Local News Matters: Creating — and Sustaining — a COVID-19 Information Hub
The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that there has never been a time when access to accurate, up-to-date information has been more crucial — and that is especially true when it comes to local resources like testing, vaccinations and business restrictions that impact our health and way of life. And, simultaneously, there have never been more hurdles facing individuals trying to acquire accurate information because the virus and the responses to it from government, schools, the health care system and other vital services have changed from day to day. Fast-moving data, frequently changing public health restrictions, and daily new understandings about the virus itself — coupled with the background noise created by rampant misinformation — pose a monumental challenge.
In the first few months of the pandemic, Bay City News (BCN), a two-part organization comprised of a B2B regional newswire and an enterprise reporting nonprofit, identified a need for a go-to source of reliable information to help people in the Bay Area navigate the pandemic. With support from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships program (known as JSK), which boasts a network of outstanding journalists from around the world, we created a COVID-19 Information Hub at LocalNewsMatters.org. The goal was to provide accurate, up-to-date information on the pandemic to the citizens of the Bay Area. Because of our hybrid model, Bay City News was able to share key news stories with more than 100 other media outlets via our newswire, dramatically amplifying our reach and impact. Here’s how we did it.
Phase One: Discovery and Launch
In phase one, we focused on research — looking into what others had already done and what information gaps were still remaining. We weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel, so if there were organizations already doing this work we wanted to support and partner with them, rather than compete or provide something that would be redundant. And we wanted to learn from others about the best ways to organize information.
We interviewed the editors/creators of other projects we found, such as Simon Galperin’s Bloomfield Info Site, and incorporated some of their ideas, like click-through buttons for categories or places. In our case, that meant a button for each of the nine (now 12) counties we cover leading to pages with geographically specific information about services, schools, testing, etc. We surveyed media outlets to find out what they needed and what was missing, and we did consumer interviews to find out what individuals might be confused about and what they wanted updates about as the rules constantly shifted on playground closures, criteria for school openings, restrictions on restaurant dining, etc. All of those things were incorporated into our hub.
Our small team — including five JSK alums (myself, Natalia Mazotte, Krista Almanzan and Heather Bryant with guidance from Tran Ha) and two BCN interns (Tilly Friedlander and Ugur Dursun) — created a system for gathering and updating information. Based on what we learned from our research, we created a Google spreadsheet with tabs for each of the nine (now 12) counties we cover and made a list of services that people needed.
With the information gathered, web producer/editor Chloe Lee Rowlands built a new section on our LocalNewsMatters.org website (supported by Newspack’s WordPress platform) to hold that data, organized so that each county has a button that takes readers to a county-specific page with information by service category (schools, restaurants, courts, etc.). The average time to create a section for each county — including the time to research, write summaries, note sources, confirm or change the information and add to the website was 4–6 hours or about 45 hours total. Here is an example of one county:
We had created and posted a beta site over the course of a week and began with a soft launch, inviting a few people to take a closer look at the beginning of July. We made a few initial adjustments as news shifted, updating county information to follow developments and adjusting the layout of the landing page to be easier to navigate based on feedback. We also encouraged readers to let us know if they saw any errors or changes with a clickable feedback button.
In addition to the county pages with updates on how those services and industries are impacted by the pandemic, we also wanted to build news coverage on everything from the latest state restrictions to what local businesses were doing to stay afloat. To do this, we built a section of articles, based on new reporting, together with relevant BCN wire content and stories shared by nonprofit partners such as EdSource and CalMatters. We continue to publish at least one summary story every day that highlights COVID-19-related news and incorporates state briefing updates, and usually several other stories as well to round out the coverage, ranging from news about the virus outbreaks at local prisons to hazard pay for frontline workers to problems with the vaccine rollout. We add links to the hub from our weekly e-newsletter to 800 loyal readers as well.
To give greater impact to the project beyond the free LocalNewsMatters.org website, we expanded our subscription-based, BCN newswire to create a “Nonprofit News Partners” category for stories from other nonprofit news organizations, including LocalNewsMatters.org, Big Local News, San Jose Spotlight and EdSource. It allows us to cross-publish public service stories through the newswire to about 100 other media platforms, including TV, radio, print and digital outlets that are either in the Bay Area or interested in the region. Subscribers include national outlets like the New York Times, regional news organizations like Bay Area News Group, KQED and KPIX, and smaller sites like the Piedmont Exedra and Claycord. The back-end system for the BCN newswire was also expanded to create a “Crisis” category for stories related to COVID-19 so that any of our cross-posts land in a dedicated channel that is easy for subscribers to find. Every coronavirus story on the BCN wire contains a link that sends readers back to the COVID-19 Information Hub to remind users about the wealth of resources we have created.
Phase Two: Vision and Sustainability
In phase two, we focused on developing strategies to sustain this initiative.
BCN added several reporters (including Astrid Casimire, Eli Walsh and Tony Hicks) to the team to do weekly updates. We kept track of the time it took to update each county once per week. Depending on the amount of updates in a given week, gathering the newest information could take anywhere between 15 minutes and an hour per county — though usually on the lower side of that range, and making those updates on the website took 10–30 minutes per county — again, usually closer to 10 minutes. We found which sources (often links to PDFs or interactive sites managed by government agencies) worked better and which were likely to disappear; general links typically had a longer shelf life than press releases, which quickly became outdated.
We also began to track the growth of our audience in the months following the creation of the COVID-19 hub, and looked into how much it was being used relative to the other sections of our LocalNewsMatters.org website. It has consistently been among the top three hits. You can see below the growth in our unique monthly visitors from the start of the pandemic, to the July launch of the hub to now.
In addition to the audiences we reach through LocalNewsMatters.org and the BCN newswire, we wanted to build partnerships with others. This allowed us to expand the type of coverage we published and gave visibility to others doing good work.
- We joined forces with the podcast “Race and Coronavirus” to help draw attention to their work and add audio content to our website. Each week, we posted the podcast episode along with a written piece by one of the two authors, Levi Sumagaysay and Pati Navalta.
- We partnered with KBBF, a bilingual radio station in the North Bay, to cross-post their audio content about the pandemic in a project with JSK alums Aaron Foley and Jeremy Hay.
- We embedded a link to a creative pandemic site called Isolated by JSK alum Andy Losowsky.
- With coordination by Krista Almanzan and bilingual freelancer Jessica Pasko, we worked with several other news sites, including Voices of Monterey Bay, Salinas Californian and Santa Cruz Local, to create a multimedia package on the intersection of the pandemic and housing struggles for farmworkers; a combination of photos, audio, data and text was shared and published across multiple platforms in both English and Spanish.
Aside from this collaborative farmworker project, our photography has been limited by budget and capacity since BCN has traditionally been a predominantly text service. But we did partner with Catchlight, run by JSK alum Elodie Mailliet Storm, to support photojournalist Felix Uribe’s work to build a fantastic project on the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. It explored how its residents have been dealing with the pandemic and other longer-term issues. (BCN has since hired a photo editor.)
We also thought about how to develop and expand the project so that it remained valuable to our audience as the realities of the pandemic continued to change. None of us expected the pandemic to last more than a few months, so the site has proven its worth many times over as the pandemic now stretches into its second year. Building partnerships, attracting new funders and incorporating feedback were all part of this process.
Phase Three: Iteration and Know-How
As the pandemic grew, we began looking into other ways to learn from our experiment and improve the hub. One way was to build new data visualizations that could help track the realities of the crisis locally and at the state and national levels. We had started by adding an embeddable map from another partner, Big Local News at Stanford. Later, we tested out a subscription with HiGeorge, a startup which specializes in ready-to-use data visualizations for newsrooms, but ultimately decided that it was more cost effective to devote resources to creating those visualizations in-house rather than committing to an ongoing subscription cost. Luckily, we have an established partnership with Microsoft that gives us access to tools like Microsoft Power BI for creating data visualizations. We now have about a dozen staff members trained in creating data visualizations; the ones related to our COVID-19 Hub are clustered under a Digging into Data section.
Also, creating our data visualizations internally gave us increased freedom to adapt them in the ways that made them work best with the rest of our content and convey the information that we believe to be the most important or that our readers are most interested in.
During this time, we expanded our COVID-19 Information Hub footprint to include three additional counties (Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Joaquin) beyond the nine that we started with (Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara). Once we had the format and infrastructure prepared, adding counties proved quite straightforward.
We also beefed up our “Inspire Me” series, coordinated by Lauren Bonney, to highlight stories of frontline workers, small business pivots and examples of hopeful, heartening stories during this time. Staff, freelancers and paid interns helped produce some great work, including this one by Kate Selig about volunteers and neighborhood mutual aid organizations that emerged organically to help people in need.
A Final Note: Impact and Assessment
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, our readership at LocalNewsMatters.org has increased 7 times over — up to about 60,000 unique monthly visitors, as of January 2021. This is a reflection of how important it has been for individuals to have access to reliable local news during this time. While impacted by global and national trends and political decisions, the tangible impacts of the coronavirus have largely existed in our own backyards — our own schools, supermarkets, and neighborhoods. In these unprecedented times, citizens have looked to their local news organizations for the information they need to get through the turbulence of the pandemic. Between when it was launched in July 2020 and January 2021, our COVID-19 Information Hub has remained amongst our top three most viewed sections on LocalNewsMatters.org, an ad-free site with associated social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @baynewsmatters.
In addition, we have cross-published our stories and links to graphics and the hub itself on our affiliated Bay City News wire service, which reaches as many as 8 million people every day through its TV, radio, print and digital subscribers. It’s not easy yet to measure the actual republication or audience reach from those outlets, metrics which are considered by them to be proprietary, but we know from Google searches that many outlets are using the content to inform their audiences.
Because of our hybrid model, we are able to inform a multi-million person audience both directly and indirectly with tremendous economic efficiency. In dollar terms, this effort cost about $200 per week to do the basic maintenance for the hub’s service categories and data updates. To write, edit and publish stories that come out of those updates and other news developments is a separate cost, from $50 up to $200 per story depending on the complexity. With an average of 3–5 original daily stories and an additional 3 partner stories, the average cost of reporters creating that content and editors/web producers posting on our LocalNewsMatters.org site is around $200 per day, or $1,400 per week. So all told, a rough estimate of maintaining the info hub is a minimum or $800 per month for the skeleton site with updates and a maximum of $6,400 for the full complement of stories and features, which is what we are continuing to do. Some of this cost was subsidized by our affiliated Bay City News wire; some was covered by the JSK grant; some was supported by a grant from Renaissance Journalism; and some work was bolstered by the San Francisco Foundation, specifically for equity coverage. If we count on a yearlong project through July 2021, we will probably have spent about $80,000. This does not include website hosting and management, project oversight and overhead for the company or the nonprofit so a more realistic estimate might be closer to $120,000.
Postscript: What’s Next
We are proud of what we have accomplished with the COVID-19 Information Hub, and we are also excited about future opportunities for BCN to apply what we have learned from this project to other public service journalism projects. We can iterate this structure in order to provide information about other events and topics that are important to the public. For example, we used what we learned from the creation of the COVID-19 Information Hub to create a similar resource in October for information about the November 3 election. The regional Voter Information Hub included details on local candidate races and measures throughout the Bay Area, where to find polling places, how to check voter registration and register if you hadn’t already, and more. After the election, we updated the site with results and reaction stories. The process of creating this second resource was quite similar to that of the COVID-19 Information Hub, but we were able to ideate and implement it much more efficiently. We have retired it for now but can bring it back and reuse the infrastructure for the next election.
We also have an information hub for local libraries in the works, and expect that to be up and running soon. This project will cover library hours, services, special events, and resources, among other details. These community institutions have been important for educators, parents, students and community members to connect with each other during the pandemic — even without access to physical branches. The shift to streaming and online access will be part of the landscape even after the pandemic subsides so an investment in a Library Hub with links, resources, service highlights and collaborations with local librarians now makes sense for the months and years ahead. What used to be available just at your local library branch is now accessible to many more users remotely; the pandemic served to amplify that trend.
In the future, this same hub structure could be used for information about wildfires, crime, protests, basic services, recreation or another issue that calls for public service journalism to help inform the people who are likely to be impacted. Although we envision it primarily as a vehicle for our nonprofit, public service work, it could also be monetized behind a paywall for more commercial purposes like housing data, small businesses, retail, etc. The lessons learned through this process have been valuable not only to help people navigate the COVID-19 pandemic but also to create a template that can serve future information needs for the region.