Innovation and a sharper focus: how local news is weathering the coronavirus storm

Newspapers have seen record audiences, rising orders for home delivery and readers who buy subscriptions for the elderly, finds Rachael Jolley
Journalist Daniela Taiocchi leafs through an edition of the newspaper L'Eco di Bergamo in which ten pages of obituaries have been published due to the high number of deaths from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Bergamo, Italy May 12, 2020. Picture taken May 12, 2020. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

Journalist Daniela Taiocchi leafs through an edition of 'L'Eco di Bergamo' in which ten pages of obituaries were published due to the high number of deaths from COVID-19. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

24th November 2020

“I think of it akin to how it is during a hurricane, except this hurricane has been lasting for months. When there's a hurricane coming or a hurricane that hits one of our communities, people want to know what roads are closed and what businesses are open and where.” This is how Michael Shapiro, founder of TAPinto, a network of 85 US local news websites, described the desire for neighbourhood news during the pandemic.

All over the world it has become clear that readers want national news headlines to be put in a local context and know how government directives translate to their daily lives. To supply that service local journalists in numerous countries have been working long hours despite facing financial insecurity, job losses and, in some cases, threats. As they were scrambling to report on the biggest developing story of their careers, some were in the middle of company-wide consultations on redundancies. Globally print newspapers sales took a dive in almost all locations, and a large slice of local advertising disappeared as shops and restaurants closed.

Reach, a major local newspaper and web operation in the UK, laid off 550 staff, around 12% of its workforce. All editorial staff were told their jobs were at risk during the consultation.

A number of senior editors who led local news teams at the beginning of the pandemic are now leaving, including Alastair Machray, editor-in-chief of the Liverpool Echo and Reach in the northwest and Wales. Machray said that newsroom staff pulled out the stops to cover the emerging stories: “The whole considerable, at times brilliant, effort conducted by the regional and national media to cover COVID-19 was against the backdrop of people literally worrying if they were going to have a job.”

“They're working for their personal pride and for their audience and for their readership,” he added. “And I saw the very best of journalistic professionalism. Throughout this year, many have lost their jobs. Yet they kept pulling out all the stops, working over their hours, going the extra mile, despite this backdrop of uncertainty, and in some cases, certainty, that there was nothing at the end of it.”

Natalie Fahy, whose job includes being editor of the Nottingham Post and the Derby Evening Telegraph, recognised just how determined her staff, also part of Reach, had been during the pandemic, while job losses were imminent.“It's hard when they're having to deal with challenging stories and also to be dealing with the fact that their job is insecure,” she said.

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Local journalists are facing the same pressures all over the world. In Mexico, reporter Stephen Woodman, based in Guadalajara, described the situation becoming even more difficult during COVID-19, with journalists going for months without pay. “Many local journalists live in situations of economic precarity, earning in some instances as little as 1,000 pesos a week (around £35-37 a week). This is not enough money to live on and many therefore need other jobs to sustain themselves.” On top of facing job security issues, Mexican journalists continue to work in one of the most dangerous environments for reporters in the world. In November 2020 three local journalists were killed within 10 days.

Bergamo, a city near Milan, was one of the epicentres of the first wave of the pandemic. The Lombardy region which includes Bergamo had recorded 17,000 Covid-related deaths as of September 2020.  Isaia Invernizzi, who reported for L'Eco di Bergamo, one of the newspapers in the city, faced a different staffing challenge. “Many of us got sick so it was very difficult to work in those days,” he said. “Fortunately, none of the reporters was in a serious condition so they were all able to work after the illness. [But] it was very difficult. We all knew [personally] someone who was sick, in hospital or dead, and we had few masks and gloves.”

The challenges of working from home

Tracey Bagshaw, group editor at Just Regional, which includes local news magazines in Norfolk, England, found herself as the solo, and part-time, member of the editorial team for her publications, which moved to online only during the first lockdown in spring 2020, while other staff were furloughed. They have now resumed print publications.

“It started off as ‘well, I'll keep things ticking over’. And then your professional pride kicks in,” she said. “Also you felt like you were recording something that was important. It was something that quite a long way down the line, we'd look back and see how it was covered.”

Working from home meant Bagshaw was set up to report at any time. “If something happens at nine o'clock at night, you're straight there because your office is just up your stairs,” she says.

Renate Schroeder, director of the European Federation of Journalists, has been aware of how much journalists’ dedication is kicking in: “On the one hand, I was impressed by the idealism of the people; on the other hand, I was shocked how dire the situation was.”

Journalists were putting in long hours to get stories out. Some felt that the reporting had kept them going. Sinead Corr, news editor of the Bishop’s Stortford Independent newspaper in eastern England, said: “None of us has really had a break since March but [messages of] support of our readers and advertisers has buoyed us up.” One reader, Maura Hetherington, posted on the paper’s Facebook page: “It’s good to have a truly local paper. Keep them coming!” Another said: “Well done, Independent team, keep up the good work. Here's to many more years.”

Reporting the story was not the only hurdle local newsrooms faced. Fahy had to ring the Nottinghamshire Chief Constable to remind him they were key workers and should be allowed to deliver newspapers, when one of the staff was stopped. Many organisations had to scramble to get computers and other technology shifted to their staff’s homes from the office in a matter of days, while continuing to operate as “normal”.

Listen a short clip from Natalie Fahy

“The first one was, how do we work safely and remotely, when for 200 years, we've worked in big offices, as teams?” Machray said. “We got something like three and a half thousand people working from home within seven days, working from home effectively. We didn't lose an edition in print, we didn't have any significant outages of our websites.”

Local radio in a pandemic

The technical challenges didn’t end with just shifting computers to people’s homes though. The pandemic forced some newsrooms to experiment with new ways of reporting and different tools.

Caroline Brockelbank, a reporter for BBC Radio Humberside in the northeast of England, says one of the problems for local radio was not being able to record sounds to go with their pieces. “Because reporters couldn’t go out to meet guests and we couldn’t pop into a studio to record it, we had to find new ways of recording audio calls from home,” she said. “We’ve been getting people to send in voice memos from their phones. It’s a great way of getting people’s opinions without having to be outside asking people on the street.”

Marta Ferrero, a journalist at Onda Regional de Murcia, a radio station in southern Spain, said most of their interviews were held on the telephone, and they also attended press conferences remotely. During the first weeks of the pandemic, at press conferences with the local authorities, reporters were being told to send in questions in advance, so they were not able to push back or ask follow ups.

Ferrero described some of the safety measures that were put in place. When journalists did go into the building, they had to always stay in a pre-assigned seat and stick with the same team. The newsroom was split in two halves and a wall was built between them. This also meant they had only half the resources and equipment.

Fighting local spin 

As the pandemic hit their neighbourhoods, local reporters covered what was happening in their hospitals and local councils, and challenged official spin machines. 

In eastern Europe, particularly Hungary and the Czech Republic, reporters who criticised government positions were stopped from attending press conferences. In Spain, hundreds of journalists protested when the national government introduced a system where questions to ministers and spokespersons had to be submitted in advance.

Local reporters helped to correct the record when the authorities issued incorrect information about the pandemic. In Bergamo, Invernizzi and his team discovered they were not being told the full story: “Bergamo has been the most affected province in Italy. We have had 6,000 deaths due to the virus. Only half, about 3,000, were included in the official reports. We launched an investigation to reconstruct these numbers. We collected data on deaths for the months of January, February and March and compared them with the average of the previous five years.”

In Nottingham, Fahy reports a rise in spinning from local politicians. She says in her 15-year career she has never experienced so much. “There's been a lot of leaks coming out from politicians around the county. And then, obviously, that puts you in a difficult position as an editor, because you only want to put out things that you think are going to be true.” 

Facing an unusual hostility

Another challenge for local journalists covering stories during the pandemic has been tackling public attitudes to reporters.

Fahy identified an unusual level of cynicism about journalism and what journalists do, and thinks that people need to push back against that. “Our integrity is more important than ever and people have been questioning it. I've never really felt the need to point it out before now. We're trained journalists, and we do fact check. But I feel like it's really important to say that now. And to make it clear to people that we do take this really seriously.”

Others also saw a level of unnecessary antagonism towards journalists doing their jobs. In Mexico, Woodman says, “hostility towards journalists has become increasingly open and widespread since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador assumed office in 2018.” Obrador has used similar tactics to President Trump in attacking the Mexican media and criticising its independence, and accusing journalists of corruption. 

Machray, who is currently the longest serving daily newspaper editor in the UK, is worried about the level of hostility: “The naysayers, the COVID-19 deniers, are extremely aggressive online and phrases like ‘scaremongering’ were trotted out hundreds of times a day. And it got very nasty, you know, people regard journalists as like punch bags, sort of subhuman.” 

These remarks chime with the responses to a recent survey from the UK’s National Union of Journalists, which found that 51% of respondents said they had experienced online abuse in the past year.

Others also reported feeling significant public anger at times. “There has been hostility, and we get that some people are scared or feeling vulnerable and shooting the messenger is how they deal with that,” Corr said. “There have been some COVID-19 deniers too who want to rubbish anything we write about the virus.” Fahy added, “I see the comments on Facebook and people troll me. Maybe it's just the ones that hate [that] shout the loudest.”

Local support and innovation

Journalists also say they were sometimes surprised by positive feedback about coverage. In Italy, freelance journalist Alessio Perrone, who covered COVID-19 stories in the Milan area throughout the Spring, said he was surprised about how much people wanted him to report: “Italy is a country that often has high levels of mistrust. But when I phoned people or met with people who'd lost their mother or their uncle, they never for a second questioned that I was doing the wrong thing. Nobody signalled that they didn't want to talk. I think everybody was just really aware of how important it was for the world to know what was going on.”

Innovation from local news outlets came in different forms, some using technology, others turning to the past for inspiration, or adding extra reporting.

At the Bishop’s Stortford Independent, some readers started gifting home delivery subscriptions of the print newspaper to elderly neighbours. Its offices also became a community hub collecting toiletries for NHS workers and helping coordinate schools making PPE. 

Staff at the Liverpool Echo began running a phone bank information service to answer readers questions, after they were flooded with calls. “We became very much the go-to media for Merseyside at a time when confusion was enormous,” said Machray, adding his staff became experts at finding the answers. Nice-Matin in France opened its CoronAIDES platform to allow readers to get together and offer free services. Other French local papers offered similar initiatives, helping readers to share information.

At TAPinto, in the US, a grant from a foundation allowed them to hire freelancers to cover the New Jersey state legislature for the first time, and the copy was shared with all their New Jersey news sites. Shapiro said: “We covered the New Jersey Governor's daily press conferences on COVID-19. And so for the first time, in addition to people coming to our site to get their local news, they were also able to get their state news at the same time. And we got a lot of positive feedback from people about it.” 

Others tried technology and found it helpful. At the Nottingham Post, Fahy introduced use of the Slack channel in the Spring to keep her staff talking to each other, and sharing information in an attempt to replace newsroom conversations. TAPinto held franchisee conferences on Zoom and found they had higher turnouts than normal, so they decided they’d use it in the future. Radio stations increased news on their websites, and even assigned a specialist to write for them, and news operations such as the Just titles in Norfolk added news online much more regularly than they’d done before.

Overall all local outlets I spoke to had seen growing audiences during the pandemic, as indicated in a recent report from the Reuters Institute.

Here are some of the figures provided by the journalists and editors I spoke to:

  • In March and April L'Eco di Bergamo reached around 38,000 copies per day. Usually sales are 30,000 to 33,000. Despite the area being in lockdown, news stands remained open. 
  • At the Bishop’s Stortford Independent, monthly web audiences increased from 260,000 in January to 360,000 in October. 
  • At TAPinto, subscribers to its morning newsletter went from 178,000 before COVID-19 to 264,000 in October. Web traffic has increased as well, from around 2.8 million page views in December last year up to 9.6 million in March 2020, and 4.7 million in October. 
  • At the Just titles in Norfolk, online viewers grew from 10,350 in March to 47,612 in April as they put more stories up. 
  • At the Nottinghamshire Live site they saw their biggest month ever in April 2020 with 20 million page views, and were expecting October to top that at a predicted 25 million.

Demand was coming from some surprising directions. With supermarket deliveries of food taking off, perhaps it should have been predicted that home delivery of newspapers would make a comeback too. While there’s no suggestion this compensates for other drops in print sales, there are indications that delivery of local print titles are going up around the UK. Nottingham Post home delivery is around 8% up on 2019, and 35% for the Derby Telegraph in the same period. The Liverpool Echo is reporting a rise too.

Business models have been forced to adapt, changing forms of delivery, adding more online material, and in some cases adding new ways of advertising. Smaller organisations such as the local news websites that are part of TAPinto have had to do less to cope with the new environment, with smaller numbers of staff, some already working from home. TAPinto is run on a franchise model. Individuals buy a franchise from Shapiro, at a cost ranging from $400-$600 per month to access a shared system and shared benefits. There is also a 90-10 revenue split, with franchisees keeping 90%. They have seen a growth in advertising of about 10% this year, with some local companies advertising for the first time.

Shapiro thinks without the pandemic his advertising revenue would be up 20% this year, but he is happy with a 10% rise since other media companies have seen a 20% decline. “I think the pandemic has shown our franchise model for local news to be truly sustainable even in the worst of times,” he said. 

In the UK, Fahy said of the daily regional market, that “the business model has not fundamentally changed, but it's brought into sharper focus what is important for legacy publications: things like home delivery to ensure people can get their paper, being responsible journalists and making sure people have a good working environment”.

Corr is optimistic about how people value what they offer. “Local news has never been more important,” she said. “We're now regarded as a public service, even if people forget that we are also a business that needs to make money too.” Shapiro is feeling bullish and is planning to add an additional member to his editorial staff.

However, for the EFJ’s Schroeder, while the pandemic has proved how essential local news is, the question is how this vital service will be funded in the future: “I think that the coverage showed the importance of local news very much, but we need public and private support if we want to keep local journalism.”

Rachael Jolley started her career in journalism as a reporter on the 'Eastern Daily Press' newspaper. She has written for 'The Times', 'The Daily Telegraph' and the 'Guardian'. For seven years she was at 'Index on Censorship' magazine as editor-in-chief. She is now a visiting fellow in journalism at Sheffield University and a contributing editor at 'Eurozine'.

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