Local online news publishers and editors speak out about the COVID-19 crisis

Commentary at WGBH News.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a particularly difficult challenge for publishers of community online-only news sites, whether they are for-profit or nonprofit. Over the weekend I emailed editors and publishers of several such news organizations to see how they are getting along. Below are their lightly edited answers in full.

Q: How are you dealing with the challenge of covering the COVID-19 pandemic in your community?

Paul Bass, who runs the New Haven Independent and WNHH Community Radio, which are both nonprofit organizations: We’re working like maniacs. We feel this is the time when the work we do — informing as well as stitching together community — is more important than ever.

Kate Maxwell, publisher of The Mendocino Voice, a for-profit that is moving toward a cooperative ownership model: We are covering it in all the ways we can come up with! We do have experience with prolonged breaking emergency coverage through wildfires and power shutdowns, unfortunately. We created a central landing page and are using multiple social media platforms to reach people, including livestreaming press conferences, interviews with public health officials and medical experts, and live tours of preparedness at medical facilities.

We’re writing multiple daily updates, creating several guides to information and resources, increasing our newsletter, live-tweeting important forums, increasing our Spanish translations and Spanish language interviews, and regularly surveying our readers, as well as taking live questions during events and interviews. We’re being careful to make our updates clearly dated, sharing information about state and federal changes, and keeping coverage in digestible and clear formats. We’ve gotten some great ideas from other LION publishers as well. 

We are hiring formerly underemployed but experienced local freelance reporters to expand our coverage.We are working quickly to hire even more reporters and implement ideas we had considered previously and in other sustained emergencies, such as text services. We are reaching out to public officials, business leaders and community groups to discuss how to best fact-check evolving information moving forward. We are also talking with everyone about how we can best support our community to provide a service that also lessens the blow of economic impacts of this pandemic, which will be hard on our already struggling local economy and health-care system. This includes considering what might happen in the case of multiple emergencies as we approach “wildfire season.”

Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian, a for-profit in Genesee County, New York: Early on, even before orders were issued, I recognized that I probably wouldn’t be going out of the house much to cover things. I had never done livestreaming before. I had never done a video interview and recorded it or livestreamed it. So I quickly figured out how to do all of that, and we did our first livestream interview on March 15.  We’ve done 15 or so since.

We used to consider it a good day when we published 10 or 12 items in a day. We had about five consecutive days last week where we published form 25 to 30 items each day, 80% of it COVID-19 related. Granted, most of it was press releases, but our format helps ensure that every public announcement from every government agency and nonprofit hits the home page.

Andrew Putz, editor of MinnPost, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis: As an organization that focuses a lot of our effort on covering state and local government, it’s a massive story for us. And as cliché as it sounds, it’s truly been all hands on deck. We have seven writers on staff, and they’ve all done something on COVID-19, as have several of our regular contributors.

More than a few have written multiple pieces a day, and some staffers have basically been working nonstop for the last two weeks. I just looked, and we did 34 stories in the last week tied in some way to Minnesota’s response to the pandemic. So to answer your question more directly: We’re throwing everything we have at it.

Dylan Smith, publisher of the nonprofit Tucson Sentinel of Arizona: TucsonSentinel.com’s focus is on providing accurate and timely info on the spread of coronavirus here, tracking what officials are doing in response, and what our readers can do to stem it. That means we’re working our asses off. I think I had 14 or 15 bylines in one day last week. And that’s not counting multiple updates to some stories.

In addition to our reporting online and distributing it via our newsletter and social media, we set up a Tucson Coronavirus Updates Facebook group at the beginning of the week. We launched Monday morning [March 16], and it now includes nearly 2,000 members, including a number of government officials, who are having a remarkably even-toned and grounded discussions about things. It helps that we’ve long had a policy of stomping on trolls. We have several volunteer moderators helping organize that stream of info, too.

Q: What problems has the economic crisis created for your business model, and how are you responding to that?

Owens: One of the things we did early on with The Batavian was selling half-price gift certificates to local restaurants. When we were starting out, trying to build our brand, that was an easy way to get ads on the site and generate a little revenue. While it’s now only a little less than 20% of our revenue, that’s revenue critical to pay our bills. We’ve stopped selling “Deal of the Day.”

Another 15 to 20% of our revenue is sponsored posts and what we call “top of content” ads. That has taken a big hit. Two top-tier advertisers have dropped. Our revenue is 95% advertising. I expect we’ll take a big hit before this is over.

Bass: Fortunately we were in a strong cash position for 2020 (relative to our budget). That means everyone gets paid and gets insurance whether or not they can work. At least for now, we are focusing all fund-raising efforts through the city on helping agencies in the community raise money, not on raising money for our own organization.

I don’t mean to suggest we’re flush; we operate on a tight budget, and are always scrambling for money for our long-term sustainability. But we seek to set our budget each year at a level that can be supported by current deposits and a few multi-year commitments by our deepest-pocket long-term supporters, so that people know 12 months at a time that they have a job and the lights stay on.

Smith: The long-term impact will no doubt be significant, but in the short term people have found our work important and valuable. We’ve been sent quite a number of three-figure donations out of the blue, and seen a substantial uptick in people signing up to contribute monthly. And that’s despite not having had the time to really make a donation pitch — we’ve been so focused on reporting that even looking at the books the past few weeks has been out of the question.

That community support has really been heartening. Not only will it help keep the lights on, but the kind words and cold hard cash we’ve gotten let us know we’re doing something meaningful to help.

Maxwell: We are in the middle of a transition to a worker-reader cooperative, with a grant-funded series of community events for our membership drive and launch — so we have to re-configure that! Our coverage is free, and we have gained a number of new members, readers and donations in the last week, and so the challenge is how to work with the funders and re-create our plan for a series of community forums and member meetings virtually. However, we cover a large area and are always looking for ways to better reach remote readers, so in the end this shift could be very valuable to refining the tools we use to engage with our readers and strengthen our membership campaign. 

We have to talk with funders and assess how this might impact other grants we have — we interviewed our planned Report for America fellows just before things got so busy, so that has delayed the selection process. [Note: The Voice and KZYX Radio, also based in Mendocino County, will share one Report for America reporter to cover environmental issues starting sometime this summer.]

A number of our advertisers will certainly not be advertising, but others are trying to reach people — we are talking frequently with local community organizations and business owners as to how we can redesign our marketing options to fit their current needs, including potentially creative online sponsored content options through video or text.

As compared to legacy papers or weeklies, we have the advantage of reaching many remote readers now looking for online information far more than they may have last week, and our readership is county-wide and grows significantly during emergency coverage. As such, we’re better set up to support local businesses right now than the legacy print outlets in the county.

Putz: It’s not my brief, but I think it’s safe to say our advertising has already taken a meaningful hit. We have a lot of nonprofits as ad clients, especially arts organizations, and that’s all stopped, obviously. That’s just one part of our revenue model, of course, but it’s not an insubstantial part.

When it comes to members/individual donors, our m.o. has been to be as transparent as possible: to let people know that the economic consequences of the outbreak are going to pose significant challenges for us, and that we hope they’ll step up and either become members or increase their support. We’re gonna need ’em.

Q: What steps have you taken to keep yourself and your staff (if any) safe and healthy?

Maxwell: Luckily (as you saw), we are very prepared to work remotely as an online news service. We’ve stopped using the office, or just have one person at a time and disinfect. We’re disinfecting equipment, limiting attendance at events and distance between reporters/not traveling together. We are implementing ways to conduct and record interviews and purchasing supplies for the business for sanitization, etc. No one is asked to cover anything they don’t feel comfortable with.

Smith: We’ve been working remotely for a decade already. I have a couple of reporters I haven’t even seen face-to-face yet in 2020. So we’re used to using Slack and other tools to communicate.

We’ve been practicing social isolation as best we can for a few weeks now. Our reporters don’t need to be running around coming into contact with a bunch of people when they can use modern innovations like the telephone to do the gig. We have gotten out to take the measure of certain social situations, but are doing our best to not become vectors.

Speaking for myself, I’ve left my house (and pretty much my desk) just four times in two weeks, even though Arizona isn’t yet under a “stay at home” order and we only closed down bars and restaurants statewide a couple of days ago. I’ve made quick trips to the grocery store, with a few driving excursions to check out our city, walked a few blocks alone, and that’s pretty much it.

Putz: We’ve shut down the office; everyone is working remotely. All our meetings are done via Google Hangouts, and much of our communication is via Slack, as it was even when people sat two feet from one another.

As for reporters, we’ve asked them to do as much of their work remotely as possible. If they feel like they must attend a meeting/press conference/interview, we’ve asked them to exercise their judgment — and to make sure they know that there’s no story that’s worth them jeopardizing their health.

Owens: We were already all working remotely. My wife (our editor) and I have a buddy system rule: neither leaves the house without the other’s permission. Only essential trips out of the house. I have one staff member, and she continues to work from home. My stable of freelancers, of course, all work from home. A couple of times it’s come up, I’ve told them to just cover things they normally would have covered in person to cover it over the phone.

It’s not just about keeping them/us safe. It’s about flattening the curve. We need to give our government, health-care systems and private sector time to build capacity to deal with a pandemic that will last for a year or two.

I’ve said all along through, I’m more worried about my business’ ability to survive than I am worried about my own health. We have a Press Patron button on our site if anybody wishes to make a contribution.

Bass: We are working remotely rather than congregating in our small office. That’s true for both the New Haven Independent news site and WNHH-FM Radio. I have sought every day to communicate to reporters that the second they feel unsafe or uncomfortable, they should stop reporting in person.

In only one case so far — involving a reporter who is over 70 — have we agreed that the reporter should not do any more in-person reporting. However, we are trying hard at all times to remain six feet from other people when we interview and photograph them, which is sometimes a challenge! I’m feeling a bit uneasy about how much in-person reporting our staff continues to do, and will continue to re-evaluate it.

My guess is, especially as government meetings shift online, we will be doing fewer in-person interviews. Also, math suggests that some of us will get sick, which will certainly diminish our reporting capacity. But for now it’s full steam ahead, with fingers crossed. We love our community and feel we have an important role in strengthening it.