A Tallahassee man in his nineties begs for his 70-year-old caretaker to be bumped up in the vaccination queue. A woman over 75 in Raleigh asks what number to call to make an appointment. The daughter of a nursing home resident in San Jose wants to know why her mom has not received the Covid-19 vaccine.
Those are not questions directed at health care workers or government officials, but at journalists. The Covid-19 vaccine roll out in the US has been slow and chaotic. Seniors with priority have had to deal with jammed up phone lines, crashing websites and long queues, forcing some to turn to their local news reporters for answers on how to get access for themselves and others.
“I don’t even know when I’m going to get vaccinated yet — let alone answer those questions for readers,” said Katie Bernard, Kansas government reporter for the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle.
Local news reporters like Bernard are trying their best to educate their communities on the vaccine — refreshing local public health websites, attending press conferences, speaking with government officials and then synthesizing all this information into easy-to-understand stories online, in print and on air. That is typical work of a local reporter, but several told CNN Business the engagement has been shocking. A focus on service journalism has been good for business, though it has contributed to a drop in attention on investigations.
‘Constantly directing people’
Tallahassee Democrat reporter CD Davidson-Hiers received 167 calls and 75 text messages on January 4 regarding vaccine registrations, according to a tweet from the paper’s news director. Davidson-Hiers told Poynter shortly thereafter that she stopped counting.
In an interview with CNN Business, Davidson-Hiers likened her recent experience to working at the entrance to a theme park.
“It’s just like, okay, this is where the restrooms are. This is where this attraction is. I know you’re going to want to know where this is,” Davidson-Hiers said. “It’s just constantly directing people.”
Anita Lee, a senior staff writer at the Biloxi-based Sun Herald where she has worked since 1987, said she has not gotten up much from her computer lately. She is constantly checking the websites where people in Mississippi can make appointments to receive the vaccine. Not only does she keep news articles updated, but she has also been helping individuals make appointments.
“I stay on the phone with people and try to help them figure out which website is going to be the best one,” Lee told CNN Business. “In the case of a lot of the elderly folks, they’re going to need phone numbers. A lot of our print readers — and they’re loyal print readers — are not able to get online.”
Not every call, text or email has a specific ask. Journalists have listened to community members air their grievances. Soumya Karlamangla, health reporter at the Los Angeles Times, said she “feels like people just tweet their anxieties at me.”
“I think a key part of this has been validating how frustrated people are and worried and anxious,” Davidson-Hiers told CNN Business. “The information, of course, is helpful, it’s factual, but just being a sounding board. People are like, ‘Okay, this reporter also is really overwhelmed by how quickly all of this is changing. I’m not doing anything wrong.’”
‘Very easy to understand’
Beyond the personal conversations with community members, newsrooms are investing in other resources that help them communicate more effectively with readers.
Karlamangla’s Twitter account has become a must follow for Angelenos seeking the latest news on Covid-19 in California, where cases continue to surge. For the last year, she has tracked grim milestones, including when California become the first state to record more than 3 million Covid-19 cases. She has also provided information on where to get the vaccine. In lighter news, she recently shared her story on the rise of pet adoptions, inspiring others to posts photos of their pets.
The Arizona Republic launched a pop-up newsletter and free texting service on March 17 that sends updates and story coverage to anyone who signs up. Users can also text the newsrooms with “questions or worries” that will be directed to reporters and editors. A January 19 message provided information on how to register for a vaccine. Kim Bui, the paper’s director of audience innovation, told CNN Business about 3,000 users have registered for the service.
Bui cited business owners and caretakers who work with the elderly as two groups of people that “have a lot of questions.” Others text questions about school openings and large gatherings.
“When I text somebody back, they’re always like, ‘Oh my gosh. Thank you so much. You’re doing an invaluable service,’” Bui said. “I’m just texting. I’m glad this little thing I can do is helpful.”
ABC7 News, a station covering San Francisco and the Bay Area, created a Covid-19 vaccine tracker for California. Reporter Alix Martichoux told CNN Business that the project was inspired by the success of a tracker for the Bay Area’s reopening plans.
“Earlier this week, it had 16 million pageviews,” Martichoux said in an interview last week. “I’m not saying that to toot our own horn, but it was just so clear that our people in California needed something very easy to understand and to tell them information that directly affected them.”
Some local coverage on the vaccine has focused on correcting misinformation. When a large sign appeared over a Durham highway that read “COVID-19 vaccine makers are exempt from liability,” The News & Observer’s Adam Wagner wrote a story about the damage to public trust that a message like that can cause. He spoke to an expert to provide context around what the sign claimed.
“I’ve gone about reporting the facts as straight as possible,” Wagner said. “What we’re getting back from readers a lot is that people are not getting enough information. People want the vaccine, but they don’t know what phone number to call or they don’t know what website to go to.”
Lee of the Sun Herald said she sees “naysayers about masks and social distancing” on Facebook. That misinformation has prompted her team to produce more coverage on what the “repercussions are for failing to do this and point out when our mask mandates ended, what happened, which is more cases,” Lee said.
‘Value of local news’
An unintended consequence of newsrooms’ increased focus in service journalism is there are fewer resources devoted to investigative reporting.
“Watchdog reporting matters, but in times like this people are panicking for the most basic information: Do I have to pay rent this month? When am I getting my stimulus check? Can I go to the grocery store today?” said Bui of The Arizona Republic.
Amalie Nash, senior vice president of local news at Gannett’s USA Today Network which publishes The Arizona Republic, Tallahassee Democrat and other local papers, said that she expects more “watchdog” stories down the line over what went right and wrong on the local and national level.
But Nash credited newsrooms’ focus on answering questions — including direct engagement by reporters — for improvements in the business of local news. Even before the vaccine roll out, readers were tuning into and reading the news at record rates — a sign of the public’s need for reliable information about Covid-19. Gannett reported it surpassed 1 million digital subscribers in the third quarter of 2020, a 31% increase from the year prior.
“There aren’t a lot of positives, obviously, in a pandemic, but I have been heartened to see that so many readers are connecting with local news sources in ways that they didn’t necessarily do before,” Nash said. “You’ve seen a lot more people understanding the value of local news… and I hope that that feeling continues past the pandemic.”