Coronavirus: Six ways to get your journalism in front of readers during this crisis

24 March 2020
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There’s no way you’ve missed the many discussions on the impact of the coronavirus crisis on news media, it is the topic of every industry newsletter (including this one!). Coverage has even moved beyond industry conversations, with The New York Times reporting ‘Coronavirus Brings a Surge to News Sites‘ while The Guardian shared that ‘Coronavirus could strike final blow to local newspapers‘.

In addition to calling this current crisis a pandemic, the World Health Organisation has also declared we’re facing an ‘infodemic‘, with an incomprehensible amount of information being published every day and more and more fake news spreading. So it is ever more important that you are able to surface your valuable journalism to your audiences during this time. To help make sense of all the noise during this chaotic time, we have spent the past week reading every article we could find on the subject and boiled it down into six ideas to consider.

1. Should you take your paywall down?

One of the big debates today is if publishers should be lowering their paywalls, in order to get as much information to as many people as possible. It seems so far most publishers have come down on the side of indeed lowering their paywalls, but there have been a few standouts that have not done that so far. It is also interesting to see how newspapers have responded differently, with Piano reporting that European publishers are keeping their paywalls mostly intact while American publishers are putting their COVID-19 coverage out for free.

For some it is an ethical debate: in this current crisis, journalism is a public service that must be free. We can consider it similar to emergency health care: a first responder does not make you pay before performing CPR, they provide the service and then the payment (or not) is dealt with later.

However Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, suggested journalism can also be thought of similarly to another public service: food. Grocery stores still expect you to pay for your food. What signal does it send to subscribers that when journalism is really valuable, we actually make it free to everyone?

If you are out of business, the great journalism you had been doing is not going to be available to anyone.

Roy Peter Clark, Vice President and Senior Scholar at The Poynter Institute

So if publishers do decide to take down the paywall, they should keep a few tips in mind:

  • Only take the paywall down for coronavirus coverage (and maybe only for public service stories, not the more long-form articles).
  • Still use a registration wall, as The New York Times is doing with their special coronavirus landing page.
  • Make it clear to readers what you have done and ask them to support you in this cause. Take a cue from The Guardian and ask your readers directly to donate to keep your coronavirus journalism free for all.
  • Consider maintaining access for your subscribers who cannot pay currently. With many people facing furloughs, unemployment, and other financial concerns, follow the lead of the Silver City Daily Press in the US and show your subscribers you are invested in the long-term relationship.
  • Adapt your digital subscription offerings, as The Dallas Morning News has done. Normally they don’t have any trial subscription offers, bringing new subscribers on at the full monthly rate. However now they have taken down the paywall for their coronavirus coverage and instead are asking readers to contribute a small amount each week if possible.

Ultimately, publishers have to balance the greater good of ensuring they’re able to survive to provide their journalism in the long-term with the short-term need of readers now. However publishers will have to make a decision soon: if your audience forms a habit with a different news source during this crisis, then they will learn to live without your journalism. If you decide in a month to drop your paywall, it is unlikely to attract many new readers.

2. Fitting into your readers’ new routines

We have long stressed the importance of getting into your readers’ daily routines, and it’s only more true today as everyone tries to find their new normal. So in addition to providing answers to your audience’s pressing COVID-19 concerns, it is also crucial to share content that addresses all the side effects this crisis has had.

Ouest-France is doing this directly by soliciting questions from their readers and answering them in a special section. Elsewhere in France, Le Télégramme has launched a solidarity page for readers to offer help to their community. The offers to help go beyond the new-normal of grocery shopping for at-risk neighbours, there are offers to provide computer lessons for anyone struggling in this new virtual world and a psychology school offering free help from their students and faculty. In Austria, Russmedia has taken on a similar initiative. Within the first few hours of launching their solidarity platform, they already had more than 800 offers of help, with someone represented from all 96 towns in their region.

We knew from the developments in Italy that it will be a very demanding time, so just reporting the situation was not an option. We have to support and build tools and communication infrastructure while we can. 

Gerold Riedmann, managing director of Russmedia

Lensing Media in Germany even included a page in their print newspaper that readers can tape in their window, indicating if they need help from neighbours.

With many schools closed, some publishers have expanded their children’s section and included more puzzles and games. Ouest-France has launched a special section for its young readers this week. This content comes from their educational programme “L’Actu en classe“, which they have also opened up for free. The Los Angeles Times has launched a similar initiative, taking the space normally dedicated to sports and repurposing it for a new kid’s section. In addition to fun things for kids to colour, this new section provides a forum for children to ask science and health reporters questions on what’s happening.

In France, 20 Minutes has launched “Restez positifs chez vous“, a lunchtime newsletter for readers with tips on how to stay positive at home during the lockdown period. The Second Street Lab has some other good ideas for engaging your audience during this time. One idea we’ve already adopted at Twipe is the photo contest for our new home offices. Check-in tomorrow for the winning photo from our team on social media.

Of course, you can always follow the lead of The Northern Territory News in Australia, which responded to the feared toilet paper shortages by printing a special eight-page section to be used “in case of an emergency.”

3. How to respond as advertising takes a hit

We all know advertising revenue has taken a hit during this time. From stores being closed by governmental mandates, to grocery stores facing overwhelming demand and needing to cancel their promotions, there had been a dramatic and drastic drop in advertising. While this might be the final push publishers need to focus on their reader revenue strategies going forward, there is still a possibility for publishers to react to this change in the short term.

News Corp Australia for example has offered the equivalent of more than 4 million euros of print ads for businesses to share community service announcements. This is something local publishers are uniquely positioned to take the lead on, with their ability to directly answer the practical questions their readers have, such as which restaurants have decided to offer take-out options or what initiatives local businesses have started. In Austria, The Vorarlberger Nachrichten has also undertaken a similar initiative, offering local advertising clients free messages across platforms to announce changes in their service during this crisis.

We have a partnership with local businesses for over 100 years. They can rely on us a partner — during good and bad times.

Georg Burtscher, managing director of Russmedia Digital

Similarly, in the United States CHSToday is trying to support local businesses through their campaign #CarryOutWednesday. With this, they are encouraging readers to still patronise local restaurants that are open for take-out


Elsewhere in the US, DigBoston has started a new event calendar, replacing their previous calendar listings with new online events happening in their community. Now readers can find virtual concerts from local artists and even follow art classes from a local painter.

While some publishers seem to believe advertising is in a “pause phase”, INMA CEO Earl Wilkinson warns publishers that it is coronavirus itself that has paused advertising while the resulting economic contractions might effectively cancel advertising all together in the future.

4. Expanding pop-up products beyond newsletters and podcasts

It seems everyone has a pop-up coronavirus newsletter, and if you haven’t already here are some tips for how to stand out in this crowded space. In normal times, pop-up newsletters have shown higher engagement rates and serve as a great way to convert new subscribers. In these times of heightened emotion, that engagement is only increasing. Newsletters also have a relatively low barrier to entry, most publishers already have someone responsible for newsletters and then it’s just a matter of curating the newsroom’s coverage.

For that reason, pop-up podcasts have also been popular but not at nearly the same level as newsletters. Getting a new podcast up and running can take more effort. Plus, there’s a discussion on if there is still as much demand for audio now that most people do not have a commute and cannot go to the gym. It will be interesting to see the numbers in the coming weeks.

That’s why we were excited to see The Los Angeles Times thinking outside the box, with their pop-up coronavirus Instagram page. While their original Instagram page still shares some coronavirus-related posts, the pop-up Instagram seems to post more often during the day.

Last week we also shared what McClatchy has done in response to the crisis. With 29 daily titles across the country, they have quite a vast range of local journalism on the COVID-19 situation. So their digital editions have a new section aggregating all of those stories, giving subscribers a better view of what is happening across the country and ideas for how to better respond in their own community. We were also intrigued to hear that in Ohio Cox Media Group has launched a new afternoon edition to give their readers an overview of the latest coronavirus stories.

We are curious to see what other types of coronavirus pop-up products appear in the coming weeks, get in touch if your newsroom has launched something new.

5. Consider when you will need to stop print

One of the logistical concerns facing publishers today is what to do about print, something that has been a lingering question for the past few years but has significantly ramped up recently. As such, INMA has prepared a comprehensive survey that shares quite a few scenarios publishers should be considering. From that survey, it is surprising to see that almost half of the respondents have not yet considered at what point this outbreak will prevent service delivery.

Some publishers have more experience with these scenarios than others, such as those that have been in the path of earthquakes or other natural disasters. One surveyed publisher even shared that they have always been able to get their print paper out, even if that meant newspaper staff had to deliver the paper on foot or if they had to utilise a helicopter drop. Others have experienced needing to move off-site quickly and continue their reporting, such as after the 2011 terror attack in Oslo that saw Norwegian tabloid Verdens Gang producing their paper from a nearby hotel.

For publishers that decide to reduce the number of days they print a newspaper for now, they should also consider any longer-term plans they have for print reduction and align the two strategies. This crisis might serve as a catalyst to speed up plans for print reduction or elimination for many publishers.

In these print-less scenarios, your digital channels become critical. For print-only readers, the digital replica reading experience will be the most comfortable for them to transition to. This is not the only audience needing edition products in these chaotic times of information overload. That’s why we see on our platform more readers turning to digital editions, they crave the feeling of being able to ‘finish’ the news and then step away from it until the next day. While breaking news can be crucial at this time, a reader cannot wait until the next day to learn their government has declared a lockdown. But after a certain point, as readers try to adjust to their new normal, they need to be able to integrate news into their current routines without it causing anxiety and extra stress. Journalism is more than breaking news, it is about analysing and explaining the news to communities.

To address this need, we’re seeing more and more publishers open their digital editions to all readers, not just subscribers. It will be interesting to see how this new habit of edition reading continues in the future. Let us know how you plan to encourage these new reading habits going forward, we are always happy to discuss what we have seen work as well.

Publishers might also need to address reader concerns over the hygiene of print newspapers. Although there have been no known cases of coronavirus transmission through a print newspaper, some readers are still concerned. In India, The Telegraph in Kolkata printed an infographic sharing exactly how the print newspaper gets made and delivered to show how there is limited room for infection.

ABP’s Telegraph in Calcutta, India, produces an advertisement showing the safety measures — from production to distribution to street sales — being undertaken to ensure print is safe for readers.

The Wall Street Journal has also started putting a notice in its print edition explaining how the paper production process is mostly automated and that the risk of infection is low. 

6. Collaborate for and with your community

Finally, collaboration is going to be of a key strategic importance for many publishers going forward. That might mean collaborating on coverage so journalists can cover more angles of a story or sharing other resources in what INMA calls a ‘doomsday scenario’ (good news is that more than half of respondents said they have prepared for this collaboration potential already). We’ve also seen examples across Latin America, Spain and the UK of publishers collaborating on shared front pages to reassure the public.

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