Lessons Learned from Running a Media Company During the Pandemic

When Indonesia’s first COVID-19 patients came to light in March 2020, Magdalene, the independent media company that I co-founded in 2013 had just recently celebrated moving into our new office. It is a 60sqm space split into two stories in a quiet shop/office building in the middle of an apartment complex. Though centrally located in the capital, we got the rent for cheap – even after significant renovation and furnishing – as the building has seen stagnating occupancy over the past few years. 

Yet, we were excited. It was our first real office after spending a year in a high-rise co-working place in a commercial district, where we rented an 8-desk space that we soon outgrew. Our team was growing; we needed more desks, unlimited hours of meeting room, lots of cabinet for storage, and just a place that we can call our own. Plus, the rent of the co-working space was about to go up by 60 percent in the second year.

Merely two weeks into working at our new office space, however, it became clear that the world was under some sort of attack that necessitated us to work remotely, at least temporarily. It wasn’t a hard decision for both my co-founder and then Managing Editor Hera Diani and me. Still, never in my wildest imagination did I ever envision more than half of the world would be stuck at home for the next year or longer. 

The temporariness of our situation marked our first week working remotely, like those rare occasions many years back in my previous office life when we were told to work from home because Jakarta had been inundated by floods. Like those happy snow days when school got canceled back when I was living in the northern climes. 

Of course, it didn’t take long before we realized the seriousness of the situation. The news were terrible; what we didn’t know or weren’t sure of scared us more than what we knew. Supermarket shelves were emptied of basic supplies with people hoarding like the zombie apocalypse had just arrived. For the life of me, I couldn’t find medical masks and disinfectant and had to order some from online stores (our first masks were made of a suffocating piece of unbreathable synthetic fabric that was enough to make me decide to not venture outside if I had to wear it again). 

Also read: Our Lives as Start-up Editors

Worse than the panic, though, was the sense of displacement – whether physically (like a couple of our staff who moved out of their boarding house to join their friends or relatives) or in a metaphorical sense. How did the world come to this? The things we had always taken for granted, like visiting our loved ones or sitting at a café suddenly became unattainable. 

On week two, we conducted an online townhall meeting for our then 11-strong team, checking on how everyone was doing, whether they had stocked on masks, disinfectant, food and others. I was prepared to send them the necessities while they were cooped up at home. 

We were lucky because we do not cover daily news, so none of our reporters had to go out to the field to report on the development of the pandemic. But we still had to reflect on the important issues or events of the day through a gendered lens. So, we focused on how the pandemic was impacting women, children and minority groups, and other issues that might not receive a lot of attention by the mainstream media. 

We discovered that the pandemic has affected women differently, one of them being an increased exposure to domestic violence and online gender-based violence. This led us to launch our Safe Space channel with the support of Splice Lights On from Facebook Journalism Project and Splice Media. 

Last year also marked the start of our 1.5 year-long Women Lead program, which is supported by Investing in Women, an initiative of the Australian Government. I was worried at first. To launch a program that focuses on women leadership, women workers, and workplace gender equality seemed ill-timed when most people were struggling with the effect of the pandemic, whether financially, physically, or mentally. This concern has proven to be largely unfounded, however. 

We quickly learned the long-term effect of working remotely – and particularly from home – that blurs the line separating the professional and personal parts of our life. Some of our staff were suffering from mental problems like anxiety and depression—at the least signs of burnout. 

Nor was I, myself, immune to mental issues. Like so many media companies, ours were facing cashflow problems as the economy was badly affected by the pandemic. With our planned revenue-generating projects being shelved, we hustled for business, pitching to would-be partners and clients left and right – often to no avail, adding to the stress I was increasingly feeling. All these while I was still mourning for my mom, who had passed away in July last year two months after suffering from a stroke. It was one of the hardest periods in my life. 

Towards the end of 2020 things started to look up, as our hard work began to yield results. And this continued into this year when we secured a few more contracts and grants that enabled us to grow our team even more.

The pandemic has also given me a lot of opportunities to learn, particularly as a media entrepreneur. As the pandemic moved nearly all activities online, there were several workshops and trainings offered by international organizations on various topics for leaders of media organizations and newsrooms, and I have learned a lot from them. Some of them were conducted by organizations that have supported us, such as the Media Investment Development Fund and International Media Services.

I’d like to share here the four most important things I’ve learned as a leader of a small media outfit over this past year: 

  1. Moments of crisis will make any issue, even small ones, bigger. Acting fast is a must but also use the opportunity to harvest some lessons. In March and April last year, as we were struggling with the early days of the pandemic, Magdalene came under a lot of attacks online, after our content became the center of a controversy. This eventually led to vicious attacks on our system that for days caused our website to be down for hours. We finally managed to overcome this problem, but we’ve also learned precious lessons on public messaging, online safety, and protecting the mental health of our staff. We also learned the need to develop a thick skin, because it is impossible to make everyone happy.

  2. Remote working can weaken team connection and their sense of belonging to the organization. In the long run this not only threatens team’s dynamics, but also affects their productivity and quality of work. After the COVID-19 positive cases began to go down earlier this year, we started to return to the office again, albeit in reduced number. But the emergence of the Delta variant that led to even stricter social distancing policies sent us back to remote working again a month later. In our regular meeting, it is important to check in on the team members and to motivate them from time to time to show them they are in your thoughts.

  3. As our business took a hit, we also used the opportunity to do some reflection. Last year, we did a series of internal discussions and workshops on our identity and our mission, which resulted in a “mini rebranding” of Magdalene. In a democratic process that involved everyone, we delved into how our readers perceived us and valued us to remind us again of the service we provide to our readers. This, in turn, informs our editorial, community and business strategies.

  4. Be quick to adapt. It’s much easier for small businesses like ours than for large ones to be adaptive and to quickly pivot when the situation calls for it. Some of our innovations over the past year were the results of this quick thinking and pivoting. We realized early on, for example, the need to balance people’s needs for important information (such as pandemic-related information) and for a sort of antidote of the “pandemic-fatigue” by offering more service articles or leisure content such as pop culture.

“Keep the people you work with as the center of your focus,” an editor-in-chief of a European media organization said in one of the media discussions I attended last year. This is central to me as a team leader and a small, independent media entrepreneur. When we started Magdalene, we made a conscious decision to have gender equality and intersectional feminist values guide all aspects of our companies, from editorial, business to operations. Taking care of our people is part and parcel of this. 

But taking care of ourselves is just as important. In our good intention to be a fair, conscientious, and compassionate leader, we may forget that we, too, are human. Too often we only realize this when we find ourselves saddled with health or personal issues after months slogging through the depth of company’s financial pressure, human resources problems, or operational challenges. 

This reminds me of a comment made by an editor-in-chief of an India-based media company that leaders need to constantly talk to each other too. Otherwise, he continued, “Who is going to console the consolers?” 

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Devi is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Magdalene.co. She has been a journalist based in Indonesia since 1996 and her writing has appeared in various national and international publications. She is also an instructor of creative writing and gives workshops and training on media and gender to Indonesian journalists. Devi is the 2018 recipient of S.K. Trimurti Award 2018 given annually by the Alliance of Independent Journalists Indonesia.

About Devi Asmarani

Devi is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of Magdalene.co. She has been a journalist based in Indonesia since 1996 and her writing has appeared in various national and international publications. She is also an instructor of creative writing and gives workshops and training on media and gender to Indonesian journalists. Devi is the 2018 recipient of S.K. Trimurti Award 2018 given annually by the Alliance of Independent Journalists Indonesia.

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