and the Coronavirus: How We Are Reporting the News and Staying Safe

Israel is not yet under complete lockdown, and we at Haaretz are ready to continue our journalistic mission and uphold the newspaper’s values at this critical time – not only a health emergency, but also an emergency for democracy during a constitutional crisis

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Haaretz and the coronavirus: How we are reporting the news and staying safe
Haaretz and the coronavirus: How we are reporting the news and staying safe Credit: Jonathan Gorodischer
Avi Scharf
Avi Scharf

Dear Haaretz readers around the world,

As you know, Israel, like every other country, is confronting the spread of COVID-19. But unlike most other countries, it is doing this while undergoing one of the most serious crises its fragile democracy has ever experienced.

While our journalists continue to cover these stories, we have also had to deal with some unique challenges at this time. We hope you have not noticed any change in the breadth of our coverage, the scope of our reporting and the quality of our writing. But I’d like to share with you a little of what we ourselves have been through these past few weeks.

Just over three weeks ago, we realized we were heading for a state of emergency – we just didn’t realize how much of an emergency it was immediately going to be. It was the eve of the Israeli election, the third such election we’ve covered in less than 12 months, and our first priority was to deliver the same level of reporting and analysis that our readers have come to expect from us, despite everyone’s election fatigue.

At that point, there were fewer than 20 confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel and a few thousand people confined to home quarantine. The special mobile polling places prepared for them seemed almost like a quirky detail, something to make this election a bit different. The election proceeded without a hitch (at least the voting and counting parts; the results were once again inconclusive, and our democracy is now taking a hell of a beating).

But after the results were in, it soon became clear that the biggest story we would be covering would be not about yet another interminable round of coalition-building, but a much bigger, global story – one that would impact each and every one of us.

After election week, some members of our staff were already in self-isolation after returning from countries experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks, and all senior managers at the paper began preparing contingency plans.

It was clear we would have to gear up for a situation where a large proportion of our staff could work from home as we continued publishing both our print editions (Hebrew and English) and constantly updating our websites.

About half of our English edition workers – reporters and some of our copy editors and translators – are already used to routinely working from home. But we needed to ensure that those who regularly work from our newsroom in south Tel Aviv could do likewise as well.

Over the next few days, we compiled detailed lists of all our editorial staff, checked on the hardware and communications infrastructure they had at their homes, and, where necessary, helped make swift improvements. We carried out test runs with each editor, ensuring they had full access to our systems and could receive, edit and post text from home. We also ensured that all relevant personnel had multichannel connectivity both within our department and to all other Haaretz departments.

This allowed us, a week before private business closures officially began in Israel, to start dramatically reducing staff levels in the newsroom and getting used to having 90 percent of our staff working from home. And as the coronavirus situation escalated, we managed to reduce our on-site team even further.

No official restrictions (yet)

At present, only three or four editors work in the English newsroom during a shift: the day or night editor; a breaking news editor; a social media editor; and a website editor. In the evenings, there is also a print edition editor. Everyone else is working remotely from home.

A week before private business closures officially began in Israel, Haaretz started dramatically reducing staff levels in the newsroom to have 90 percent of our staff working from homeCredit: Jillian Jones

Our colleagues on the Hebrew desk, across the newsroom from us, are working with a similar-sized team. There is, of course, also a skeletal technical support team on hand to ensure that all our systems continue to function throughout. That’s it. Another 600 people – logistics, customer support, HR, commercial, digital, management, and others – are all working from home.

In principle, we have no official restrictions. The media (for now at least) is regarded as an “essential enterprise,” and therefore we can have whoever we deem necessary in the office to ensure we continue functioning.

Despite that, we decided to keep the largest possible number of people at home for two main reasons:

1. If someone does turn out to have the coronavirus, we don’t want any of their colleagues to become infected.

2. If at some point we are all forced to work from home, having over 90 percent of the staff already working remotely is a great way to be ready for that day.

You may not realize this when you read Haaretz in English, but only about 50 percent of our content is translated from Hebrew: the work of our Hebrew departments’ excellent reporters, commentators and columnists. The other half is original content written in English specifically for a global audience: news, views, analysis, archaeology, etc, by our own dedicated team of writers in Israel and brilliant freelancers we commission from around the world.

This is the 50-50 mix we strive to achieve in normal times, and it is the same mix we are continuing to produce right now – except it’s all being translated and edited by people working from home. And our reporters and columnists, whether they are venturing out across the country or hunched over their keyboards at home, are producing the best journalism they can, so we keep on informing and updating our readers around the world.

We at Haaretz are ready to continue our journalistic mission and uphold Haaretz’s values in this unique time of emergency - while keeping our staff safe.Credit: Jonathan Gorodischer

The technical and logistical obstacles have been immense. Working away from our fixed infrastructure at Haaretz’s offices on Schocken Street means we have to change our technological parameters, reassess how we burden our servers, decide which software we use and whether it even runs on everyone’s laptops and home computers. For the first few days, just the physical and virtual plugging-in, with the help of our support team, kept us as busy as the stories being filed.

Those first days were full of glitches, but thanks to our early start with preparations, things are much smoother now. Every editor has full remote access to all of the paper’s resources: text-editing software; our content management system; web and print editing and design tools; picture archives; wire agency feeds; and much more.

Obviously, we are all working under a great deal of stress – not only due to the technical difficulties, but also because most of us now share our workplaces with our entire families and children who are at home due to the shuttered schools and kindergartens. Some of us have partners who have lost their jobs, or are about to.

The Education Ministry’s distance-learning plan was canceled after a few days, and it takes endless creativity to keep children busy and help them through what is a difficult, even terrifying, period while still maintaining our journalistic endeavors.

One thing that helps keep us going is the positive feedback from you, our readers, on our coverage both of the coronavirus crisis and the importance of not losing sight for a moment of the escalating constitutional crisis in Israel as well.

Haaretz reporters have been leading the Israeli media on both crises, and the interplay between them, despite the government and its official spokespeople being even less forthcoming than usual about both the facts and their own plans. And our reporters and editors have been working their asses off so that the information reaches you, wherever you are, as accurately and quickly as possible.

Our readership continues to grow. In fact, it’s been surging for three weeks now, ever since the eve of the election, breaking records daily. Tens of thousands of readers are signing up for our various newsletter updates and Haaretz app push notifications on everything that is happening in Israel: from the coronavirus and politics, to opinions, magazine features and archaeology stories. People are at home and they are reading. The world is going crazy and people are reading.

Israel is not yet under complete lockdown, although it’s getting there. We are prepared, both as an “essential enterprise” and, if necessary, with our entire staff working remotely. We are ready to continue our journalistic mission and uphold Haaretz’s values in this unique time of emergency.

My heartfelt thanks go out to all our reporters in the field, our translators and editors at home, and those who continue coming into the newsroom every day, despite the difficulties and concerns. But most of all they go out to you, each and every one of our millions of readers, and especially the tens of thousands of subscribers. You are the reason we are here, and thanks to you we can continue our mission.

We would like to wish you and your families health and calm in the trying times ahead.

Avi Scharf

Editor, Haaretz English Edition

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