APRIL 5, 2021

Making the Media S1E07: Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Ilkka Ahtiainen on the Making the Media podcast

Story creation is a team sport. Between in-studio talent, reporters in the field, and remote collaborators, news teams have had to balance the need to stay safe through a global pandemic with the practical reality of continuing to deliver a quality service across multiple platforms.

In this episode, we ask: What are the strengths and weaknesses of a distributed model versus a more traditional approach in terms of team collaboration? How do you keep teams feeling connected and engaged, particularly when teamwork is no longer as easy as just leaning over to your neighbor?

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Listen to Hear:

  • How MTV3 weighed the pros and cons of in-person collaboration versus distributed teamwork
  • Why MTV3 is prioritizing the mental health of its staff
  • Why the pandemic was, in some ways, an unexpected boon for the news business

Our Guest This Episode

Ilkka Ahtiainen has been the Editor in Chief of the Finnish commercial broadcaster MTV3 since March 2020 after building his career as a political journalist, foreign correspondent, and Sunday Editor at Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest daily in Finland. He lives in Helsinki with his wife and two teenage children.

The news conference, they have become shorter, they have become perhaps more effective than they used to be. So you get something because of this remote Teams or Zoom conference, but you also lose something. And that's the psychological, the social part of our work. 

Ilkka Ahtiainen, Editor in Chief, MTV3

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Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Hi, Craig Wilson here, your host for the Making the Media podcast. Thank you so much for taking the time to join me for our latest episode.

One of the big challenges which news teams have had to wrestle with over the past year has been around the issue of balancing the need to stay safe through a global pandemic with the practical reality of continuing to deliver a quality service across multiple platforms. It's a topic we've talked about a lot here on the podcast, and it's clear that different approaches have been adopted in different places.

Like many things, there's no easy answer and certainly no single approach that works for everybody. For some, a distributed model has become the norm, while others have tried to maintain a more traditional approach, while still adapting to the reality of the situation.

Now, we'd love to hear your views on this and all the topics we cover, so remember you can contact me on Twitter or Instagram: my username is @craigaw1969. Or email us: our address is [email protected].

On this week's episode we speak to Ilkka Ahtiainen, Editor in Chief at the Finnish commercial broadcaster MTV3, to get his thoughts and perspective. It's worth noting that when I spoke to him, Finland in relative terms had not been as severely impacted by COVID as other European countries, but I began by asking Ilkka to outline the range of output they produce.

Ilkka Ahtiainen: We provide a full service on free platforms—TV, online, and radio—and we provide a morning show on TV, two evening shows, and our newest product is after five o'clock, a one-and-a-half-hour magazine program, but there are news in between the show.

CW: And do you have staff not just in Helsinki but spread out throughout Finland as well?

IA: Well, of course we have freelancers around Finland. Our network is nowadays not that big, but we do have three domestic correspondents, so to speak, in Finland. Of course, it's not that much, taking into account that Finland is quite large country. And then we also have three correspondents in Europe and one in the US at the moment.

CW: So, Ilkka, I think for everyone, it's been a pretty extraordinary year. It’s been an extraordinary year in news terms, but it's also been an extraordinary year in personal terms, because of everything that's going on. If we maybe think back to, say, February of last year, when I guess at that point for news organizations COVID was a news story, but it wasn't necessarily something that was having a direct impact on how we were living our lives. So I just wonder if you go back to that kind of time of the year and talk a little bit about what happened with things in Finland at that point, when it went from being a news story that you were covering to something that then had a direct impact on how you could actually operate.

IA: In February, it became quite clear that this will affect our daily work very much. Already in February, or latest in March, we started remote work. It was not such a big feature in our newsroom, because we do television and you simply cannot do that effectively, in the way we do it, remotely. But online, of course, it gave us opportunities to send people to do their work at home. And, of course, all those arrangements you do here on our premises, whatever we could to use some empty space. We had the masks also become a part of our daily life here at the newsroom.

CW: So as you mentioned there, you still have a studio facility, and of course you're still producing from the studio, but has that had to change a little bit in terms of how you've had to do social distancing, and then in terms of bringing guests in and things like that? Is that more complex to do these days?

IA: Yeah, you're absolutely right. I mean, in a way I think our newsroom, other newsrooms, they are a certain kind of COVID-19 lab. They have been, and they still are. But we have managed to organize things so that it's safe and no one gets ill here at work. Very practical things, I mean hygiene concepts, a lot of disinfectant, and I mentioned masks, then this distancing in the studio. We started to use normal microphones and of course we had to really think of our guests.

I have to admit that our news anchors, here in newsroom, we get almost daily feedback from our audience who think that the social distancing—“safety distance,” as we put it here—is not long enough, and we have to make quite an effort to answer them. The people also ask why aren't the news anchors using masks while doing their work. And everybody in this business understands why that is not the case, but some people who are afraid of the disease, of course, put this question to us.

CW: So you mentioned that some staff have gone to working from home. How do you manage something like that? Because you know the thing about if you're working in an environment where you're with other people, from a creative perspective it can maybe be easier to just turn to the person next to you and say, “What do you think about that?” And that, I think, is very difficult to replicate if you're working in an environment where everyone is dispersed. So how do you handle things like that?

IA: Now this is an interesting thing, because everybody knows that, for example, a news conference—they have become shorter, they have become perhaps more effective than they used to be. So you get something because of this remote Teams or Zoom conference. But also, you lose something, and that's the psychological, the social part of our work. And some of our colleagues who have now been working online, they've been suffering for the ongoing remote work, and they were happy in summer when they were able to come back.

But all in all, we have lost something. But what we have tried to do—because normally here in the newsroom, people talk to each other, they change opinions, they give ideas, and so we have lost part of that. But we—perhaps it's stupid, in a way—but we launched a new conference that’s just for giving ideas. So it's free to come up, pop up there, and tell what you think. And in that sense we have tried to preserve something from this social and creative part of our work.

CW: And I guess from being a manager, that in itself is quite challenging, because you know one of your first priorities of course has to be staff health. You know, I think that's our fundamental priority. And while I think when this all started, people's focus was on physical health, I think as time has moved on, there's much more focus now on making sure that people's mental health is looked after as well. So do you feel a responsibility to staff who are not able to get together to try to help them out?

IA: Well, in the very beginning of the pandemic we made the decision here among the managers that we come to work because we thought we have to set an example and be in the forefront. And I think that was the right decision. And what we have done for the mental health of our staff workers, we have also used doctors, the company who is taking care of our healthcare here at MTV, they have been visiting us. We have offered the workers the possibility to talk to them. And I think that has been very important, to let people know that they have this service, and also that some specialists have come to our newsroom.

CW: Because of restrictions—certainly around here in the UK, there's restrictions around traveling for certain things that you can’t do for certain activities, whereas of course for journalists, those kind of restrictions don't normally apply, so people can still travel around to cover stories—but I'm interested if you think that your content has changed because of the way that you're doing things now, because people are perhaps working remotely, or you may be doing more recordings using things like Zoom or Teams and things like that as well. So do you think your content has changed through the course of the year?

IA: I think that could be an item for a survey. Because now, honestly, we haven't been thinking about that kind of aspect. If there were no pandemic, of course, our correspondents would have been traveling much more than they have done now.

CW: So I think for a lot of people it's still very difficult to know what the longer-term impacts of everything that's happened in the course of this year are going to be. So you mentioned there about this ideas conference that you have, and some new things that you've done. Do you think there are things that you've done in the course of this that you would continue to do even when, hopefully, things begin to go back to a bit more like the normal life that we had before?

IA: To be honest, I think so many people in their work, in their daily life, they miss the old good times. And that's why I think people prefer continuing their work as it used to be. But of course, this is the news business. It's also about money. And I'm sure when we afterwards look at what are those parts of the work where we can spare some money, I don't doubt that, for example, traveling—if it's not the work of correspondents, it will be less than it used to be.

CW: So you mentioned that in the summer time, people were able to come back to the office and work together for a while. And one thing that I was speaking to some other people about, they’ve looked at some kind of blended model where perhaps people work part of the time at home and part of the time in the office. Do you think that's feasible and realistic in the news industry?

IA: Well, regarding online, I think it is. Because those people do the kind of work where you mainly make phone calls, you do Internet research, and that stuff. And in those positions, you can easily ask, why not to do it at home? If it's at least partly at home, if it's more comfortable and as productive as it used to be.

CW: But from the perspective of broadcast news and broadcast radio, you think it's much more likely that people will be in the studio as we move forward.

IA: We tried, in spring, we tried a couple of times remote working for TV reporters. But our experience was that it was disturbing or bugging the workflow quite badly. So of course we're competing; it's a matter of time as well. If the normal process, the time doubles or something like that, it makes no sense.

CW: In terms of the changes that you've brought in, how receptive do you think people have been to change?

IA: Of course the normal office worker nowadays, their work is sitting on a chair staring at a laptop screen. And so I don't think in that sense it's that big a change to the older times. But what we have noticed is that the staring at the screen has become, due to Teams and Zoom conferences, an even bigger part of the day. People sometimes claim to be more tired than they are after a so-called normal working day. So in the long term, that could be something which could affect negatively our news production.

CW: In terms of the shows that you produce, you mentioned that you have a magazine show and then you do morning shows and things like that as well. For those kind of shows, did you have to change at all the focus of the show to focus more on the fact that people were at home? People have been home a lot more, they've not been traveling, they’ve not been away. Has that had an influence on the kind of audience that you're trying to address?

IA: So you mean that because people are home, we have to rethink the concept or something like that?

CW: Yeah.

IA: Not quite. It's harsh to say, but at least here in Finland, the media has profited from this pandemic, because all the ratings they are like 20 percent up. And we do better than ever in a way.

So what is the main feature, if we talk about a change in our programs, is that the emphasis on news has been more important. The news has become more important than they used to be because people are in need of information.

CW: Yeah, so it's almost like news feels more valued now than perhaps it's been in the past.

IA: Exactly.

CW: It's interesting that you mentioned the fact that consumption is up and your ratings have gone up because of what's going on. Do you think that's something that, now that people have, to an extent, discovered the content that they perhaps weren't aware of before, that this is something that people might hopefully stick with? I mean I guess that from a news producer’s perspective, I always felt I wanted to produce stuff that people watched and had an audience for. And I guess now it's about trying to make sure that you capitalize on that.

IA: I think that the newest show on our channel, the after five o'clock show, it was good for that show because it was new stuff on TV and people were not that used to it before. And now you have nothing else—well, of course people have something else to do, but you have not that much to do after work. They switch their TV on, and mainly people are watching two channels: the Finnish broadcast company, Channel One, or our channel. So we have profited from this situation now.

CW: I have one final question, and this is a question I'm actually asking all of the different guests who are on the podcast. What is it, if anything, that that keeps you awake at night? Is there anything that you worry about, that you think about as part of content, or how staff are handling things? Is there anything that keeps you awake at night?

IA: I'm a notorious optimist, so I'm not worried at the moment. At the same time, as we’ve already spoken, our ratings are up. It's a good situation. Good to be a journalist these days.

CW: A notorious optimist. I really like that as a description.

Thanks to Ilkka for giving us his point of view from Helsinki. What do you think? As I mentioned before, feel free to get in touch, either on email to [email protected] or on social media. I am @craigaw1969.

If you want to find out more about some of the topics we discussed, then check out the show notes for an article on the practical realities of having staff both in and out of the newsroom. I'd also encourage you to listen to the previous two episodes of the podcast if you haven't yet. The first of these offers a very different take on remote collaboration in a country where COVID-19 restrictions were much tighter, and the second is on mental health in the newsroom and what leadership can do to support their staff—such an important topic right now.

Next time on the podcast, we turn our attention to the cloud and the potential role it can play, and I talked to Mohamad Fares from Qatar TV. Let's have a quick listen.

Mohamad Fares: So we've assessed, and we've begun using cloud for some DR workflows, for some media delivery workflows. We're also looking at cloud for AI workflows, which is basically a very smart workflow where a proxy of your media gets uploaded into the cloud, it gets analyzed, and metadata get sent back to your on-prem database.

CW: Looking forward to hearing more from Mohamad next time around.

That's all for now on the podcast. Thanks to our producer, Rachel Haberman, and thanks to you for listening. I'm Craig Wilson. Join me next time for more Making the Media.

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