COVID-19 exposes limitations of local pubmedia journalism

COVID-19 has been a slow-moving disaster since the beginning. There was no terrorist bomb or mass shooting or natural disaster. The virus was a creeping, insidious mole slowly burrowing into our consciousness and then into our lives and our news agendas. And unlike any crisis in recent history, it will be with us for a long time to come.

Whether we like to admit it or not, there are “scripts” for most types of breaking news. There’s a big event followed by a period of special coverage that’s intense but relatively short – usually a couple of days to a couple of weeks. Then, there’s an off-ramp of aftermath coverage when newsroom operations and schedules can get back to normal. 

To the extent newsrooms have prepared for breaking news at all, they’ve prepared for that kind of breaking news.

COVID-19 is not that kind of breaking news.

Ultra-marathon of crisis coverage

March 12 was the day the US opened its eyes to the magnitude of COVID-19. The awakening happened somewhere between the NBA cancelling its season and Disney closing its theme parks.

I was in Norfolk, Virginia that day, visiting my client WHRO Public Media. A long-anticipated strategic planning session with the news team flowed into a series of impromptu crisis coverage discussions. I’ll admit to using the “marathon, not a sprint” cliche as I recommended deliberate rationing of the station’s reporting resources. 

More than a month later, we’re all realizing this is more likely to be an ultra-marathon than a marathon. We’re also coming face to face with how ill-equipped most public media newsrooms are to deal with it. 

A newsroom can act bigger than it is for the duration of a typical crisis. For a few days or even a couple of weeks, a five-person newsroom can draw on adrenaline and community spirit to do the work of a twelve-person shop, and a twelve-person shop can do the work of 20. 

But that’s not sustainable.

More than half the country has not yet seen the worst of COVID-19, but most news organizations have already done at least two weeks of elevated crisis coverage. 

Time to dial it back

In the short term, this means if your newsroom is still trying to act bigger than it is, it’s time to dial things back. Maintaining a crisis coverage schedule for the duration of this particular crisis will guarantee staff burnout and most likely illness as well. Remember that thing they’re covering? Journalists aren’t immune.

The first thing I did when I got home from Virginia was to make a weekend staff rotation schedule for WHRO to ensure everyone got some time off. A couple weeks later, I suggested tapering the staffing schedule back down to five-day weeks and using the weekend roster as an on-call rotation, in case something truly emergent happened on the weekend. 

The station has since done that, with the understanding that it may have to ramp back up when the peak arrives. If that’s necessary, at least staff will be reasonably well rested.

Getting real about being a “primary news source”

In the long term, this crisis should spark real, hard discussions at local public media stations about their roles as news organizations in their communities. 

We all love the idea that public media will save local journalism – that it will fill the vacuum left by the continued decline of local newspapers, particularly in smaller cities and rural areas. But even with all those newspaper layoffs, most print newsrooms still outnumber most corresponding public media newsrooms by orders of magnitude. 

Back in 2016, for example, Poynter lauded my local newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel, for covering the Pulse nightclub shooting with a mere 100 journalists, down from its peak staff size of 350. My local public radio station and former employer WMFE covered the tragedy with fewer than ten. 

With a few notably impressive exceptions, local public media organizations simply do not have the capacity to be primary news sources for their communities. That fact is laid bare by this crisis, which will require months, not days or weeks, of intense coverage from any organization claiming to fill such a role.

I was recently contacted by a news director asking for help with a podcast the newsroom had started in response to COVID-19. After less than two weeks, staff at this relatively large station (in public media terms) had realized it was unsustainable. 

What now?

None of this means public media can’t play a role in covering COVID-19. It can, it should, and it is playing a very important role.

Stations are providing important, timely information about local public health and safety, as well as context and analysis that public media audiences expect.

Many are also experimenting with projects that play to their unique advantages. Aspen Public Radio, for example, another of my clients, has teamed up with the Aspen Historical Society for a Storycorps-esque initiative called “Quarantine Stories: Recording History.”

Stations across the country are doing great work, and when it’s all over, they should look back and be proud. But they must also look back and confront the gap between what they wanted to do and what they had the capacity to do – between the role they wanted to play and the role they were able to play.

To be clear, public media organizations should not give up their dreams of filling local journalism gaps or of becoming primary news sources. But they must be brave enough to acknowledge what those dreams require, and they must decide whether they really want to walk that walk. 

If the answer is no, that’s an honorable decision. There are many other crucial journalistic needs out there that public media is uniquely positioned to address. Hang your hat on any of those and be proud.

For those stations that do want to double down on the big vision – it’s time to get to work. Make a long-term strategic plan for how to make it happen, and don’t expect it to happen overnight or even over the next couple of years. This is a long road, but those that have made the commitment would say it’s a rewarding one.

Henry David Thoreau said it best:

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

 

COVID-19 exposes limitations of local pubmedia journalism

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