In one of the darkest crises since World War II, local journalism is shining bright. News of the coronavirus has dominated the public’s attention for over a month. Regional news organizations are delivering when citizens need them most.
CMIA Principal Larry Ceisler believes local journalism is doing an exceptional job. “This crisis especially shows the value of local media,” Ceisler said. “Local media are making the case that the work they do is a true public resource.”
Indeed, local journalists’ exemplary work could be saving lives.
Most people are isolating at home, aware that their conduct impacts the health and well-being of others. Reporting about the coronavirus has a tangible impact on human behavior and should lead to better public health outcomes.
This is particularly true given the increasing size of the audience. With so many workers and students at home, local TV and radio stations have seen substantial growth in overall ratings in the past month.
For example, KYW Newsradio saw a 93 percent increase in streaming on the RADIO.COM app since the coronavirus breakout began, according to Triton Data. CBS3 found that among viewers between 25 and 54 years old, Eyewitness News at noon posted a 60 percent gain this March over the same month last year, and a whopping 117 percent increase this April over April 2019.
Local outlets recognize the most important role they play is to communicate the facts about the disease and what citizens should do to reduce risk for themselves, their loved ones and their community. Media have covered up-to-the moment public health directives on social distancing, the use of masks, hand-washing and the need for isolation.
Additional segments have highlighted best practices for grocery shopping and how to obtain needed medical care. TV news stations have featured interviews with physicians for practical advice and the status of local hospitals’ inventory of supplies. Each day reporters have kept the public informed about regional coronavirus case and fatality numbers by county and by state.
Stations have regularly cut to leading public officials’ press conferences so the audience learns the latest information about the virus. Officials like Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley and Montgomery County Chair Dr. Val Arkoosh are communicating effectively in this time of crisis, according to Ceisler. “The star is Rachel Levine, PA Secretary of Health,” Ceisler said. “Levine provides the best answers and delivers them in a calm manner.”
Ceisler believes that “measured local information matters as we go through this crisis collectively.” What the public needs most is reassurance.
Local media have conveyed reassurance with heartwarming stories about everyday citizens stepping up to serve others. These include stories about people making masks for health care workers or donating RVs for health care workers to stay in. Stations are covering appreciation events local fire departments have held outside of hospitals to applaud health workers as they arrive and depart their places of work. Often, television anchors are broadcasting from their own home, setting a positive example of flexibility for the general public to follow.
And local media organizations are taking special measures to keep the public informed.
Online news sites including the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Tribune and the Delaware County Daily Times normally operate under a subscription model. Their websites typically limit the number of articles a nonsubscriber can access per month so that readers subscribe and keep the publication in business.
Those subscription requirements, however, have not been in full effect in recent weeks. Online news sites are offering coronavirus coverage free to the general reader as a public service. Television stations such as CBS3 are streaming their news shows on their website cost-free.
The philanthropic community has recognized the need to strengthen local media during this time.
The Community Information Fund launched a $2.52 million fund to support local media outlets covering the coronavirus. The fund consists of membership from The Independence Public Media Foundation (IPMF), the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Knight-Lenfest Local News Transformation Fund. Of that, $1.77 million is devoted to supporting Resolve Philly, WHYY, The Inquirer, and WURD Radio, and $750,000 is set aside for grants via an application process.
Sports and music stations have also met the moment. With no action on the field, hosts are finding new ways to entertain. Glen Macnow and Ray Didinger are holding a series of long-form “Tell Us Your Story” interviews on SportsRadio 94WIP with Philadelphia legends like Charlie Manuel and Mike Quick. Stations are re-broadcasting old Phillies World Series and Sixers NBA Finals games on radio and television. These programs have given comfort to listeners whose routine has been unhinged by the need to isolate at home unable to root for their beloved teams. For music lovers, WXPN has aired new shows each day with featured musical artists from “Quarantunes Playlists.”
“I hope this crisis leads to a deeper appreciation of the value that local media brings,” said Ceisler.
In an age when journalism has been at risk economically, this pandemic demonstrates the vital need for vibrant regional reporting.
NOTE: David Huppert will take a close look at media performance in other parts of the Keystone State in our next Ceisler Media newsletter.
David Huppert is an Associate in Ceisler Media's Philadelphia Office.