Can News Publishers Survive the Coronavirus?

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Desks sit empty in the San Francisco Chronicle newsroom. For the first time in the newspaper's 155-year history, its editorial staff made the decision to place a mandatory work from home policy on newsroom staff amid the Coronavirus threat. (Photo by Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle) When former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders took the stage for a Democratic presidential debate on March 15, there was no studio audience in attendance. They stood 6 feet apart at their podiums, and instead of shaking hands, they greeted each other with an elbow bump. This is our new reality now since the COVID-19 (also known as the coronavirus) pandemic landed in the U.S. Since then, the number of affected people has grown to more than 10,000, and that number is expected to rise. In order to slow the spread of the infection, people are being asked to practice “social distancing” and stay at home. It’s not just the election cycle that is being shaken by this pandemic. Movies and television shows have delayed productions around the world. Sports leagues from the NBA to NHL have paused their seasons. Schools have ceased meeting in-person and moved to online classrooms. Restaurants, bars and movie theaters have temporarily closed. Airlines are grounding planes and cancelling flights. But what about the news industry? In this time of crisis, communities are looking for facts and truth, and newsrooms are stepping up, working around the clock, to fulfill that need. E&P spoke with a few of these newsrooms to find out how they’re dealing with the coronavirus while keeping their employees safe and healthy, and see what long-term effects the pandemic could have with their coverage and revenue. “It was coming.” The first reported U.S. coronavirus case and death happened in the state of Washington on Jan. 21. and Feb. 29, respectively. Reporting from the epicenter is the Seattle Times. Michele Matassa Flores Executive editor Michele Matassa Flores said weeks before the first death was reported, the newsroom was already in brainstorming sessions discussing coverage and going over what tech hardware and software they needed if they had to work remotely. “It was coming…and at first, we thought it was going to be a long-term story we would have to stay with, but we didn’t realize how explosive this was going to be,” Matassa Flores said. “As soon as that first death hit, we immediately went from zero to 60.” With a staff of 155 (58 are reporters), Matassa Flores said essentially everyone at the paper is working on something related to the coronavirus. Without any sports to cover, Matassa Flores said some sportswriters have been temporarily reassigned to the metro and news desks. Other beats, like crime and education, are still carrying on but with more emphasis on the virus. Matassa Flores said for now, the newsroom is working from home indefinitely. She said she is proud of the newsroom’s readiness to work remotely, and although they are “tired but energized,” they are also “incredibly focused.” She doesn’t anticipate any interruptions to their workflow, but she did address concern for the employees working on the operations side, especially those in the warehouse and delivering newspapers. “They can’t run the press from a living room, so the risk is quite high for them,” Matassa Flores said, explaining they are keeping those workers safe by disinfecting machines and observing social distancing guidelines. Reporters and photographers who are out in the community are also advised to take necessary precautions. “We’re keeping an eye on our people,” she said. “We’re in touch with them, and so far, no one has tested positive, but it’s something we worry about. The thing that helped was that we got out of the newsroom early on, and that’s what I would tell others, get out of your newsroom now.” Other newsrooms like the San Francisco Chronicle and Dallas Morning News have followed Seattle’s lead. Audrey Cooper Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper said her newsroom is already trained to work from home in scenarios such as an earthquake or a wildfire, but never during a pandemic. When I spoke with Cooper, the Bay Area was under a shelter-in-place order, and businesses with non-essential services were closed. Fortunately, in California, news publishers are deemed essential businesses. Like Seattle, the coronavirus is “touching every single beat.” But with no arts, concerts or sport games to cover, Cooper said many of those sections are now smaller, and those writers have moved to the news team. In Dallas, editor Mike Wilson said his entire team is working remotely. Mike Wilson “Among our journalists are a married couple who are somehow doing their work in the presence of a restless 5-year-old. Another colleague manages to be incredibly productive even though she has a toddler at home and is 36 weeks pregnant,” he said. “These people are heroic, all of them. Our daily video conference calls are fun; we show each other our pets and get a glimpse into our colleagues' work-at-home attire and decorating tastes.” Dozens of reporters, photographers, social media producers, data journalists and editors are covering the coronavirus, Wilson said, and with no sports events to cover, half-dozen people from sports have moved to other desks. “We're thinking a lot about how we can help our people stay healthy and motivated for the long haul,” he said, citing that something as simple as checking-in with each other regularly can help. Glimmer of Hope Right now, newsrooms around the world are caught in the eye of the storm. Many alternative weeklies have stopped printing and laid off employees, while others have seen advertising decline sharply as businesses have stopped operating. Long-term, this crisis could have a devastating effect to the news industry’s bottom line, but there is a positive spin to this pandemic. We’re seeing more collaboration and unity among news organizations around the world, and the three editors I spoke with said they have seen a huge spike in web traffic and subscriptions. (Cooper said their website recently hit 5 million visitors in one day). This tells them people are craving information. They want to know about how to keep safe in the community; closures and cancellations; how to deal with their children being at home; and how to support local businesses. Although the coronavirus is a global pandemic, the crisis has reminded people about the importance of local journalism. Cooper said she is receiving up to 500 emails a week from readers telling them what they’re doing is important. “This is all coming together in a perfect storm,” she said. “If any good can come from this, it will be that people will shell out that $10 to keep their local paper in business.”   Tipsheet: Covering the Coronavirus Epidemic Effectively without Spreading Misinformation By Laura Helmuth
  • Keep the stories coming. You may have published dozens of stories about COVID-19 already, but as more people start paying serious attention to this epidemic, you’re increasingly writing for people who didn’t realize what a big deal it was when it was circulating mainly in China. That means they’re coming to you with even less understanding of the situation than your earlier audience. It’s more important than ever to be clear and thorough, even if you feel like you’re repeating yourself again and again.
  • Define terms in every story, and maybe create and link to a glossary. When you listen to lots of briefings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local health authorities, it’s easy to pick up their language. Even when you’re in a rush, it’s important to translate their jargon. Most people don’t know the terms “community transmission” or “asymptomatic spread” or really understand what quarantine is.
  • Use social media effectively. Twitter shouldn’t be your assignment editor, but if people are asking questions on social media or are showing they’re confused or fascinated by something, maybe you should write about that. And share the heck out of your own stories. People want reliable information right now, and you are providing it.
  • Look to infectious-disease and public-health experts for solid information, and be on alert for people trying to sell themselves as experts when they aren’t. Lots of misinformation is circulating about coronavirus, and this problem will get worse as the outbreak does. Some politicians are minimizing the danger, some quacks are trying to sell sham treatments or protections, and some anti-vaxxers are weaving coronavirus into their conspiracy theories about vaccines.
  • Avoid debunking a fringe theory if it hasn’t gotten much attention yet. Repetition makes misinformation feel more true.
  • When a piece of misinformation does become prominent, debunk it effectively. Research on misinformation has revealed some best practices for this: Replace the false information with something that is true. Say immediately that this false thing is false, especially in headlines. Provide a reason why the falsehood has been spreading or why people might believe it or why someone is promoting it, to help people understand why they’re seeing this misinformation even though it’s false. Simple and brief debunks are usually the most effective.
  • Avoid false balance. Experienced health, science, and environment reporters know not to give equal time to creationists, climate change deniers, anti-vaxxers, or flat Earthers. There’s no need to tell some “other side” of coronavirus when the other side is nonsense.
  • Acknowledging fears or uncertainties can defuse them. Rather than say “don’t panic,” say that some people are worried, and that’s understandable because this is a new situation and we don’t know how it will end, but … (and then provide the reliable information they might otherwise be too scared to process).
  • Explain what we don’t know. People have a lot of questions that can’t be answered yet, such as how infectious this virus is in people who aren’t yet showing symptoms. Saying that something is a question that researchers are urgently trying to answer can ease your reader’s confusion.
  • Beware of “othering” who is at risk. It’s true that people with existing medical conditions seem to be more likely to have serious complications from COVID-19. But many of the people in your audience have existing medical conditions or loved ones who do. The first cases were in China, but viruses don’t respect cultural or political boundaries. Share information about who is at risk without implying that they are to blame or that they aren’t part of your audience.
  • Include context. Where appropriate, help readers understand how the health care system works, how science works, how scientific publishing works, how the immune system works, how viruses work. This is a reachable moment—people who don’t usually pay attention to these subject areas are suddenly fascinated.
  • Interview nurses. Journalists typically quote doctors rather than nurses as expert sources, even when nurses’ experience and knowledge is more relevant. Especially with infectious disease control, nurses can offer critical information and perspective.
  • Look for opportunities to show virologists, epidemiologists, nurses, public health officials, vaccine makers, geneticists and more doing their work. As you know, but as some readers don’t necessarily appreciate, science is a process and it’s done by real people. People really want to see competence right now.
Laura Helmuth is the health and science editor for the Washington Post and past president of the National Association of Science Writers. This piece was originally published on The Open Notebook and republished here with permission.

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