The COVID-19 reminder: Always answer to your audience

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EDITOR’S NOTE: News coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to evolve in 2021, from initial hopes of reopenings and re-emergence to case surges due to the Delta variant to school mask debates and vaccinations for children. But one thing hasn’t changed: The mission of providing essential information and news to our communities. Below is a report from Mahoning Matters in Youngstown, Ohio, from April, showing how it addressed the pandemic and connected with its audience in the spring.

News meetings over the past year have had a familiar theme: “What’s going on with COVID-19, and what do readers need to know today?”

At Mahoning Matters in Youngstown, Ohio, and across McClatchy, our audiences have relied on us for high-utility journalism to help them navigate the pandemic. The strategy: Tell people what they want and need to know so they can make life decisions.

Answering those questions every day — whether they are about vaccines, variants or stimulus checks — has led to increased readership and loyalty. That is the lesson journalists need to remember as the world moves into the next phase of COVID. The stories will shift, but the lens should remain the same, with a focus on helping people live their best lives.

Looking at the analytics, we know that this is a successful strategy as we aim to be the go-to source for essential local journalism. In March, Mahoning Matters had its second-best month for readership since the site launched in October 2019 — and that included a spike in return visitors. The content was so essential, in fact, Mahoning reached 75 percent more people in March than February.

The driving force was a shift in COVID-19 coverage that went beyond the daily numbers and updates. With a focus on audience, Mahoning mixed local headlines with McClatchy stories to provide those answers about vaccines, variants and stimulus checks.

We helped readers find out how to get a vaccine even if they couldn’t find an appointment, explained whether a 16-year-old can get the vaccine without parental consent and provided regular updates on vaccine eligibility in Ohio.

In March, half of the 20 most-read stories at Mahoning Matters related to COVID-19, and that trend has continued in April. These stories connected with our local community because they were laser-focused on providing answers. This connection will be important moving forward.

The pandemic is far from over, so we will continue to identify those coverage opportunities. Just think about all the decisions, large and small, that our communities will contend with moving forward. We have already started to implement that shift at Mahoning Matters and discuss the next steps.

  • With people dining out again, we are reporting on restaurant openings as the industry faces new challenges. What are the best options, and who is closed for good?
  • After months of delay, there will be events and concerts on the calendar again. What do readers need to know about attendance rules, capacity and the debate about vaccine passports?
  • We will be ready to provide options for weekend plans.
  • And we will continue to put readers first with stories about local government, schools, development and crime, with explainers and Q&As to clarify the important issues.

We all hope COVID-19 will one day fade away, but the lessons we’ve learned about utility journalism should guide our future coverage and in ensuring that we provide information and news that our community finds essential.

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