Middle left photo by Mateo Zapata; Other photos by Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
People have questions. Journalists have answers. But it can be surprisingly difficult to connect the two. Someone wondering, for example, what COVID-19 testing options are available in their neighborhood can easily miss that story from their local news source, and they probably won’t go digging around on its website to find it. Helpful information can get buried fast.
Reporters at the nonprofit news site Block Club Chicago had been tirelessly covering coronavirus developments across Chicago, sharing what they were learning online, on social media, and via a dedicated coronavirus newsletter. But they wanted a more direct way to connect readers with the information they needed, when they needed it.
So with funding from the Facebook Journalism Project, Block Club Chicago launched a free, bilingual coronavirus hotline. Readers can call, email or text the hotline to have their questions answered by a core team of staffers, who often coordinate with reporters to get the right information.
Stephanie Lulay, co-founder and managing editor of Block Club Chicago, and Hotline Manager Hannah Boufford spoke with us about how they run the hotline, what the response has been, and how a free hotline ultimately fits into their goals around revenue and sustainability.
You’ve had a lot of success with your coronavirus newsletter. What made you decide to go one step further to create this hotline?
At the beginning of the pandemic, our nonprofit neighborhood newsroom was receiving more questions and coronavirus story tips than we could handle. Traffic to our website tripled, and our phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Chicagoans were worried and confused. They needed help, and they were turning to us.
[pullquote text=”We knew that we had a knowledge base to answer people’s questions — it was just a matter of tapping it in the right way.”]
To keep our readers informed, our team has written thousands of stories about coronavirus, live-tweeted every coronavirus press conference and provided up-to-the-minute, daily updates via our coronavirus newsletter. We knew that we had a knowledge base to answer people’s questions — it was just a matter of tapping it in the right way.
Often we’d get questions emailed via the newsletter that we’d already answered in story form. We asked ourselves, “How can we match readers directly with the information they need?”
Through the hotline, we knew we could use our knowledge to answer callers’ questions on symptoms, city rules and how and where to access testing, vaccines, housing aid, unemployment, benefits, free food and other resources for those out of work. We also developed an FAQ and resource guide, which is featured in each edition of our coronavirus newsletter, to help our readers.
So we got to work.
How did you prepare newsroom staff to manage the hotline? Did you bring in outside help for this project?
Once we landed significant support from the Facebook Journalism Project, we spent a few months conceptualizing how the hotline would run, and our reporters from all across the city weighed in through the planning stages. Hearken also consulted on the project.
Our first and most critical hire was Hotline Manager Hannah Boufford, who guided the launch of the hotline and continues to manage the hotline today.
It was important to us that the hotline be multiplatform and people be able to reach us without the internet, so we wanted to offer ways for Chicagoans to reach us by calling or texting. It was also important that we offer support in English and Spanish, since about a third of the city’s population is Latino. Finally, we were really dedicated to creating a system where people could get one-on-one support, where they could be matched directly with the information they were seeking.
To accomplish these goals, we also hired Hillary Flores and María Marta Guzmán, our hotline specialists, who offer bilingual support to callers. The hotline is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and Spanish assistance is available 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Friday.
Hannah Boufford, Hillary Flores and María Marta Guzmán (left to right) make up Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus hotline staff. Photos by Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago.
Kelly Bauer, Block Club’s lead editor on coronavirus coverage, also lends critical expertise to the hotline, and Block Club reporters have a hand in answering neighborhood-specific questions.
System-wise, the hotline operates on a shared Google Voice account, we manage questions and workflow with a Trello board and we utilize a custom #Hotline Slack channel to coordinate responses.
Here’s how the typical workflow goes: A caller will call, text or email the hotline. María, Hillary or Hannah answers the call, text or email, fielding information from the caller. In addition to their question, they’ll ask for the person’s name, contact information, neighborhood and preferred method of communication (how we can reach them to call them back). Then, the call taker puts that information into a card in our Trello sheet. From there, the call taker or another staffer will work to answer the question, depending on how busy the hotline is, or send the story tip to a reporter. We have six general columns on our Trello board: Questions; Working on Answering; Needs Story/Passed Along To A Reporter; Waiting For More Info; Redirected: Medical/Legal Question; Answered. The card is moved to the appropriate column as we work to answer or address it. Answering a question could mean referencing our internal resource guide, reaching out to a reporter or editor for help, like Breaking News Editor Kelly Bauer, who leads our coronavirus coverage, or reaching out to the Chicago Department of Health for more information. An editor will sign off on the response and the call taker will call, text or email the caller back.
Ahead of launch, we spent a lot of time thinking about the liability, too, and the questions we can’t answer. Our plan was vetted by our attorneys and Board of Directors. While hotline staffers share the latest Centers For Disease Control and Chicago Department of Public Health guidance, if someone calls with a medical question, we’ll advise them to consult a physician.
Block Club’s free coronavirus hotline was inspired by the coronavirus hotline launched by KPCC, Southern California’s public radio station.
How did you find the time and resources to make this project possible? If you had to, do you think it would be worth shifting resources away from other things to focus on this?
This project would not have been possible without the significant support of the Facebook Journalism Project. We applied for a grant through FJP specifically to support newsroom’s coronavirus projects and coverage.
As a staff, we dedicated a tremendous amount of time to launch the hotline, which is a big reason why it was important to have buy-in from the entire staff.
We believe helping just one person would make our hotline a success. It’s heartbreaking to know how many people need help during this isolating pandemic, but we’re grateful for the ability to help in any way we can.
What has the response been so far?
As of February 8, we’ve answered 425 questions in the three months the hotline has been live. Those questions, in English and Spanish, have come from Chicago residents all across the city — from Rogers Park on the Far North Side to Calumet Heights on the Far South Side.
We’ve even fielded more than a dozen questions from across the country and internationally, from Canada to California to Florida. Hotline users ask us everything from where they can get tested, how they can find rent relief and when they’ll be able to be vaccinated.
By arming callers with accurate and science-based information, we’ve helped people decide on their own to avoid large gatherings, and we’ve provided people working in unsafe environments a way to report their employers to the city and state. More than 150 questions we answered early on were related to testing, as many Chicagoans had trouble accessing testing. Now, we’re seeing a similar pattern with vaccination questions as people scramble to access vaccine appointments.
Do you see the hotline as helping drive subscribers or donations?
This is a great question.
Block Club Chicago is a nonprofit, subscription-based newsroom. Prior to the pandemic, we were largely operating under a freemium model — breaking news, South and West side coverage (under-resourced parts of the city), election coverage and public health coverage were free. After that, readers can read five paywalled stories a month before they are asked to subscribe.
Coronavirus turned our model upside down. When the pandemic hit, we immediately dropped our paywall on anything even remotely related to the virus — we were the first daily newsroom in Chicago to do so. For months, 95% or more of what we published was completely free to all readers. And as a daily newsroom, we published thousands of stories during the timeframe.
[pullquote text=”Sustainability is impossible without public trust — and the coronavirus hotline and newsletter I hope go a long way in earning that trust.”]
Our daily coronavirus newsletter and bilingual coronavirus hotline are free resources, too.
It may sound altruistic, but we offered our content and these services for free because it was the right thing to do. Our readers were scared and confused. This was our small way of letting them know that we’re there for them.
While revenue was not a motivating factor in our decision, sustainability is impossible without public trust — and the coronavirus hotline and newsletter I hope go a long way in earning that trust.
If you show up for your readers, your readers will show up to support you. While Block Club was paywall-free for much of 2020, and the economy was in shambles, we still hit our goal of adding 5,000 paid subscribers over the year, ending the year with a total of 15,000 paid subscribers.
Could you envision recreating the hotline for other issues — for example, future elections or other events impacting Chicagoans?
Yes! We hope the coronavirus hotline can serve as a model for other hotlines in the future. The needs of Chicagoans will dictate the rollout of any future hotlines we launch.
Here’s more about the hotline and how it works, as well as the Spanish version.