As news organizations begin to see declining reader interest in coronavirus coverage, we talked to one hyperlocal news organization in Dallas to see how they’re pivoting coverage to evolve with reader interests.
Many news publishers have seen major spikes in traffic to their websites as a result of the global pandemic. As readers grow accustomed to the key facts and breaking news about the virus, many news organizations have started to see a shift in their audience where readers have become fatigued by coronavirus coverage. What can a newsroom do to address this change and retain the audience that came to them in a time of emergency? We talked with Jehadu Abshiro, managing editor of Advocate Media, a group of hyperlocal neighborhood publications in Dallas, to share what their newsrooms have tried as readers grow tired of hard news about COVID-19.
Spotting reader fatigue around coronavirus coverage may be pretty clear-cut if you’re seeing traffic dips to your website or coverage of the pandemic. But take it a step further by looking at what people are reading. For Advocate Media, Abshiro said, “coronavirus-adjacent is what’s really performing well.” For Dallas, where businesses have started reopening, people are more interested in topics that will affect them during reopening — for example, how long a restaurant delivery will take.
Abshiro also said it’s been effective for Advocate Media to pivot from their “Postcards from the Pandemic” series, snapshots of people’s lives during the height of the pandemic in Dallas, to a “Road to Recovery” series, chronicling their communities’ transition out of lockdown, as well as stories about moments of kindness.
In a time when a lot of people have been isolated from their communities, it’s been important for Advocate Media to focus on service-based journalism that helps everyone feel more connected. In the early stages of the pandemic, Advocate Media ran a “Shop local, show your love” campaign, inviting local businesses who were hurting from the pandemic to fill out a form sharing their story, submit art for a free advertisement on Advocate Media’s website and social media, or request a one-on-one call with Advocate’s staff. The subsequent help or advice Advocate provided often facilitated connections between members of the community and services they needed, such as tutoring services for local families who were now homeschooling their kids.
Advocate Media has also maintained their “open-door” policy throughout the pandemic, meaning they welcome community members to call, email or contact the newsroom in other ways with news tips, questions or concerns, and they try to personally respond to everyone who does so. “Part of our brand is to have this open-door policy,” Abshiro said. The organization is called Advocate Media because it advocates for its community and allows them to speak for themselves, she said. This open dialogue with the community helps them feel like they are a part of the Advocate, she added.
This point goes back to the second tip: feeling connected with your community. Hyperlocal features about well-known establishments, such as a well-known restaurant, have done well, Abshiro said. And more recently, since the start of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, Advocate Media has transitioned to more of that coverage. While the protests haven’t directly affected their coverage areas, they want to emphasize on-the-street reporting, talking to folks in the community to localize the story, rather than aggregating stories online.
Even if events have not been a part of your engagement strategy before, now could be a good time to experiment with them, as planning a virtual event would be a lower lift and less costly than planning an in-person one. Pick a guest or a topic, keeping your local community’s needs and sensibilities in mind, to help people both gain something useful and gather with other locals in a safe way. For Advocate Media, this has meant a free event series featuring, among others, city councilmembers, a longtime, popular city columnist and the topic of street racing, something that happens in all four neighborhoods the media group covers. Advocate also solicits audience questions ahead of the event to make sure the community feels like part of the programming. This forum allows the news organization to “maintain a community dialogue even if we can’t meet as a community or have discussions in the same way there were discussions before,” Abshiro said.
Currently, the events are only accessible via registration. But it’s been so successful thus far, with most registrants staying for the entire event, that they’re working on turning it into a web series to make it accessible to more people.
Of course, every publication and locality is different, and these tips are not one-size-fits-all. If you think of other ideas not mentioned here, take a chance on it and see if it works by trying it for a limited time. Abshiro said Advocate Media’s coverage changes over the course of the pandemic have come partially from the data they’re seeing in analytics platforms like Metrics for News, a news analytics tool developed by the American Press Institute, as well as ideas from the newsrooms that have worked well with engaging their audiences. The key to successful experiments is not to ensure higher engagement, necessarily; it’s to learn something from the trial, so that you know what to continue pursuing, or what to stop after the experiment period is over. Make sure that, before you start running your experiment, you’ve established clear metrics and goal posts to reach that will tell you whether to turn your trial into a regular practice.