In early January, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism published my report, “Media Mecca or News Desert?” Covering Local News in New York City,” which examined how citywide and hyperlocal news organizations allocate diminishing editorial resources, and the challenges they face filling gaps in coverage. In the weeks and months following publication, two of my interview subjects left their jobs as editors of community and ethnic media outlets to join the staffs of well-funded, citywide non-profit news organizations. Another two, who helmed the digital editions of daily newspapers, were laid off. A few publications received new grants that would allow them to expand their reporting capabilities.
And then covid-19 hit.
Since then, nearly every aspect of the newsroom dynamics I had described, like so much of our lives, has been transformed. New York’s journalists are learning to report while socially distancing, and, in some cases, are putting their lives at risk to cover what has become the epicenter of the global pandemic.
One of the main findings from my previous report was that health and healthcare issues were going underreported. Particularly lacking, several newsroom leaders noted, was coverage of a seemingly niche topic: the municipal hospital system. Now, every reporter has become a health reporter. “New York used to be a city filled with stories,” began a recent New York Times magazine piece about the city’s municipal hospital system. “Today it is a city with a single story: its hospitals.”
Despite understaffed newsrooms, many editors noted in the previous report the importance of fielding reporters to attend city council and community board meetings, where officials are questioned and sources are cultivated in hallways. In the era of governance via Zoom, it is unclear when those opportunities will return. Given the severity of the current financial crisis, it is even less clear how many outlets will be around to cover them when they do. With shrinking access and decreasing numbers, the work of journalists to hold the powerful accountable may become even harder.
Fourteen media outlets featured in the previous report, as well as four additional news organizations, spoke to me in March and April about how they’ve navigated these and other challenges of covering the covid-19 epidemic in New York City. While providing only a snapshot of the city’s media landscape, the interviewed media professionals painted a vivid portrait of local news organizations, many of whom were already struggling, adapting to cover an unparalleled crisis.
- All the interviewed news outlets are now operating remotely, with a minority still engaging in in-person reporting. The better-resourced news outlets are providing their staff with some level of PPE and several have strict guidelines about approving field reporting. For many of the small community outlets, these decisions are being made based on the discretion of the few, or sole employees, who are responsible for protecting themselves.
- The most disruptive element of remote work for the digital and print outlets has been balancing the demands of a 24/7 breaking news story along with parenting responsibilities. The move to remote operations has been far more challenging for the broadcast organizations, who over the course of several weeks have undergone an unprecedented experiment in establishing the infrastructure for remote radio and TV newsrooms.
- All the interviewed news outlets have realigned their editorial strategies to cover covid-19. With few exceptions, most newsrooms have abandoned all non-COVID related coverage.
- In some cases, such as with education, real estate and transportation, beats and editorial mandates are being filtered through the lens of covid-19. In others, reporters are being reassigned to cover the public health and ensuing financial crisis. The reassigned reporters come from beats that are generating less news, ranging from sports and arts, to energy and the environment and political campaigns.
- Many of the interviewed news outlets said that a lack of past coverage of healthcare issues and the municipal hospital system, and the resulting deficit in institutional knowledge and sourcing, have complicated coverage of covid-19.
- Many of the interviewed news outlets are concerned about the impact of social distancing on accountability reporting. Besides the immediate frustration about lack of access to New York City hospitals, many journalists and editors said their ability to cover government actions is limited when those activities are held virtually. Conversely, some reporters complained about Governor Cuomo’s insistence on maintaining in-person press conferences, rather than virtual ones, like Mayor de Blasio. Almost none of the interviewees are attending Cuomo’s press conferences for safety reasons and said they are missing a crucial opportunity to interrogate the Governor’s statements.
- Beyond public-facing events, there was concern that city and state politicians are using the crisis to deny the public information about important political negotiations, like the state budget or the use of stimulus funds. They worry that this lack of transparency could last after the crisis ends.
- Despite an initial dramatic increase in traffic, most of the interviewed outlets were concerned about the impact of the financial crisis on local news. Many of the bigger commercial outlets that depend on advertising have already instituted layoffs or furloughs. The community and ethnic commercial outlets said they were only surviving thanks to city government advertising related to covid-19 or the census. Some of these smaller outlets also said they were ineligible for the Paycheck Protection Program because they only work with freelancers.
- Some of the community and ethnic media outlets have turned to grants or fellowships from programs like the Facebook Journalism Project and Report for America. In comparison to when the previous report was published, those funds are now reaching some of the smaller outlets that were previously unfamiliar with these grantmaking circles. Still, some of the smaller news outlets interviewed worry about being left out of any programs designed to help local news during the coronavirus.
- Without the dependence on advertising revenue, non-profit news organizations have been more shielded thus far from the financial fallout of covid-19. They are all bracing, however, for eventual impact. On the immediate horizon is the cancellation of fundraising galas and reductions to corporate sponsorship programs and donations from wealthy individuals. In the medium-to-long term, there is significant concern about how the crisis will impact the financial activities and grantmaking priorities of philanthropic foundations. Many of the interviewed workers at nonprofit outlets said they hesitated originally to send out fundraising appeals tied to the covid-19 crisis, for fear of appearing opportunistic. Eventually, they all did so, deciding it was in line with the missions of their organizations.
- Whether from a financial or an editorial perspective, all of the interviewed news outlets agreed the most challenging aspect of the covid-19 epidemic was not knowing when or how it might end. Journalists who had covered past crises in New York City recommended not losing sight of the long term or less obvious stories while getting bogged down in day-to-day reporting.
- To achieve the previous goal, there is an opportunity for far more collaboration between news outlets. While collaboration exists, mostly between nonprofit organizations, there is still little evidence of more far-reaching cooperation between citywide organizations with hyperlocal, community and ethnic news outlets. Citywide organizations could benefit greatly from the knowledge of the organizations with deep ties to local and ethnic communities, many of whom have been the worst hit by the covid-19 crisis.
Abandoning the newsroom
Like many New Yorkers, all of the journalists and editors interviewed for this piece are now working remotely from their homes. While many missed their colleagues and the atmosphere of the newsroom, the majority of the journalists with print and digital news outlets said the move to remote work was not terribly disruptive to basic operations. Most have adapted to Slack chats and Zoom meetings, and had already performed remote work in some capacity, or, at a few smaller organizations, worked from home entirely. Garry Pierre-Pierre, founder and Editor-in-Chief of the English-language, Brooklyn-based, online newspaper The Haitian Times, said that, thanks to the implementation of regular virtual meetings and conference calls, communication between him and his entirely freelance staff had actually improved.
Broadcast media, however, faces more significant logistical challenges. “Everything takes twice as long to do and execute,” said Sean Bowditch, acting news director of public radio station WNYC. “It has just required another level of communication and coordination that we have never had to engage in before,” he said. “We have done more in the last three weeks operationally, technologically, than we have done perhaps in the last two years.”
At the cable news channel NY1, the newsroom emptied in stages. First, said Dan Ronayne, a senior executive for the channel group, Spectrum News, “We identified the people who could transmit their content back from the field without ever stepping foot in the newsroom—reporters, MMJ [multimedia journalists] and truck operators.” From there, he said, they extracted their operations team from the newsroom, facilitated by a system that allows remote access to their servers and infrastructure. “We began to do master control and ingest from the field [capturing and transferring video content to a technical hub prior to transmission], and within two or three weeks we had a newsroom that was down from about 250 people to one with six or seven people in it at any time,” he said. The last step was transitioning anchors to remote work, he said, “and as of today there were maybe four people in the newsroom.”
The work of the operations team in building the “technical infrastructure for us to do television remotely has been remarkable,” said Helen Swenson, the Vice President of Content at NY1. “But this has been the most challenging experience of my career,” she said. The news team has to meet the demands of covering a major story but without “the systems you are used to having,” she said. “You have to learn how to do your job in a completely different way overnight.”
Reporting while social distancing
The majority of the interviewed news outlets are conducting all of their reporting remotely, either online or on the phone. “There’s no reason at the moment to make people go out,” said Adam Nichols, managing editor for the New York City vertical of Patch, a local news and community information website. “I don’t think the subjects of the interviews want that to happen. I certainly don’t want that to happen and the reporters don’t want it to happen,” he said.
Several news outlets, however, said that some reporting was still occurring in person. POLITICO New York, the New York State vertical of the politics and policy news website, has one reporter who regularly attends Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press conferences. Other organizations said in-person reporting was based on the comfort level of the reporters, or only allowed after approval by senior management.
“You step foot outside your house for professional reasons, we need to know about it,” said Bowditch, of WNYC. “Every field assignment has to be pre-approved, and we have been very selective about what field reporting we let go forward.” As examples of that work, Jen Chung, founder and executive editor of the WNYC-owned Gothamist, cited reporting inside a Brooklyn hospital scrambling to treat covid-19 patients by journalist Gwynne Hogan. Hogan also reported from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where companies have pivoted to produce PPE.
Bowditch and Chung said that, at the advice of Jill Jackson, news director of Seattle public radio station KUOW, they had mailed “grab bags” to all of their reporters that included masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and a medical gown. Ronayne of NY1 said that, while interviews are conducted mostly remotely, there is still on-scene reporting happening every day. Field crews are outfitted with masks and gloves, he said, and use boom mikes when necessary so as to keep a distance from people.
For many smaller community and ethnic media outlets, in-person reporting was happening at their own discretion and without the luxury of a “grab bag” or other necessary safety equipment. Javier Castaño, the founder and editor of Queens Latino, a Spanish-language news website with a monthly print edition, said that he and his wife, with whom he runs the publication, occasionally venture outside to talk to people or take pictures. But many of their regular freelance reporters were staying home out of fear.
“Maybe the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal is able to implement safety protocols for their reporters and photographers,” Castaño said. “But we are on our own here in Queens, which is basically ground zero for the Coronavirus…we don’t have the resources to buy masks or gloves, or even know how to safely interview a person. But this is a story we need to tell.”
Personal safety was the principal concern for many community and ethnic media outlets. “I’m just trying to keep my people healthy,” said Liena Zagare, editor and publisher of the daily Brooklyn-wide news website BKLYNER. If either she or her one staff reporter fell sick, she said, the publication is “done for.”
Carl Glassman, editor and sole editorial employee of the Lower Manhattan newspaper-turned-website The Tribeca Trib, said that while he has gone out occasionally to photograph, he’s been frustrated by his inability to do the kind of interviewing and frontline reporting that characterized his coverage of past crises, like 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. “I have asthma and I’m 71 years old,” he said. “My wife is scared to death of me going around outside. I can’t get to the… most important stories right now. It’s really hard not to be able to report on the human toll of this on people…and be the kind of reporter that I wish I could be right now.”
While editors at publications that regularly field reporters to war zones might be used to worrying about and planning for the physical safety of their staff, this was new territory for Ben Max, Executive Editor of the Gotham Gazette, a digital non-profit news outlet that specializes in wonky coverage of local politics and policy. And while the mechanics of newsgathering may not be so difficult remotely, Max said that his new at-home parenting responsibilities have greatly disrupted his news organization’s workflow. “My reporters are getting a lot more late-night edits than they’re used to,” he said.
Chung of the Gothamist agreed with Max, noting that, besides all the other logistical and editorial challenges, “we are trying to remote-teach our kids.” She said that protecting her staff’s mental health and taking measures to prevent burnout had become a priority. Editors across the interviewed newsrooms echoed these concerns. After the initial chaos and 24/7 coverage of the first weeks of the crisis, several editors said they began implementing reporter rotations, assigned days off and regular “check ins” to discuss personal wellbeing.
The only other time I remember waiting like this was when I was a teenager and the Soviet Union was falling apart. … [and] we were just waiting for the tanks to come in.
—Liena Zagare, BKLYNER, on her childhood in Latvia
For news outlets that are part of wider networks, the best practices and advice they received from colleagues in West Coast markets who experienced a covid-19 outbreak before New York, have been crucial. These New York City organizations have then, in turn, they said, passed on the same tips to their sister outlets in cities that are experiencing later waves of outbreaks.
Bowditch and Ronayne mentioned the safety and logistical advice that was shared between the network of public radio stations and Spectrum News-owned television channels, respectively. Others have shared editorial guidance. Amy Plitt, editor of the New York section of the real estate and city life website Curbed, said that her colleagues at Curbed San Francisco, where the country’s earliest shelter in place rule was instituted, explained to editors in other cities the implications of that order. In turn, Plitt said, her team had been able to provide colleagues elsewhere with guidance on how to cover news about renters’ and tenants’ rights movements, many of which had originated in New York.
At Patch, Nicols said he and editors from the site’s network of local newsrooms had created a Slack channel dedicated to the virus, where they could share ideas, resources and contacts. He said they also drafted a national style guide for coverage of the virus.
At the nonprofit education news website Chalkbeat, journalists and editors across the organization’s seven geographic markets also immediately created a dedicated Slack channel, according to Carrie Melago, managing editor for local news. In the channel they worked together to create an editorial boilerplate (should they call it the novel coronavirus? covid-19?) and guidance for sensitive issues like how to photographically illustrate virus-related stories (should they show people wearing masks? Avoid using stereotypical photographs of Chinatown?).
As school districts closed across the country, the outlet developed a nation-wide plan to cover remote learning. They were “falling like dominoes, ” Melago said, “but whenever one happened, we were able to say ‘okay, here’s how we’re going to handle it.’”
Shifting beats, reallocating resources and following the story
In my previous report, newsroom leaders discussed the ways in which, with limited resources, they prioritized and defined beats and differentiated themselves from their competition, and where they saw gaps in coverage. Many of these distinctions and strategies have vanished as all newsrooms, no matter their size or editorial focus, grapple with covering one of the most significant and wide-ranging stories of our lifetime.
“Our DNA has been to fill the gaps—whenever everybody is talking about one thing, to be talking about something else and to try to draw attention to what’s not in the spotlight,” said Jarrett Murphy, Executive Editor of the nonprofit news organization City Limits. “But we have abandoned that strategy now. We are all COVID, all the time,” he said. “There’s no reason to be talking about anything else and it’s very difficult to be reporting on anything else. And the story is so sprawling.”
With very few exceptions, all of the interviewed newsroom workers said they had set aside all other areas of coverage and were now exclusively reporting on covid-19. Adam Nichols of Patch said he had assigned his one journalist who covers citywide issues to report major breaking stories from state and city government officials. The rest of his six-person editorial team are “neighborhood reporters,” covering specific geographic areas.
“I want to keep the neighborhood focus, because that’s the core of our business,” Nichols said. “But of course there is very little appetite for any stories that aren’t coronavirus-related anymore,” he said. “We are not covering as much of the real hyperlocal stuff at the moment because we are so busy with the health stuff, which I think is the same for every news organization in the city right now.”
Due to the expansive nature of the story, many reporters at citywide outlets are covering how the crisis is affecting their previously defined beats, such as education or transportation. Others, who covered beats now generating less news, like sports or culture, have been reassigned to help cover the epidemic. For POLITICO NY, beats like education, real estate, and transportation, are producing ample coverage, according to Angela Greiling Keane, deputy managing editor and editorial director for POLITICO’s US states and Canada coverage. But some of the reporters covering energy, the environment, and now mostly dormant political campaigns (a staple of the outlet’s coverage) have been repurposed to help out with covid-19-related and breaking news, she said.
Some editors said they had restructured their newsroom completely. In my previous report, WNYC’s former vice president for news, Jim Schachter, said the radio station focused its efforts on specific investigative beats like immigration courts, and surveillance and community relations issues within the NYPD. Now, said current acting news director Sean Bowditch, the station has been “organized around three main topic areas for the past couple weeks: How do we deliver healthcare in the middle of a pandemic; the unprecedented experiment of trying to educate millions of children remotely; and jobs and the economy. We have reassigned all reporters to these three topics and have basically said ‘You weren’t a health or economic reporter before, but now you are: go.’”
For single-subject newsrooms, or media outlets with a particular area of focus, that has meant filtering their editorial mandates through the lens of covid-19. The Queens Daily Eagle, a borough-wide daily print newspaper that focuses on the local criminal justice system, has covered the covid-19 outbreak inside the city’s only private jail, the process of moving to virtual arraignments in civil courts, and tracking exposure to a Queens Supreme Court judge who tested positive for covid-19.
City Limits and Gotham Gazette, both citywide nonprofits that focus on policy, have mostly eschewed breaking news in favor of deeper analysis. Murphy of City Limits said his outlet was primarily covering “how the most vulnerable are being affected. So, while we have obviously listened to the Governor and the Mayor’s press conferences and we’ve done some of that kind of general stuff, we have focused a lot on the jail population and senior citizens and the homeless shelters, public housing, undocumented immigrants.”
Max, of the Gotham Gazette, said his staff was trying to find undercovered stories, like ones related to domestic violence or New York state and city’s lack of an official ventilator triage policy. One challenge, Max said, was that with conditions changing so quickly, even in-depth pieces were quickly becoming outdated, requiring him to institute new rules about updating published material.
Chalkbeat, according to Melago, found themselves racing to cover a breaking news story—an infrequent occurrence for the outlet—as cities across the country dithered about closing school districts. The outlet’s first story about the virus appeared on February 26 with the headline “No immediate plans to close New York City schools as coronavirus threat escalates, officials say,” which, Melago said, “is sort of amusing in retrospect.”
At the time of the article’s publication, Melago said, the outlet received some pushback from readers who questioned whether the headline was overblown and, by elevating what seemed to be a non-existent threat, might cause undue panic. Weeks later, Melago said, reporters were monitoring government officials’ statements around the clock, waiting for the imminent announcement of school closure.
Since then, Chalkbeat has transitioned away from breaking news to more analytical and investigative pieces, examining the patchwork roll-out of remote schooling. Education reporting, Melago said, usually has a normal cadence structured in large part around annual events like student testing, teacher evaluations and the release of related data. “That’s all been scrapped,” she said. It went from being a story “we were keeping track of,” to becoming weeks later, “literally the story, even for a subject-specific place like us.”
At Curbed NY, Plitt said her newsroom adjusted coverage to examine covid-19’s effects on the real estate industry, the moratorium on non-essential construction and evictions, and the tenants’ rights movement. Other articles explained how to move homes or buy a house during the epidemic, and looked at how narrow sidewalks impede social distancing.
Curbed was one of the few publications interviewed for this research to say it was maintaining non-COVID-related coverage, balancing real estate listings and fluffy interior design pieces with the Coronavirus-focused explainers and deep dives. “We put a call out to our readers recently,” Plitt said. “And we asked them, ‘what do you want to see from us in this time? How can we best serve you? And interestingly, a lot of people responded, ‘your coverage of coronavirus has been great, but we still want the listings. We still want to see what’s available on the market. We still want to have the beautiful homes to look at,’ because I think everybody needs a little bit of escapism,” she said. “That being said…I’m anticipating there could be a point where nobody’s listing homes anymore, and we have to figure out what that’s going to look like for us.”
A handful of the community and ethnic outlets are maintaining some coverage of the 2020 census, but otherwise said they had pivoted to covering exclusively how the covid-19 crisis was affecting their communities. BKLYNER has published a series of round-ups of local restaurants open for delivery in neighborhoods throughout the borough, and a story on the difficulty of observing Jewish and Muslim burial traditions during an epidemic. Both Castaño of Queens Latino, and Roberto Lacayo, news director of NY1 Noticias, the Spanish-language sister channel to NY1, said they were focused on providing guides to available health and financial resources for Spanish-speaking immigrant groups.
All of these smaller organizations said they were publishing obituaries of members of their communities who had died from covid-19. Glassman, of the Tribeca Trib, said obituaries were one of the ways in which he felt his outlet was serving a real purpose. Most of his coverage of the crisis was taking the form of a running set of daily briefs, rather than stand-alone stories, which he said has been the only way to handle the deluge of news. One exception, he said, was a long obituary for a beloved local restaurant owner, which inspired an outpouring of responses and personal recollections of the man from residents. “It showed that, even under these kinds of circumstances, we can do something that’s valuable … and serves a purpose” for the community, he said.
Vania André, former editor-in-chief and current board member of The Haitian Times, said the paper was “putting a face to Haitian healthcare professionals who are on the frontline.” As Pierre-Pierre, the paper’s founder and current editor-in-chief, explained, “the Haitian community is overrepresented in the healthcare industry, from home health aides to nursing assistants, registered nurses, surgeons and everything in between, so their exposure is tenfold. That’s in addition to underlying health issues like high blood pressure, diabetes and other respiratory illnesses that dominate the Haitian community,” he said. “We are a very vulnerable group so there is a lot of attention that needs to be paid.”
Pierre-Pierre said the publication was also covering the inability of many “mom and pop shops” in the Haitian community to access Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds because they don’t operate payroll systems. The Haitian Times itself, he noted, falls into this category, because its staff is entirely freelance-based.
The Chinese-language press’s coverage of covid-19 has been particularly unique because of the community’s early awareness of the epidemic and its effects. Rong Xiaoqing, a journalist in the New York bureau of the Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao Daily, said her paper started covering covid-19 as early as late January. At the time, she wrote about the cancellation of celebrations for the Chinese New Year due to fears of the virus, long before events were being suspended across the city. (A translated version of the article was the first piece about covid-19 to appear on the website of City Limits, which operates an initiative called Voices of New York that translates ethnic, non-English-speaking local press into English).
Rong said it was at this time that she started covering the question of mask use, which would gain importance over the coming months. According to Rong, she asked government officials about wearing masks three times between late January and mid-March, long before their usage was mandated in April. Rong’s first reporting on masks, she said, was about discrimination against people in the Chinese community who were wearing masks before they were widely adopted. When she asked the city’s Health Commissioner about this at a press conference in late January, she said she told her the city didn’t recommend that people wear masks as an effective measure against the spread of the virus.
In a February panel moderated by Rong at the CUNY Journalism School, Rong said that Dr. Syra Madad, the city’s senior director of the system-wide special pathogens program, told her again that the city did not recommend mask usage. Finally, at Mayor de Blasio’s March 10 press conference at Bellevue hospital, she asked again about the contradictory nature of saying masks were vital for healthcare workers, but were not effective in preventing healthy people from getting infected. This time, she said, Health Commissioner Barbot mentioned for the first time the need to prevent a shortage of PPE for healthcare workers. After the press conference, Rong said, she wrote an op-ed in Sing Tao “questioning all of this mask propaganda.”
Later Sing Tao coverage included the closures of restaurants in Sunset Park’s Chinatown— several days, and in some cases, more than a week before Mayor de Blasio mandated shutting restaurants citywide. In our interview for my previous report, Rong mentioned her frustration that many stories in the ethnic press are ignored by or never reach a wider audience, and that accountability reporting doesn’t have any impact until it appears in English. While some of her Coronavirus stories have involved debunking disinformation that was circulating on the Chinese social media platform WeChat, in general, she said, the Chinese community was “better prepared. They were closely following the news in China. They knew how to prepare and protect themselves. They took precautions earlier than everyone else.”
When every reporter becomes a health reporter
A consensus emerged from the interviews for my previous report that two topics were going underreported in New York City. The first, courthouses, had been documented in other articles and reports about the city’s media landscape. The second, for me, was less expected: healthcare issues, broadly speaking, and the public hospital system in particular.
“If I had an extra reporter, I would have somebody covering health and the municipal hospital system,” Joel Siegel, managing editor at NY1 News, told me in 2019. “It bothers me as a New Yorker, and as a journalist, that that system is not covered.” NY1 political journalist Errol Louis agreed, telling me in 2019, that the public hospital system, “is basically not covered, even though it is essentially bankrupt.”
Several months after these interviews, the city announced that NYC Health + Hospitals (the city agency that operates the hospitals) had managed to reverse course financially, closing the fiscal year on budget and with a surplus. Our limited research found no coverage of this development in any of the interviewed English-language news outlets.
Now reporters at news outlets across the city are quickly readjusting to cover a beat that has been neglected for years. This lack of coverage has resulted, in many cases, in a significant dearth of institutional knowledge and sources. In addition to being at the center of the initial crisis phase of the epidemic, Health + Hospitals has controversially been charged by Mayor de Blasio with leading the city’s contact tracing program—a duty traditionally performed by the city’s health department. The agency will thus likely remain at the forefront of recovery efforts for some time.
Jere Hester, Editor-in-Chief of The City, an online nonprofit news outlet that launched in the spring of 2019, identified the convergence of public health with other beats when we spoke for the previous report. “We know from what’s happened in public housing that public housing is not just a housing beat,” he told me in 2019. “Thanks to lead, mold and other issues,” he said, “it’s a health beat.” The major shift now, he said, in light of the covid-19 crisis, “is that every beat we have is essentially now a health beat.”
While coverage of the health beat was generally lacking, some news outlets mentioned previous coverage, particularly related to Mayor de Blasio’s 2019 push for universal healthcare, that gave them some familiarity with the healthcare landscape. POLITICO NY, unlike the majority of interviewed news outlets, has a designated New York City healthcare reporter with experience covering the hospitals, and the broader outlet covers the healthcare industry extensively for subscriber verticals at the federal and state level. “There’s a lot of interest, and therefore subscribers and money, behind the healthcare beat,” thanks to the amount of regulation and legislation on healthcare issues and money in the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, Keane said. Because of these subscribers, “we’ve been able to prioritize” that coverage, she said.
For local outlets that don’t benefit from the revenue of a highly developed and successful subscription model like POLITICO’s, it’s been harder to get health coverage off the ground. Murphy, of City Limits, said he has presented a few grant proposals related to healthcare issues and the public hospital system in recent years, but that none have yet come to fruition.
The Gotham Gazette had more luck, when, as part of a grant application to the Altman Foundation, the outlet pitched a list of potential topics about which they could develop in-depth series. Among that list, which was submitted months before the covid-19 crisis hit, and ultimately accepted, was the city’s public hospital system. Max acknowledged that “it’s definitely been a challenge to quickly develop sourcing and our institutional knowledge about what the system is, how it works, what it looks like,” he said. Public health in New York is a complicated constellation of public, private and city-run healthcare facilities, according to Max. “I think first and foremost some of what would be helpful to people and that we’re working on, is to produce a good, solid explainer on what the city’s hospital landscape even looks like, and what the city’s public hospital system looks like within that,” he said.
David Brand, Managing Editor of the Queens Daily Eagle, agreed, noting that he’s spent a lot of time in recent weeks reaching out to friends and potential sources who might be able to help him “get up to speed about just what these places look like,” he said. “I’m thinking about the layout of one of these hospitals in Queens. I don’t really know” what that looks like, he said. “And so, having to learn that, in the process of learning how different medical centers are handling this crisis … I think people are more familiar with the jails. We’re familiar with the courthouses. But I think there is a lack of institutional knowledge about the hospitals.” Brand said he’s had success reaching out to people on Facebook, acquaintances and strangers alike, who have taught him more about the hospital system.
Bowditch said that WNYC and Gothamist have reassigned two reporters, Fred Mogul, who was covering state politics but had previously been a health reporter, and Gwynne Hogan, who had reported on the city’s 2019 measles outbreak, taking advantage of their issue expertise and contacts. Other reporters at the two outlets without health backgrounds also jumped quickly into the mix, churning out deeply-reported stories like one about Governor Cuomo’s plan to unify the city’s public and private hospital system.
Hester, of The City, said that a number of his reporters had in the past written stories that touched on issues related to the public health system, such as Medicaid, nursing homes and the mental illness and homeless crisis. This coverage, he said, gave the reporters some familiarity and a “foot up from which to jump into this context.” The City has produced a number of stories related to the hospital system in the covid-19 crisis, including how a plan to combine three Brooklyn hospitals had been halted, and dispatches from mostly anonymous sources within the hospitals about chaotic conditions on the ground. But, he said, “I think, for our team and probably many reporters across the city, we’ve had to become very quick studies on some of the intricacies of the system.”
For many of the ethnic media outlets, those contacts and sources within the hospital system were already known to them in their communities. “It’s not via official channels,” according to Rong of Sing Tao Daily, who said ethnic media outlets often don’t have their phone calls to high-ranking officials returned quickly. Rong said the paper has longstanding relationships with organizations and clubs devoted to Chinese medical personnel. “Take the Chinese Cardiologists’ Club, or something like that,” she said, “maybe we covered their anniversary celebration. and took some photos and they were happy [with the coverage]. Now, when we want to locate some doctors in a particular hospital, we go to them and say ‘can you help us find someone?’ and they help us.”
Pierre-Pierre said that, thanks to the overrepresentation of Haitians in the healthcare system, and his longstanding ties in the community, that his paper hadn’t struggled at all to find sources. Castaño of Queens Latino and Lacayo of NY1 Noticias also both said they had been able to find sources within Queens hospitals from among their communities relatively easily.
At NY1 Noticias, local reporters are told they must live in the neighborhoods they cover for the network. “Traditionally reporters receive an assignment from the station, “ Lacayo said, “ but in our case, it is the other way around. The reporters tell us what is going on in that neighborhood and make assignments. So when covid-19 happened, we already had the sources and network in place in Queens,” he said. Among NY1 Noticias’s coverage, Lacayo said, was an interview with the director of the embattled Elmhurst hospital.
As the initial phase of the crisis has passed, some news outlets are beginning to produce stories that look past current conditions to dive into the history of the city’s public hospital system. In mid-April, City Limits examined how “Decades of Shrinking Hospital Capacity ‘Spelled Disaster’ for New York’s COVID Response.” The same day, the New York Times magazine published an interactive piece that featured vivid photographs by Philip Montgomery from a week spent inside the public hospitals during the covid-19 crisis and reporting by Jonathan Mahler. In his wide-ranging accompanying text, Mahler combined deep historical background on the origins of the city’s public hospital system, with the challenges it has faced in recent decades and the unprecedented nature of what the system is experiencing during the current crisis.
Mahler told me the idea for the piece originated with the magazine’s photo director Kathy Ryan, but that he used his assignment as an opportunity, as he did with 2018 feature on the MTA, to take a sweeping look at an institution that has allowed the city to prosper, but whose own health has suffered due to budget cuts and infighting. “I felt it was an important and powerful thing to remind people about that history, and the mission and role [the hospital system] has had,” he said. “They have been embattled, but have kept up the fight.”
A month later, the Times published a behind the scenes account of the events leading up to de Blasio’s controversial decision to move the city’s covid-19 contact tracing program to NYC Health + Hospitals. The article, which featured four bylines and quoted from damning, previously unpublished emails written by the agency’s director, Dr. Mitchell Katz, was the kind of deeply-reported exposé rarely seen in recent years about the agency. While it may have preferred the more forgiving coverage of the magazine piece, the municipal hospital system should have one clear take away from the publication of both articles: the agency is now being treated as a significant beat and has the full attention of the country’s leading newspaper.
Shrinking access in the virtual space
For their New York Times magazine piece, Montgomery and Mahler received extensive access to the physical facilities and senior leadership at NYC Health + Hospitals. But in other cases, access to hospitals and healthcare workers across the private hospital system has been tightly limited. POLITICO NY, along with other news outlets, reported that “Mount Sinai Health System and NYU Langone Health are among the private hospitals that warned workers against voicing their concerns about the nightmarish scenes playing out in emergency rooms across the city.”
Besides the interest in limiting a public relations crisis, some journalists wondered about the impact of the years the hospital system spent relatively free of sustained media scrutiny. As Errol Louis told me in the previous report, “coverage of the Department of Education and the NYPD, for example, may be imperfect. But people are diligent, and important stories tend to not get missed. And more importantly, the agency knows that they are being watched by a group of reporters who can’t be swatted away or bullshitted.” In comparison, “nobody can post up a reporter to keep track of what is going on in these 11 hospitals,” he said in 2019.
Limitations on hospital coverage are often related to HIPAA privacy rules, Hester of The City, noted. “They have a legal excuse, in a lot of cases, not to deal with the press,” he said. But “we’ve had a huge contraction of the press as well, and there hasn’t been anywhere near the same day in and day out coverage of the system and other health issues.”
Journalists and academics have worried that the press’s inability, with few exceptions, to visually show the public what is occurring inside the hospitals has limited their understanding of the severity of the crisis. In April, the NYPD seized the drone of a photojournalist documenting mass burials of people who had died from covid-19 on Hart Island, the city’s public cemetery. In comparison to well-documented wars or other public health crises, we are missing a “visual archive of the staggering human toll of the crisis, wrote art historian Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, in an editorial in the New York Times. “For society to respond in ways commensurate with the importance of this pandemic, we have to see it.”
While hospitals have been the focus of coverage during this initial phase of the crisis, many journalists are worried about the broader limitations on press access that are occurring during the era of social distancing, and potentially could persist long after. In some cases in other states, the restrictions have been explicit, such as when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis barred a reporter from attending a covid-19-related press conference. Several federal and state agencies have declared a moratorium on processing FOIA requests while the crisis is ongoing.
New York City journalists’ concerns about access limitations were more nuanced. The restrictions appear based on some justifiable measures that had been taken to stem the outbreak, but interviewees feared those measures might be opportunistically used to thwart transparency. “There’s obviously a public health emergency,” said Max of the Gotham Gazette. “But at the same time, we want to get information out to people. We can’t stop holding government officials accountable for being open and transparent with the public,” he said.
Many of the limitations have stemmed from the necessities of social distancing and the sometimes-uneven rollout of virtual governance. David Brand of the Queens Daily Eagle said that holding city council and community board meetings online meant the loss of a crucial space for cultivating sources and generating story ideas. “Sometimes the best way to get information is to hang outside and talk to council members or staffers as they are coming and going before after a press conference,” he said. Or at a community board meeting discussing land use, “you can see the official presentation, and then afterwards talk to the people who are there demonstrating against it. That’s going to be a challenge now,” he said.
At a recent virtual press conference related to state bail reform, Brand was unable to make personal connections with potential future sources, or ask them questions related to different issues, he said. Moreover, the press conference itself was “zoom bombed” and “invaded by online racist trolls,” according to Brand.
Hester, of The City, said one of his reporters had wanted to cover a proceeding being held via video conferencing at Family Court. But to watch the video conference, the journalist was told, she would have to physically be at the courthouse, while even the judge wouldn’t be present, Hester said. “It was not worth [the risk] for me to send the reporter down to family court to put her in a public building, for the absurdity of watching something on a screen that she could be watching from her living room,” Hester said.
While Hester said he was very cognizant of security issues in allowing people to log into a court proceeding, he said the episode brought home to him “how quickly public life and civic life is changing. A lot of us are very facile with getting on to Zoom and whatnot, but the people who are running the government may not be.”
Conversely, some reporters complained about the access implications of in-person events. Governor Cuomo has maintained in-person, televised press conferences, which almost none of the interviewed news outlets were sending reporters to. In consequence, a few journalists said, they were missing a crucial opportunity to interrogate the Governor’s statements.
These journalists praised Mayor de Blasio’s embrace of virtual press conferences, which they said opened up the opportunity for them to land questions. Several journalists at the smaller nonprofit, community and ethnic media outlets cited specific questions they had been able to directly ask the mayor about the city’s covid-19 response that had advanced their reporting.
One Chalkbeat story gained significant impact thanks to a question asked by a reporter at the Mayor’s press conference, Melago said. In March, journalist Alex Zimmerman asked the mayor’s opinion about internet service providers who were blocking New York City families with unpaid bills from remote learning deals. De Blasio responded that the practice was “unacceptable” and that it “really pisses me off, to tell you the truth.” The company decided it would change its policy hours after Chalkbeat published its story detailing the practice and quoting the mayor’s comments.
Beyond public-facing events, there was concern that politicians were using the crisis to deny the public information about important political negotiations. “As much as it seems that the governor and the mayor have been fairly transparent around the public health crisis, on something like the state budget, that’s not the case,” Max said. “The state budget process has always been shrouded in secrecy, and even more so this year. Some of that, they can’t help. And some of it, they can. So it’s very tricky,” he said.
“Obviously, journalists depend on being able to ask people in power questions to hold them accountable,” said Keane of POLITICO. “Once you take something away, it can be hard to get it back. I don’t want a lack of access for legitimate reasons right now to translate to less access for journalists in the future, which means less access to information for the public,” she said.
“There’s a lot of public stimulus money that’s going to be rolling in,” said Melago, of Chalkbeat. “It’s really going to be a time for us to step up and hold people accountable… Journalists need to be paying extra attention right now,” she said. “The times of crisis are when the rules get changed.”
The looming financial crisis
Nearly every interviewee described “significant,” dramatic” or “sky-high” increases in traffic to their websites since the covid-19 emergency began. (These interviews occurred during the first few weeks of the crisis, research shows traffic has decreased in subsequent weeks for many news outlets). Many feel a renewed sense of purpose and public appreciation for their work. Yet all are aware of how the ensuing financial crisis has been devastating the already critically weakened local news industry across the country.
Many of the for-profit outlets depend on advertising revenue that has vanished. The consequences have been swift. In April, Vox Media, which owns Curbed, announced it was furloughing roughly 100 employees for three months. Amy Plitt, the editor of Curbed NY who I had interviewed a few weeks before, wrote on Twitter that she was among them. Less than two weeks after the furloughs, Vox said it would merge Curbed into New York magazine, another Vox property.
While a few of the small, hyperlocal organizations said they weren’t yet concerned—“it couldn’t be much worse than it already was,” as one put it—for the majority, the impact has been acute. Rong said Sing Tao Daily relies heavily on advertising from Chinese travel agencies, restaurants and supermarkets, most of which is now gone. The Hong Kong-headquartered newspaper has already shown signs of financial stress, closing its Australia bureaus earlier this year.
Several hyperlocal and ethnic media outlets said that advertising from local businesses had never, or had long ceased to be, a significant revenue source. More important, however, were the suspended advertising campaigns related to now-cancelled big events, like university conferences or music festivals, said Pierre-Pierre of The Haitian Times.
Most of these outlets said the only thing keeping them afloat was city government advertising, thanks to a 2019 City Hall executive order mandating that city agencies spend at least half of their annual print and online advertising budgets on community and ethnic media outlets. Some of those ads were related to health issues and covid-19, they said, while the most significant support was tied to 2020 census campaigns. “Without city government advertising we’d close,” Pierre-Pierre said. “That is the one line we have.”
“We are in survival mode,” said Castaño of Queens Latino. With the help of city advertising and some ads from local lawyers, he said he would put together the next month’s print edition. After that, “let’s see what happens,” he said.
Zagare of BKLYNER also said city advertising was crucial, in addition to subscriber support. Zagare launched a subscription system in 2016 that saved her from going out of business, but, like many other outlets, took her paywall down for covid-19 coverage. Ten days after removing the paywall in mid-March and making an appeal for more reader support, she wrote they’d gained 100 new subscribers for a total of roughly 1300 and an additional $500 in revenue per month. In April she reinstated the paywall.
“If we didn’t have subscriber support, we would no longer be around,” Zagare told me. “But it’s a fraction of what we need to continue. So I am very much going day by day. I don’t know how much longer we’re going to be around,” she said. “This is not a fun time to be running a local news business.”
While the subscription model and other forms of reader revenue have been embraced across the news industry, they can be hard sells for community and ethnic media outlets. Pierre-Pierre said The Haitian Times had roughly 500 paid subscribers, 20 of whom had deactivated their subscriptions since the covid-19 crisis began. The founder of the West Side Rag,an online newspaper/blog that covers the Upper West Side of Manhattan told New York Magazine this month that, “Eventually, we’ll need to set up a subscription system, but everyone else is hurting a lot more, so we’re not even asking for donations now. Once we get over the hump, we can think about that. My concern is mostly the health of the neighborhood.”
In addition to the loss of advertising and subscriptions, news outlets have been forced to cancel the in-person events with the public that have served as an increasing source of revenue for the for-profit media outlets, and the basis for “community engagement” grants for the non-profits. Both sectors are now experimenting with online versions of these activities. Their success in achieving either objective via virtual means is yet to be determined.
At the time of our interviews, print publications Sing Tao Daily and the Queens Daily Eagle were continuing to put out their daily editions, in addition to online content. But as printing and distribution have been disrupted across the country, it’s unclear how long that will continue. This could add another level of financial duress: Many newspapers rely on the revenue generated from legal notices, which are required by law to appear in print publications. The family-owned Schneps Media company, which has rapidly acquired and owns 50 community newspapers and magazines throughout the five boroughs, announced it has laid off or furloughed about 30 employees, or 20% of its workforce, the New York Times reported.
The city-wide daily tabloid newspapers have also suffered from the decline in advertising and newsstand sales as fewer people commute to work. The New York Daily News, already hurting from previous rounds of deep layoffs, was subject to furloughs and pay cuts instituted by owner Tribune Publishing in late April. A week later, the New York Post laid off more than a dozen staffers, furloughed others, froze hiring and eliminated most freelance budgets, according to reporting by The Daily Beast.
Schneps Media, The New York Daily News and the New York Post did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this report. Daily News Editor-in-Chief Robert York told Vanity Fair that “The closure of retail outlets and reduced transit traffic in the five boroughs, Long Island, Westchester, and New Jersey has not been good for our daily single-copy print volumes…this level of disruption is unprecedented.”
Some local news outlets are beginning to look to the Paycheck Protection Program for a critical infusion of funds. An editor’s note attached to the April 20 newsletter of City & State, the New York politics and policy print and digital publication, said that “thanks to a loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, we are able to resume this weekday email.” But many of the smaller outlets that rely on freelancers are ineligible for this support, denying them another potential lifeline.
Like many of their colleagues in news organizations of all sizes across the country, some New York City outlets have turned to grants from nonprofit organizations, or tech companies like Google and Facebook. The Haitian Times previously announced it would be receiving two Report for America (RFA) fellows, a fellowship program that places young reporters in local newsrooms for two years and pays half of their salaries. Pierre-Pierre and former Editor-in-Chief Vania André said at the time of our interview that they were concerned in light of the crisis that they might no longer be able to fulfill their part of the financial obligation. In late April, RFA announced The Haitian Times would be receiving one fellow as part of the next year’s cohort. Pierre-Pierre said the second fellowship had been postponed for editorial, not financial reasons.
In addition to previous programs to fund local journalism, Facebook and Google have announced hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency grants for local newsrooms to cover the covid-19 crisis. In my previous report, several community and ethnic media outlets said they felt excluded from the journalism and grantmaking circles necessary to access those funds. Pierre-Pierre worried this would be the case with the covid-19 grants as well. A lot of the support for local journalism “bypasses the small operations…[because] they don’t know our universe,” he said, “So I’m afraid we will be left out.”
While previous rounds of Facebook grantmaking has often been slanted towards the bigger metro daily newspapers and more prominent local news outlets, the list of covid-19 grants notably included many smaller outlets. In addition to citywide organizations like WNYC and The City, among the New York City Facebook grantees were BKLYNER, Queens Latino and City Limits.
City Limits was also among the news organizations selected for a Report for America fellowship, but had to scramble to raise money to meet its part of the financial obligation. After sending out a series of fundraising appeals in April that specifically sought funds for the reporter’s salary, City Limits was included in the publications announced as part of Report for America’s 2020-2021 cohort. Many of the interviewed nonprofit outlets said they hesitated originally to send out fundraising appeals tied to the covid-19 crisis, for fear of appearing opportunistic. Eventually, they all did so, deciding it was in line with the missions of their organizations.
Without the dependence on advertising revenue, non-profit news organizations have mostly been shielded thus far from the financial fallout of covid-19. But Murphy said they were preparing to feel the impact in some form eventually. If the economic downturn is severe, membership revenue will likely drop, he said. Even worse would be if a continued outbreak requires them to cancel their fall gala, a significant source of their fundraising, he said. “And then the biggest question mark,” he said, “is the foundations.”
Throughout the nonprofit world there is the concern that grantmakers may adjust their levels of support in relation to the stock market’s effect on their endowments, or pivot their philanthropic strategies to meet different societal needs that have been elevated by the crisis. While the non-profit outlets said their funders had so far been supportive and had not announced any changes at the time of our interviews, they remained worried. “There’s no way to predict how it’s going to break,” Murphy said.
In a letter to her staff posted on Medium, Chalkbeat founder and CEO Elizabeth Green outlined three potential scenarios for how the organization might be affected by the covid-19. The best case scenario imagined how the crisis might cause people to value local news as an essential good, leading to “unprecedented investment” in Chalkbeat. In the second scenario, Green wrote, “we manage to sustain today’s Chalkbeat through emergency support, and we avoid cuts. But we hit the brakes on our growth plan,” to scale up from seven to 18 local bureaus by 2025, and that the organization announced last year. The worst case scenario involved pay cuts, furloughs, or layoffs.
At the time of our interview, Max of the Gotham Gazette said that he was “hopeful that we’re not going to hear any bad news… [but] it’s a precarious time.” In a fundraising appeal several weeks later, however, Max wrote that Gotham Gazette was “projecting damaging financial shortfalls given changes to planned fundraising events and reductions in expected foundation grants.” The drop in funding was significant, he wrote, meaning that while the outlet continued to cover the covid-19 pandemic, “Gotham Gazette is facing its own crisis.”
The City, which launched a year ago with an impressive 10 million dollars in funding from the Leon Levy Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and the Charles H. Revson Foundation, among others, is “luckily not in dire straits,” according to publisher John Wotowicz. But, “if I didn’t express concern about the medium to long term for us,” he said, “I wouldn’t be being honest in my answer.”
Like the other interviewed non-profits, Wotowicz said that donor foundations so far had been very supportive, but “the secondary effect of the virus on both foundation endowment and people’s net worth, certainly impacts and has put a much more challenging umbrella over our major donor activity.” The City’s corporate sponsorship program, which was supposed to become an important source of revenue, had already been directly affected by the economic crisis, he said. “I wouldn’t say we threw out the old plan,” Wotowicz said, “but we’ve gone back to the drawing board….We’re in a good place, but it’s a nervous time.”
Planning for an uncertain future
Whether from a financial or an editorial perspective, all of the interviewed news outlets agreed the most challenging aspect of the covid-19 epidemic was not knowing when or how it might end. “There is no predictable arc for this story,” said Hester of The City.
Past New York City crises like 9/11 or Hurricane Sandy had a clearer “linear structure,” according to Melago of Chalkbeat, which made them somewhat easier to cover. covid-19, according to Mahler of the New York Times, feels “more existential and more mysterious,” he said. “It’s created more uncertainty about the future than anything I’ve lived through.”
“The only other time I remember waiting like this,” said the BKLYNER’s Zagare, who is from Latvia, “was when I was a teenager and the Soviet Union was falling apart. … [and] we were just waiting for the tanks to come in,” she said. This pandemic, she said, presents a “much longer waiting period.”
The uncertain prognosis and expansiveness of the story makes editorial (and financial) planning particularly challenging, said all of the interviewees. The majority were concentrating on the short or medium term, or even just taking it day by day. “We are in survival mode,” said Castaño of Queens Latino. “Like first responders,” said Pierre-Pierre of The Haitian Times, “we are in the rescue stage.”
Even for better-resourced outlets, the unpredictable timeline of the crisis is daunting. Chalkbeat and POLITICO are used to planning their editorial calendars around seemingly consistent events, like school years and political campaigns. What happens when, for the foreseeable future, there is no school and no active campaigning?
Despite the uniqueness of this crisis, some of the journalists said their experiences covering other major events had taught them lessons that were applicable to covid-19. Murphy of City Limits said Hurricane Sandy had shown him that “you have to be aware that what you’re seeing is just one slice of the city’s reality…. That awareness and making sure that tunnel vision doesn’t set in are key to understanding that a crisis like this is sprawling and evolving by the moment,” he said.
Ned Berke, former Editor-in-Chief of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and previously the founder of a digital hyperlocal publication in Brooklyn, said he had learned from Hurricane Sandy that working with others to get out the basic, immediate information is crucial. For small and local publishers, he said, “collaborating with others to make those most essential resources will help remove a lot of workload, and open up a lot of resources” for deeper reporting.
While there have been isolated examples of collaborative reporting on covid-19 and some of the community outlets continue to republish available content from the nonprofit news organizations, New York City has not seen wide-scale collaborative efforts like the kind that have emerged in recent weeks in Chicago, Oklahoma, Colorado and Oregon.
The local news ecosystem in New York City is different from any other market in the country, but, as Berke pointed out, there is still room to foster more newsgathering alliances. My previous report concluded that, while collaboration is flourishing between the better-resourced, nonprofit journalism organizations, the lack of partnerships between these sectors and the community and ethnic media is a missed opportunity. In the current context, these collaborations could be even more critical, providing reporting for citywide news outlets that don’t have deep ties to many of the communities that have been most affected by this pandemic. Community and ethnic media outlets have already demonstrated they are deeply sourced in the neighborhoods and institutions at the frontlines of the crisis. As these same groups struggle with a “return to normalcy,” that knowledge and local coverage will continue to be crucial.
“How do we recover from this?” said Hester of The City. “It’s really going to be kind of a battle for where New York goes from here socially, politically and economically…This is where our job becomes vital once we’re out of kind of the immediate crisis mode,” he said. Then “we really go into the long-term game.”
An earlier version of this article misidentified Chalkbeat reporter Alex Zimmerman as his colleague Reema Amin, based on an interviewee’s recollection, which Amin and the interviewee corrected.