'All Facts. No panic.' How The Philadelphia Inquirer is covering coronavirus

By Joseph Lichterman

March 26, 2020

Last week, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Ellie Silverman was sent to report on the first government-supported coronavirus testing site in Philadelphia. She wanted to speak with people who were coming to get tested, but, understandably, didn’t want to risk getting sick herself. 

She came up with a simple solution: She walked up and down the line of cars with a hand-made poster board asking people to call her to chat. They did. And The Inquirer published a story about their experiences. 

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has created large and small challenges for news organizations around the world, and outlets, such as The Inquirer, have continued to come up with solutions to report the news and provide life-saving information to their communities, all while making sure that their own teams remain safe and healthy. Solutions have ranged from small and creative —  like Silverman’s newsgathering improvisation — to a wholesale reorganization of news beats, workflows, product development, subscription and donation marketing. 

This week in Solution Set, we’re going to dig into how The Inquirer has covered the coronavirus, how it has developed new products to meet reader needs, reorganized its news organization in real-time, and how it’s gained financial support even as it brought its reporting outside its pay meter.

We’re also partnering with The Columbia Journalism Review’s Galley platform this week to continue the conversation about how local news organizations are meeting this moment. Galley has been convening discussions all week with leaders at The Inquirer and around the country, and you can catch up on them here.

We’ll also be holding a roundtable discussion featuring Inquirer editors we spoke with here as well as others, and we’d love to feature your questions. Is there anything more you’d like to know about how local news organizations are covering the coronavirus? What about the business challenges facing news organizations? You can access the roundtable here. If you’re on a computer viewing the desktop website, you can log in with your Twitter and ask a question. If you’re on your phone, you can share your question by emailing me at [email protected], and I’ll offer them to the roundtable on your behalf.

Also, a disclosure: The Lenfest Institute for Journalism, where I work, is the nonprofit owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer. We work closely with The Inquirer to support its ongoing work,  funding its investigative news teams, growing staff diversity, and supporting its digital transformation through grants and fundraising. I’ve reported this just like I would a normal issue of Solution Set, nobody at The Inquirer read this prior to publication, and it was not edited differently than any other issue.

With that out of the way, here’s the TLDR: 


The Challenge: By early March the scale and scope of the coronavirus outbreak was becoming clear, and The Inquirer realized it needed to adapt to remote work while also covering this major story. 

• The Strategy: The past few weeks have been a blur, but The Inquirer took down its pay meter on all coronavirus stories, launched a grassroots fundraising campaign in partnership with The Lenfest Institute, and launched new products, such as an email newsletter to reach readers and a live blog to keep them constantly informed.

• The Numbers: The Inquirer saw a 51% increase in digital subscriptions last week while attracting a record number of visitors. 

• The Lessons: The Inquirer introduced a lean approach to quickly launch new products, and it has been iterating on them in response to reader feedback. It’s also had to adjust its expectations for work. 

• The Future: It’s clear that social distancing and working from home will be our new normal for awhile, but beyond that The Inquirer is thinking of how best to retain its new subscribers and adjust for a certain decline in ad revenue. 

• Want to Know More: Scroll down for a list of resources to help newsrooms better cover the coronavirus pandemic.

The Challenge

While the coronavirus had been in the news for months, the seriousness of the story on its local coverage area truly began to come into focus for The Philadelphia Inquirer during the first week of March. 

On Thursday March 5, one of the largest school districts in the Philadelphia area cancelled classes after students were in contact with someone who had been diagnosed with Covid-19. The next day Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced the first two confirmed cases in the state. 

In those early March days, as the scale of the looming outbreak in the United States was starting to come into focus, The Inquirer’s leadership was beginning to develop contingency plans for how it would continue to function — from reporting the news to physically printing the newspaper — in case things got worse.

That Thursday was also the first day of NICAR, one of the largest data journalism conferences in the country, as reporters and editors from across the United States assembled in New Orleans for the annual conference. Among them were four staffers from The Inquirer and Spotlight PA, the collaborative investigations-focused Harrisburg bureau led by The Inquirer.

And when word came down from the conference organizers that an attendee had tested positive for Covid-19, The Inquirer, like most major news organizations, was forced to respond quickly. 

On March 11, Inquirer publisher Elizabeth H. Hughes, who joined the company in February, sent an email to staff informing them that staffers had attended the conference. While no Inquirer employees were displaying symptoms, the company decided to deep-clean the newsroom and offices and it began instructing those employees who could to work from home to do so. (Some good news: After 14 days of self-quarantine, none of those staffers are showing symptoms and they’re all feeling fine.)

By the end of that week, the company was essentially fully remote. The Inquirer brought all of its coronavirus coverage outside of its pay meter, and the virus and its impacts became the newsroom’s central focus as it launched a daily newsletter, a live blog and a dedicated landing page for coronavirus coverage.

“The news landscape has changed,” Inquirer editor and vice president Gabriel Escobar told me. 

The Strategy

One of The Inquirer’s earliest decisions was also one of the easiest ones to make: On March 6, it began offering unlimited public access to its coronavirus reporting online. 

“They weren’t hard conversations to have,” Megan Parzych, The Inquirer’s vice president of marketing, told me. “They were conversations that everyone at the table was already completely aligned on. Removing our coverage from the paywall was a public service, and that’s something we’re committed to doing. There wasn’t a ton of conversation. We went into the room knowing that this was what we were going to do.” 

The paper’s top leaders have been meeting regularly to create contingencies and make major decisions on how to support employees while also continuing to report the news and get the paper out everyday. For example, The Inquirer has had to develop new protocols at its printing plant to keep employees safe — they can’t work from home — while ensuring that the paper is able to physically be printed each day. 

While The Inquirer made its coronavirus coverage free for all, it began asking for support from readers through the Inquirer Investigative News Fund. Created late last year, the Investigative News Fund takes advantage of the Inquirer’s ownership structure by allowing individuals to make tax-free donations to The Lenfest Institute, which then re-grants the funds to The Inquirer to support its journalism. 

The Inquirer built a dedicated landing page for its coronavirus reporting, which features key facts about the disease, and that page is topped with language encouraging readers to support the paper, along with links to either subscribe or donate. 

Inquirer Executive Editor Stan Wischnowski and Hughes each wrote letters to readers that shared details of the coronavirus coverage and also invited donations and subscriptions. And The Inquirer and The Institute are continuing to partner to further leverage the Fund and facilitate donations as the pandemic shows no signs of abating. 

Individuals who are already subscribers have been receiving messages thanking them for their subscription while also giving them the option to subscribe. 

The Inquirer also created a new brand campaign centered around the slogan “All Facts. No Panic.” that is running across its own channels in print and online as well as on paid social posts. (The slogan actually originated with Charlotte Sutton, the assistant managing editor who leads health coverage.)

“This is less about a marketing campaign, and more about delivering on our value,” Parzych said. 

And one of the key ways The Inquirer has tried to help readers cut through the clutter is with a dedicated coronavirus email newsletter. The paper launched the newsletter on March 9 as a fully automated RSS feed of stories, but over the past two weeks, as reader interest increased, it has turned it into a fully curated product written daily by an Inquirer reporter. (I’ll get into much more detail about the newsletter in The Lessons.) 

The newsletter reaches readers across platforms as well. It’s seen a spike in search traffic as people seek out information about the coronavirus, so it’s designed coverage that is search friendly including stories detailing early symptoms of coronavirus and how to make your own protective mask.

The Inquirer has been running a nearly 24/7 liveblog since the crisis began, and it includes many of these updates as part of the rolling updates as well as in standalone reports.

“This is information people want,” said Ross Maghielse, the Inquirer manager of audience engagement. Adding that Facebook traffic was slow to pick up, but has similarly taken off over the past week as the coronavirus has become a bigger story. “To me, that’s a sense of even the people who would have preferred to ignore it before are starting to pay attention.”

Food editor Jamila Robinson hosted an Instagram Live event showcasing how to make shakshuka with pantry staples and it used its Instagram stories to highlight at-home workout techniques.

As The Inquirer was creating new products and strategies for reaching readers, editors were also having conversations about how to best utilize staff resources to cover what has become one of the most important stories in recent memory. 

With the virus closing cultural institutions and restaurants across the city and halting all sports games, editors wanted to move staff to key beats that are central to the coronavirus story while also helping audiences adjust to the new realities of life during this time. 

“Our public service responsibilities could not be more clear. But this moment also presents an opportunity — a hard-earned, and much-deserved opportunity — to reinforce The Inquirer’s essential value with a broad swath of new and returning readers,” editors wrote in a memo to staff announcing the changes. “To meet the challenges of this moment, our newsroom must continue to adapt. We know we have already asked a lot of each of you. We know and appreciate how hard you are working. Our hope is that the structure we’re building now will enable our exceptional coverage to keep going and to evolve as this story changes — without burning everyone out.”

The Inquirer doubled the size of its health team to 13 reporters and editors. It expanded its business desk to 20 staffers to cover the economic impact of the virus and its effects on workers. A 17-person investigative and accountability team will dig into the government response to the crisis. And a new social impact desk of 25 reporters and editors that will bring together areas such as service journalism, arts and entertainment, and food to report on the cultural impact of the pandemic and how the community is adjusting to its new socially distant existence. 

It’s also maintaining the bulk of its sports desk as well as a general news desk to cover non-virus-related stories, including the 2020 election. Other sections, such as opinion, visuals, and audience remain unchanged organizationally but are laser-focused on this story. 

“This is all driven by the impact that coronavirus has had on the region,” Escobar said. “That’s in large and small ways. There’s the impact on the newsroom, and the transformation it requires, and then there’s impact on coverage, which is really across all subject areas, and for a duration that we can not begin to estimate. We don’t know for how long.

Today, The Inquirer is also launching The UpSidePlus, an extension of its weekly UpSide section, which highlights good news and inspiring stories. The UpSidePlus will run every Thursday in print and online for the time being, and The Inquirer sales team was able to sell a sponsorship for it as well. It has also been able to secure sponsorships for its coronavirus newsletter and liveblog.

The Numbers

Like many news organizations, The Inquirer has seen massive growth in its audience reach. Last week, The Inquirer had more unique visitors than any week dating back until at least 2013, which is as far back as its Google Analytics data goes, according to a memo sent to the Inquirer staff last Friday by Hughes, the publisher. (I received the memo in my capacity as a Lenfest Institute employee, and The Inquirer signed off on me sharing these figures here.) 

As of Friday, The Inquirer had attracted more than 1 million daily visitors four times in eight days. The only prior time that had happened under its current pay meter system was the day after the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2018.

On typical days, The Inquirer’s online readership peaks in the mornings and then steadily declines throughout the day. Over the past couple of weeks, however, The Inquirer’s audience has actually grown as the day progresses. There also has not been much of a drop-off between weekday and weekend audiences. “There’s not much difference between a Tuesday and a Saturday,” Maghielse said.

The Coronavirus newsletter has close to 20,000 subscribers and open rates regularly hover around 50%, said Kim Fox, The Inquirer’s product director, editorial innovation

“Open [rate] is a signal that the audience sees that we’re useful,” she said. “They’re opening the product and acknowledging it on a regular basis. We saw high engagement from moment one, and it hasn’t dropped off.”

Last week, The Inquirer signed up 583 new digital subscribers, a 51% increase from its typical weekly total. And subscriptions that resulted by hitting the subscribe button — rather than from hitting the pay meter — increased 70%. And 32% of the subscribers are completely new to The Inquirer, meaning they hadn’t previously had a paid subscription or subscribed to a newsletter.

“People are proactively and voluntarily subscribing because they see value in what we’re doing,” Parzych said.

The Inquirer Investigative News Fund, meanwhile, has received twice as many gifts in the past three weeks since the meter went down than it did in the previous three months. The most popular gift amount was $50.

The Lessons

Iterate, iterate, iterate: The Inquirer realized early on that it wanted to create a coronavirus newsletter. However it didn’t want to create a pop-up newsletter just to do it. It wanted to see if there truly was demand from readers. 

But in the first week of March as the scope of the outbreak began to take shape, it decided to move forward. 

“Immediately, we said we wanted to go with a lean approach,” Fox said.

Historically, it has taken The Inquirer three to five weeks to launch a new newsletter, but it was able to launch the coronavirus newsletter with about eight hours of development time. 

When it launched on March 9, the newsletter was a fully automated RSS feed of the top five or so stories of the day. Right away, the team began testing to see if readers preferred an evening or morning newsletter. It sent out versions of the email at 7 p.m. to one segment of its audience and one at 7 a.m. the next morning to another segment. The evening newsletter performed better, so the decision was made to send it out at night with the framing that the email would be a recap of everything that happened that day. 

“The audience is looking for what is happening around me in my geographic area? What services do I need to know about immediately? That has been a trend,” Fox said. “When we throw in a more policy focused story or wider political story, it doesn’t perform as well. Our thesis is proving correct.” 

Over the past two weeks, The Inquirer team has built out what started as a minimally viable product in real-time. It quickly added the ability to prioritize stories based on editorial significance, and this week it debuted the newsletter as a fully curated product written by an Inquirer staffer.  

Fox said the team plans to continue to run tests and react to how readers respond to the product. Eventually — who knows when — it will wind down the newsletter, but it has plans to continue it for the time being. 

By launching quickly with a simple newsletter and continually evolving in response to reader behavior, The Inquirer was able to create a product that meets readers needs and can ultimately help the underlying business. 

“How do you create sampling opportunities to consumers to sell them on the value of whatever it is you’re producing?” Fox said. “[In news,] newsletters are one of the key opportunities for sampling,” she continued. 

• Adjust processes and set limits: The Inquirer’s print coordinators, who work late into the night putting the print edition of the paper to bed, typically rely on in-person communication, confirming details and checking on things via quick conversations over cubicle dividers as deadline approaches. 

“For the first time, we had to really adapt Slack as the communication tool to replace the sitting down conversations over the partition for your desk,” Escobar said. “Potentially, that was a huge challenge, but they have seemed to do everything really well.”

To enable everyone to effectively work from home, there have been adjustments big and small. The Inquirer’s IT staff worked diligently to equip staffers with the appropriate computers and tools to be able to produce the paper and its digital output from home, in some cases repurposing old laptops with added memory and new programs to accommodate all the workflows. 

And while reporters have had to get used to mostly conducting phone interviews from home, they’ve increasingly relied on targeted call-outs on social media, in its newsletter, and on the website to request questions and information from the audience. 

“It’s probably much more difficult for our reporters,” Maghielse said. “They can’t go door knocking right now. There’s a lot of restrictions. Businesses are closed. Fewer phones are being answered, so we’ve done a couple call outs particularly on workers that have been impacted, and we’ve gotten really good responses.” 

Still, visual journalists have had to go out into the field to do their jobs. The Inquirer has acquired safety gear if they need it and wipes to make sure that cameras and other equipment used in the field remain clean. 

Teams are working extended hours and editorial meetings have also been adjusted to account for the fluctuating news cycle. The morning news meeting was moved up to 8:15 a.m., a half hour earlier than usual. And the afternoon news meeting was moved from 4 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. They are now held on Zoom. 

But even as the newsroom has mobilized to cover the story of a lifetime, editors and leaders across the company are trying to encourage some semblance of work-life balance as it’s all too easy just to keep working as folks are stuck at home. 

The company’s People and Culture team has set up Zoom-based coffee breaks and happy hours. They’ve also sent out wellness tips to the entire staff. 

And individual editors are also reminding their teams to take a break when they need it. 

“We have to figure out a way, with some regularity to unplug and have them focus on themselves and their families, to take time away from the story,” Escobar said. “We can’t predict the duration, but we can predict the toll of this story over time. We have to be mindful.” 

• Read the room: The Inquirer recognized how unique the current moment is, and adjusted its messaging and outreach to the public, potential subscribers, and its current subscriber base. 

It is not running any subscription promotions specifically related to coronavirus — ”that probably wouldn’t be very good,” Parzych said — but it’s highlighting the “All Facts. No Panic.” messaging across its platforms in a way that puts the journalism front and center. 

One of the keys for The Inquirer will be to retain the influx of new subscribers, and the paper is adjusting its onboarding processes and the messaging to work to help to build loyalty. 

“We’re making sure that we’re putting first and foremost the content and the products that fit with why they joined The Inquirer to begin with.” 

The messaging around the Investigative News Fund has been similar. 

“Providing the public with news that is accurate and timely is the standard The Inquirer sets for itself every day,” read an email solicitation sent to potential supporters. “The unfolding public health crisis over the coronavirus does not alter this core mission. It just makes it ever more critical. Your commitment to The Inquirer’s Investigative News Fund makes reporting like this possible.”

This branding was in line with The Inquirer’s image of itself as a critical public service news source, but by tailoring it to the current moment it was able to ensure the messaging felt timely and was effective to ultimately drive and retain subscriptions and donations. 

The Future

We truly have no idea what the future will hold at this point, but The Inquirer is settling in for this to be the new normal for the time being. Nobody knows yet when things will get back to normal. 

But there are already signs industry wide that the coming weeks and months will be challenging ones for news organizations. 

A number of alt-weeklies have already shut down or cut back on their operations. The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate furloughed 10% of its staff and instituted a four-day work week for its salaried employees. Pittsburgh’s Total Trib Media combined two of its print newspapers and laid off staff last week. Nine weekly newspapers in Canada’s Newfoundland and Labrador have temporarily closed as ad revenue has dried up. An 100-year-old local paper in Australia shut down. I could go on. 

The Inquirer is luckier than most because it is backed up by The Lenfest Institute and isn’t beholden to hedge funds, shareholders, or a national newspaper chain. However, it is still figuring out the long-term business implications of the coronavirus, and like every news organization it certainly will continue to face challenges. For example, The Inquirer, like many publications, cancelled all of its events. And most of the display ads I’ve noticed on The Inquirer’s website over the past few days have either been programmatic ads or house ads. There’s also the matter of industry-wide declines in print circulation and ad revenue. 

Last week, The Inquirer and the union that represents newsroom employees along with finance, advertising, and circulation staff agreed to a new contract after five months of negotiations and well before a March 31 deadline. 

NewsGuild president Diane Mastrull, the union’s lead negotiator, told The Inquirer that Hughes was adamant that the deal be finalized due to the coronavirus’ potential impact on the economy. 

Despite the challenging economic circumstances, The Inquirer is viewing its ongoing work covering the pandemic as an accelerant to its continued digital transformation.

“It’s forcing us to be more rapid and flexible in terms of how we approach change and innovation…it’s forcing us to be adaptive, which I think will ultimately be good for the organization,” Fox said. “It’s forcing us to trust our colleagues a little more — we have to work remote, we have to have confidence that we have the right people. And, ultimately, we’re forced to really go by reader data right now. We have to pay attention to what the audience wants. It’s unprecedented. Yes, there’s our news judgment and our experience, but most of us have never faced anything like this.” 

Want to know more?

• My colleague Maeve Hennessey and I have been collecting some of the best resources for journalists on how they can cover the coronavirus while staying safe. Check out the list here, and please share any ideas you’d like to add.

• Northwestern’s Local News Initiative published a look at how metro newspapers are growing digital subscriptions even as they’ve removed their meters on coronavirus coverage.

• There’s been a lot written about the likely economic impacts of the pandemic on the news business. This overview from The Reuters Institute at Oxford University is an insightful look at how bleak things likely will be.

Anything to add?

How’s your newsroom covering coronavirus? How has working remotely changed your workflows? How are you maintaining work-life balance? Are there any stories or coverage types that have been particularly useful to your audiences? Let us know.

And please join us on Galley to continue the conversation.

Stay safe, and wash your hands! See you next week.

Photo by ALEJANDRO ALVAREZ/Philadelphia Inquirer

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