Nathalie Bastien is a CMG member working at Radio-Canada, and the Francophone Affairs Director on the CMG National Executive Committee.
I never thought the space I’m now writing from―the end of my kitchen table―would one day become my new work desk, and that 75% of my colleagues would be doing the same.
Nor had I ever thought that March 13, 2020 would possibly mark my last day at the office, perhaps even my last day with colleagues before I retire in a few years, a chapter for which I am certainly not ready.
For 30 years, I’ve been getting up every morning to go to a buzzing newsroom of people and information. The way news is gathered and broadcast has changed enormously in three decades. In 1986, I was writing the assignments for my journalism class on a typewriter. Today, I can be seen and published around the world at the click of a button. It’s amazing.
We have covered great moments of history over the years.
Until recently, September 11 was thought to be the event that had shaken the modern world the most. And yet…
Three months ago, in our industry, the media industry, which was already in crisis, we were thinking about ways to ensure not only our sustainability but our very survival. All it took was a tiny microscopic virus to spread panic and to continue the massacre: media outlets that were fragile would not survive. Advertising revenues, already in freefall, collapsed. Several newspapers shut down, while others gave up print editions for an accelerated digital shift, laid off employees temporarily and demanded wage concessions. Some long-time craftspeople even left the profession altogether.
Necessity is the mother of invention
Some, however, managed to do in a matter of days, sometimes hours, what remote work policy review committees might never even have considered in several months. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” Plato said. It gave wings to professionals, and grey hairs to bosses and IT.
Within 24 hours we started providing coverage and broadcasting from home. We were provided equipment as best as possible… and not in a consistent manner. Colleagues helped other colleagues from a distance. We did what we thought was impossible: publish articles, broadcast a radio program and put together a television newscast live from our living room. To quote a colleague: “Television used to be my work, now I do teleworking-television.”
First, we had to shift into 5th gear to match the speed of a new technical world that many had ignored―or refused to have anything to do with: Hangout, Zoom, Facetime, Skype, Audacity. In a few hours, we stopped meeting physically around the assignment desk or the coffee machine and adapted to the virtual world for communicating with each other and with the outside world. We also sacrificed our standards for image and sound quality in a world where high-speed Internet is not accessible to everyone. That was the price we had to pay and for which the audience does not seem to have blamed us. They complied with it themselves. We often added a frame or a plant in the background to enhance the look, though.
We went straight to COVID-19 special programming. We are still “on air”, with special attention to the press briefings of political and health authorities, which became daily events not be missed. As a result of the global pandemic, we have also turned our attention even more towards foreign countries―a matter of comparing ourselves to them.
Of course, there are colleagues who have continued to go to the office. Hosts, producers, technicians. Journalists and cameramen continued to go into the field, not always under easy conditions. We can no longer enter people’s homes, or even get close to them, due to social distancing. You have to hold a pole, it’s hard on your arms. Wear a mask, even when you’re on the air. It’s not easy for our hearing-impaired viewers who rely on lip-reading. In the beginning, people were sometimes suspicious. Some colleagues were even told to go home and put themselves on lockdown as well.
The interview subjects were also difficult. Covering the dozens of deaths in senior centres, the exhaustion of health professionals, the hopelessness of thousands of people who had lost their jobs, their business, their industry. Even dreaming is on hold! We also had to face the fears of our loved ones once we got home and even those of our colleagues who sometimes saw us as potential vectors of the virus. Some of us did in fact get infected.
Colleagues had to cope with new assignments due to the cancellation of cultural and sports activities. Traffic reporters, faced with deserted roads, suddenly started covering the weather. Journalists specializing in economics were also not out of work. Questions from Canadian citizens came in by the thousands as announcements of federal government assistance were made. They were counting on us to tell them whether, at the end of doomsday, there would at least be a cheque.
Not being able to see colleagues from one day to the next and for months on end―it wears you down. We call each other, we have videoconferences, but that doesn’t make up for the face-to-face contact, the discussions, advice, support, laughs. Information doesn’t always come through so clearly. There have been moments of discouragement. And moments of great pride. Our bosses have been checking in on us. More and more meetings were held by videoconference and email. They talked about assistance programs. Asked us to hang in there. But without any guarantees. We all hope that everything is going to be ok (#çavabienaller).
Our audience followed us in this adventure, we clung to each other even more. Crises trigger solidarity. Questions arose and we set out to find answers. That’s our job, but there was also―let’s be honest―a personal interest in making sense of the whirlwind. We also made sure that we continued to entertain the public by being creative. Life had to go on!
New challenges for media workers: finding a work-life balance, additional costs, combating misinformation
The biggest challenge is finding work-life balance while working from home. When your office is your home, your home becomes your office. And when your office and home become your children’s school, well, it’s…chaos! Parents have had to turn themselves into lockdown-teachers for their children, who, from the youngest to the oldest, were missing their friends and needed attention. Then there is energy to be put to use, and the reflex is not always to use this energy for studying. De-motivation and boredom have become daily challenges. This, by the way, calls for a big thank-you and renewed gratitude to teachers!
The other major concern of those working from home is related to the lack of ergonomics in improvised workspaces. Accommodations could be reviewed to allow the purchase of adequate equipment to work, such as an ergonomic chair and reimbursement of Internet costs for all. Employees believe that employers are saving a lot of money at this time, including travel costs (for both managers and employees), office supplies and replacements, as employees who work from home appear to be taking less sick leave. Is that just an impression? Those who have kept their jobs are obviously very grateful and feel privileged. But collective agreements have been negotiated, and so have adequate working conditions. If working from home becomes the norm, there will be calls for an allowance to cover the cost of electricity, heat, Internet and setting up a suitable office. For now, we are being referred to the federal government’s tax credits.
The hardest hit, of course, are employees with precarious status, temporary workers, casual and contract workers who see the end of their work contracts approaching. The less time people take off, the fewer opportunities there are for replacements, too. We are strongly encouraged to take a vacation this summer. Working at home is insidious. We are warned of the dangers of burnout, which threatens us all.
The virus was not the only threat to journalists. There has also been a resurgence of conspiracy theories and false news, to which the US President himself has contributed. Journalism has therefore never been more deserving of its place and its credentials.
As Alain Saulnier, former news director at Radio-Canada and now a researcher at CÉRIUM, said in his article in LaPresse+ on April 10:
“We are living in a unique moment in our history, a time when we need full information, transparency, on-the-ground information and fact-checking. Information is the ammunition of the war against coronavirus…and against disinformation all over the country.”
In this sense, Radio-Canada’s program “Décrypteurs” has never been more relevant, never been more needed to refute the countless false theories spread and propagated by thousands on a multitude of social networks.
To be continued…
Quickly, the technological challenges of the beginning became allies, the organization of time and work a friend, providing flexibility and freedom, silence to concentrate, to the point of making many of us apprehensive about our return to work. We can get up later, we no longer have to deal with traffic, put on make-up, or even get dressed. Personally, I’ll admit that I mostly throw pyjamas into my washing machine. And, for the first time in my career, there are real breaks in my days. I savour them.
And what will that return to work look like? And when will it happen ? No one knows yet. The workspaces will first have to be rearranged. The employees will be consulted. Office or home? That will be the question!
Regardless of the conditions, we can be proud of the work done so far. We have demonstrated creativity, resilience and professionalism. We adapted to a whole new way of working in a matter of hours. The circumstances are not perfect, but we can see that it is working, and quite well too. Having said that…at what cost? Will the professional media industry, its workers and its audience, which increasingly relies on access to diverse, quality information have enough ambition to sustain this new way in the long term?
To be continued…
Nathalie Bastien is a CMG member working at Radio-Canada, and the Francophone Affairs Director on the CMG National Executive Committee