In Europe’s largest newsroom

How does the German Press Agency (dpa) produce reliable news reports – despite the corona pandemic? Head of News Homburger explains.

Behind the scenes: Froben Homburger explains the dpa newsroom.
Behind the scenes: Froben Homburger explains the dpa newsroom. picture alliance / dpa

It is silent in Europe’s largest newsroom. Normally, 250 people work in the 4,000-square-metre Berlin office of the German Press Agency (dpa). They shout the latest facts to one another over their monitor screens or sit together at large tables, discussing the latest state of research or considering the issues of the day. Now, however, everything has changed because of the corona pandemic. Sometimes, only Head of News Froben Homburger and Editor-in-Chief Sven Gösmann are left holding the fort with three other colleagues. Froben Homburger explains in an interview how the dpa still continues to supply its German and international customers with reliable reports.

Mr Homburger, how does the dpa work?
The German Press Agency is one of the world’s leading news agencies, supplying media, companies and organisations with texts, photographs, videos, graphics and radio reports. We report round the clock in seven languages on every conceivable kind of event, gathering and topic in politics, business, sport, culture, science and society – from a traffic accident in a small town in north Germany or the military coup in Myanmar to the major global crises of our time. In all, over 1,000 journalists work for the dpa from roughly 150 locations in Germany and abroad. Our worldwide reporting is controlled from Berlin – namely, from the 4,000 square metres of Europe’s largest newsroom.

Normally, 250 staff worked in the newsroom (before the pandemic)…  … because of coronavirus there has been a shift to remote working.
Normally, 250 staff worked in the newsroom (before the pandemic)…
… because of coronavirus there has been a shift to remote working.
picture alliance/dpa

What was it like working in the newsroom before the corona pandemic? And how has it changed?
The dpa office in Berlin has over 370 employees, and in normal times up to 250 of them can be found simultaneously working in the newsroom. There are currently fewer than two dozen people working there – and sometimes just five (editor-in-chief, head of news and three colleagues). Of course, a great deal has changed as a result. The whole hustle and bustle of such a large open-plan office, the enormous energy, the total communication, the fast approval processes, the immediate coordination, the small and large meetings – all these have been moved completely to messenger services and video links. And the amazing thing is that it all works exceptionally well.

How do you respond to complex news situations and global crises when you are working from home?
Let me give you an example. In normal times we manage major news situations – such as terror attacks, aircraft crashes or natural disasters – through a so-called top desk in the middle of the newsroom. Then a dozen or so people sit together around a large table – all with clearly defined roles: a desk manager as the main organiser for the operation, a text person for content management, a visual specialist for photo and video operations, a specialist for social media monitoring, a verification unit to swiftly check images, videos and statements, a coordinator for the live ticker, a breaking-news desk member for fast news flashes and a communicator who keeps customers posted on all our research activities via a special information channel.

I’d never have thought that this complex system for handling major situations would also work outside the Berlin newsroom. But it does: the table has been replaced by a permanent Zoom connection that links together the various top desk units from their home offices. Communication is facilitated by special public and private Slack channels for consultations. And actually, whether it was the US presidential election, a terrorist attack in Vienna or someone driving amok in Trier, to all intents and purposes the digital top desk has not been inferior to the analogue system.

It is now often difficult for colleagues to make it directly to a news scene and immediately verify the facts. How do produce reliable reports in spite of that?
As a rule, fact checking also works during a lockdown without any great difficulty. In the event of any doubts, you simply use the telephone. After all, even before the pandemic verifying the facts primarily meant painstaking desk work involving evaluating documents, data analysis and email communication. What is sometimes missing, of course, is the keen eye of the reporter on the spot or direct conversations with eye witnesses, as well as insightful, confidential discussions with sources in a protected environment. They naturally distrust digital communication – not without reason.

Perhaps it sounds strange, but the dpa workforce has moved much closer together during the crisis.

Froben Homburger, dpa Head of News

How do the roughly 1,000 dpa journalists at over 150 locations around the world nevertheless keep in touch?
Perhaps it sounds strange, but I believe the dpa workforce has actually moved much closer together during the crisis and become much more familiar. This has been encouraged by projects like the dpa Living Room, a multiple video format that enabled colleagues all over the world to provide very personal insights into their life and work in corona times. Many other social events on Zoom have also contributed to people who had previously at most only had contact by email actually seeing and talking to one another and getting to know one another better.

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