Facebook group inspires informational resources in The Beacon’s newly launched COVID-19 help desk


By Emilie Lutostanski • Director, Local News Resource Center

The Beacon in Kansas City launched a Facebook group at the start of the COVID-19 crisis to serve the community vital, life-saving information in a time of rampant speculation and genuine uncertainty.

The group has grown to 5,300 members, most of which in the first two weeks of the pandemic.

Now 5,300 members and growing, the Facebook group has kept many Kansas Citians informed and helped bridge support networks among neighbors. As a landing place for questions and experiences, the group has helped inform relevant content for The Beacon’s newly launched COVID-19 help desk.

Founder and Publisher Kelsey Ryan said that as members’ needs continue to evolve, active moderation is important to upholding the quality of the group, which gained 4,000 members its first week after launching March 12, 2020.

“At first, we were trying to moderate all of the growth, the new members, and the posts in an attempt to keep it a fact-based environment, and pretty quickly realized we couldn’t do it by ourselves because there were too many posts,” she said. “So we opened up the moderation to other reporters in the community and made it really clear that we’re journalists and this is a breaking news situation, but … we’re trying to make sure what you’re getting is accurate, and we may reach out to you for stories.”

Ryan

The Beacon group was initially more open, but Ryan said it became necessary for moderators to approve both new members and new posts.

“When we changed settings to ‘the moderator has to approve all posts,’ I think it boosted the quality of the posts because we were able to check to see what the source was,” she said.

Early on, moderators posted prompts to better understand the needs and experiences of community group members.

“We came up with a series of 10 to 15 questions in the first couple of days to ask people — what they were thinking, what they were feeling, what they most needed — things like that, to kind of get the conversation started, and then it really just took off from there,” Ryan said.

The helpdesk centralizes resources and information in response to questions from the community.

Now The Beacon is building on the usefulness of its Kansas City Coronavirus Updates Facebook group with a concerted initiative to create content that addresses the experiences and questions of its members — making them primary sources for local journalism.

Ryan said reporters from throughout the region generally receive positive responses when looking for perspectives within the Facebook group. As part of The Beacon’s COVID-19 Help Desk, The Beacon’s health care reporter, Brittany Callan, who has a background as a fact-checker, responds to reader questions directly as they come in, and publishes weekly newsletters and site updates.

“We really want to keep asking people what they don’t know, what they need, keeping our fingers on the pulse of what folks want,” Ryan said. “The second you stop asking what your audience wants is the second you become irrelevant.”

A total of 14 moderators apply the Facebook group rules.

Through the help desk, The Beacon is showing the value local newsrooms can gain from topic-based Facebook groups, and especially moderation that builds trust and community relationships.

“It’s like, you got all these people in one place — don’t just give up on them. Don’t just use them for a couple stories and then leave,” she said. “I hope that folks think about that longer-term strategy, how groups will evolve over time. …

“Maybe at some point, once the vaccines fully rolled out and COVID is a thing of the past, this will not be a relevant group anymore,” she continued. “But it will be, to me, this historical archive of how Kansas Citians experienced this — so that’s valuable right there.”

7 lessons from The Beacon’s Kansas City Coronavirus Updates Facebook group

Tips on moderation

  • To create a fact-based environment, commit to moderation through review of users and posts.
  • Moderation can be distributed among many moderators across trusted organizations, if aligned on the rules and mission of the group.
  • The Beacon created a second, private group for moderators of the COVID-19 Information group, to review posts and discuss any issues.
  • Encourage self-moderation in a group by asking members to flag posts that violate the rules or Facebook’s Community Standards. Many members do not know immediately how to do this.

Tips on newsgathering

  • Seed discussions with prompts; The Beacon posted about two per day over a week when the group was first formed.
  • Journalists should always identify themselves when posing questions to the group.
  • Consider how group discussions can inform and diversify your reporting for a broader audience, both directly and indirectly.

Find more case studies like this from the Local News Resource Center, funded by the Facebook Journalism Project. The Local News Resource Center connects local media organizations with the social media training, information, tools and support network needed to meet business goals, such as drive website traffic, acquire new audience, and heighten engagement. Contact us for support.