Toronto Star looks toward audience, content strategies post-COVID

By Irene Gentle

Toronto Star

Toronto, Ontario, Canada


Everyone has a different day their world irrevocably changed as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For me, it’s March 17, when our physical newsroom shut down. We basically flipped a switch and, miraculously, didn’t miss a beat.

Like everyone else, we learned to function through a combination of Zoom meetings, Slack, texts, phone, and e-mails. We worry about the mental health of the workforce who no longer have the inside-the-newsroom chance to bounce ideas off each other, commiserate, joke, and brainstorm. We have tried to keep a regular cadence of communication, and increased our training — both as a way to make ourselves better and as a chance for us all to be together and learning.

Like many others, we did a lightning reorganisation of the newsroom to deal with the journalistic challenges and opportunities of COVID-19. Unlike many, however, we didn’t do a COVID-specific newsletter because coverage of the pandemic ranged through virtually everything we were doing. It impacted news, politics, business, lifestyle, health, and even entertainment and sports.

COVID-19 forced media companies to rewrite their strategy to meet readers' needs.
COVID-19 forced media companies to rewrite their strategy to meet readers' needs.

However, our regular newsletters had plenty of COVID-related themes that we felt were vital. We communicated our strategy to readers as we created it and as we revised it.

Filling a new need for content

Amid the pandemic as subscriptions surged, we created new ways to keep our audience engaged, informed, and entertained. We launched a daily podcast, which was not meant to be a COVID podcast but, of course, for the first couple of months, it amounted to such. Like the rest of our coverage, it is now taking on various topics, some pandemic-related but many not. We also began a virtual subscriber panel series, featuring a moderated panel of our reporters and sometimes a guest, to discuss issues of relevance from politics to police reform.

During the height of the pandemic, a daily podcast became one more way to engage the audience.
During the height of the pandemic, a daily podcast became one more way to engage the audience.

We also began using our comment/conversation tool to start hosting live reader Q&As with experts on crucial issues amid the pandemic, from financial challenges and how to get government aid to infectious disease specialists and mental health experts.

 Then, with cultural events shut down, we looked to help bring entertainment to people in their own homes. Some of our initiatives included:

We also created various ongoing partnerships with galleries and museums to bring some of their richness to those sheltering at home.

Thriving in a post-COVID world

As the lockdowns eased, we changed the focus of the coverage and gradually began to reintroduce other areas that had been important to our readership before the pandemic. But some variation of pandemic teams will remain. The economic impacts, political impact and accountability, health and science, and long-term care impacts will be with us for some time.

The pandemic exposed huge gaps in our society, and we don’t want to let this go without pushing to address them as we ease very slowly out of this. So, some idealistic but realistic solutions journalism like this series will be an ongoing focus. We also started a Viral Inequality series, aimed at looking at all the ways the virus might not discriminate but how its impact varies wildly, again related to societal gaps we hope to both expose and address.

We saw a surge of interest and subscriptions as the pandemic took hold, and like many, it reached a peak and began to wane as everything from news exhaustion to summer to easing of restrictions took people’s always-hard-to-hold attention away again. However, we are battling hard to hold both at a higher level than when we went into this — and so far, we are achieving that.

What this has told me is that, in a crisis, people still rely on good, responsible journalism. And we had this incredibly rare moment when everyone was doing the same thing at the same time — being forced to stay home, being scared, looking for information on what was happening and how to deal with it. 

Now, one of our industry challenges is to take what we have learned and sustain it and build on it — to not be caught in the fallout of cynicism, misinformation, exhaustion, and anger. We will continue our mission as before, basically, but with more to lose and a better glimpse of what it looks and feels like when things are working.

About Irene Gentle

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