It was early 2020 and we were struggling – the numbers were alarming, people were divided, no cures seemed in sight.
And then COVID-19 hit.
You see, there was life before the pandemic and for us at MLive, it held a different kind of crisis – changes in the media landscape that were eating at our readership, our revenue and our standing in American society.
Now that the national COVID emergency has been declared over, as of May 11, it’s worth reflecting on how the pandemic changed not only our journalistic response, but also the conditions in which media was operating. Specifically, the media that serves local communities and state populations, rather than with national reach.
Here’s a reset: MLive Media Group launched in 2012. It merged eight local newspapers with the MLive.com website company under a digital-first mission. But the digital economy was tumultuous; by 2015 we needed to cut staffing amid tough business conditions.
In 2016, Donald Trump was elected and proclaimed that news media was “the enemy of the people.” In addition to headwinds on our financial side, we now faced growing distrust and hostility for doing the same things we’d been doing for nearly 200 years around Michigan – reporting and delivering news.
In 2018, MLive had to reduce its work force again. In 2019 and into 2020, digital audience and revenue declined more and it looked like the cycle would worsen. Then, on March 10, 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that COVID had been confirmed in Michigan.
Justin Hicks was a government reporter in Grand Rapids for MLive then. At first, he remembers, there were more questions than answers about what it meant, and how long it would last.
“I was about to publish a story looking at city officials’ increasing expense reports. But COVID was on everyone’s minds, so we decided to delay the report for a bit until things died down,” he said. “Spoiler: That never happened.”
It was impossible to know the journey we were about to take – after all, no one alive had been through a pandemic. We suspected one thing: COVID would have profound effects on the economy and consequently our finances. Our company, like many others, instituted furloughs as a cautionary measure.
And we also knew another thing: What we exist to do would be more important than it ever had been for readers and citizens whose very lives were in peril.
“Included in the mission of answering reader questions and easing community fear, was taking on misinformation,” said Hicks, whose job became covering COVID full time for MLive. “There were countless rumors and conspiracy theories spreading across social media, and I felt responsible for bringing those notions to epidemiologists and other experts to determine what was real and what wasn’t.”
It wasn’t without controversy. We took hits from readers who doubted the government’s response or the vaccines or accused us of hiding “the truth” about alternative treatments or covering up for the Chinese.
But there was an unavoidable fact: People needed information. MLive produced it, writing over 6,100 stories in the last nine months of 2020 on the spread of COVID-19; on the government’s response with shutdowns, social measures and public health; the strain on the health-care establishment; the political and social turmoil.
We also produced twice-weekly reports drawn from public health data and presented that in graphic format, so people could easily see the rapid spread of the virus.
“COVID elevated the data-visual role to the lead storytelling device,” said Scott Levin, digital content specialist for MLive and contributor to more than 600 data posts over three years. “Every aspect of the virus’s impact on society had a data element to it, and we worked hard to provide visual context as often as we could.”
In response, our COVID coverage generated 134 MILLION reads in the first nine months of the pandemic – nearly 30 percent of all readership to MLive content in 2020.
That’s relevance. And it had two effects that are still resonating today, even has the COVID Era is officially over. That additional readership boosted our digital revenue – story reads deliver advertising, after all – and it changed the narrative about the need for traditional, fact-based community journalism.
COVID forced us to put more resources into statewide public health and political coverage, and that paid dividends as we carried audience trust and interest into the 2020 election.
“Contributing to coverage of what was arguably the story of a generation falls in line with why I got into journalism in the first place,” said Levin. “If my stuff helped anyone get through any part of life in the pandemic, I’d feel pretty rewarded professionally.”
We still have headwinds, and we still have detractors. And COVID certainly took its toll – nearly 43,000 Michiganders died from it, and it has had profound effects on our culture and society.
But like the antibodies we’ve built through the crisis, the pandemic bolstered our journalistic health and strengthened us to do what you count on us to do.
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John Hiner is the vice president of content for MLive Media Group. If you have questions you’d like him to answer, or topics to explore, share your thoughts at [email protected].