Navigating coronavirus coverage as a community newspaper feels a bit like a riddle. How do you cover what is likely the most important news story of a lifetime, one that has no precedence or blueprint to follow, all while advertising revenue takes a steep decline and staffs shrink?
No news organisation has the perfect answer to this riddle. But at LNP | LancasterOnline, the award-winning community newspaper in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, United States, we’ve managed to grow our online audience while doing more work with less staff than ever before. Our print circulation held strong during the height of the pandemic, with more than 56,000 paying print subscribers in June. Single copy sales, however, are down.
Our newspaper was not immune to plummeting advertising revenue either, and we experienced layoffs throughout our publications in early April.
Our newsroom has worked remotely since mid-March. When we left our physical workspace, we had 10,200 digital-only subscribers. Now, we’re past 13,600, on track to surpass our year-end goal of 14,000 far earlier than expected.
Changing tactics for changing times
The numbers are impressive, considering we made all COVID-related content free for three weeks in March, an example of our commitment to providing our community with vital information.
We quickly pivoted our existing content to serve our readers’ needs. Here are a few examples:
- We launched a daily coronavirus newsletter on Friday, March 6, which continued through mid-June. In the heat of the pandemic, updates were sent twice daily to more than 3,000 subscribers.
- We provided deep-dive, investigative reporting, like this story about a local nursing home where more than one-third of residents tested positive for the coronavirus since the pandemic began.
- Entertainment Lancaster, our events-based entertainment tabloid, pivoted to a “Stay-at-Home” guide with streaming suggestions, children’s activities, and more as our readers entered a statewide stay-at-home order.
- We explored the pandemic in our lifestyle content, from asking therapists for advice on how to deal with pandemic-related anxiety to sharing advice from chiropractors on ideal work-from-home ergonomics.
- Opinion Editor Suzanne Cassidy hosted livestreamed roundtable conversations with community leaders about COVID-19’s effects on local schools, businesses, and more. Our editorial team reported locally relevant stories out of these community discussions.
- Our sports team hosted livestreamed roundtables as well, including this chat with Cincinnati Reds outfielder Travis Jankowski.
- Food writer Kim O’Donnel launched two projects: Stay-Put Cooking, a how-to cooking series to encourage home cooks to get comfortable in the kitchen during lockdown, and Cooking Skool, an educational cooking series geared to children who are home for the summer.
- Quarantunes, a livestreamed performance series, gave local musicians a chance to perform on our Facebook page, which has 116,000 followers.
- We livestreamed midday fitness classes for our readers while gyms were closed.
- We provided readers with a bit of levity with Good News Roundups, inspiring tidbits from local people who were making masks, donating goods, and spreading positivity through other philanthropic efforts.
- We told the story of the pandemic with more than just words. Our photo and video teams captured Lancaster’s empty streets in March, on what would normally be a busy day of bustling crowds outside the city’s historic central market. The sponsored video series Shout Out Lancaster highlighted outstanding individuals in our community. We also used video to answer important coronavirus-related questions for our readership, like how to file an unemployment claim or how to download e-books from our local library system.
Creating community beyond the content
Aside from our content, we also launched two initiatives to foster togetherness and community spirit during the pandemic.
Claudia Esbenshade, social media manager, helped readers feel more connected during social distancing with our “We’re all in this together” campaign, which asked participants to place a poster with a red rose in their window. (Lancaster is known as the Red Rose City.) Our advertising department found sponsors for the campaign and adapted the theme each week accordingly.
A team of editors organised Community Clamor, which encouraged county residents to make noise on their front porch during social distancing to honor essential workers. Inspired by the waves of applause for first-responders in New York and other major metropolises, we worked with city officials to promote the event and even got local churches involved to ring their bells during the designated times, too.