March 24, 2020 – Running an English-language news portal in Croatia is a challenge at the best of times, but these are far from the best of times. A look behind the scenes at TCN in the corona era.
These are extraordinary times in Croatia, and today’s snow over much of the country after a winter with almost no snow was the latest confirmation – to me at least – that Croatia really was the global leader in unpredictability.
(Spring in Primosten – Photo by Sime Saric)
And nothing was more surreal than on Sunday, when my phone starting ringing at 06:25, my WhatsApp and Messenger ablaze with the very same message so early in the day:
The shocking news was yet to sink in of the quakes that shook the Croatian capital, but now it was time to work. Our first report of the Zagreb earthquake was published at 06:39, just 15 minutes after the first earthquake struck. It was the first to hit the Internet in English and be indexed by Google News.
It was obviously not quite the start to the day I had planned. The early morning calls did not wake me, for I was already at my laptop working on the first article on the topic that would surely dominate the Croatian news that day – coronavirus.
I was wrong.
I was chained to the laptop all day, trying to cover as much as I could myself while marshalling the rest of the TCN team. A team that was a little slimmer than last week, as the reality of the corona effect on all of our lives economically reared its ugly head in the form of client cancellations, which sadly has resulted in staff cutbacks at TCN. A temporary measure, we hope. But in this crazy uncertainty, hope is all we have.
The earthquake was not kind to our Zagreb team.
(Photo credit Forrest Stilin)
TCN’s Forrest Stilin had arguably one of the most harrowing starts to the day of people in Zagreb – the double whammy of a 06:24 earthquake with a magnitude of 5.5 combined with the bedroom chandelier landing on his bed. Fortunately, Forrest has trained himself for such eventualities over the years and always sleeps in the middle of the bed. A fortunate escape. Drzi se, Forrest! We hope you are doing ok.
Forrest remains without Internet or gas some three days later, as well as a rather claustrophobic feeling of confinement with the new reality. Without Internet, he is unable to wrote for TCN, of course, but that is the least of our worries. We look forward to having him back online after recovering from the stress of this ordeal.
Forrest was not the only TCN victim of the earthquake. The State media service, HINA, with whom TCN has been cooperating for a couple of years, had its building severely damaged (the photo above is from the HINA Twitter feed) – you can read more about it here. But despite the considerable inconvenience, HINA soldiered on at a time when its readers and subscribers needed it most. Bravo!
TCN’s beloved editor, Lauren Simmonds, was also caught up in the earthquake, although she suffered more damage the following day with the 3.7 magnitude earthquake which came 11:12 on Monday. It felt strong, said Lauren, and we were live with the story three minutes later. I asked Lauren to send me something that reflected her reality for this story.
The once busy view from her apartment – a lone fire engine cleaning up after the earthquake.
Sunday was easily the most intense day in TCN history (as well as the second busiest, with more than twice as much traffic as the World Cup Final on July 15, 2018). There were huge coronavirus stories and new travel restrictions to report on as well, and just when I was about to call it a night…
A large fire had broken out on the south side of the island of Hvar, between Zavala and Ivan Dolac, with some 40 firefighters and 12 fire engines battling the blaze. We were live minutes later, with a morning update that the fire had been brought under control around 01:00.
And where was I, reporting on all this madness around me?
For the most part, lying in bed, self-isolating in our home in Jelsa, with sunshine beaming through the windows, a tranquil scene below. The first corona case had been reported a few kilometres away just days before, but this was a haven compared to the madness around, and it felt all the more surreal while reporting on all the chaos around.
There are pros and cons of self-isolating on an island rather than the mainland, as I explored in The Realties of Self-Isolating on Hvar, Croatia’s Premier Island.
But that view, and the feeling of relative safety, nature, and plenty of space with a very supportive family, are some very big positives.
Things are tough all round at the moment, and everyone is dealing with their own corona hardships.
Dani has been with TCN for almost four years now, and she has done a magnificent job for us, covering so many topics for us that we have both lost count. And she has risen to the challenge once again, putting her personal difficulties to one side to perform above and beyond the call of duty.
The funny thing is that although Lauren, Dani and I have been the core of TCN for almost four years, we have only physically been together all three of us at the annual TCN Xmas party and one other occasion. And yet despite that, I have probably the best working relationship and team spirit of my life with these two magnificent ladies, who are both superb in times of crisis. Only my time working with outstanding colleagues in the wake of the Rwanda genocide in 1994 comes close.
Thank you ladies, you are both beyond fabulous, and thank you for all you do (and I know I speak for many others when I say that). Someone from New York messaged me recently to thank us for our work and was surprised at how few people worked on TCN and our Slovenian and Montenegrin portals.
“I thought you had about 50 people,” the New Yorker said. With colleagues such as Dani and Lauren, it can seem that way I guess. The last three days has made our bond all the stronger.
Here is Dani, mask on in Split, and currently living with parents and grandmother. As the only under-65 in the household, her responsibilities go beyond just writing for TCN.
She too, is facing other new realities, as boyfriend Nathan, part of the Australian waterpolo team, was then told to return to Australia by his coach for Olympics training before Europe locked down. After much stress and packing up his apartment until 04:30, he took the first Splt flight to Zagreb on the day the EU flight ban came into effect at midday, not knowing if he would be able to fly at 14:00. More stress, but he made it, and was welcomed home to Australia and a mandatory 14-day self-isolation and an uncertain future.
To prepare for an Olympics which will not take place this year.
Other occasional TCN contributors were living their own self-isolation realities – here is intern Janja, who is already well-versed in the art of self-sufficiency in her village near Varazdin. She also found time to write about the experiences of those communities who were at the very epicentre of the earthquake, communities which have been largely ignored with all the focus on Zagreb.
Self-isolation means no socialising with anyone, and a lonely walk for an hour each evening when there is nobody around. A tour of the Jelsa riva the day after all the cafes and restaurants closed.
And what of the reporting itself?
I started Total Hvar almost nine years ago, a happy tourism blog about the idyllic island of Hvar. I am not quite sure how that got transformed to three Google News websites for Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia, but here we are. Since starting TCN, I have come to learn how many people (expats here, parts of the non-Croatian-speaking diaspora, and tourists with a love of Croatia) depend on TCN for their news and updates about Croatia in English. And this has never been more true than the current moment, when there is so much fear, uncertainty and fake news around.
I talked to the core team and we agreed that we had a social responsibility to report as much as we could, as accurately as we could, and in as detailed a manner as we could. We would not get it right every time – how could we, confined to our homes in different parts of the country – but we would give our best. The Croatian online community is a brutal audience at the best of times, and we long ago established that a foreigner has no right to an opinion here. I actually quite enjoy the levels of abuse I receive these days, and I reward the best of them with a guest appearance on my Troll Friday series on my Facebook page.
But with opinions divided, stress levels high, and emotions all over the place, would it be possible to navigate the waters of an audience of Croatian keyboard warriors?
(My only social life these days – my daily Tinder date with the bura – a welcome escape from the stress, if only for an hour)
In order to encourage some better behaviour from our commentators, I decided to post a request on the TCN Facebook page for people to think before they commented in these stressful and emotional times. I have only banned 28 people in 9 years of the Total Project, mostly for hate speech of the ultimate crime of being highly irritating. Just as reading TCN is not compulsory, so too reading some of the horseshit that passes as comment. I announced that we would be taking a more proactive approach to ban aggressive, abusive and irritating posters. A policy, I am pleased – and rather surprised – seems to have worked. Only two people banned so far with the new regime.
Of course, we don’t get it right every time – how could we, confined to our homes? And it has been instructive to observe how quickly some people jump down our throats to accuse us of fake news and sensationalism. Reporting for example, on the death of a 15-year-old girl in the earthquake as the Croatian media did, only to then learn that she had been resuscitated (she has since sadly passed away). Or reporting that earthquake that Lauren said was strong the following day to be accused of stoking up an already emotive situation in the name of clicks, when it was merely an aftershock.
Suffice to say that the coronavirus has taught us all a LOT about each other, and I for one have learned who I do – and who I do not – want to know on the other side. And some of those don’ts have really surprised me.
Our job has been made a lot easier by the superb support we have around us. First and foremost, to the whole team at Index.hr, whose timely reporting, live updates, and great map and stats, have been easily the best source of information from day one, a time when others were dismissing the pandemic.
A big shout out to all the officials coordinating the crisis response, both in terms of steps made and communication to the population. I hope both Vili Beros and Alemka Markotic get their own statues on Ban Jelacic Square when all this is over.
And to the various contributors to TCN, who have helped take some of the load. We are thrilled to have Igor Rudan on our team, whose authoritative scientific texts have become required reading far beyond Croatia’s borders. Here is his latest.
Other great contributions this week include Aco Momcilovic for the Voice of the Entrepreneur, Ivica Profaca’s Diary of a Split Tour Guide in the Age of Corona, and Zoran Pejovic with some positive advice for those in the tourism industry.
Thank you all, and we welcome quality contributions at all times – please contact me on [email protected] if you are interested.
And that, as they say, is that. The only other thing to add is that the 8 bottles of gin in the lead photo are sadly empty, and have been since the summer of 2014.
We thank you for all your support in these difficult times. We will not get it right every time, but we are doing our best to play our little part in helping us all get through this crisis.
And I leave you with the most important advice of all, especially if you are in Dalmatia.