By Emilie Lutostanski, Camryn Allen and Lindsey Leisher Estes • Local Media Association
Early in the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Facebook Journalism Project (FJP) awarded more than 400 local newsrooms in North America each $5,000 in FJP Community Network Grants to support their COVID-19 reporting.
The payments, received in mid-April, helped fulfill a variety of needs related to the strains of remote work, decreased revenue, combating misinformation, and reaching at-risk communities. Publishers enhanced or expanded COVID-19 coverage through reporting, livestreams, guides and virtual events.
While unanticipated revenue challenges required a third of publishers to fill immediate payroll gaps, news outlets also invested funds in their futures by upgrading technology and creating community partnerships. Most publishers used funds in multiple ways to support coverage.
More than a third of recipients used their funding to hire help and fill-in payroll gaps that ensured continued local news related to the coronavirus pandemic. About a quarter of all fund recipients invested in technology and/or website enhancements. Others used the funding to launch community partnerships and events as well as meet safety needs necessary for reporting on COVID-19.
Recipients shared their gratitude and accomplishments in a recent survey returned to Local Media Association, which served as a partner in the program, along with The Lenfest Institute for Journalism in the U.S., and News Media Canada and The Independent News Challenge in Canada.
From Osprey Observer Newspapers: “The Facebook Journalism Grant could not have come at a better time for the Osprey Observer Community Newspapers. Not only did it raise spirits in our community newspaper office, but it ensured a renewed sense of excitement and urgency to getting more COVID-19 related stories in the newspaper.”
From Warren Communications (San Diego Voice & Viewpoint Newspaper): “At a time when we would have had to lay off staff, the Facebook Grant for COVID-19 coverage made a world of difference. Staff reductions would have been necessary because of lost revenues during the growth of the pandemic. The grant allowed us to retain, to a degree, our staff and freelance writers and add a social media editor.”
From KOSU: “Simply put, the Facebook payment has allowed us to worry less about money and focus more on reporting and community service.”
Here are highlights of some of the ways local newsrooms have used the total $2 million in funding from the FJP Community Grants to navigate the economic impact of the long-lasting outbreak, including:
- Hiring help and filling payroll needs
- Launching organizational partnerships and events
- Extended content and news coverage
- Investing in technology and improving digital products
- Meeting critical safety needs
Member-supported nonprofit news organization El Paso Matters hired several freelance reporters that tripled the amount of content produced, with much of the reporting focusing on vulnerable populations: farmworkers, detained immigrants, and people with mental health issues, which wasn’t being covered elsewhere. The reporting has been republished by English-language and Spanish-language television stations in El Paso, as well as Spanish-language digital publications in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (El Diario de Juarez and La Verdad Juarez).
The expanded coverage also helped El Paso Matters bring in more donors, raising about $8,000 in individual donations since the beginning of April, double what the organization had previously been able to raise from individuals.
McClatchy-owned Kentucky newspaper Lexington Herald-Leader used the Facebook grant to elevate focus on helping small businesses in Lexington navigate the impacts of COVID-19, specifically to help guide small businesses, employees and owners through the complexities of surviving and reopening.
The publisher hired freelance journalist Tom Martin to produce a series of expert Q&As on key topics for local businesses shaped around the premise of “How to Reopen” including how to navigate contracts, leases, and supply chains after the shutdown.
Oklahoma Watch invested in a temporary contract reporter to assist with coverage and editing, which increased story production and allowed full-time staff to produce more accountability stories. In total, Oklahoma Watch produced around 60 stories over two months, a far greater output than typical for the nonprofit investigative news publisher, which helped quadruple website traffic. Stories included an investigation into the history of infection-control violations in nursing homes; how anti-vaccination forces could increase resistance to an eventual COVID-19 vaccine; whether Oklahoma is ready for a surge; the refusal of rural communities to order precautions; the lack of PPE in nursing homes; the spike in domestic violence in a state with high rates of domestic abuse, and more.
“The journalism we produced was superb and drew grateful comments from readers. … The pressure we brought to bear on the state prompted them to release city-level numbers of cases and deaths and similar numbers for nursing homes by facility name. The Facebook grant was invaluable in helping us bring all of our strengths to providing relentless public-service coverage that made a difference for the better.”
In addition to extending coverage and digital distribution with a daily e-newsletter and a podcast, as well as hiring freelancers, I Messenger Media – Texas Metro News, a Texas-based Black-owned publication, partnered with local businesses to amplify the reach of its print edition.
“Because churches, libraries, and schools that are usually open were closed, we entered into a partnership with local restaurants that were doing take-out. We offered them each a 1/4 page ad and asked them to hand out our papers with their to-go orders. It has been so successful that other papers are trying our model out in other cities.”
As a nonprofit news outlet producing nonpartisan, in-depth and investigative news, Carolina Public Press used the Facebook grant to support an Emergency News Team (ENT) that helps ensure all North Carolinians have access to information about COVID-19 and its impact. Through the ENT, CPP tripled its coverage of COVID-19, with particular emphasis in rural North Carolina, including stories such as:
- COVID-19 victim and widow: Virus is like bullet shot at you
- Data on nursing homes, other NC outbreaks now easier to view
- Pandemic driving up election costs, and NC not ready
- Symptomless first COVID-19 case in Graham County ‘heartbroken’ by test
Carolina Public Press made the Emergency News Team available to help local newsrooms throughout North Carolina continue and/or expand their ability to produce critical news about COVID-19 at the community level.
With the support of this grant, CPP’s ENT also established robust content-sharing relationships with organizations in radio, TV, print and digital media, in both English and Spanish. Specifically, this allowed CPP to assist rural micronews organizations (1-5 employees) to continue or expand COVID-19 news, in case of reduced operations, furloughs, layoffs or illness.
Detroit Public Television became the media partner for the COVID 313 coalition, a group of nonprofit organizations that collaborated to fill major gaps in local crisis response information. To date, the coalition has hosted 10 weekly townhalls that cover critical topics including where to get food assistance, how to apply for unemployment, updates about education, business assistance, and more.
Grant funding allowed San Diego’s largest African-American publication San Diego Voice & Viewpoint Newspaper, owned by Warren Communications, to become a media partner with the San Diego County Coronavirus Task Force. This enabled the publisher to provide a digital edition of the newspaper free to the public, which included resource information, updates of county directives related to the virus, and enhancements to the print edition which were shared on social media.
Osprey Observer Community Newspapers, publishing 80,000 copies monthly, partnered with a well-known host to launch a video podcast program called MyOspreyTV with a weekly 30-minute show highlighting the best of the community during the quarantine. The publisher also hosted a #DineLocal contest and gave out more than $1,000 to local restaurants to readers, and hid a GeoCaches in the community as a social distancing treasure hunt for readers.
The Facebook grant allowed New Mexico In Depth to pursue and publish several stories in April and May it otherwise would not have been able to produce. The member-supported, digital-first, nonpartisan news organization produces investigative, data-rich stories with an eye on solutions that can be a catalyst for change. Content produced as a result of the funding include:
- A story on To’Hajiilee, a Navajo community near Albuquerque, with no running water.
- An article on the creative workarounds staff & teachers at Santa Fe Indian School are using to educate indigenous youth who have been sent home to communities around New Mexico due to COVID-19. Many students lack access to high-speed internet needed for online learning. And another education story: How Native American students at the University of New Mexico have been struggling with online learning after the university canceled classes this spring.
- A piece on how COVID-19 is forcing state and federal fire officials to rethink how they plan to fight wildland fires in what appears to be another bad summer for the American West.
- A story about the lack of public information about hospital workers who have become ill due to COVID-19 and a lack of enough PPE supplies at one of the state’s largest health care systems.
High Plains Public Radio reached out to all of its contacts who are either immigrants or work with immigrants to find sources for news stories and to disseminate HPPR news stories. HPPR broadcast and/or published 25 news stories and 260 Facebook stories about COVID-19 and its effects on the region since the funds were received, including ten stories and 30 Facebook posts about outbreaks that have occurred in the five large meatpacking plants in the service area.
The network of public radio stations serving the High Plains region of western Kansas, the Texas Panhandle, the Oklahoma Panhandle and eastern Colorado also translated stories into Spanish, and created and disseminated posters regarding COVID-19 and how to access trusted information on HPPR’s website (and public health sites) in three languages: Somali, Spanish and Burmese.
Chicago’s public television station WTTW, or Window to the World Communications, Inc., was able to launch a digital-first series of documentary stories produced and released in real-time that explore the personal, firsthand perspectives of a diverse group of people whose lives were upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The goal was to create compelling content with a narrative storytelling approach pegged to topical/timely issues discussed and debated at American dinner tables, among friends, in popular culture, and from diverse and different points of view.
“Where conversations about the critical issues facing our city and region can often be reduced to stereotypes, shorthand and faceless data, these first hand stories painted nuanced portraits of the people behind the headlines.”
Canadian science and technology magazine Vélo Québec Éditions (Québec Science) doubled its scientific coverage of COVID-19 using funding from the FJP Community Grant, publishing articles about post-traumatic syndrome, how sewage and wastewater could be used to trace outbreaks, the search for “patient zero,” if runners could spread the virus more easily, why obesity is a risk factor, if the handshake will disappear because of the new hygiene standards.
“We’ve seen a 600 percent increase in web traffic — something unimaginable for us!” the team said in their grant report.
At the member-supported public radio network KOSU, staff spent time listening to its audience to find out what the concerns and interests were to better focus reporting efforts, and this engagement led to the creation of a series of audio diaries. Using Zoom, voice memos, and some creativity, the team started building stories that relate the very personal experiences people are having during this pandemic.
Since March, four journalists and producers at KOSU have reported more than 300 stories ranging from simple radio newscast to complex feature stories, and kosu.org saw a 275% increase in website users comparing April 2019 to April 2020.
Five publishers in LMA’s Digital Transformation Lab — The Atlanta Voice, New York Amsterdam News, Dallas Weekly, Houston Defender, and The Washington Informer — invested grant funding to launch targeted email campaigns which enabled the publisher to reach untapped local audiences interested in local news. By leveraging a database of opted-in users with email marketing company Site Impact, news and information from The Atlanta Voice has reached thousands of new households, and the New York Amsterdam News added nearly 1,000 newsletters sign-ups and more than 200 subscriptions in two months, where previously those lists were relatively stable.
Santa Cruz Local purchased new Zoom accounts that allowed the publisher to host a COVID-19 town hall with local public health leaders, offering people a chance to ask questions. The California podcast and local news organization also hosted a members-only meeting to discuss how to help the community, resulting in connecting volunteers with organizations in need, connecting a producer of hundreds of bottles of hand sanitizer with a homeless service provider, as well as creating a sense of community among members.
Digital publication The Long Beach Post used the grant to re-develop its live blogging platform as a free and open-source WordPress plugin for use by other news organizations, allowing continuous updates on a story, with each update having its own unique identifier and Open Graph metadata, while existing on the same landing page as an easy-to-follow timeline of updates.
Additionally, The Long Beach Post created an embeddable, widget-ized version of the live blog that pulls the most recent updates into a styleable embed on external websites. News organizations such as LAist, the Signal Tribune newspaper, and VoiceWaves took have adopted and embedded the widget on their websites.
CatchLight Local is a visual storytelling initiative that seeks to transform the local news and media landscape with new community-based visual practices. With funding from Facebook, CatchLight was able to rapidly deploy significant efforts at a crucial time, resulting in improved safety and training of 912 photojournalists — and the communities they interact with — improved access to food, health care, handwashing and toilet stations, as well as information about COVID-19 for two vehicular communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.
CatchLight hosted a two-part, free online safety training for photojournalists worldwide, led by infectious diseases physician-scientist Dr. Jennell Stewart. The training was specifically directed toward freelancers and others in the field who may not have access to full-body personal protective equipment. In order to maximize the reach and effectiveness of the training, the training was presented in partnership with the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) and The Everyday Projects.
Some funds also extended a long-term project covering vehicular communities in the Bay Area, whose unique living situation presents significant health and communication challenges in addressing COVID-19. Residents who are living in RVs and cars on city streets have limited access to water for sanitation or access to health information updates which are increasingly shared online. In addition to an online resource guide, printed posters were displayed and distributed where vehicle dwellers would likely see them, with the aim of furthering their access to locally contextualized public health information.
Earlier this spring when the opportunity for funding was announced, more than 200 publishers applied in the first 48 hours after the application launched, exemplifying the need for financial support as local economies — and revenue streams — shut down. These are just a few examples of how the $5,000 payments to local news organizations across North America were used to serve vulnerable populations and increase the dissemination of factual information for the betterment of their communities. We look forward tohearing from the grant recipients about the incredibly valuable journalism being produced with supportive funding at this critical time in history.
Thank you to the Facebook Journalism Project for supporting publishers and broadcasters serving the public with vital COVID-19 local news and information. Learn more about initiatives and resources from the Facebook Journalism Project.