Post-pandemic news: 7 lessons we can’t afford to forget

Applying the learnings from coronavirus coverage to the future of local news

We’re capable of so much more than we thought. It’s the undeniable headline of the response by local broadcast newsrooms to the coronavirus pandemic. What’s not so clear: Will we learn — and retain — its lessons?

The range of disruptions to newsrooms is now well known. From workplace safety and access, to creating home studios and working remotely, to solving the technical challenges of video sharing and broadcasting, the pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of reporting.

Remarkably, workarounds have been developed for just about every one of these challenges. Whatever the “new normal” eventually turns out to be, we can already say with confidence: We won’t simply return to the old ‘business as usual.’

Savvy news leaders are already taking inventory and asking: What crisis-forced innovations should stick, long after the worst of the pandemic is over? Which of the myriad workarounds should become the new, standard workflow?

Two big themes have already emerged: Many of the things we considered to be ‘rules’…weren’t; and, we’re capable of far more transformation — faster — than we thought.

Which of these forced adaptations should be preserved and incorporated in whatever becomes our ‘new normal’? Based on conversations with local news leaders and also those who track and measure news audiences, here are seven I believe must survive.

1. Question the “Rules” of News

“That’s not how we do things here” is a way of thinking that’s been exposed as a false crutch, and for that we should all be thankful. The pandemic has revealed the truth that many of our beliefs about “how news must be done” — from sets to story selection and ‘professional presentation’ — were in fact assumptions made by newsrooms, imposed on the audience. Newsrooms are now replacing some long-held assumptions with new knowledge based on audience data. The challenging of assumptions is a crucial habit to keep alive in our newsrooms. The must-do’s, in many cases, aren’t.

2. Authenticity and Transparency Count

“We spend thousands on sets, making everything perfect. It turns out the audience loves seeing (anchors) be natural,” noted Sally Ramirez, News Director at KHOU in Houston (profiled here by Cronkite News Lab.) We were discussing the future of local news in a post-pandemic world for a virtual panel for NAB2020. “In TV news we have amazing technology. Yet the simplicity is what the audience is responding to.”

Authenticity and transparency are the signature features of the platform experiences found on YouTube, Instagram Stories and now TikTok, where younger audiences spend most of their time. Across the country, news directors have noticed the positive in the imperfect – the cats, dogs and kids interrupting remote-work news and weather reporters, and the audience response.

“I can’t remember when I’ve gotten such nice viewer feedback,” said Ramirez. “[The audience] feels a connection to us right now.” Deprived of our ‘bells and whistles’, we are more relatable – part of our community we cover, not detached from it. Authenticity and transparency build trust, which is the essential currency of journalism. Relatable is good, and we should fight the temptation to return to blind allegiance to “production values” above all else.

3. It Does NOT Need to Bleed, to Lead

This just in: If we focus on covering the stories and concerns that matter most to our communities, there’s no need to sensationalize. During the pandemic, local broadcasters have doubled down on the real information needs of community: from holding local officials accountable to FAQs, explainers and fact-checks; news-you-can-use like what’s open and closed; humanizing the local impacts and the local heroes; and connecting communities in need to solve local problems.

The results are stunning. Research by SmithGeiger shows media consumption is up widely during the pandemic but that local TV news is up the most. It’s both the first choice, and the most trusted choice. “Local TV news has become the most important source of information that’s personally relevant to you,” Seth Geiger told Cronkite News Lab, “and communicating that there are decisions you can make that make you and your community safer.”

Audiences have responded to stories that matter to the local community, delivered with meaning and context. Who knew? Let’s hope our editorial meetings never revert to a rote review of the day file, scanners, and “what’s trending.”

4. Rethink Our Definition of “Local News”

“That’s not ‘news’” is another previously unquestioned assumption baked into many newsroom editorial meetings. But think of the range of stories we’ve chosen to include in our newscasts during the pandemic: Creating an ergonomic home office; tips for teaching your kids from home; ways to stay fit and active in isolation; quick and easy recipe ideas. Heck, KHOU’s Ramirez reports that the daily “birthday announcements” – one of those ‘old ideas’ – have surged in renewed popularity.

What do all of these have in common? They are not what we as journalists would traditionally define as “news”; but all of these topics are part of the wider set of community needs for information and connection. When newspapers reigned supreme, they commonly included content that reflected these broader needs of their communities, from comics and crosswords for entertainment; to recipes, book and movie reviews; and births, deaths and marriages for community connection.

My colleague Andrew Heyward recently profiled Scripps’ group-wide effort called “The Rebound” as another great example of serving the real needs of communities.

If our mission is, indeed, to serve the needs of our community, we’d be wise to remember and apply this lesson post-pandemic and widen our definition of what’s “newsworthy.”

5. News is Better as a Conversation With the Audience

How do you truly serve the right-now, constantly evolving information needs of your community? By listening.

Everybody talks about “audience engagement” but let’s just admit that, too often, that’s a throwaway term for pushing story links on social, or posting provocative questions or polls to elicit participation. During this pandemic, many local newsrooms have uncovered the hidden news value of authentically engaging with and listening to their community.

“With this emergency in slow motion, information demands are going to continue to outstrip supply for a long time to come,” says Jennifer Brandel, founder and CEO of Hearken, an audience listening and engagement tool used by many local media outlets. “We’ve found that newsrooms who have already built engagement muscles are receiving specific, actionable insight around what the public’s information needs are.”

Data-driven listening has also surged in relevance. Cronkite News Lab recently featured a range of tools like Google Trends that can replace legacy guessing about “what’s everyone talking about today?” with data-informed answers.

Local newsrooms have leveraged a range of listening strategies — from creating community Facebook groups to hashtag-driven submissions and text-messaging options. The method matters less than the message, and we’re hearing that loud and clear: Our audience will guide us to the information it most needs from us, if we will only listen.

6. Collaboration Can Beat Competition at Serving Communities

From Austin to Atlanta to Denver, from the chill of Minnesota to the heat of Arizona, local broadcasters have teamed up with other broadcasters and local news outlets for unprecedented collaborations, from joint Town Hall meetings with their governor, to coordinated fundraising for COVID-19 aid. These collaboration efforts have earned an outpouring of support (and contributions) from those communities; and give local media a stronger position from which to hold local leaders accountable, through coordinated coverage. Local broadcasters don’t need to abandon their competitive spirit in order to apply the learning that strategic collaboration can be a better way to serve their community.

7. We Are More Agile Than We Thought

“Every day is a ‘design-do’ day” in this pandemic, to quote Tim Griggs, who leads the Knight/ASU Table Stakes change management program for local TV news. The phrase comes from start-up culture, and describes a willingness to “learn as you go” and to always be iterating. The corollary: Don’t let the learnings from this crisis go to waste.

There’s been much hand wringing about the future of legacy news organizations. Perhaps the most serious question of all has been whether such large organizations can keep up with the speed of digital change around them. As I previously put it: Can broadcast newsrooms be less like lumbering cruise ships and more like nimble zodiacs?

Good news! Our newsrooms and broadcast companies have proved to be capable of far more adaptation and innovation than perhaps we ourselves thought.

The pandemic gave newsrooms no choice but to pivot. Now, before we lose these pandemic lessons, is the time to inventory our learnings: Identify the workarounds that have turned out to be improvements to our legacy workflows. Fight the inertia that could pull us “back to normal,” emboldened by the knowledge that much of our old normal was merely habitual, not impactful. And empower every person in the newsroom to call “BS” when we settle for “that’s just the way things are done.”

Let’s make every day a ‘design-do’ day.

WATCH: “Envisioning the New Normal: Predictions and Prescriptions for the Post-Pandemic Newsrooms,” free on demand from NABExpress. Panelists: Sally Ramirez, News Director, KHOU; Nate Johnson, Director of Weather Operations, NBC owned & operated stations; Frank Mungeam, Professor of Practice, ASU Cronkite School; moderated by Andrew Heyward, Knight-Cronkite Sr. Researcher.

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