Sydney Morning Herald, Age launch “Good News” initiative to balance pandemic content

By Aimie Rigas

The Sydney Morning Herald

Sydney, Australia

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By Lisa Davies

The Sydney Morning Herald

Sydney, Australia

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Our audience has been telling us for some time they wanted to see some light alongside the shade in our coverage. There’s a portion of our audience who are so disheartened by the news, they disengage completely. It became obvious pretty quickly the issue would be exasperated if we didn’t focus more on demonstrating the breadth of our coverage during the pandemic.  

We promise our readers our journalism will shine a light in dark places and pursue the truth. They’ve told us, through various feedback channels and research projects, that they also want us to look for hope in our communities and balance our coverage with constructive and optimistic reportage. 

The coronavirus pandemic elevated this need to an urgency. 

Early on, as the virus made its way here, our newsrooms began to actively commission optimistic and hopeful stories. We wanted to ensure these stories were not lost in the flood of news so we created a “Good News” tag to easily collate the stories into an index that could be highlighted via Editor’s Notes to subscribers, our COVID-19 newsletter, and via callout boxes on our article pages. This also enabled Good News stories to be easily found and distributed on our homepages, print editions, iPad editions, newsletters, subscriber emails, and social pages.  

The tag was created almost immediately, and our Good News Facebook group followed shortly after. 

The initiative’s workflow 

Our teams have really stepped up working in a remote environment. The Good News initiative is run nationally by the newsrooms of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times, and WAToday, so it really relies on everyone contributing: 

  • Slack has been our best friend during this time. We created a #Good-News Slack channel where editors from around the country can drop in their good news stories and tips.  
  • We redistributed a journalist who had been working in production but had fewer responsibilities during this time, and she’s now focused on writing a couple of Good News articles each week.   
  • Our social media editors are taking turns running the group, our homepage editors are keeping an eye out at our morning and afternoon news conferences for pitches, and our print editors are finding space for good news in our newspapers. 

For all the planning, research, and analysis we usually conduct (and rightly so!) before launching a new initiative, the Good News project is an example of how quickly newsrooms can get something off the ground when it’s a priority. When your audience is begging you for a change of pace at a time like this, it makes sense to listen to them.  

Our goals and results

Broadly speaking, our goal was to close the feedback loop with our readers. The Good News Group on Facebook is largely filled with community posts, many of which form the basis of articles we later commission. For example, Mates’ volunteer start-up makes global connections. We first heard about this initiative via The Good News Group, and the people we spoke to in the article made international connections via the comments section in The Good News Group. Being able to facilitate and promote positive initiatives in this way is a success measure we hadn’t planned for. 

In terms of growth, in the first seven days the group really took off, with just shy of 3,000 members joining. We are at just over 4,000 now. We’ve had 6,400 posts, comments, and reactions in the past 28 days. Almost half of the group have been “active members” in the past seven days.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive from readers. The social media editors were so pleased with the responses, they started collating them in a document. Here’s a flavour of why people joined the Facebook group: 

  • “I want to be part of a positive community. I’m in self-isolation since returning from overseas so reading about happy, good things will help me cope.”
  • “I’m sick of seeing and hearing nothing but negativity.”
  • “Thank you for setting up this group. At this time of uncertainty, it’s a great way to come together and share some good news stories.”
  • “I saw the SMH article about teddy bears in windows for kids, which I’m doing. I’m keen to know about other good things going on that I can contribute to.”
  • “I need good news. Like everyone, I’m anxious and a little depressed. Surely we’re better people than those who just empty supermarket aisles without thinking of others.” 
Chamber musician Josephine Vains plays a social distancing “concert” for her neighbourhood in Melbourne’s Brunswick.
Chamber musician Josephine Vains plays a social distancing “concert” for her neighbourhood in Melbourne’s Brunswick.

Like most publishers, trying to find advertising support at this time is proving difficult, but given the nature of the content, we’re confident when conditions improve the right advertiser will be interested. In the meantime, we’re focused on the impact the initiative is having on our readers, particularly subscribers. 

Good News content plan

To quickly address the immediate need for good news coverage, we:

  • Created a Good News tag which automatically collates our good news stories across topics into an index that we can distribute off-platform (newsletters, social). We also created a Good News slack channel to share stories and ideas.
  • We created the Good News Facebook group, a national group where we could offer readers a sense of community and a reprieve from “negative news.” 
  • We have also created a “Life in Lockdown” content tag. This includes constructive stories on what people can do during this time. The Age has created a Life in Lockdown strap on its homepage. This has performed better than its predecessor, which was a general Coronavirus coverage strap.  
  • The Sydney Morning Herald is also running a daily First Person Pandemic column, both in print and online, giving readers an opportunity to share their poignant, humorous, or heartbreaking stories from lockdown — such as this reader whose neighbour coordinated a “round-robin” style cook-up between households in their street. Each participant was given the name and number of people they were to cook for. Or this one, who offered ongoing take-home meals for the 40 staff members he had to lay off. 
  • The Good News stories and Life in Lockdown stories have a home in print in the Home Front pages in the print editions. They also provide nice imagery for print pages. 
  • These positive coverage initiatives have been promoted to our subscribers via coronavirus coverage e-mails and the Note from the Editor sent from Lisa Davies and Alex Lavelle. 
  • The Good News stories and Life in Lockdown stories are featured in a section titled “Bright Spot” in the daily Coronavirus newsletter and under Another Thing and in Editor’s Picks in the morning edition newsletter. 
The Good News Group shares good news from all over the area.
The Good News Group shares good news from all over the area.

Two of our most popular Good News features are: 

As well as the methods outlined above (newsletters, notes from editors, social media cross-posting, designated homepage straps, index pages, print), editors repurposed an editorial tool to create a promotional callout box for joining The Good News Group.

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