Tow Center

The Tow Center COVID-19 Newsletter: Rural health coverage

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Rural communities of color are often overlooked in coverage of the parts of the US that don’t host large newspapers or media company headquarters. The needs of those communities during the pandemic are different from those of urban communities of color, and from those of their white neighbors. And, contrary to the preponderance of stories minimizing their presence, they are not merely the needs of a very few.

“The structural issues that have fueled infections in working-class communities of color exist within communities across the nation,” not just in big cities, says Tow Center fellow Letrell Crittenden, author with Andrea Wenzel of a new article for the Tow Center on coverage of these communities. The article is part of the pair’s ongoing work with Tow, examining media coverage in—and, too often, merely about, rather than for—communities of color.

Newsrooms owe their readers, especially Black and Latinx readers, more thorough coverage of public health problems that disproportionately affect them—and not just during a pandemic. “Engagement of communities of color should represent an everyday practice for all newsrooms,” Crittenden says. “Our work in multiple communities suggests, at least from the perspective of local residents and even some journalists, that it is not.”

Public health coverage of rural areas is “largely nonexistent,” Crittenden tells CJR. “In many rural communities, it is not merely communities of color who are frustrated with the lack of news coverage.” Budget cuts and other systemic factors have kept coverage from penetrating areas at risk from unique challenges related to the pandemic. “If an area has fewer than five people dedicated to covering it, in-depth stories looking into disparities with rural health probably aren’t being written. So what people should know is [that] whatever information is coming out of rural areas only represents a bare minimum of information related to what is actually happening there on a day-to-day basis. That is the situation before we even consider issues of race.”

But the question of race is still primary to rural journalism, Crittenden says. “In places like Philadelphia, Chicago and even Pittsburgh, a multitude of options geared toward populations of color as a whole, or neighborhoods inhabited by people of color, exist at a much greater level,” he explains. “Even if local legacy news fails to cover a community, populations of color may have other alternative outlets that provide some degree of coverage for their issues, and a multitude of community organizations that can share information outside of the lens of the news media. That does not exist in many rural communities and small towns, notably those that, as a result of economic pressures, are morphing into news deserts. Communities of color in urban areas are underserved.  But people of color in rural communities are largely invisible.  And this invisibility is even more dire for those who speak English as a second language.”

Systemic disadvantages being what they are, forays by the national press into these areas are inevitable, and may be beneficial. But Crittenden cautions reporters from moneyed outlets in urban centers to proceed with the necessary humility in order to cover these stories responsibly. “[Reporters from out of town] should know that they probably know very little about the everyday lived experiences of people in town, and know next to nothing about how to navigate the area in order to reach a multitude of constituent groups,” he says.

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“All communities have highly complex information ecosystems, even ones located in rural communities,” says Crittenden. “Journalists who go into a community and merely follow the typical chain-of command in cultivating sources and information will likely come up with simplistic narratives that are riddled with tropes and stereotypes about the area. Reporters must take the time to try and cultivate relationships, notably within segments of the community that are traditionally ignored or marginalized. The perils of parachuting can be mitigated by building links with local community groups and institutions, and where appropriate exploring collaborations with local media and organizations, being mindful of the power dynamics of such relationships.”

Tow’s Nushin Rashidian recently spoke to Jason Sylva, General Manager, Consumer Revenue, New York Magazine, about how his organization is working during the pandemic. Here is an excerpt from their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

Tow: What did a day in your life look like before the pandemic? And what does a day in your life look like right now? 

Sylva: Oh my God. I’ll start with now because I really don’t remember three weeks ago to be totally honest [NB: this interview was conducted before New York’s recent cutbacks]. It feels like it’s been three months. So, I live in Brooklyn. I’ve got a three-year-old and a one-year-old. So they’re not school-age. My wife is an editor. So she is currently filming, like, a twice-weekly Coronavirus update thing for the LinkedIn community, so our apartment doubles as a web studio for half the week. And so I’ve been waking up, playing with the kids. She’s writing scripts, I’m reading emails, watching Frozen 2, making pancakes. We still have a nanny coming as of today. She is coming in [for] shorter hours now. I do very little work until 11:00 a.m. And the nanny comes from eleven until about three, which means I’ve got four hours to do as much work as I can.

Right at 11:00 we do a team stand-up with my group, just to see everyone’s face, see what everyone’s mental state is, see if anyone needs help with anything I’ve missed the last couple of hours, and talk about what’s going on. I’m sitting in consumer revenue, and while we exist independent of a newsroom, the best version of us, the best version of us doing our job, is a real connection to understanding what we’re producing and making sure that’s making a connection with the audience. So we’re missing quite a bit with, just, everyone working in our own space. We don’t quite have our finger on the pulse like we did when we were all side by side.

On the consumer revenue side, we really try to think about where there’s appropriate messaging we should be including, and where it’s appropriate to steer clear of that. Now, if you look at a lot of places, they’re trying to interject more serious, sober messaging and they’ve done a good job. But you can imagine how that could go wrong. So right now, our focus has mostly been on existing subscriber communication, letting people who get the magazine know that we’re still committed to mailing it out, the safety precautions we’re going through to get them their magazine, and also remind them that you can’t get a virus from the Internet—not this kind of virus—and so please make sure you’re keeping up with what we’re publishing daily.

This has been an amazing time for subscriptions. As more people are home, traffic is through the roof in a lot of places. And so is interest in paid products. And New York magazine and all of its brands have a unique spot in that where we’re generally not your first news source. But we are this fantastic combination of thoughtful commentary and trend pieces and culture and all that kind of stuff that you might not get at your first news source. So we’re doing our best on our team to make sure that we’re communicating that message and our value proposition as much as possible and trying to steer our business toward whatever it will be on the other side of this.

That’s my day until about 3:00. And then kids come home and I try to answer emails, Slack, whatever, and I don’t really go back online until the evening.

An update on how platforms and publishers are reacting to the pandemic

The economic impact of the coronavirus continues to reverberate in local newsrooms across the country. Gannett, which became the largest newspaper chain in the U.S. after its merger with GateHouse last year, has been steadily laying off and furloughing employees over the last few weeks. Absent official announcements from the company, Poynter has been keeping track of cuts as they are discussed on Twitter and elsewhere. The cuts are taking place in at least thirteen states. As the article notes, it is unclear whether these cuts are due to the recent merger or the fallout from the pandemic.

Elsewhere, Chicago-based newspaper chain Tribune Publishing, whose portfolio includes the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News, announced three-week furloughs for nonunion employees making between $40,000 and $67,000 per year. This came weeks after announcements of pay cuts for employees and top executives.

The staff of Wired announced plans to unionize amid rumors of upcoming layoffs and pay cuts at Conde Nast. “This isn’t just about protecting our job and our livelihood,” staff writer Louise Matsakis told the Daily Beast. “We want to protect our future because we want to continue to cover this crisis.” At the New York Times, Ben Smith writes that the company is entering a “grim period of austerity.”

Vice Media pushed back against a Wall Street Journal report claiming that 300 layoffs were coming to the company’s digital operations unit, which includes Refinery29 and Vice News.

The tech site Protocol, launched just two months ago, announced it was laying off 13 staffers: “The coronavirus has done nothing to shake our faith in Protocol’s mission or our long-term opportunity, but there’s no denying that the pandemic has profoundly changed the economic realities of the present,” wrote publisher Robert Albritton, president Tammy Wincup, and executive editor Tim Grieve.

In a rare glimmer of good news for media workers, Bustle Digital Group is the latest media company to be approved for a small business government stimulus loan to help with pandemic-related setbacks, joining Axios, The Tampa Bay Times and The Seattle Times. According to a BDG spokeswoman, the loan will serve “to partially undo salary reductions across the company and expand hours for part-time and freelance writers.” Just a few weeks ago, BDG laid off 24 staffers and shut down The Outline, among other cuts. Revisit the Columbia Journalism Review’s profile of Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg, who announced he will reduce his salary by 85%, here.

Amid constant news of layoffs and cutbacks, McClatchy is launching the second newsroom through its Compass Experiment, a partnership with Google. Fully funded by Google, The Longmont Leader will serve the residents of Longmont, Colorado starting this spring. Compass Experiment General Manager Mendy Jenkins writes, “We have no illusions that there are challenges ahead and that social distancing means we can’t get out into the community and properly introduce ourselves. But the mission is too important to wait until the pandemic has passed.”

In other Google news, the company launched a new section of the “Google News COVID-19 experience” that “highlights articles from independent fact-checkers,” continuing its investment in fact-checking during the pandemic.

Lastly, on Tuesday the Facebook Journalism Project announced a $2 million investment in “grant funding, coaching and training to support Asia-Pacific news organizations’ coronavirus work,” which includes a grant and training program to help “news organizations develop and strengthen their reader revenue strategies.” Facebook also announced another $2 million investment in the Latin America region, consisting of a grant program “to help news organizations accelerate their digital transformations.” Applications will open on May 5th.

Other stories of note:

  • Email newsletter platform Substack has announced grants to 44 of the 600 people who applied. Recipients will receive between $500 and $5000; the total disbursement from the program will be $100,000. The platform intends to launch a fellowship program next month.
  • The media’s generous self-assessments of its own pandemic coverage are out of order, says Margaret Sullivan in the Washington Post. “I very much doubt that history will judge mainstream journalism to have done a terrific job covering this president — including in this difficult moment,” Sullivan writes. “On the contrary, the coverage, overall, has been deeply flawed.”
  • Also engaging in media criticism was New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who is being criticized in the press for a delayed and ineffective pandemic response. “Where were all the experts?” he asked at a briefing on Tuesday. “Where was the New York Times, where was the Wall Street Journal, where was [sic] all the bugle blowers who should say, ‘be careful, there’s a virus in China that may in the United States?'” The Times reported that the Coronavirus was likely a pandemic on February 3, according to its reporter Maggie Haberman. “Excuse our arrogance as New Yorkers — I speak for the mayor also on this one — we think we have the best health care system on the planet right here in New York,” Cuomo told the Times on March 2.
  • In a virtual event co-hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center and the Nieman Foundation, Boston Globe data journalist Todd Wallack moderated a conversation with ProPublica health reporter Caroline Chen and Washington Post graphics editor Armand Emamdjomeh on how to responsibly report on COVID-19 data.
  • Also at Harvard, the Shorenstein Center hosted a virtual event on the effects of misinformation on public health, as well as how “public health professionals and local officials can work together to share life-saving recommendations during the infodemic.”
  • Former Vanity Fair reporter Maya Kosoff, at her newsletter Escape Hatch, writes that, for the generation of writers to which she belongs, the future has been sold to the past. “When you work for a legacy magazine, you sometimes hear lifelong employees waxing nostalgic for the good old days of magazines, when they themselves were assistants in the 1980s and 1990s and could take a company car out to Sag Harbor on a Friday if they wanted to, or expense lavish spreads of alcohol and food, or generally behave in ways that are incongruous with one’s understanding of how much cash a media company has on hand,” Kosoff writes. “You hear these stories at happy hours or at farewell parties as a young, cheap, generally expendable employee and you think about how you’re a couple months behind on your student loan payments and have $52 in your checking account until your next paycheck and you sort of nod and smile weakly and stare into your vodka soda.”
Sam Thielman, George Civeris, and Nushin Rashidian work at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, a research and teaching center based at Columbia Journalism School.