Despite layoffs, lost revenue and the risks faced by journalists covering the coronavirus pandemic, local news organizations are covering the story of a lifetime in collaborative and innovative ways.
The leaders of 11 major journalism organizations that are helping their members manage the challenges of covering the story came together for the Power Shift Project’s third webinar on COVID-19, led by Freedom Forum fellow Jill Geisler.
The Radio, Television and Digital News Association recently surveyed 100 local television news directors and found hopeful signs amid the life-and-death challenges of covering the story.
“There’s an intense desire to serve local communities regardless of the personal sacrifices,” said RTDNA’s Dan Shelley. Newsroom managers recognize they are in a unique position to serve their communities through accurate and credible health information.
More people – and more young people – are watching local news than have done in the past, Shelley said. “That has been a challenge … how do we expand our audiences to include younger people who have been looking to alternate delivery systems” for news.
Although one major news organization announced furloughs and salary cuts, other companies that operate local TV news stations have vowed not to cut staff.
“There is some trepidation about future layoffs but by and large, optimism this will lead to bigger and better things and of course innovation in the future,” Shelley said.
Jonathan Kealing, chief network officer of the Institute for Nonprofit News, said his membership of 200 nonprofit news organizations is reporting “audiences five to 10 times bigger than they are used to seeing. Yet some are facing the revenue struggles of every other news organization.”
Several organizations are providing grant money to aid newsrooms that are struggling to cover the crisis in newsrooms that are already stressed by staff cutbacks and tightened resources.
The Local Media Association is working with the Facebook Journalism Project to distribute a second round of grants to newsrooms. The first round distributed $2 million to 400 newsrooms who got $5,000 each to help with coronavirus coverage. The second round provides $25 million in amounts from $25,000 to $100,000.
“I’m excited about the creating new journalism products part of the grant,” said the association’s president, Nancy Lane. “It’s a real opportunity to do some things that will jump you ahead when we come out of the crisis … to position your company for a better digital future.”
In addition, LMA just launched the COVID-19 Local News Fund, which provides software and resources that empower local newsrooms to raise money through tax-deductible contributions from community groups and individuals to help cover the crisis.
“We created this with a speed to help mantra,” said the LMA’s chief strategy officer, Jed Williams. “How can we help those who need resources right now?” He was heartened by the community organizations and individuals willing to contribute money to the cause.
The free expression nonprofit PEN America on April 8 petitioned Congress to include public broadcasting and local newsrooms in the next round of COVID-19 stimulus money. The letter was signed by 50 organizations, including the Local Independent Online News Publishers and the Society for News Design.
“It’s not a cliché to say that local news is saving lives at this time,” said Chris Krewson, executive director of LION Publishers. “I can’t think of anything that has touched this many people since World War II.” His membership – small publishers – are journalists and business people. “At LION, we’re trying to support these places as small businesses.” Local online news organizations that based their business models in part on showing readers where to go and what to do are suffering as people can’t go anywhere or do anything while social distancing.
Akili Ramsess, executive director of the National Press Photographers Association, said that most of her members are freelancers. NPPA has offered resources on keeping photojournalists safe on COVID-19 assignments and is seeking donations to help those who are in need.
NPPA’s safety tips urge photojournalists on assignment to avoid going inside homes, ask beforehand the health status of people in the household, and whenever possible, meet people outside, or through a door or window.
Newsroom leaders also need check in on staffers’ emotional well-being.
Tiffany Shackelford, executive director of the Society for News Design, said that demands are intense for newsroom designers who are telling the story through graphics and visuals. “COVID is such a data-driven and information-based story that it’s like election night every night for us.”
Offering empathy, comfort and creative outlets to journalists is essential, Shackelford said. Three visual journalists she knows call each other weekly to talk and paint together.
Erika Owens, director of OpenNews, said her organization supports the technologists in journalism by connecting them during the crisis, offering peer data review and creating story recipes showing ways to communicate data in story form. OpenNews is adapting its annual SRCCON event to the possibility it might have to be a remote event. SRCCON convenes tech teams and journalists to learn how to work better together.
Amid this crisis, diversity and inclusion should remain priorities for news organizations, Owens said.
Mike Days, president of the News Leaders Association, agreed. “Black folks and brown folks tend to be the last hired, first fired.” The big story of the coronavirus pandemic is the impact on people of color, he said. “It’s an opportunity to dig in as to why that is.”
Irving Washington, executive director of the Online News Association, who helped organize the webinar, said that the simple act of checking in with people means a lot. ONA sent out an email survey three weeks ago with the simple question: Are you OK? One person responded, “you are the first person to ask me that question, including my employer.”
ONA’s online survey revealed that financial security is a big issue now. People also wanted a space that provides caring and sharing, so ONA will soon launch community circles, conversations that invite people to gather remotely to talk about leadership, funding and other topics that the pandemic has raised.
“The job we are doing as journalists is critical, essential and lifesaving in many cases, but we also have to take care of ourselves,” Washington said.
With in-person training and workshops on hold for now, Investigative Reporters and Editors is putting dozens of training videos on topics from data visualization to mapping online with free access to anyone. “With $2 trillion (in coronavirus stimulus spending), there’s a lot of money to follow and track,” said Doug Haddix, IRE executive director.
A TV news director in Springfield, Mo., asked the panelists how to deal with public officials who limit press access, refuse to take questions in press conferences or demand questions be posed in advance.
RTDNA’s Shelley offered his organization’s support. “Virtually all states that have some sort of emergency declaration in place have designated journalists as essential workers. When journalists complain of lack of access, it’s not the journalists that are harmed, it’s the public.”
IRE’s Haddix urged journalists to work other sources to get information, adding, “Public shaming is still a good practice. This is our ability to get questions answered on behalf of the public. Hold their feet to the fire. Hold them accountable.”
John Shertzer, executive director of the Society of Professional Journalists, offered the support of his local chapters.
“Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are things we all need to collaborate on now.”
Several groups are working to make sure students and young journalists aren’t left behind amid cancelled internships and layoffs.
SPJ is offering a contest where young aspiring journalists can submit articles and podcasts they have done about the pandemic. “We are not encouraging students to run out in this and be dangerous,” Shertzer said.
INN is about to announce a partnership with a journalism school that will fund a program to get its graduates to work in newsrooms. “We don’t want to disrupt this pipeline,” said Kealing.
Shelley said he had spent time with a young journalist who felt her manager was being mean while editing her stories. “Folks, we are all in this together,” he said. “What good comes from being brash or mean? We’re all under pressure.”
Shelley said comedian John Oliver’s TV segment asking whether journalists working from home were wearing pants “was a great way to take air out of this stress balloon we are all pressed by.”
Said IRE’s Haddix, “Our members are on the front lines of this. They are stressed out. They feel the weight of responsibility to get this story right, especially those doing data analysis, and to take care of their families at the same time. Our advice is you have to take care of yourself and your family first.”
At 1 p.m. April 27, the Power Shift Project will host another webinar, COVID-19: Health, Science and Business Writers on Covering the Pandemic.