Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices & programs

How the Miami Herald is turning COVID-19 readers into loyal subscribers

News consumption spiked as the pandemic hit the United States, but audiences have since fluctuated, their attention span tested by the incessant virus and the eruption of protests following the killing of George Floyd.

Amid all that, news organizations have worked to expand and retain their readers, viewers and website visitors. 

Audience Growth & Loyalty Editor Adrian Ruhi at the Miami Herald CND desk on Thursday, March 16, 2017. Photo by Pedro Portal for el Nuevo Herald

“A big challenge is convincing diverse communities that our intentions are good and that we want to cover them fairly,” Adrian Ruhi, the Audience Growth & Loyalty editor at The Miami Herald, wrote in an email. “If one’s community is only covered when there is crime, one has every reason to be skeptical of a news outlet’s intentions. And the best way to do this is to listen to our readers and acknowledge our failings.”

We emailed this week with Ruhi, who also oversees growth efforts at El Nuevo Herald and The Bradenton Herald, to find out how those McClatchy news organizations worked to increase engagement with their distinct audiences and whether the appetite for news has waned.

Since the start of the year, how have you been building your audience and have you been able to maintain it?

Ruhi: Before the pandemic, we were experimenting with making certain beats and types of stories available only for subscribers. Stories and beats that were frequently on the path to conversion (meaning they were one of the last five stories someone read before they subscribed) and/or were well-read among existing subscribers were usually strong options for subscriber-only content.

When the novel coronavirus hit Florida, our priorities (and our readers’) changed. For several months, high reader interest in COVID-19 news, paired with us making a large chunk of stories paywall-exempt, equalled a lot of top-of-funnel traffic from readers who didn’t typically come to our site.The Miami Herald quickly launched a pop-up daily coronavirus newsletter in early March to try to capture some of these new readers and build habits with them. Since its launch, that newsletter has had the highest open rate and click-through rate of all Miami Herald newsletters in that time frame.

Have you detected any fatigue by readers for coronavirus stories, or is there still interest?

Ruhi: Once the curve was initially flattened in Florida by late May, interest in coronavirus stories waned. But as cases, positivity rates and deaths started increasing in late June, reader interest returned.

Which Covid stories, if any, have particularly resonated with readers (comments, reaction, shared)? Does that vary according to McClatchy property?

Ruhi: Our daily live blogs and our stories about the daily case numbers, which are free to all readers as a public service, are still widely read. 

Several types of stories have resonated with readers: investigative coverage of the cruise industry’s response to coronavirus, the interactive COVID-19 tracker, stories about restaurant and business openings and closings, and ultitility stories, such as where you can get tested.

As public attention turned to the protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, which type of stories drew more public attention?

Ruhi: Stories and live blogs documenting daily protests were widely-read. But one particular protest in Fort Lauderdale drew national attention because an officer shoved a peaceful protester and another shot a foam rubber bullet at another protester’s head.

Did you detect a change in your audience as your attention turned to social justice issues?

Ruhi: Yes. Coronavirus stories, which had been driving readership for several months, took a back seat to coverage of protests and social justice issues. Comments on our social media platforms became more contentious, and we began receiving a lot more feedback from readers on our coverage at the moment, as well as how we had covered social justice issues and diverse communities in the past.

How have newsrooms adjusted their coverage and sourcing?

Ruhi: The killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests have been a moment of reckoning for many newsrooms. They have helped stir important conversations in our newsrooms about diversity, race and ethnicity, and how we cover the many communities in South Florida.

One important step that all McClatchy newsrooms took immediately: capitalizing Black.

How do the different locations, size of newsrooms and composition of audiences affect the growth strategies you oversee in the three Florida newsrooms?

Ruhi: The three McClatchy properties in Florida (Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and Bradenton Herald) have different audiences with different needs. 

The Miami Herald has the largest digital subscriber base and largest daily traffic in McClatchy, so a lot of work is done on daily, manually curated newsletters, posting and engaging with audiences on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Reddit, as well as experimenting with subscriber-only initiatives, including virtual events. The audience is local, but it’s also statewide, national and international.

El Nuevo Herald, Miami’s Spanish-language newspaper, has a smaller subscriber base, but high international readership. They focus on stories that are of high interest to South Florida’s Latin American community, which includes coverage of what’s happening in Cuba and Venezuela, as well as what recent immigrants need to know when they move to the U.S. To meet their audience where they are, el Nuevo Herald has experimented with sharing stories on WhatsApp and Telegram.

The Bradenton Herald is more locally focused, with a strong emphasis on breaking news and accountability journalism covering local government, law enforcement and education, while also sharing the Miami Herald’s statewide coverage.

As you and your team undertake this important outreach, what has been your biggest challenge, biggest benefit, biggest surprise?

Ruhi: A big challenge is convincing diverse communities that our intentions are good and that we want to cover them fairly. If one’s community is only covered when there is crime, one has every reason to be skeptical of a news outlet’s intentions. And the best way to do this is to listen to our readers and acknowledge our failings.

The ultimate goal is to accurately and fairly cover and represent all the diverse groups of people that make up our community. 

When we did a story on some of Miami’s best Black-owned restaurants, we got some negative replies on social media (“Why are we even separating places to visit based on racial groupings? The Herald always dividing.”) But we tried to focus on the many positive responses (“Thanks for the list. I’m saving it. I want to help people who look like me. Not divisive, empowering and helpful. I will be trying several on the list.”) to remind us of how important it is to give a voice to those who haven’t always been fairly represented.

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