Covering COVID-19: UNC Table Stakes participants adapt and innovate

Media organizations across the country have pivoted operations to cover the COVID-19 pandemic, documenting a story unprecedented in recent history that has touched nearly every aspect of human life.

A past meeting of the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative at UNC.

Current and past participants in the UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative, administered by UNC Hussman’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, are using the program’s principles to produce innovative and collaborative efforts to sustain their communities’ increased need for quality local news.

“Our partners in the UNC-Knight network are demonstrating how to solve problems and make an impact amid some difficult challenges,” said Susan Leath, director of the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media.

The following are examples of how several past and present UNC-Knight Foundation Table Stakes Newsroom Initiative participants are pivoting in this time and what lessons they are learning through their COVID-19 coverage.

 

 

Charlottesville Tomorrow is a nonprofit news site covering Charlottesville, Virginia.

How have you pivoted content and operations to cover COVID-19?

 “Really, we were already built for remote work,” said Executive Director Giles Morris of his team. “The biggest challenge has been sourcing stories remotely.” Morris’ team has turned to social media, websites and other virtual sources to find story subjects they might otherwise find in person. Also, Morris’ team has relied heavily on contacts they already have. “You really have to work with who you already have trust with,” Morris said.

Highlights of Charlottesville Tomorrow’s COVID-19 response:

Charlottesville Tomorrow’s COVID-19 work reflects the Table Stakes principles of serving target audiences with targeted content; diversifying and growing ways to earn revenue from audiences built; and partnering to expand capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible costs.

 What lessons have you learned from your COVID-19 coverage?

 “This has been a game changer for Charlottesville Tomorrow, and it’s really elevated the confidence of the team,” Morris said, noting that the way his team has come together during the coverage has reaffirmed not only his belief in the mission of Charlottesville Tomorrow, but of nonprofit news in general. “This is a moment for nonprofit public service news,” Morris said.

 

EducationNC  is a nonprofit news site covering education across North Carolina.

How have you pivoted content and operations to cover COVID-19?

“We’ve been very intentional during COVID-19 to balance audience needs for immediate information, policy analysis, content that inspires hope and ongoing coverage,” said Mary Wilson, director of engagement for EducationNC. Already a partly remote team accustomed to virtual communication, EducationNC team members have made even greater use of pandemic-friendly tools like Zoom and Slack to stay connected.

Highlights of EducationNC’s COVID-19 response:

EducationNC’s COVID-19 work reflects the Table Stakes principles of serving target audiences with targeted content; publishing on platforms used by target audiences; producing and publishing continuously to meet audience needs; diversifying and growing the ways you earn revenue from the audiences built; partnering to expand capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible costs; driving audience growth and profitability from a “mini-publisher”perspective.

 What lessons have you learned from your COVID-19 coverage?

EducationNC has learned the value of relying on experts — in-house and out. Quality photos have been harder to get, so the team has had to produce more graphics. Also, they’ve reached out to cybersecurity experts when a virtual event was “Zoombombed,” an ESL teacher to consult on Spanish coverage, and have kept asking questions of their audience through the various interactive features in their publications.

“We believe there is no one reporter, no one leader, no one organization, no one story that will meet the needs of our audience during a crisis. This requires all of us,” said Mebane Rash, EducationNC’s editor-in-chief and CEO.

 

North Carolina Health News is a nonprofit news site dedicated to covering health care issues across North Carolina.

How have you pivoted content and operations to cover COVID-19?

 Since the pandemic’s start, Rose Hoban, North Carolina Health News founder and editor, has been on the phone — raising money. She knew that for her team to cover the pandemic properly, they would need more funds. The calls were effective, and since the start of 2020, North Carolina Health News has raised $11,000 in funds from funders and readers. Typically, the organization has only raised about $1,000 at this point in the year. Hoban and her team also reconfigured the NC Health News website to make the reader donation process clearer.

Highlights of North Carolina Health News COVID-19 response: 

North Carolina Health News’ COVID-19 work reflects the Table Stakes principles of serving targeted audiences with targeted content; producing and publishing continuously to meet audience needs; diversifying and growing the ways to earn revenue from the audiences built; funneling occasional users to habitual and paying/valuable loyalists; partnering to expand capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible costs; and driving audience growth and profitability from a “mini-publisher” perspective.

 What lessons have you learned from your COVID-19 coverage?

 Hoban stated that she has learned the value of more proactively seeking funding for her media organization — through several different avenues — and the importance of forming partnerships. “This is the story of the century,” Hoban said. “We need to keep doing everything we can to cover it well.”

 

Qcitymetro is an independent, for-profit website that provides news and content for Charlotte, North Carolina’s African American community.

 How have you pivoted content and operations to cover COVID-19?

 “I don’t know whether we pivoted so much as the world pivoted, and we simply were carried along for the ride,” said Glenn Burkins, Qcitymetro’s founder and publisher, who noted that his reporters have  beefed up coverage by utilizing Zoom to converse with county health officials, applying for grant money to replace lost advertising revenue, developing close relationships with local health care facilities and providing useful, on-the-ground information about where their readers can get tested or where African-American business owners can find grants and government loans for disaster relief.

Highlights of Qcitymetro COVID-19 response: 

  • Image courtesy of Qcitymetro

    Increased morning newsletter from twice weekly to five days a week.

  • Created a health newsletter with sponsorship from a local hospital network.
  • Teamed up with the Harvey B. Gantt Center to produce a series of virtual town halls about COVID-19 and the African-American community.
  • Published a column called “Why is no one talking about the spread of Covid-19 in Mecklenburg’s Black communities?” about COVID-19’s disproportionate effect on African-American communities. “Within days of publication, the narrative in Mecklenburg County began to change,” Burkins said of the column.

 Qcitymetro’s COVID-19 work reflects the Table Stakes principles of serving target audiences with targeted content; producing and publishing continuously to meet audience needs; and partnering to expand capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible costs.

 What lessons have you learned from your COVID-19 coverage?

“We are at our best when we are looking out for the communities we serve,” Burkins said. Qcitymetro will be able to keep learning from their COVID-19 coverage thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project, in collaboration with WFAE (a Table Stakes Cohort 1, 2017-2018, participant) and The Charlotte Ledger. The grant will fund coverage looking the pandemic’s effect on African American and Latino communities.

 

UNC-TV  is a public television station serving the state of North Carolina.

How have you pivoted content and operations to cover COVID-19?

 The public broadcast station, in operation in North Carolina since the 1950s, transitioned the vast majority of its staff to at-home work, with only about 15 staffers out of more than 100 going on-site to work. Also, UNC-TV partners have taken some of the station’s production work into their own hands. Camera kits were sent out to partners — such as teachers filming educational programs — across the state who would be taking part in video segments.

Highlights of UNC-TV’s COVID-19 response:

  • During the pandemic, UNC-TV  shouldered two big tasks. Starting March 30, 2020, UNC-TV worked with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to assist with stay-at-home solutions for students and their families or caregivers, providing students in grades four through 12 with a solid schedule of programs designed to complement their schools’ existing virtual learning efforts. These free educational resources are designed to be used by parents, caregivers and educators to help support and maintain learning for children during school closures.
  • UNC-TV also served as the only crew filming North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s regular updates on the effects of the pandemic in the state. Those recordings were then shared around the state though UNC-TV’s channels as well as through other media organizations. The broadcasts were also dubbed in Spanish.

UNC-TV’s COVID-19 work reflects the Table Stakes principles of serving target audiences with targeted content; publishing on the platforms used by target audiences; producing and publishing continuously to meet audience needs; and partnering to expand capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible costs.

 What lessons have you learned from your COVID-19 coverage?

 “It is in times like these that we see our mission come to life,” said David Huppert, director of UNC-TV’s Media Innovation Lab. “It reminds us of the value of broadcast television. We get to provide this really vital resource to residents of the state at a time when they need it most.”

 

WFAE  is a public radio station in Charlotte, North Carolina.

How have you pivoted content and operations to cover COVID-19?

“We transitioned 90% of our staff to remote work. As a broadcast station, that’s not easy, but it was necessary to move quickly to keep the staff as safe as possible and to keep our broadcast operation going,” said Ju-Don Marshall, WFAE’s chief content officer, who noted that the station has also shifted all of its news staff to COVID-19 coverage, looking at the coverage through the lens of individual beats. The station created a WordPress-based microsite that was better able to handle quick updates and increased collaboration with other media partners to address the pandemic, working both through the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, where they’ve talked about joint coverage and produced town halls, as well as through content exchanges with Qcitymetro, The Charlotte Ledger and La Noticia Charlotte.

Highlights of WFAE’s COVID-19 response:

  • Facilitated live conversations on social media to help answer community questions and to support the local music community.
  • Launched a series called “Social Distancing,” which looks at how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted people’s lives.
  • Launched “Songversations,” a live interview/performance with Charlotte-area musicians that focuses on how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted their livelihoods and how they have responded.
  • Created an afternoon coronavirus newsletter to put the news of the day into context for readers.
  • Produced an arts newsletter, Tapestry, focused on helping people find entertainment options while under stay-at-home orders.
  • For more than a year, WFAE has been reporting on the lack of affordable housing in the region through the “Finding Home” series. During the pandemic, the station has looked at how the pandemic has exacerbated the already difficult issue.

WFAE’s COVID-19 work reflects the Table Stakes principles of serving target audiences with targeted content; producing and publishing continuously to meet audience needs; diversifying and growing the ways to earn revenue from the audiences built; and partnering to expand capacity and capabilities at lower and more flexible costs.

What lessons have you learned from your COVID-19 coverage?

“Our COVID-19 operations are improving the way we communicate and have been forcing us to streamline workflows,” Marshall said. “Now, we have to be diligent about using our official processes to share information about assignments and deadlines.” Also, WFAE is part of a $100,000 grant from the Facebook Journalism Project the station received in collaboration with Qcitymetro (a Cohort 2 participant) and The Charlotte Ledger. The grant will fund coverage looking the pandemic’s effect on African-American and Latino communities.