Time zone hacks: European news agencies make night into day

Sydney has become a hub for European news agency journalists to report in real time and save themselves the overnight shift, writes Malin Andersson for the December issues of the Walkley Magazine.

It is a clear and cold Tuesday evening in the Danish capital Copenhagen. The temperature is dropping to six degrees and the sun is about to set. The big news for the night is the stabbing of a 19-year-old man in the suburb of Nørrebro. He has been taken to hospital with life-threatening injuries.

Above: Kristian Hedegaard has had a busy Australian morning/Danish night. A killing in Copenhagen has taken a lot of his attention for the last few hours. “Hopefully our mind is more clear than people back home at his time,” he says. Photo: Malin Andersson

At the same time, half a world away, the same sun has just risen. It is Wednesday morning in Sydney, Australia. Kristian Hedegaard is on his way to work with the Danish news agency Ritzau. His first task for the day is to call the Danish police, who confirm the sad news that the 19-year-old has passed away from his injuries. Hedegaard writes a news article, and not long after most Danish newspapers are updated on the story.

It’s a phenomenon that hasn’t been around for long, but has proven to be very successful. In 2012, Ritzau moved its night staff 16,000km from Copenhagen to Sydney. It was the first European news agency to set foot in the office space of the Australian Associated Press (AAP) in the Sydney suburb of Rhodes. Since then, four Danish journalists have been working from here, but only with Danish news for a Danish audience. They supply newspapers, TV and radio around the country with stories.

“Hopefully our mind is more clear than people back home at this time,” Hedegaard says, before rushing back to his computer, trying to get the Danish police to talk about suspects for the murder.

The time difference between Copenhagen and Sydney is eight hours in the Australian winter and 10 hours in summer. The idea is to avoid having staff working overnight. Journalists stay in Sydney for two years, and then hand over to someone else.

“They don’t want us to lose touch with what’s going on in Denmark, so they have set a two-year limit. But as it turned out, it’s not a problem,” says Niels Fjord, another Dane who has made the move.

“I worked the night shift for one-and-a-half years in Copenhagen and it was killing me. I didn’t want to continue with that. It was very hard to find someone back home who wanted to work during the night because it’s very unhealthy,” he says. Getting people to Sydney, on the other hand, is easy. Last year when Ritzau advertised a vacant position, more than 100 people applied.

The concept of a normal day is very much like a normal Danish night, with one exception – the daylight. The first reporter comes into the Sydney office at 7am Australian time – 11pm Danish time.

He talks to the editor back in Copenhagen about the day and starts reading the Danish morning newspapers to search for interesting stories. During the day, reporters call the large police stations and fire departments twice, to report on major incidents. They write about sports, foreign news and finance.

A European community

Danish Ritzau is not alone. Here in AAP’s office they are surrounded by journalists not only from Australia, but from all over Europe. Just a few metres away works the Finnish news agency STT. Two desks away are the Belgians. Another corner of the newsroom hosts three different media outlets from Germany and next to them a news agency from Switzerland. Norwegian NTB joined the crew in September and Swedish TT moves over in 2016.

“It will be really good when the Norwegians and the Swedes come down here. What happens in Norway and Sweden is interesting to us – we are neighbours and share history and traditions. I think we will have a lot of synergies. For example, if you’ve got big happenings in Göteborg or Malmö [Sweden’s second and third largest cities], or if we are unsure about Swedish politics, we can ask. We can strengthen each other,” Fjord says.

On the edge of this European mish-mash of journalists, through some glass doors, sits Tony Gillies. He is AAP’s editor-in-chief, a big media personality in Australia and the main reason why the European news agencies are here.

A few years ago, Gillies moved some of his Australian night staff to London and discovered that it worked well. He presented the idea to some European news agencies, then offered to host them in AAP’s office “Down Under” so they could enjoy the same benefits he was enjoying in London.

“When I first proposed the idea, people thought I was crazy. I don’t know that they had given it much thought. But it didn’t take long before I got enquiries from Danish Ritzau, which was the first to come down. One by one, the agencies have come down here,” says Gillies. He sees only positives with the arrangement. He says the main benefit is the quality of the output.

“The mind is sharper during daylight hours as supposed to two or three in the morning. But not only that – it also provides agencies and their staff with an opportunity to send people on an adventure. Foreign correspondent positions are usually rare, and here’s another way of getting your staff to work in other countries and enjoy another culture,” he says.

Peder Poulsen, Kristian Hedegaard and Niels Fjord have moved 16 000 kilometres, from Copenhagen to Sydney, to make night into day. They provide news for Denmark while the country is sleeping. Photo: Malin Andersson

Peder Poulsen, Kristian Hedegaard and Niels Fjord have moved 16 000 kilometres, from Copenhagen to Sydney, to make night into day. They provide news for Denmark while the country is sleeping. Photo: Malin Andersson

Technology has made it possible

Back in the Danish office at AAP, Hedegaard has found some leads through Facebook for the recent murder in Copenhagen. Fjord is on the phone to the police again, trying to get some more information. All conversations over the desks are in Danish.

“Nothing yet,” Fjord relays, as he joins me again at our small interview table. He says that the phenomenon with moving news agencies is the most concrete example of globalisation that he can think of.

“I think it’s just a result of the new technology and the internet. It’s a natural development. Globalisation, you know. And I think there will be a lot more European news agencies coming down here.”

But isn’t it hard to report on Danish news from so far away?

“It’s a little bit thinking outside the box. When we moved, many of the older journalists said ‘this is not going to work, they will lose contact with Denmark, they are not going to know about Danish news’. But I mean, that is no problem. We have got Danish television and all Danish newspapers here on the iPad. We are fully updated on Danish news,” Fjord says.

Now, a few years later, everyone back in Denmark has been convinced. “Our coverage has become much better – that’s the bottom line. We make more articles and we make better articles,” Fjord says.

But keeping both Australia and Denmark in your head can sometimes be confusing. I ask Fjord when he finishes work on a normal day.

“We finish working between 6.30 and 8 in the morning… no, afternoon… no, Danish time! Wait, now I get confused…” He continues. “I count everything in Danish time when I’m at work. So I finish at 4pm Australian time and that’s 8am Danish time.”

Language can take a hit

Right next to the Danes sits Riku Roslund, a Finnish journalist. He worked the night shifts at the Finnish news agency STT for two years before moving to Sydney a year ago. Currently he’s editing a story about the semi-finals of the Eurovision Song Contest that has just finished. Finland flopped – and missed out on a spot in the final.

Roslund enjoys the European community that the news agencies have established.

“There are around 20 Europeans here in the office, and we have become a close community. We arrange a lot of social activities together. We go to bars, have dinner in restaurants or just meet at someone’s place.”

For Roslund, the actual job is much the same as when he worked overnight in Finland. Most of the feedback from home has been positive. He can only think of one negative aspect of the move.

“We got some feedback that we may have taken on some English influence in our language. And because I don’t use Finnish quite as much, sometimes I can’t remember a certain word straightaway. I remember it eventually but it might take a little longer,” he says.

First to report on a terror attack

In the Danish corner, the story about the 19-year-old has developed. In one of the biggest newspapers of Denmark, Jyllands-Posten, we can now read a Ritzau text about how the killing in Copenhagen might be related to criminal gangs and to the Islamic State group in Syria.

This killing makes me think about the terror attack in Copenhagen in February, when a freedom of speech conference was attacked, as well as a synagogue. I ask Fjord how the staff in Sydney covered this particular event.

“Of course we couldn’t go out on the streets during this event, but thankfully it’s a very unusual incident. We were writing about it and were in touch with the police all night back in Copenhagen. And actually, when they killed the terrorist, we were the first ones to report on it,” he says.

In other instances, however, being in Sydney has actually led to some out-of-the-office coverage.

During the Sydney Lindt cafe siege in December 2014, Ritzau carried a lot of the Danish news coverage of the event.

“When we came down here, we were specifically told that we weren’t supposed to write about Australia. But when the incident happened in Martin Place, Kristian was called upon by Danish TV and radio, and he was broadcasting live from Martin Place. That is of course good promotion for Ritzau,” Fjord says.

Win-win situation

Fjord also emphasises the positives that this arrangement brings to all parties – the employer in Denmark and Australia as a country.

“There’s no extra cost to it and Ritzau doesn’t have to pay extra for the night shifts. The company pays our ticket and the health insurance, and we get the same salary as back home. We pay taxes in Australia, so it’s a win-win for everybody. We are not taking any Australian jobs or anything, we are just coming down and establishing new jobs,” he says.

The arrangements also mean that Ritzau can afford to have more people working. “Normally back
in Denmark we were only two journalists working every night. Here in Sydney, if you look over a whole year, I think we have 2.5 reporters per day. Today for example, we have three reporters,” Fjord says.

I ask him about the downsides, but the volatility of the Australian dollar seems to be the only one.

“We get paid in Australian dollars and the dollar is really strong at the moment. So we usually joke that we want the dollar to go down. If the dollar goes down 10 per cent we get paid 10 per cent more,” Fjord wryly explains.

In a few weeks after my interviews, the 20 Europeans got a large office to themselves, away from the Australian journalists. AAP’s Gillies says he will put up flags and photos on the walls and, maybe most importantly, each country’s national football team jersey.

“Just to create a nice European vibe for them. We love having them here, we really do. It adds to the cultural mix of our own agency. We embrace them completely. Every social function that we have, we invite them along. They’re a part of what we do; they’re a part of the AAP family.”

As the sun is about to set over Sydney, the same sun is rising over Denmark. Five million Danes wake up and check their smartphones for the latest stories. Little do they know that the story about the killing around the corner was written from the other side of the world.

Fjord and his Danish colleagues have finished another successful “night shift”. Now they have a few hours to experience Australian society and culture before they head back into their Danish news bubble again, tomorrow morning.

Malin Andersson is a Swedish freelance journalist who loves travelling to Australia whenever she gets a chance. She studied journalism in Newcastle, NSW, during the first half of 2015.