There is no shortage of digital transformation occurring in newsrooms, but the COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated the pace as journalists moved to Zoom video calls and remote work, and readers turned more to online news to receive their information.
To meet those needs, newsrooms around the country have created inventive and engaging projects—from graphic novels to podcasts. Below, E&P highlights some of these newsrooms that are pursuing digital and finding success.
Illustrations have always been a part of newspapering history, but the USA TODAY Network has taken it up a notch with their online graphic novels. To date, the Network has published nearly 10 novels.
One of their more recent ones explained how the Breonna Taylor killing highlights the importance of Sunshine Laws. Some of the panels include animations and links to the Louisville (Ky.) Courier Journal’s reporting on Taylor’s death, and links to other agencies such as US Legal and the Louisville Metro Police Department.
“I chose Louisville’s reporting because it was a textbook example of how a newspaper uses open records to tell a story and to get information that the government (doesn’t) necessarily want to be revealed,” said Mike Thompson, USA TODAY editorial cartoonist.
Reid Williams, senior director of Storytelling Studios, anticipates that the more people who view the graphic novels, the more requests his team and Thompson will get from the Network to create them. He explained that this is the next step “in a constant journey of exploration and experimentation.”
“Illustration is not new. What’s really new here…is enabling people to use all of the things that the web can do,” he said. “It’s not just illustrations and text like you see on the printed page, but there is movement and sound.”
Thomson added, “As a visual journalist, it puts more arrows in my quiver. I can produce static drawings but also animations and video, all of which can be used to tell the story more effectively.”
At The New Yorker, visual and interactive storytelling has also allowed the magazine to put immediate matters into perspective. In response to the racial justice protests last year, artist Kadir Nelson painted a portrait of George Floyd for the cover of the magazine’s June 2020 issue. A reader analyzing the painting can see other Black victims of racism and police brutality. When viewed online, the website zooms in on each person and provides a summary on their story.
“For those of us locked down at home, 2020 was often a year of yearning for experiences beyond our doors—and, in the absence of such experiences, a reminder of the power of stories to whisk us away to another world,” Monica Racic, digital director, and Sandra Garcia, editorial interactives director, said in a New Yorker article. “For the magazine’s interactives team, 2020 offered continual opportunities to tell these stories with visuals aimed at imparting additional insight and perspective.”
The Houston Chronicle’s “One Year Later” visual project depicts photographs and videos, sharing the stories of Houston residents a year after the pandemic started. It includes “Then” and “Now” photos of residents and details where they were at in 2020 when the pandemic forced a stay-home order and visits those same people a year later. Once the photos were collected, multimedia photo editor Jasmine Goldband was in charge of putting the project together.
“I had mobile in mind,” she said. “One thing I was going for with the video clips was a similar Stories app like on Instagram and Facebook.”
Photo editor Jill Karnicki explained, “We wanted it to be a touchstone for our subscribers, so that they could see and relate to the stories of others. We also wanted to produce something that was completely visually driven for HoustonChronicle.com. It didn’t have to rely on a traditional text story to deliver a message.”
The Chronicle did run three of the “Now” and “Then” in print to promote the project; however, the web is a place to enrich stories as well as find new and interesting ways of telling them, Karnicki said. Seeing the subject as well as being able to hear them tell their own stories in their own words is “the added power of digital publication.”
“So often the conversation about digital is focused on disruption to the business model,” Mark Lorando, managing editor of audience, said. “We need to talk more about the creativity and innovation it has unleashed in local newsrooms. The way we tell stories has fundamentally changed—and that’s exhilarating.”
Engaging New Audiences
Sahan Journal is a young, digital nonprofit newsroom in Minnesota. In March, the organization launched “COVID-19 Vaccine: Frequently Asked Questions,” a video series to answer critical questions among local immigrant populations.
Each installment of the series is available in four languages: English, Spanish, Somali and Hmong. For the first installment, videos were hosted by familiar faces among residents like Sahan Journal immigration reporter Hibah Ansari, and Maxamuud Mascadde, one of the most recognizable Somali broadcast journalists in Minnesota.
While speaking with community organizations and residents, health care reporter Joey Peters determined what questions needed to be answered, according to founding executive director and editor Mukhtar Ibrahim. Managing editor Michael Tortorello added that Peters also found that although the State Department of Health and the CDC provided reasonably good information, it was not easily accessible to people in terms of placement and speech.
In the early days of the pandemic, Sahan Journal translated articles containing important information from the Minnesota Department of Health, along with messages from the governor, into Somali, Spanish and Hmong. However, Ibrahim explained that data showed people were not spending time with the content, and it was time-consuming and expensive to produce.
“We felt that in order to reach more audiences—that are not digitally savvy or cannot read English—the quickest and most efficient way was to do this in a video format, where they can really understand what was going on in their own languages,” Ibrahim said.
Sahan Journal wants to continue the video series at least until late summer, when most Minnesotans are projected to be vaccinated.
Last summer, Reuters furthered its commitment to video by partnering with Roku, a video-streaming company, to launch a video news channel on its platform. With this initiative, Roku users have access to an editorially curated selection of news content 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The video coverage includes general news, business, politics, entertainment, and more in 30-minute feeds, according to a press release.
Alex Lewin, senior manager, off-platform partnerships, told E&P that joining Roku enables Reuters to extend its footprint and engage a new audience of news consumers.
“We are now engaging new audiences around the world who are watching content via streaming, accelerated in part because of the pandemic,” he said. “During this time of digital disruption, it is important that Reuters editorially-curated selection of news content, served around-the-clock, have a place on platforms such as Roku, connected TVs and premiere streaming services.”
“Test and Learn”
The Las Vegas Review-Journal recently saw an opportunity to focus on the city’s organized crime history. Not only did the Review-Journal have decades of archived coverage to draw from, but they also had a partnership opportunity with the Smithsonian-affiliated Mob Museum, which had long wanted to produce a podcast. The museum provided the newspaper with access to its audio archives, contacts with sources, its social media following and email list, and interviews with its experts, Review-Journal executive editor Glenn Cook wrote for BetterNews. In return, the museum attached its name to the project.
The series, “Mobbed Up: The Fight for Las Vegas,” published a total of 11 episodes last year from May to July. During its launch week, the podcast reached number 57 on the Apple Podcasts top podcasts charts and number 11 on the Apple Podcasts true crime charts in the U.S.
Originally, the Review-Journal had no plans for a second season; however, achieving audience and unexpected sponsorship successes quickly changed their minds. Now, they are releasing the next season later this year. Cook also stated that the paper is also more likely to produce podcasts to accompany future enterprise and investigative work.
“We have learned that high-quality podcasts can still pick up a sizable, committed audience…despite the flood of new podcasts over the past few years,” he said.
At Michigan Radio, their Minutes audio podcast series includes city council meetings from 42 cities around the state (audio comes from videos of city councils posted online). With the aid of the Google News Initiative, the company built a program that can search and download content from the videos, made public thanks to Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. Listeners can subscribe and listen to the podcasts on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. The audio is unedited and free of ads.
Dustin Dwyer is a reporter and producer and co-creator of Minutes. He explained that podcasts might be more convenient than videos that are hours long because they make it easy for people to multitask and fast forward a little more easily.
“Our ultimate long-term goal would be to make this audio navigable and searchable so that people could skip to just the sections of audio that are relevant to them…But we haven’t quite solved that yet, so stay tuned,” Dwyer said.
Minutes is also utilizing speech-to-text transcription technology to create a database. If a reporter is unable to cover a meeting in person, they will have access to the transcriptions where they can use keywords to search for topics and ultimately produce more stories.
“Michigan Radio has a wide coverage area and a small staff. There are a lot of important stories happening in local communities that we just can’t cover,” Dwyer said. “The local papers that have traditionally covered those communities are also struggling. So, we face the challenge of trying to expand coverage with the same, or fewer, resources. That’s where we really have to innovate. Minutes is one way we’re trying to do that.”
Sometimes digital projects also undergo their own transformations. Originally launched in March 2020, NPR’s “Coronavirus Daily” podcast was turned into a new podcast called “Consider This” two months later.
“We didn’t know whether (“Coronavirus Daily”) would be around for a few months or maybe a year, but we started to get a little nervous when we saw the audience starting to pull away,” said senior director of on-demand news programming Neal Carruth. “We had been planning since late 2019 to create a general interest daily afternoon podcast, sort of the on-demand counterpart to ‘All Things Considered.’”
By September 2020, NPR was making another bold move. “Consider This” was pivoting again—this time to a localized daily podcast, a first for both public radio and the podcast industry. The revamped product delivers not only national stories but partners with NPR stations across the nation to also deliver local news. Currently, 10 regions have access to the localized podcast, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Portland.
“We need to become digital NPR, digital radio, digital public media, digital member-driven network,” Justin Bank, senior director, digital news and strategy, told E&P. “I don’t think anyone really knows what that is…all we can do is test and learn.”
Working with Data
As the COVID-19 pandemic grew, newsrooms pulled and collected pertinent data to create informational tools for their communities.
In March 2020, The Atlantic started The COVID Tracking Project (covidtracking.com). Since it was started by two reporters, the team morphed to include hundreds of volunteer data-gathers, developers, scientists, reporters, designers, editors, and other dedicated contributors. The tracker counted tests, cases, hospitalizations and deaths by state and several territories.
Later on, the magazine launched the COVID Racial Data Tracker, in partnership with the Center for Antiracist Research, collecting, analyzing, and publishing racial data on the pandemic within the U.S. Additionally, they launched the Long-Term-Care COVID Tracker to do the same for nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
Throughout the year, the team explained their methods and shared their expertise through blog posts, tweet threads, training sessions, and more. But as more federal data became available, the organization decided to shut down the tracker. The project stopped collecting data in early March, but their work is still available online, and their research and analysis work will continue through the end of this month.
Last April, City Bureau, a nonprofit civic journalism lab based in Chicago, created a unique database for its readers. Called the Chicago COVID Resource Finder (covid.citybureau.org), the database is made of neighborhood, city, county, and state resources. Resources can be sorted by who is eligible (immigrants, families, business owners, students, LGBTQI) what is offered (food, money, legal help, and more); languages spoken; and location. The database is available in 13 languages including Spanish, French, Polish, and Vietnamese. The same information can also be accessed via SMS by texting “covid” to a provided phone number, where they will be prompted to answer a few questions to narrow down their search and sent a list of resources.
“As COVID-related restrictions began in Chicago, our first step was to reach out to community partners and to survey asking social service organizations about information needs,” web developer Pat Sier wrote in a City Bureau article explaining their process. “We heard that a lot of good information was out there, but people were overwhelmed and sometimes not able to find resources in their language or in a way they could access quickly and easily.”
Through three projects of their own, The Philadelphia Inquirer provided local data to their readers regarding COVID-19 and vaccines. The Inquirer launched a COVID Tracker last year with Spotlight PA, tracking tests, cases, deaths, and hospitalizations in Pennsylvania counties as well as in New Jersey. Also launched last year was the Local COVID-19 Coverage database, in a partnership with Lenfest Lab, which presented an infographic of a 14-day trend by county. It also automatically sorted the newspaper’s COVID-19 coverage under each infographic. Most recently, the Inquirer launched a vaccine database, which allows people to look up providers in the state by county, and links to a state vaccine eligibility quiz and schedule.
Managing editor Patrick Kerkstra anticipates the Inquirer will continue to track COVID-19 data until the nation returns to “something approaching normal.” Aside from the homepage and certain section fronts, the tracker was the newspaper’s top-performing page. These COVID-19 pages were also used as an opportunity to ask people to subscribe or donate, which yielded numerous results.
Prior to launching these projects, the Inquirer had few data experts, and they didn’t develop work to utilize data, visualization, and interactives. But COVID-19 presented an opportunity to develop that muscle, and the newsroom’s investment into data continues this year. As readers become accustomed to receiving information from databases and navigating them, Kerkstra believes they will be important to the future of news.
“It’s been a huge part for the national media, and I think local media is paying attention and really ought to be investing more energy and more time into working with data,” he said.