Texas newspapers innovate on the fly to inform, engage readers during crisis

Texas newspapers and their journalists are on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic, covering government actions in dealing with the coronavirus and keeping readers informed with vital and credible information while coping with the same personal and economic challenges.
As of press time newspapers had been listed as “essential businesses” in all counties that issued shelter-in-place orders in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. As essential businesses, newspapers can conduct business normally.
In many cases, coronavirus news fills entire editions. Community papers have stepped up both in print and online to provide extended coverage of local cases and government responses.
Community calendars have been redesigned as event cancellation lists and how-to tips on remotely accessing church services, city council and commissioners court meetings.
In addition to coverage of local school closings, travel restrictions and the impact on health facilities, hospitals and nursing homes, coverage has included features and interviews highlighting local impact and reactions.
Publisher Cyndy Slovak-Barton notes the Hays Free Press has been tracking students from her area who have been studying abroad and are having trouble getting back home, as well as interviewing local college seniors about their prospects for finding jobs or internships. In addition, reporters covered the affect on local blood banks, which typically have large blood drives during summer months.
Jack Stallard at the Longview News-Journal suggested talking with local high school strength coaches about what plans they’ve formulated for their kids to keep them in shape for the short term if play resumes soon and the long run if it doesn’t. His reporters are also looking to coaches for ideas for some positive stories, such as interviews with some seniors who know their high school playing days are done but are still being leaders for younger kids. News-Journal sports reporters have also reached out to college kids who had their seasons, and in some cases their careers, cut short when everything was called off.
Some newspapers have published special sections with information from the Centers for Disease Control, the Texas Department of State Health Services and other sources.
Groups such as Gannett are preparing special pages and packaged sections promoting local business support for use by member newspapers.
Keeping local newspapers at the forefront of reliable coverage is the goal of many pandemic-related coverage and services.
Publishers also launched advertising initiatives aimed at helping local businesses that needed it most.
“We sold restaurant ads at a reduced rate to our local food venues giving their new hours and curbside pickup information in all three towns where we have papers and then put the ads online,” said Jim Bardwell, publisher and president of Bardwell Ink, which owns papers in Gladewater, White Oak and Lindale. “Some restaurants bought while some passed on Week 1, before signing up on Week 2 after seeing it. These ads also link to the restaurant’s webpages,” Bardwell added.
“We are breaking even on this project, but we are providing vital information through our outlets, rather than their individual Facebook pages,” he noted.
As local and often small enterprises, newspapers suffer the same economic consequences as their fellow businesses, who are their advertisers. In most small towns, local newspapers are the oldest businesses in the communities they serve — and the most trusted for reliable news coverage and accurate information. Texas newspapers stand up to the challenge, many with innovative ideas to help the local economy.
Here are ideas shared by some newspaper publishers as well as features gathered from recent editions.
Many newspapers have taken down paywalls on their websites — in some cases on specific content related to the pandemic — to allow maximum access to the most recent and accurate public health information. Michael Wright, publisher of the Moore County News-Press, noted the enlarged audience could help generate more interest in digital advertising.
With most schools closed and UIL academic and athletic events canceled or postponed, several newspapers have found ways to convert dedicated sports support pages to other uses. Ozona Stockman Publisher Melissa Perner said she has converted those pages to school information, educational games and puzzles and assignments from teachers. “Sponsors were willing to keep their ads with us,” she said.
The Snyder News converted a March Madness Final Four contest page to a Women’s History (Her Story) trivia contest page with the same sponsors.
The Foard County News is featuring a guest column by a local minister with information on how churches are holding virtual church serves. To help advertise the newspaper as a source of both current information and local history, Kent Smith said he’s also started a Facebook group featuring old photos and articles from the newspaper’s archives.
The Odessa American is doing a personalized “On this date in history” as a trip down memory lane.
The local gardening column in the Hays Free Press is featuring ideas for back yard vegetable gardening to help cut down on trips to the grocery store. Food pages in many newspapers are focusing on “coronavirus cuisine” such as “Comfort Soup,” reviving some Depression-era recipes, as well as ideas for healthy snacks to keep kids energized while schooling at home.
Many newspapers are spotlighting the impact of limited gathering rules on restaurants with special features listing which ones have switched to take-out and delivery services.
The Hays Free Press maintains a list of restaurants and other businesses offering drive-through and curbside pickup. The list is currently free with an up-sell option for a link to a business’ website.
Newspapers across the state are dealing with the challenges of “paying it forward” with free digital and print promotions ads and services to help local businesses while feeling the same economic impact.
In the Rural Blog, Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky, called the pandemic “the greatest domestic emergency since the Civil War” and he recommended that newspapers in all areas, including those that might not have been hit with confirmed cases, “to behave socially as if everyone has the virus” and encourage with readers to respect recommendations to stop the spread.
“The means of giving those warnings are up to individual news outlets, but every newspaper has a great tool to reach everyone in its community: a sample-copy edition, as was done by The Cynthiana Democrat, the weekly in the first Kentucky county to identify a case of COVID-19,” Cross wrote. “A sad fact of newspaper circulation these days is that it doesn’t reach most people in most counties. Sample copying does that, and we can help you can find ways to have others pay the extra printing and postal costs.
“Beyond newspapers and sample copying, please remember that this is a LOCAL story for every news outlet in the world,” he emphasized. “Your local government and public-health officials should have received plenty of information that they can share with you and your audience. In some cases, local officials may not understand the gravity of this situation, and you could play a role in reminding them of it.”