From helicopters to heroes, publishers connect communities during crisis

By Brie Logsdon


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, United States


Community building efforts are more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic. News media companies, facing numerous obstacles themselves, are making community connections a priority when people feel more fragmented than ever.   

In the sixth of nine modules of INMA’s Virtual World Congress, attendees heard COVID-19 case studies from around the world in a session entitled “Building Brand and Community: How Will You Be Remembered Post-Crisis?” Eleven news media companies, finalists for the Global Media Awards in an added category related to COVID-19 initiatives, shared their stories on building community, sharing community resources, and increasing digital subscriptions.

Here are five case studies of news media companies building community during the pandemic: 

The Telegraph, United Kingdom 

The Telegraph has an older core audience and offers a spectrum of general news content, Beth Ashton, head of audience and subscriptions, said. The company’s “You Are Not Alone” campaign is a collection of initiatives that aim to create deep engagement across platforms. The community hub offers audiences the latest in COVID-19 news, advice, Q&As, podcasts, long reads, and more.  

So far, 1300 people have been nominated as unexpected heroes in the Brave New World feature.
So far, 1300 people have been nominated as unexpected heroes in the Brave New World feature.

This curated effort encourages print readers to interact with the brand online and to help curb the isolation people may be feeling, Ashton said. The “You Are Not Alone” hub has seen two million pageviews so far and includes efforts such as: 

  • A coronavirus appeal to support community members who have fallen on hard times and free six-month trials to NHS workers, with 19,000 claimed so far. 
  • Brave New World provides readers to nominate unexpected heroes during the pandemic and has received 1300 nominations so far.
  • Two daily alerts via WhatsApp.
  • A new Snapchat show called “So Youre In A Pandemic.” 
  • New initiatives including a daily podcast, quiz, and sports-themed product to help reach people across a variety of interests.  

These efforts have led to unprecedented interactions between readers and journalists, as well as deep engagement across platforms. 

Stampen, Sweden 

Citizens in Sweden are advised to do social distancing, but there is no official lockdown. Gunilla Bakkenes, director of marketing and consumer business at Stampen Media, said the crisis has led to creative new ideas to keep the city united. The current pandemic is emphasising the impact news outlets have on society, Bakkenes said, and Stampen is doing its part to encourage people to stay home and safe. 

Stampen's Pustervik livestreamed concert attracted 80,000 viewers.
Stampen's Pustervik livestreamed concert attracted 80,000 viewers.

Stampen is making it possible for people to enjoy culture from home through book clubs and opera offerings, while also helping people stay safe by facilitating matchmaking between those who need help and helpers. Pro bono ads are keeping local businesses running. 

Stampen’s “Hang in There” initiative demonstrates impact widespread by the virus, asking readers to share stories of how they are hanging in there during this difficult time. Here are a few specific initiatives: 

  • A livestreamed concert supported a local venue, Pustervik, drawing more than 80,000 viewers and US$103,000+ in donations.
  • A virtual race in place of a cancelled marathon. One person ran a track on a live stream, and more than 4,000 individuals ran in their own neighbourhood and shared their results.
  • A space where children can ask questions and have them answered; a chatroom allowed them to ask questions or share their experiences with others. 
  • Elderly people who need help shopping for groceries or getting medications are partnered with “home heroes” who do these tasks.
  • Free advertising for local businesses; more than 300 companies have been featured and more are on a wait list.

Stampen has increased its digital subscriber base by 12% and has seen an 81% jump in pageviews year-on-year. Bakkenes said the story has just begun: “We will continue to develop with our readers, and local community.”  

News City (DPG), Belgium

When COVID-19 locked down Belgium, News City responded by taking to the air. As one of the countries hardest hit by coronavirus, with 9,000 deaths among its roughly 11 million residents, publishers at News City looked for a way to bring people together and provide hope and encouragement. In addition to the medical challenges facing the country, News City was concerned about loneliness and the mental effects of the pandemic. 

News City's "Tour Against Corona" received 22,000 invitations from residents who wanted a fly-by during the April helicopter tour of Belgium.
News City's "Tour Against Corona" received 22,000 invitations from residents who wanted a fly-by during the April helicopter tour of Belgium.

“We wanted to do something besides giving them information, besides doing the things we were already doing for them,” Geert Dewaele, editor-in-chief News City/Video, DPG Media, said. 

At the beginning of April, News City employees wanted to do something special for the country, but knew they had to respect the lockdown — which meant they couldn’t bring people together in a public place. 

“We decided to go to our viewers, subscribers, our readers without any contamination risk,” Dewaele said. “And that’s why we rented a helicopter.” 

The “Tour Against Corona” was planned for April 5, which fell on the first Sunday of the month — a day that was typically a “sacred” day of celebration as it marked the annual Tour of Flanders cycling race. Instead, the media company rented a helicopter and asked readers to create a message of hope and invite their helicopter to fly above it. 

The campaign came together in less than a week. News City received more than 22,000 invitations in two days. 

“It was a day of solidarity in one of the darkest times of our recent history,” Dewaele said. “And that’s basically what we wanted to do — put an extra layer on all the things that we, as a news company, were already doing.” 

Russmedia, Austria 

Russmedia reaches about 91% of the residents of the state of Vorarlberg, Austria, on a daily basis through its various print and digital offerings. When the pandemic forced a lockdown, the company was determined to maintain that high level of touch, even in a time when direct contact wasn’t possible.  

#Vorarlberghältzusammen (#VoralbergSticksTogether) involved initiatives for both readers and advertisers.
#Vorarlberghältzusammen (#VoralbergSticksTogether) involved initiatives for both readers and advertisers.

Austria’s lockdown began March 16, and that’s when Russmedia started a campaign to bring people together in spirit, if not in physical distance. Using the hashtag #vorarlberghältzusammen (#VoralbergSticksTogether), the publisher began creating initiatives for both readers and advertisers immediately. 

“We had promotions for readers within just a few hours,” said Georg Burtscher, managing director, Russmedia Digital said. Those initiatives included: 

  • A neighbourhood assistance campaign, where within three hours more than 1,300 people had offered to help their neighbours.
  • A free greeting card campaign for grandparents to receive cards with pictures and stories from their family.
  • Videos with physical fitness tips and exercises.
  • Tips for parents on how to handle homeschooling.
  • “Shop Local” campaign, encouraging people to shop locally.

To continue bringing readers together, Russmedia created additional initiatives, including printing a newspaper page that readers could hang up as a “thank you” poster to healthcare workers and to offer a one-minute round of applause to thank those “heroes with masks.”

Rashtradoot, India

Rashtradoot focused its early days on figuring out how to survive COVID-19 — not just as a business but as a humanitarian organisation and employer.

“We knew we needed to do our bit for this crisis, but the question was how to do that,” Uma Sharma, director of communications at Rashtradoot, said. “We focused inward, on what was within our reach.”

Rashtradoot worked to care for its employees, local readers, and advertisers with its "Stand Tall with Rashtradoot" initiative.
Rashtradoot worked to care for its employees, local readers, and advertisers with its "Stand Tall with Rashtradoot" initiative.

“Stand Tall with Rashtradoot” was the initiative born out of this process. “We decided to focus on the three pillars of our work,” Uma said.

  1. Stakeholders: Rashtradoot did not reduce salaries or lay off any employees. The company arranged for transport for employees who did not have access to it, and provided food and accommodations for those in the curfew zones. Hawkers were provided safety education so that they could resume selling operations. They also provided household supplies to about 2,000 hawkers, along with free health and life insurance to 4,000.
  2. Circulation: The in-house team began focusing on this from day one, delivering newspapers to individuals and societies. They broadcast that people could share soft copies in the curfew zones. For the first time, Rashtradoot was distributed through 520 milk booths, grocers, and fruit/vegetable vendors. This model was quickly replicated by other players. Lastly, Rashtradoot set up 120 manual vending machines, which avoided personal contact to obtain the newspaper.
  3. Coverage: Rashtradoot did not reduce any pages, providing succinct and simple coverage in vernacular pages. A life-affirming and positive front page was maintained even on the bleakest of days.

Uma shared the results that Rashtradoot saw from these initiative, including a 90% employee turnout every day during the lockdown and the 15% increase in deliveries of via hawkers.

The Congress continues on Friday with a Brainsnacks module featuring 10 case studies with actionable lessons learned from INMA members around the world. Register here for individual sessions or the entire Congress (the latter includes access to this and previous sessions).

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