During the pandemic, local news publishers and journalists have become essential sources of trusted information
The horrific spread of the novel coronavirus across America has prompted an outpouring of questions from confused citizens in communities who need answers. What will happen to the most vulnerable among us? Where can I get food? How many hospitalizations have there been in my neighborhood? How do I support people who need help? And time and time again, local news organizations have been there to answer those questions with dedicated coverage of COVID-19 (often without a paywall), with reporters literally on the front lines of the crisis.
Yes, the local news business has taken a big hit with the loss of advertising, but public service journalism is also proving its worth more than ever. A world without local journalists means a world without important life-saving information. And that’s more clear now when people depend on information about how to stay safe in their communities, where to get food and how to apply for government programs.
While journalists have been deemed “essential” workers who can go out to report on stories, they are also vulnerable to getting sick from the virus. Local news outlets must be sure to outfit their front-line reporters with protective gear, and local governments and community members need to make sure to support those reporters by subscribing to local publications, thanking them for their work and banging a drum or two out their windows for their important coverage.
Over the past two weeks, I have reached out to Knight local news initiative grantees, funders and publishers on the front lines to hear about ways that local news is making a difference. Not only are they reporting on crucial timely issues, but they are going above and beyond by creating maps tracking the outbreak, leveraging technology, convening community forums online and helping to connect those who need help with volunteers. The work is truly inspiring and makes the best case possible for why you should support your local news outlet today.
- Technology and data projects help visualize the problem
The nonprofit news outlet, Bridge Magazine, has created its own Michigan Coronavirus Dashboard, which includes a state map showing cases in each county of Michigan, along with a daily line graph showing the growth of cases each day. It’s a simple and clear way to see the way that some counties have no reported cases, while the caseload is becoming alarming in the city of Detroit and Wayne County.
Similarly, people in New York City had no way to know where the hot spots were in various neighborhoods until The City, a nonprofit publication, began a COVID-19 Tracking Report that actually used information from hospital emergency room admissions. The tracker includes cases and tests by ZIP code, ages of those infected and the number of hospitalizations.
“The City has done an exceedingly good job covering this – it’s mind-blowing,” said Julie Sandorf, president of the Revson Foundation, which funds The City. “They created the COVID-19 Tracking Report, the only comprehensive tracking report for NYC…They have done something remarkable, because getting information from City Hall has been very challenging. Nobody knows about neighborhoods, and which ones are at risk. They got ahold of ER admission data, and tracked that by neighborhood.”
In upstate New York, for-profit online publisher The Batavian took a different angle with its Coronavirus Community Support Map, highlighting all the resources for residents in one place. That includes food distribution from schools, medical centers, food pantries, blood drives, business support services and more. As of April 7, the map had more than 1.3 million views.
Many technology initiatives at local media outlets are now paying off in the face of the pandemic. For example, texting services such as Outlier Media and GroundSource are helping media outlets respond quickly to the needs of their audience. Outlier is working with other local news outlets in Detroit to provide an interactive texting service to answer people’s questions about COVID-19, including the chance to text specific reporters.
Similarly, Southern California Public Radio’s KPCC and LAist quickly utilized Hearken to ask questions to its audience, and used machine learning from Quartz to help them process the audience input, sorting questions into topics and bins.
“That will allow us to identify in real time when trends change in what people want to know,” the KPCC team wrote on Medium. “That information would help guide our news gathering efforts, enable us to more quickly and effectively collaborate with other newsrooms, save staff precious time from duplicating efforts, and most importantly — get information to the people asking questions who are clearly scared and in need.”
- Covering the plight of underserved, vulnerable populations
People experiencing homelessness, those who live in nursing homes and people with disabilities already struggle to get the attention and resources they need each day. Now their plight is coming into focus with in-depth reporting that shows how COVID-19 can spread unchecked through their communities. These reports have provided necessary context to their problems, and helped bring awareness, making sure that local officials are taking action to protect the most vulnerable people among us.
Nursing homes have been struck hard by the coronavirus, and Oklahoma Watch’s Trevor Brown produced a lengthy report on how Oklahoma nursing homes have a history of health violations over the past few years, and included a map showing where the violations took place. Within a week of his report, 8 people had died and 64 tested positive for COVID-19 in a nursing home in Norman, Okla.
The Tampa Bay Times has given reporter Christopher O’Donnell the title of “Vulnerable Communities Reporter” and he has worked tirelessly to cover homeless encampments, nursing homes, and fears that foster children will become even more isolated. You can see all his work here.
The New Mexico PBS show, “New Mexico in Focus” has put an increased focus on how the virus has impacted Native Americans, with an hour-long podcast and two video interviews with the president of the Navajo Nation and the head of the National Indian Health board. While the virus has only started to spread in New Mexico, the Native American communities have begun to get hit hard.
All three of these news outlets have been working closely with FRONTLINE as part of its Local Journalism Initiative. “They made this shift almost overnight and while managing the same challenges as other workplaces: dispersing reporters and producers to work from home, creating new ways of publishing and staying in contact with audiences, trying to keep their journalists safe while staying on top of the story,” said Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE.
The FRONTLINE initiative is modeled on a similar national/local collaboration between ProPublica and its Local Reporting Network. One highlight of that network’s work was an in-depth story by Amy Silverman of the Arizona Daily Star looking at the challenges of disabled people in case of a shortage of ventilators or life-saving equipment. Silverman found that two states, Alabama and Washington, had plans for disasters that gave lower priority for people with cognitive issues. Advocates for those who are disabled told Silverman they were worried about the death of Emily Wallace, a 67-year-old with Down Syndrome who died in a group home in Georgia after contracting the virus.
- Collaboratives and ad hoc collaborations spread vital information
Solutions journalism was an idea that was already on the upswing, with stories that give a solutions frame beyond the problem; now that idea has become almost crucial for survival around the world. Housing the homeless in hotels. DIY crafters sewing face masks. The rise of telehealth. These solutions journalism stories and more are being made available for republishing to any other news outlet through the Covid 19 SoJo Exchange, run by the Solutions Journalism Network (SJN).
SJN has also helped support various news collaboratives around the country, which are now pivoting to cover the novel coronavirus. Resolve Philadelphia is working on guides explaining how to cover the virus, has translated partner stories into Spanish, and developing digital strategies to address the information needs of the community. A group of funders including the Lenfest Institute, Knight Foundation and The Independence Public Media Foundation have created a $2.5 million Philadelphia COVID-19 Community Information Fund to ensure that communities in the Philadelphia area have access to reliable news and information during and after the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Charlotte Journalism Collective had been covering affordable housing issues, and they are now looking at how COVID-19 will cause more evictions, conflicts between tenants and landlords, and other issues. The Collaborative is producing a series of virtual town halls to answer questions, and is translating its COVID-19 stories into Spanish.
The Granite State Collaborative in New Hampshire started out by surveying their collective audiences to source story ideas, and hired freelancers to fill in the gaps of coverage. One freelancer interviewed the state’s education commissioner, which other partner publications published, and another reporter found out how schools across the state are helping to feed students after schools moved online. Leah Todd of Solutions Journalism Network wrote a detailed case study of the work of the Granite State Collaborative so far in covering COVID-19.
“This is the first opportunity we have to see a collaborative operate under different, and more stressful, circumstances–focusing on a long term challenge to a community,” said Liza Gross, vice president of practice change at SJN. “But it is immensely encouraging to witness how the trust and bonding they have built over months and now years allows them to rally successfully and effectively in case of emergencies.”
And the collaborations don’t end with these more formal partnerships; there have been ad hoc collaborations happening across the country, with news organizations sharing stories and information – and even TV cameras. According to Deborah Potter at Advancing the Story, some local TV news stations that typically compete for stories were now working together. “In Minneapolis, the four commercial stations and the PBS station set up a news-sharing arrangement, pooling their coverage of news conferences to keep the number of cameras at any one event to a minimum,” she wrote.
In Long Island, the family owned newspapers, while struggling with staff furloughs, have collaborated in the past on opioid coverage, and are now republishing each other’s stories on COVID-19. Andrew Olsen, publisher of the Times Review Media Group, told me that they are working with the competing Southampton Press. “They are also family owned and operated by a husband and wife team, Gavin and Kathryn Menu,” Olsen said. “We are helping each other where we can. We are sharing work that we are publishing with them too. It gives us both more bandwidth and allows us to not duplicate resources.”
- Battling misinformation about the coronavirus
One of the most insidious parts of the COVID-19 crisis in communities is the continued spread of misinformation about cures and prevention. First Draft, a nonprofit that tackles what they call “information disorder,” has put its major focus on COVID-19 news, especially as false information rockets around social media platforms. Lately, the focus has been on the rumor that 5G towers cause the coronavirus to spread, with people in the UK actually burning down towers and misinformation spreading now on TikTok, despite the platform saying it was removing false information.
First Draft has created a detailed guide for reporters covering the novel coronavirus, publishes a Daily Briefing via email, and recently announced local news fellows in five states who will monitor disinformation and work on countering it in local newsrooms. “These journalists are embedded in their communities and have in-state sponsoring organizations,” said Nancy Watzman, project manager for the news fellowships at First Draft. “This is a promising model that with increased resources could expand to more battleground states, such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Virginia, Texas and North Carolina.”
Behind the scenes, First Draft launched a new Slack community for its CrossCheck partnerships around the world — communities of people who previously focused on misinformation around elections. Now they are discussing COVID-19 misinformation in communities as they crop up. Watzman says that there are more than 100 journalists participating in the Slack discussion, including from CNN, New York Times, Detroit Free Press, Dallas Morning News and others. Anytime a rumor crops up, such as a possible military mobilization in the U.S., each reporter adds local examples to the thread.
In Colorado, First Draft is helping support Misinformation Watch Colorado, a collaboration of 20 newsrooms and counting who are monitoring the spread of misinformation in the state, led by veteran data journalist Sandra Fish. The initiative is part of the existing collaboration run by the Colorado Media Project. Fish tells the public to practice “good social media hygiene,” including relying on trusted sources, thinking before you share, while giving the audience a way to report any suspicious information.
- Webinars, fundraisers to support communities
More than just providing timely information, local news outlets have been taking action, producing panel discussions and answering community questions via online webinars. And they’ve also helped boost vulnerable people with food drives and to help struggling restaurants and hotels.
In Illinois, local broadcasters on TV and radio banded together to help raise money to help people who are having trouble putting food on the table during the pandemic. They will easily surpass their goal of raising $1.25 million, with more than 12,000 donors and counting. In North Carolina, local TV station WRAL collaborated with other local TV stations to raise $275,000 in an all-day virtual fundraiser March 26 for restaurant and hotel workers. “We recognize that part of our role as a locally owned and operated television station is to support and help neighbors and businesses in need,” said Joel Davis, WRAL general manager, in a statement.
Alongside those fundraisers, publishers have been convening crucial discussions online for community members. CalMatters, a nonprofit that covers California, solicited questions from readers and then created a weekly webinar series. Recent topics include unemployment and taking care of your mental health during the pandemic. CalMatters has been using Eventbrite to manage the webinars, collecting emails of registrants and asking for optional donations to support their work.
Another hot topic has been how to home-school children while doing your work at home and somehow maintaining your sanity. Education publisher Chalkbeat decided to convene an online panel of teachers in Chicago, and had a mix of 60 parents and educators attend the session, leading to a great roundup of tips for parents anywhere.
“These are scary times,” said Caroline Bauman, community engagement strategist at Chalkbeat. “It’s invaluable to see and hear from other people who are going through struggles similar to your own — and to know you aren’t alone. As journalists, this is a service we can provide to our communities.”
- Giving us hope (and the occasional smile)
There was a time when human interest stories, especially on local TV news, seemed superfluous, even silly. Now is the time when we need more of those than ever to understand the human side of this crisis. Here are some of my favorite examples of those kinds of stories, told by local news outlets:
- The Berkshire Eagle reported on how a mother, who tested positive for COVID-19, and her daughter had “window-side” visits at a nursing home in Williamstown, Mass., with the mother inside and the daughter outside writing notes to her and pressing them up against the glass. The mother, Eleanor Robinson, “seemed active and alert despite her diagnosis, sticking out her tongue for an Eagle photographer, and standing and moving around with ease as she presented photos of her grandchildren in the window.”
- The Suffolk Times Review in Long Island, NY, ran an interesting photo essay of local health workers wearing their protective gear, with their stories written on large pieces of paper in the background. One woman’s story: “I have been at PBMC over 10 years. I was born here! I am a mom to three amazing kids. I love the beach, hiking and concerts. My work family is amazing. Made for this!!!”
- Berkeleyside launched a new weekly email newsletter called “The Best of Times…(in the Worst of Times)” with a roundup of heart-warming stories in Berkeley, Calif. Recently they highlighted how Little Free Libraries in the neighborhood had to shut down because of the coronavirus, but one person had the bright idea to use those kiosks to share scarce toilet paper.
- Local Cleveland TV station Fox 8 began a new on-air feature called “What Day Is It?” because, well, it’s getting harder to remember that in our quarantined lives.
How to Help Local News
It’s clear that local news outlets are providing an essential service during the COVID-19 crisis, risking their lives on the front line, and that we need them now more than ever. So how can we help give them support? Steve Waldman, who helps run Report for America, and Charles Sennott, who leads The GroundTruth Project, noted in The Atlantic that “among the important steps you should take during this crisis: Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. And buy a subscription to your local newspaper.”
Though we live in San Francisco, my wife had only subscribed previously to the New York Times and New Yorker. She recently bought a subscription to the San Francisco Chronicle app for the first time. A directory of nonprofit news sites can be found at NewsMatch.org. You can also donate to your local public media station or nonprofit news organization, which is tax deductible.
And beyond that, make sure to support local restaurants and businesses. Andrew Olsen, publisher of Times Review Media Group, told me the best way for people to support newspapers beyond subscriptions “would be to engage with their community to give back as much as they can—including supporting local businesses who are our advertisers.”
Mark Glaser is a consultant and advisor with a focus on supporting local and independent news in America. He was the founder and executive editor of MediaShift.org.