How Covid-19 Has Changed Beat Reporting

As the coronavirus spread across the country, local news outlets reacted to the economic disruption with pay cuts, layoffs and furloughs. They also made a pivot in how they covered the news.

Kristen Hare, the local news innovation reporter for the Poynter Institute, cited the “reimagining” of beat reporting in which it’s less about the beat, and more about emerging areas of reader interest. As trends in society shift — or when a coronavirus spreads around the globe — reporters adapt with the changes and respond to the emerging issues.

“The idea was that [specific] beats wouldn’t be an everlasting thing,” Hare said.

Instead of buildings and institutions, reporters now cover people, Hare said. Education reporters cover families instead of school board meetings, while local government reporters cover taxpayers instead of City Hall.

“Something totally new for newsrooms is a beat that captures a sense of a place — what it means to be from this place, to live in this place,” Hare said. “It’s something so perfect for local news because the New York Times or CNN can’t write with authority on what it means to be a Midwesterner, for instance, on a regular basis.”

For example, Tampa Bay Times’ Gabrielle Calise writes about Florida’s history. Houston Chronicle hosts a podcast called BBQ State of Mind, “which feels like a perfect thing” for that region, Hare said.

“Local news is much better equipped to capture what it means to be from a place,” Hare said. “And from a readership perspective, it’s a brilliant play.”

Major Impact on 4 Beats

As the world has changed because of the pandemic, local journalists have adapted their reporting, and Hare believes four beats have been impacted the most: housing, good news, food and obituaries.

Housing falls into two categories, Hare said: real estate and unfair housing.

“Personally, if there is a story about a million-dollar mansion someplace, I will read it and look at every single picture,” Hare said. “Those are sure traffic drivers.”

Some newsrooms work together to cover unfair housing, like Broke in Philly where 25 organizations teamed up to write about issues of housing equity. But the biggest change in this beat is concern about evictions because of the pandemic, Hare said.

“Organizations that have [housing] reporters in place that have been covering that beat for a while are pretty primed to help people understand what this means, and how you can make sure that you’re protecting yourself,” Hare said.

Housing equity flows into homelessness reporting, and several organizations conduct “powerful coverage” on the issue, Hare said.

For example, The Seattle Times has a grant-funded project called Project Homeless.

Scott Greenstone, one of the reporters on the project, said the pandemic “has really changed everything about homelessness,” but not in the way he thought it would.

Fears of the virus spreading through shelters didn’t come to fruition as cities sprang into action during the initial outbreak. Instead, the scrutiny caused by Covid-19 fears heightened awareness of unsafe conditions at shelters.

Greenstone provided an example where the city moved more than 100 homeless people from a shelter in Seattle to a hotel in the suburbs. Right away, the number of “red flag” incidents where police were called dropped significantly. Shelter providers didn’t want to reopen their doors under the same circumstances, Greenstone said.

“[Shelters] have been inhumane for decades, some people would argue, but [the pandemic] really brought the spotlight on that,” Greenstone said. “Shelter providers began speaking more frankly about the terrible conditions in shelters.”

It’s always kind of hard to connect with homeless folks digitally, but it’s gotten even harder.

Scott Greenstone, reporter, Seattle Times

Getting in contact with homeless people has also changed during the coronavirus.

“It’s always kind of hard to connect with homeless folks digitally, but it’s gotten even harder because they can’t charge their phones at the library. They can’t access the computers at the library,” Greenstone said.

As important as the reporting is now, it’s going to become even more so when the eviction moratorium lifts and more people get evicted, Greenstone said.

“It’s not going to get better,” Greenstone said. “By most forecasts, it’s getting much worse.”

The ‘Bright Spots’ Beat

As the world faces more turmoil, a positive has emerged: the good news beat. Beyond feel-good stories, Hare said these pieces are rooted in solutions, talking about what’s working in a place as opposed to covering what isn’t. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Tampa Bay Times all host similar sections.

As museums, theaters and exhibitions shut down because of the pandemic, Maggie Duffy, Tampa Bay Times’ arts reporter who is now also on the “Bright Spots” beat, said writing about positive stories was a way to continue reporting. The beat emerged when she saw so many people doing nice things for one another.

“We found that people were really responding to the good news, people were really craving that,” Duffy said. She’s written about a woman in the community who sends handwritten cards to frontline workers and about a 13-year-old teen who raised money selling dog treats to buy new shoes for low-income kids.

Duffy found that as reader engagement with coronavirus stories went down, clicks on “bright spot” stories went up.

We wanted to really highlight that we were doing a lot of how-to-help stories.

Maggie Duffy, reporter, Tampa Bay Times

“We wanted to really highlight that we were doing a lot of how-to-help stories,” Duffy said. “I love to see when something good happens to [the people I write about] and they get more attention for their cause.”

Another beat that newspapers can truly make their own is food, Hare said. Because of the pandemic, outlets are compiling lists of restaurants with curbside service, places with outdoor dining, and others with indoor seating with reduced dining-room occupancy. Orange County Register created a COVID comfort rating scale, which helps people understand restaurants’ level of sanitation and standards. The Southern California News Group doubled its recipes as they know their readers are home cooking.

“That very old staple, the food feature, is having a revival,” Hare said.

Duffy agrees, saying food reporting has “taken on a different life” due to restaurant closings and the way readers cook and eat at home.

Obits in the Time of Coronavirus

The final major beat change Hare mentioned: obituaries.

Hare created a newsletter in which she compiled a list of obituaries written by newsrooms across the nation.

While most newspapers over the years have had a reporter devoted to writing these stories, or the staff rotates to do so, outlets are giving more space to these articles. In order to learn who communities lost because of the pandemic, newsrooms are not just tracking the number of people who died; they’re helping tell the stories of who these people were.

As many of us have been taught to do, we’re gathering the stories alongside the numbers.

Kristen Hare, reporter, Poynter Institute

Hare also created a running list with published obituaries of journalists nationwide.

“As many of us have been taught to do, we’re gathering the stories alongside the numbers,” Hare writes.

Beats are ever-changing, and as the pandemic continues to evolve, the next wave of beats will be about recovery, Hare said — how communities will recover, how schools adapt to reopening, how those who’ve lost their homes and jobs bounce back.

“That will be a story in local news itself: ‘How do we recover from this?’” Hare said.

Article image by Edwin Hooper used under Unsplash license (Unsplash)

About the author

Hannah Farrow


Farrow, a Medill master’s graduate with a focus on magazine writing, is a 2020 Postgraduate Reporting Fellow at the Pulitzer Center. She interned at the Tampa Bay Times and freelances for several publications.

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