The coronavirus outbreak is only in its beginnings, and 100 million Europeans are on lockdown. With the recently started initiative #vorarlberghältzusammen (#VorarlbergSticksTogether) Russmedia’s regional Vorarlberger Nachrichten (VN) has one goal: to support the 400,000 citizens living in the alpine region more than ever during the coronavirus crisis.
“We knew from the developments in Italy that it will be a very demanding time, so just reporting the situation was not an option,” said Gerold Riedmann, editor-in-chief and managing director of Vorarlberger Nachrichten’s publishing company, Russmedia. “We have to support and build tools and communication infrastructure while we can.”
While all other news outlets in Austria focus on reporting, VN’s approach goes further into constructive journalism.
The newspaper has a market share of up to 50% in western Austria, and Russmedia’s online portal VOL.AT (Vorarlberg Online) is read by 70% of people living there. With the strong market position Vorarlberger Nachrichten shows leadership, #VorarlbergSticksTogether is still a very recent development.
“We’re just at the beginning,” Riedmann said. “We are right before the crisis, more or less 14 days behind what is happening with COVID-19 in Italy. At this point there are no people hospitalised in Vorarlberg. But the growth rate of infections is frightening and we knew we have to act now.”
On Friday, March 13, the editiorial team would have had every reason to print a very negative Page 1. The government was preparing extreme limitations to shut down public life. Panic buying was happening.
“We reported all of this as well,” Riedmann said. “However, we printed the hashtag #VorarlbergSticksTogether together with a heart on the frontpage — and started with the minimal version of what should develop to an initiative over the following days and in the weeks to come.”
Details on the initiative
Here is what staff has created so far:
For neighbourhoods: Elderly people are advised to stay at home. VN asked its readers to help their neighbours go shopping and created a microsite to recruit volunteers on Saturday. Within hours, more than 800 readers registered through VN and the news portal VOL.AT. “Can walk your dog” or “Happy to bring you something from the pharmacy” were remarks given by readers. “We verified each and everyone by text message and got their opt-in to print their contact details. In our Monday edition, two pages were full of names and phone numbers — from everyone of the 96 towns in Vorarlberg,” Riedmann said.
- For families: Because schools were about to close, VN introduced a daily children's page for families that suddenly have a lot of time with their children. A Sudoku and crossword section, tripled to what the newspaper had before, got very positive feedback from readers.
For journalists: The reporting changed within days: “We recognised how event-driven our local reporting has been, and our reporters are forced to find their own stories.”
For church-goers: “As churches were closed, we live-streamed an interview with the local bishop, a very respected person, on Sunday morning,” Riedmann said. With churches closed, the newspaper’s online team broadcast a Holy Mass on that Sunday morning from the bishop’s house.
For local businesses: #VorarlbergSticksTogether is now building up a large campaign for local businesses. Since government had to shut everything down besides supermarkets and pharmacies, readers are asked not to order now at global e-commerce platforms but to wait for the local dealers and their employees to recover from the coronavirus crisis.
For advertisers: The Vorarlberger Nachrichten team was also inspired by a campaign by the Record Journal in Meriden, Connecticut. The company offered its local ad clients free messages across platforms to announce changes in their service during the coronavirus crisis. VN did the same and set up a Google form to collect their service announcements. More than 200 local SMBs replied within a day, and they found their message online on VOL.AT and printed in VN the next day. “We have a partnership with local businesses for over 100 years,” said Georg Burtscher, managing director of Russmedia Digital. “They can rely on us a partner — during good and bad times.”
On Sunday evening, in a nod to its Italian neighbours, Vorarlberger Nachrichten also organised a safe, social distancing balcony concert — shared on social media so local musicians could get word of it.
The coronavirus is just beginning for many, as are the efforts at Vorarlberger Nachrichten to bring its community together during this unique and difficult time. A news media company is more to its community than reporting and photos and advertisements. This is the perfect time to show that.