Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

From Fresno to Houston to Raleigh, communities are rewarding news orgs for COVID-19 service

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As journalists look across a gloomy news media landscape of lost revenue, layoffs and closures, one bright spot reinforces the essential nature of their work – news consumption is up. 

Metric after metric shows that as the COVID-19 pandemic spread in the U.S., the public turned to news organizations for information. News organizations have ramped up their outreach, have identified community needs and have found meaningful and innovative ways to communicate.

What’s more, readers, viewers and community leaders are rewarding their local news outlets for the effort.

From Fresno to Houston to Raleigh, newsroom leaders described innovative and interactive ways of informing their communities. In return, they have experienced increased reader and audience participation and seen communities acknowledge that the journalism they are producing needs financial support. 

“Local news has never been more vital to our community, and people are showing their thanks through stronger interaction with our work online and through purchasing a digital subscription,” Joe Kieta, the editor of the Fresno Bee, told us via email.

A new Pew Research Center poll found that nearly half of U.S. adults said they were following news of the pandemic very closely, with an additional 42% saying they were following the news fairly closely. Moreover, 69% said the news media has covered the outbreak very or somewhat well. A New York Times analysis of online data use found that local news sites have received much of that increased attention. 

No doubt this may be a sliver of a silver lining. Following the news during a crisis or emergency is a necessity, not an elective pastime. News consumption will doubtless return to more normal levels over time. And many community newspapers are cutting their print editions despite record readership. But no event has placed journalism and its relevance at the forefront of the public’s mind more than this pandemic.

The gratitude is expressing itself in dollars, providing a needed lifeline to financially struggling news organizations. In the four weeks ending April 24, about 200 publishers across the country raised $500,000 in tax-deductible donations from 6,000 donors through the Local Media Foundation’s COVID-19 Local News Fund

Despite news of furloughs and lost ad revenue, however, the public as a whole is uncertain or unaware of the toll the pandemic has taken on newsroom finances. The Pew poll found that about one-third of those surveyed said the outbreak had helped or not had an impact on finances, another third said news organizations had been hurt financially and the remaining third simply were unsure.

“Engaging in every way possible”

In many virtual newsrooms, journalists working from home have found original ways to connect with their communities and to tell the health and economic stories of the pandemic. 

The Fresno Bee has used Fresnoland Lab, its team of deep-dive journalists, to produce stories on evictions and rental policies for tenants having difficulty paying rent and live streamed a discussion with advice for renters and landlords . It has held Facebook Live events with regional leaders and translated many of its stories into Spanish for Vida en el Valle, the Bee’s free bilingual publication. In addition to an uptick in digital subscriptions, Kieta said the Bee has received donations to help pay for its Report for America reporters and its Education Lab team.

“We may be at home,” Kieta said, “but we’re engaging in every way possible.”

The Fresno Bee, along with McClatchy’s 29 others newspapers, also is offering a seven-day-a-week coronavirus newsletter with national and local updates. Cynthia DuBose, McClatchy’s senior editor for audience growth and loyalty, said the newsletter’s sign up and open rates are about 50% higher than any other McClatchy newsletters.

The long-term challenge for local newsrooms is to sustain that relevance beyond the current crisis.

“Times of change are inflection points, and there’s often an opportunity to quickly grow and change,” Kirsten Hare, who writes about local news innovation at the Poynter Institute, said this week during a press freedom panel sponsored by Fundamedios. “Newsrooms have to do a better job … listening to their communities, understanding the priorities of people that live there, and not being just gatekeepers but context makers for what is happening in your community.”

With a presence in 1,226 communities, no news organization is more hyperlocal than Patch, the digital-only news platform that added 225,000 new email subscribers in March alone. Editor-in-chief Dennis Robaugh said daily traffic increased 65 percent over the first 2 months of the year and has held steady throughout March and April. 

In core readership areas, Patch has created directories of open and closed local business. That means more than 10,000 businesses can share information, for free, about changes in hours, delivery methods and other ways to reach customers, Robaugh said. 

Patch has published surveys of public opinion about  federal and state responses in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois and California. It also published a survey of local businesses in Georgia after Gov. Brian Kemp set a timeline for reopening the state for commerce. 

“Local Patches have enhanced their reputation as trusted local gathering places,” Robaugh said. “Replies to articles more than tripled.”

Community fundraisers and new newscasts

Audiences for local television’s digital platforms are swelling, too.

At Raleigh’s NBC affiliate WRAL, unique visitors, page views and video views have grown by 50% or more when compared to pre-coronavirus daily averages, according to John Conway, vice president of digital media at WRAL. The audience for the station’s newscasts is also up and, Conway said, viewership through its internet video app has skyrocketed, with average viewer time at more than 70 minutes per session.

Popular digital content includes live updates and a data page on number and location of COVID-19 cases. The station’s digital platform carries live government briefings and archives them. The station has a new 7 p.m. newscast called “Facts, Not Fear” that features interviews with health professionals and other experts. It launched a daily newsletter and a daily podcast. The station held fundraising efforts for restaurant workers and the United Way, raising more than $1 million.

Conway said the station has received a high volume of audience engagement through emails and other website and app contacts with questions about stay-at-home orders, stimulus checks, business openings and unemployment benefits. 

“Our state has not been able to handle the deluge of new applications, and residents are growing increasingly frustrated by website crashes, busy signals and dropped calls,” he said. “Our response is to pose questions daily during state briefings and to seek to hold top officials accountable.”

Seeing donors as investors

Money raised through the Local Media Foundation’s COVID-19 Local News Fund has assisted a range of publishers, from larger dailies owned by McClatchy, to community newspapers like The Houston Defender, which has been serving Houston’s African American community for 90 years, and its online site, defendernetwork.com.

In mid-March, Publisher and CEO Sonny Messiah-Jiles recalled, advertisers began calling The Defender and canceling ads. A week later, the paper’s accounts receivable dried up. The week after, Messiah-Jiles had to furlough about half of her staff.

“I knew that I needed to do something different,”she said.

It was Easter weekend, so Messiah-Jiles texted her network of friends and associates like she had every previous Easter to wish them a “Happy Resurrection Sunday.” But she also let everyone know that The Defender was struggling and suggested they connect to the COVID-19 Local News Fund site and donate.

Overnight, she raised $5,000. As of May 1, actual donations through the fund totalled $50,000 and she counted about $15,000 more in pledged donations.

“They were able to open up their hearts and open up their wallets to help keep our doors open,” she said. “To me, that was a blessing.”

Messiah-Jiles sees the money as an opportunity to engage the community and seek their feedback.

“I saw people who gave money as investors,” she said. “I felt as though my next phase was to listen and learn. What is it they’d like to see The Defender do? What is it they would like to have us cover? … As investors, they’re now a part of the company. And we want to acknowledge that. And we want to hear from them.”

Last week, her share of the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program funds finally came through. Messiah-Jiles said she has let her staff know that “everybody is back in the saddle again.”