When Pittsburgh’s two Jewish burial societies struggled with how to stay safe from the coronavirus, the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle told the heartbreaking story of one man’s decision to stop carrying out the purification rituals that are central to his religion.

“I feel horrible about it,” Jonathan Schachter, president of the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh, told the newspaper. “I feel like I’m letting the community down. I feel like I’m letting the family of the maitim [deceased] down. I feel like I’m letting my fellow chevra [burial society] down, but we’re in completely uncharted waters.”

It was the kind of story many us of who are struggling with the pandemic’s consequences can understand — but it’s also a story that few people beyond the publication’s usual readers would find on their own.

Similarly, Ambridge Connection, a volunteer news outlet in that community, offered its unique perspective on the memorial procession for Interim Police Chief Mark Romutis after he died on Sunday from complications related to the coronavirus. Other outlets reported on the chief’s death but not in the same hometown way.

The Mon Valley Independent recently ran a story about a benefit concert for a 47-year-old Donora man who died from the virus. Gazette 2.0 wrote about a Coraopolis distillery that shifted from making limoncello to hand sanitizer.

All of these stories make up the larger narrative of our region as it deals with the pandemic, and each of them has value on its own. But no one person could expect to keep track of all the different ways in which local news outlets have covered this historic moment.

Some topics, like the coronavirus pandemic, are just too big for any one news outlet to cover on its own.

Instead, each news outlet can report from its own perspective — and then when they all come together, the combined pieces tell a richer community narrative.

That spirit inspired us more than a year ago to start working on a collaborative reporting project in southwestern Pennsylvania that would bring together news outlets across the region to work together on really big stories.

Journalists from 20 local newsrooms signed onto this idea, forming the Pittsburgh Media Partnership. The Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University facilitates the project, and AmyJo Brown, a veteran journalist from the area, serves as project editor. We planned to announce our first reporting project in late March.

Then, as you already know, everything changed. On a conference call with the media partners last month, we heard about advertising revenue vanishing, potential layoffs and cutbacks in reporting tools. One of the newsroom representatives lost his job the very next day.

We reached out to the project’s funders — The Heinz Endowments and Henry L. Hillman Foundation – to ask if we could change directions to meet the need. They immediately, and enthusiastically, agreed.

The partnership quickly pivoted to supporting the newsrooms through the crisis — and to helping them tell this regional story, with all of their diversity and unique perspectives.

We have about $30,000 to help with reporting and about $20,000 for technology and infrastructure, which will be divided among the members. The money will go to efforts that support storytelling — rather than just to the partners — and about $10,000 will be set aside for freelancers (who can pitch their story ideas here).

Each news outlet will create its own content, which will appear on one unified project website, and some news outlets may choose to collaborate on a story or series of stories.

We announced the new partnership earlier this month, and we will be unveiling the project website with COVID-19 stories from all of the members within the coming days.

Moments such as this require quick action and bold strategy for surviving the crisis and for preparing the local media ecosystem to come out of the pandemic with the tools to tell our region’s truly big stories. We will eventually get to the story idea that we had planned to pursue, but for now, we are eager to share the great work the partners are telling at this historic moment.

Comings & Goings

— Trib Total Media has hired back about half of the 24 people it laid off in late March, including 10 reporters, one person in marketing and one in sales. The company was able to rehire the employees after applying for and receiving a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government, by reworking budgets and by cutting expenses, President and CEO Jennifer Bertetto said.

— Aaron Aupperlee, a former assistant news editor and reporter at the Tribune-Review, has been hired by Allegheny County on a contract basis as a communications consultant with the Health Department during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My role here is helping with external communications behind the scenes to enable the health department to provide and update public information more quickly,” Aupperlee told me. “I am grateful to put my experience as a journalist in Pittsburgh to use to help during this crisis.”

— As a Gannett media-owned newspaper, the Beaver County Times has proceeded with furloughs for employees. Anyone making over $38,000 a year must take off one week every month for this quarter, and maybe the next.

— The Facebook Journalism Project awarded $5,000 grants to five local news outlets to support their coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic — NEXTpittsburgh, Pittsburgh Current, Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, Presente Pittsburgh Media and TribLive.

They were among 400 newsrooms across North America that received the grants. The Philadelphia-based Lenfest Institute for Journalism helped award the money.

“This award will help us continue to shine a light on the inspiring ways our city is responding to the pandemic — from UPMC and Pitt’s research breakthroughs to neighbors celebrating essential workers from their porches,” Tracy Certo, founder and publisher of NEXTpittsburgh, said. “This city always rises to the challenge, and we are more committed than ever to showcasing that.”

The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andy Conte writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments. You can find all of his columns here, and you may reach him at PittsburghPublicEditor@gmail.com

Andrew Conte

Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments.