Journalists have been stepping up around the country to help colleagues hurt by the pandemic, and now a group here has launched a similar effort.
Several people who work in local media or who have ties to the region have created the Western Pennsylvania Journalist Relief Fund to raise money and provide help to journalists who have been laid off or who cannot find freelance work.
“We’ve all seen the ups and downs of journalism across the nation but more specifically here, and that, sort of amplified with coronavirus, means more of our friends were struggling and we wanted to find some way to help them,” organizer Bobby Cherry told me.
The group hopes to raise at least $5,000 and to make grants of about $250 to individual journalists. The money won’t change anyone’s financial situation, but it could mean that a freelance writer pays a Wi-Fi bill to remain connected, or that someone survives a food emergency at the end of the month.
The group includes Darcie Loreno, a producer at Fox 8 in Cleveland, Ben Speggen, an editor at the weekly Erie Reader, and Daisy Ruth, a reporter at WFLA in Tampa. All of the organizers are doing this project in their free time, without involving their employers.
Cherry said he didn’t want any local journalists to feel awkward about asking for help if the group giving out the money included their friends. And he didn’t want to ask anyone to participate in asking for funds who might be hurting themselves.
The project started out with the idea that journalists would help each other, but Cherry said he hopes the public will get involved in providing support too. The group has applied for nonprofit status with the state, and the organizers hope to keep it going beyond the pandemic.
“We all suffer when a journalist is out of work, and so I’m hopeful people in the community who love journalism will understand,” Cherry said.
Donations can be made here: gofundme.com/f/western-pa-journalist-emergency-relief-fund. Journalists can apply for help at: PghJournalists.com.
Now live from his closet …
A lot of media outlets have adapted to the coronavirus but perhaps none as much as Pittsburgh’s NPR affiliate, WESA-FM.
All of the station’s reporters are working, reporting and producing from home. The hosts of “The Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” are still live in studio, practicing social distancing by being there on their own, but they have the capability to broadcast remotely if needed.
The team behind “The Confluence,” the station’s daily current affairs show, has been doing everything from home. I was recently interviewed for the show, and host Kevin Gavin said he had to step into his closet to get good sound.
I thought maybe he was joking but he confirmed his setup this week. He writes and edits at his dining room table, but then to record, he sits in the closet with his wife’s clothes on one side and his on the other, with a heavy blanket draped about two feet in front of his face to block any possible sound bounce.
“On a small table, I have my laptop and a field recorder with a microphone,” Gavin told me this week. “I listen to the guest through my cell phone. I clip my printed notes and questions to that blanket, and then it’s time to roll.”
Megan Harris, who heads up editorial coverage for “The Confluence,” said she does not have the luxury of a large closet. She makes do with a full-sized mattress pad wrapped around her body, microphone, Marantz recorder, cell phone and laptop.
“Every interview is a literal balancing act,” she wrote by email while sending me a photo of her rig (pictured above).
All of this creative engineering made me think back to when NPR political correspondent Don Gonyea spoke at the Media Innovators Speaker Series: He talked about building pillow forts in his hotel rooms to record sound while traveling. He literally piles up all the pillows on three sides and sticks his head inside.
Clicks are up
Advertising revenue continues to be down at news outlets across the country, but online clicks are up during the crisis.
Many news sites have set up special pages for coronavirus coverage, and they are seeing record numbers of people clicking on them. Erin Keane Scott, WESA’s marketing director, said the station’s live blog has helped double the amount of traffic to the station’s website, although she declined to provide numbers.
The Post-Gazette and Tribune-Review both have banners on their homepages that link to pages dedicated to COVID-19. The PG did not respond to questions about their online traffic, but the Trib shared what they have been seeing.
The Trib’s total number of users doubled to 6.4 million in April over the same month last year, and its pageviews increased 36 percent to 32 million, President and CEO Jennifer Bertetto told me. Users averaged 2.84 pages per session, up from 2.2 pages a year ago.
The news site experienced several record-breaking days last month. A couple of stories helped drive the increase such as Madasyn Lee’s article about insurance premium refunds and the news site’s NFL Draft coverage.
“We are just seeing more users and sessions,” Bertetto said by email, “and I think the reason for that is twofold: Not only are we committed to comprehensive coverage of COVID-19 throughout several counties through data and figures, but we also try to focus our stories on the topics that can help our readers right now. For example, when should you expect your stimulus check? How much money is your auto insurance company refunding you this month? How do you make a face covering with materials you already have at home? Where can you take a virtual trip? Etcetera.”
Support local journalism
Several local news outlets got a little boost from The New York Times recently when it ran a special campaign encouraging people to support local journalism.
Readers who entered Pittsburgh in the newspaper’s search engine were redirected to five local outlets: PublicSource, Pittsburgh City Paper, Pittsburgh Current, the New Pittsburgh Courier and the Trib. Links led to each outlet’s site, where users could make a donation or purchase a subscription.
Speaking at the Knight Media Forum in February, NYTimes publisher AG Sulzberger said his newspaper had figured out a strategy to make money (at least before the pandemic) and that he would be working to help local news outlets find a future too.
“Local journalism is in crisis and at risk of disappearing,” the NYTimes wrote online. “These vital resources are critical to the safety, security and knowledge of our communities, never more so than in these difficult times.”
The campaign marked World Press Freedom Day, May 3, and PublicSource Executive Director Mila Sanina took the occasion to remind readers about the need to support outlets such as hers.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified just how essential local journalism is in these physically isolating times,” she wrote. “It’s connecting people to resources, facts and a sense of community.”
If you find yourself turning to the news more than ever during the pandemic, take a moment to support the journalists doing the work.
Virtual media day
The Center for Media Innovation (CMI) usually tries to expose high school students to journalism, but recently, we focused on a group of high school students actually doing journalism.
When the state shut down schools, students at Saegertown High School in Crawford County went into action. The editors and reporters from the high school’s Panther Press started reporting on stories about how the coronavirus has been affecting their community. They enlisted high school alumni to file stories too.
They have been posting about medical workers, quarantining at home and high school romance during the shutdown. We recorded a conversation with the Saegertown editorial staff, including Editor-in-Chief Sam Shelenberger, Managing Editor Nick Archacki and Media Advisor Stacey Hetrick.
All of the CMI’s videos — including conversations with KDKA meteorologist Mary Ours, New York Times reporter Sarah Mervosh, and others — can be seen on Facebook.
The founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, Andrew 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.