Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Ellie Silverman carries a sign with her contact information as she walks down a line of cars waiting at a COVID-19 testing site. (Photo credit: Tim Tai)
Many media organizations are dropping their paywalls to make reporting on the coronavirus pandemic accessible to all. Maybe that’s you — if so, thank you! The public has never needed accurate, timely, fact-checked information more than it does right now.
No doubt, you and your colleagues are working long hours under stressful conditions, putting yourselves at risk to report on all the ways this pandemic is affecting your community. How can you make sure your essential reporting is reaching the public? Besides dropping the paywall, how can you get your work out to people most affected by the epidemic, given they may not be looking to you for news in general?
We offer these ideas for distributing your reporting in new ways. Some are outreach tactics, some are different formats, most involve some form of engagement.
Make a list of stakeholders and reach out to them
Just as you might push out a big investigative package to increase its reach and impact, you can push out your reporting on COVID-19 and its impact to those folks in your community who most need to see it — or, if you can’t reach them directly, to the gatekeepers who can. For instance, if you want to make sure health care workers are seeing your reporting on the availability of critical supplies, email that coverage not just to a handful of sources and the hospital public relations contact, but to the local health department, nurses’ union, etc.
This is a chance to apply a design-thinking lens to your work, the way KPCC Southern California Public Radio did when designing a project on early childhood development. According to Ashley Alvarado, KPCC’s director of community engagement, the key question was, “What if instead of describing the audience as ‘anyone who listened or read KPCC stories,’ we redefined it as parents and caregivers of children ages 0–5 in L.A. County?”
Keep track of the contacts in a spreadsheet. Compose an email (personalized, ideally) inviting the person to read, share, and respond with feedback or additional story leads. That extra effort will remind people to turn to your work, and it will send the message that you recognize their importance, putting you on a good footing for ongoing engagement.
Share your stories with affected groups where they are
People are discussing COVID-19 in Facebook groups and on neighborhood listservs. Meet them there and offer your reporting as a resource. Take a page from the Trusting News project and introduce yourself to the group, explaining who you are (a real person, possibly their neighbor) and what motivates you to share the story (to inform people, help your community and potentially save lives).
When Latinx-serving community groups in Philadelphia raised alarms that public health information from the city was available only in English, making it inaccessible to the 23 percent of residents who speak a language other than English at home, Resolve Philly leveraged its citywide collaborative of 20 newsrooms to help translate reporting into Spanish. In New Jersey, The Center for Cooperative Media is coordinating with Reporte Hispano, the state’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, to translate one to two articles each day from the nonprofit news site NJ Spotlight.
It may not be feasible to translate your entire publication from English to Spanish, or other languages spoken in your community, but how about some of your stories, perhaps one or two per week? Consider partnering with a Spanish-language publication or radio program in your area. About a month before the coronavirus hit the United States, The News & Observer’s managing editor met with her counterpart at Spanish-language nonprofit outlet Enlace Latino about the idea of translations and story sharing. “We hadn’t really gotten very far in thinking about how it might work until this hit,” N&O editor Robyn Tomlin said in a message. The outlets have been translating and sharing content and just published their first collaboration, a multimedia story on the threat the virus poses to immigrant farmworkers.
Make it visual
We’ve all seen our share of coronavirus memes by now. Justin Auciello of Jersey Shore Hurricane News says news organizations seeking to spread good information in a crisis should get in on the game. “To amplify critically important info, informative memes work!” he recently tweeted. “On Facebook, use the meme to propel the content in the caption. Do whatever you can to reach your community members and their social graphs.” Auciello launched JSHN as a Facebook group days before having to evacuate for a hurricane, and the outlet has offered both news and community through Sandy, Maria, and now COVID-19, modeling community engagement and crowdsourced fact-checking. People get overwhelmed with information easily, especially when they’re stressed. Simple visuals help.
It may sound strange given that we’re not supposed to touch anything right now, but producing physical versions of your most essential coverage can help you reach people who may not be seeing you online, including the 27 percent of Americans who lack broadband at home. In general, one-pagers and brochures are great tools for outreach. Just make sure you enlist a designer (avoid walls of text). America Amplified suggests printing flyers or postcards to distribute at grocery stores and pharmacies, including callouts for engagement, like a voicemail number people can call to share their questions or personal experiences. You could also mail the cards or flyers using the U.S. Postal Service, as Dr. Michelle Ferrier did as part of her research on media deserts in Ohio.
Get it on the air
Radio remains a vital medium in times of crisis, especially for people in rural areas. As part of its Emergency News Team initiative, nonprofit news site Carolina Public Press is making its COVID-19 coverage available for radio stations to broadcast for free, with credit. CPP’s previous experience with large-scale collaborations and content sharing set the stage for this effort, which aims to boost the capacity of rural news outlets. “Radio stations get into the nooks and crannies of communities to people who may not have internet access, or may have the radios turned on for ambient noise, and will get the news that way, but they wouldn’t necessarily pick up a newspaper or click on a story link, ” said Stephanie Carson, CPP’s news and community partnerships manager.
Carson said there are two or three stations that pick up stories daily and another half dozen who do occasionally, including a radio group that plays the stories between music segments. “Beyond information dissemination, it’s also a strong brand builder for us. People are hearing our name repeatedly, and though it’s hard to quantify the benefit, I believe the exposure is valuable for us in the long term.”
Give your members/subscribers/fans something to do
People are stuck at home and feeling anxious. Passively consuming scary news only adds to that anxiety. But you know that feeling of purpose you get as a reporter when you know how to help in a crisis? You can share that feeling with your community by inviting them to help you get the word out.
The Membership Puzzle Project has studied how news organizations all over the globe successfully enlist the help of community members. Inviting people to spread the word about a story post-publication is one of many ways people can help, and one of the most straightforward. People have a variety of motivations in supporting news organizations, and one of the most common is a belief in the mission of journalism.
Ask your community to help you counter misinformation and spread facts that can save lives. Invite them to share your content via those memes and printed flyers, or on whatever social networks or platforms they prefer (and ask them what those are — you may be surprised). Thank them and let them know the impact of the reporting they’re helping to get out into the world. Listen to their ideas and feedback. Make them feel part of your mission. If you have the bandwidth, consider hosting a Facebook Live discussion or conference call with your volunteers to add a social component during this time of social distancing.
As the public looks for news and information, now is the time to show why local journalism is the go-to source. News sites are seeing a spike in traffic — and digital subscriptions. Here’s hoping that through community outreach and engagement, we can build relationships that will be stronger once the crisis has passed.