3 ways large media companies are innovating during the COVID-19 pandemic

Jun 12, 2020 in COVID-19 Reporting
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The global COVID-19 pandemic is putting the journalism profession's ideas about digital news innovation to the test, said New York Times National Editor Mark Lacey.

For years, newsrooms have talked about being more innovative. "We've been talking about the importance of different story forms and digital," Lacey said during a panel this week. With the arrival of the pandemic, "all of those trainings that all of these people have gone through for years now, it feels as though we've been doing it for this story."

"Did those trainings make sense? I think clearly they did," he said. "Breaking out of the traditional long article form is wise, necessary, prudent, just good journalism. And here we have evidence of it every day."

Lacey joined Marta Gleich, journalism director for newspapers, digital and radio at RBS Group in Brazil, and Wall Street Journal newsroom innovation chief Robin Kwong, as panelists in the webinar "Journalism and the Pandemic: Innovative approaches to reporting #COVID19." Columbia University Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Prof. Emily Bell and Dr. Julie Posetti, ICFJ's director of global research, moderated the discussion. 


Lacey, Gleich and Kwong shared how their news outlets are innovating to meet audience needs during the global health crisis. Here are key quotes from the conversation:

The New York Times: Humanizing the number of pandemic deaths 

As the death toll rises, "the numbers have grown so large that it has been hard to fathom," Lacey said. As the milestone of 100,000 U.S. deaths approached, editors at the Times wondered, "How can we show what that means and make people really feel that?"

On its homepage and the front page in print, the Times published 1,000 names, or one percent, of the first 100,000 COVID-19 victims in the U.S., along with some basic biographical information for each of them. "There was not a single picture. There were no other articles. This went on for four pages inside," he said. It is one of the most-read New York Times pieces in history, he said.

"We basically combed 268 local newspapers all across America to find people who had died of coronavirus. And we were trying for some representation as to where they were from and who they were. And the reaction from this was incredibly strong," he said.

[Read more: How journalists are documenting loss during COVID-19]

The Times realized early in the pandemic that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control would not publish up-to-the minute data by location. "So we started collecting numbers, and we now have close to 40 people doing nothing but collecting numbers" to make the Times a go-to site for county- and state-specific data.

The Times "case counter--it's full of maps and interpretation--is the single most-viewed thing that we've produced during all of this. It's updated round the clock," he said. "It has led to so many great other pieces of journalism."

A massive data collection effort is driving all of The Times' journalism, Lacey said. "Yet we're trying to bring the data to life," he said, "and there is no reason that stories on something as dramatic as a pandemic, if ever, have to be dull."

He thinks the experience of collaborating on a large scale with a completely remote team may change the way Times editors work in the post-pandemic future. "I'm sitting alone here, and the only way I can get anything done is by inviting people into a discussion. It's no longer by turning to the person next to me, turning to the regular people. It's by convening," he said. "And I think great journalism comes from convening a lot of smart people...I think we're where we may emerge from this better at that because it has to be so intentional in a situation like this."

Brazil's Grupo RBS: Solutions journalism

"Before the pandemic, we were talking inside the company about what we could do to face losses of credibility and relevance," Gleick said. Leaders decided the answer was to adopt a constructive journalism approach, also known as solutions journalism.

The arrival of the pandemic didn't derail the plans. It made the need for solutions journalism even more urgent, she said. "We wanted to bring some hope to discuss how we can solve health or economic problems. We quickly trained a hundred percent of our newsrooms in television, radio stations, newspapers, digital. And now solutions journalism is becoming a part of our culture."

[Read more: The role of solutions journalism in reporting on COVID-19]

"In Brazil, we are fighting several wars at the same time: the fight against the coronavirus, a very strong radicalization. We are receiving more attacks on the press. And also a great confusion on the part of the government and the president, which launched erratic strategies and messages about social isolation, for example," she said. "And now the government even omits information about the numbers of the disease."

To fill the void, Gleick said, Brazil's "media launched this week an initiative to supply the numbers that the government does not provide." They formed "a partnership between some of the country's leading newspapers and websites to collect data such as the number of [people] infected and number of deaths, and disseminates it daily."

RBS holds frequent training on reporting specialties, especially health, statistics and fighting misinformation so "that we will leave the pandemic more qualified as a team and as journalists then we were when we entered this pandemic," she said. 

The Wall Street Journal: Making information accessible and user-friendly

Like many news outlets, the Journal has made its COVID-19-related content free. But because the publication normally requires a subscription, "How are people going to know?" Kwong asked. "So our team helped very quickly build this pretty simple navigation bar at the top that we then work with our publishing desk to keep updated and populated, and work with product teams to make continuous improvements to it."

The team also improved interactivity of Q&A pieces, which he called "one of the examples of story formats that have been in existence for some time, but have really come to the fore during the coronavirus pandemic. People have a lot of questions about all aspects of what is happening, about testing, about states opening up, what stores were closing down and what was opening up again. Fairly simply, you have a bunch of questions, and you answer them with reporting."

"What we did was to create this new interactive format because we thought that if you're a reader and you come to one of these articles, what you want to know is, 'Is the question that I have in my head going to be answered in this article?'"

The traditional, static format is "quite hard to skim through and find your question." he said. The new format "gets people to information a bit quicker, helps them sort of navigate our site and look at what is actually out there."

The Journal is also trying to "use this as an opportunity to turn journalism into a bit more of a two-way conversation, to make it less about us doing reporting, finding things out and broadcasting it back out to everybody, but to really engage with the audience and try to figure out what they need and what they want us to find out for them," he said.

His team built a secure platform where reporters can seek out information from and engage with community members. "I've been really heartened by just the sheer amount of reader call-outs and the sheer work reporters and editors have put into reaching out to readers in the past couple of months," he said. They also hold live Q&A events online.

This webinar was part of the Journalism and the Pandemic Project — a collaboration between ICFJ and the Tow Center. The survey is mapping the impacts of COVID-19 on journalism worldwide, and it aims to help inform the recovery. Learn more, and take the survey, here.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Anastasia Zhenina.