This is new for all of us. Never before in our lifetimes have we had to deal with a mass pandemic, large-scale quarantines, or economic disruptions at this scale. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, news organizations have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to provide their communities with indispensable news and information using engagement strategies to connect with audiences in a meaningful way. 

Click to access the PDF worksheet

On Monday, The Community Listening and Engagement Fund awarded grants to 20 newsrooms to support their coverage of the coronavirus. We received 60 applications, and the most common requests for assistance focused on identifying news and information needs and covering underserved audiences. 

To help newsrooms meet information needs for targeted communities, we partnered with The Listening Post Collective to highlight a four-step strategy for how newsrooms can identify and create coverage for targeted audiences. We’ve also created a printable worksheet, which you can use to begin to craft your own approach to socially distant audience and community engagement. The four steps, which we’ve listed below, also include links to other resources and case studies that can help illustrate successful approaches to engagement.

These strategies are just a jumping off point, and we hope that they lead to meaningful journalism that provides valuable insights and information to your communities: 

1. Connect with community influencers who can help build trust and share your questions

It all starts with trust. News organizations can’t provide resources or connect communities unless there’s a willingness to engage with them. By collaborating with known actors and trusted agents, journalists can help bridge divides with their communities:

  • Where to look: Leaders of existing nonprofit organizations, religious groups, schools, government agencies, or other community groups can help identify influencers within their communities who can help share stories or requests for feedback. 
  • Be transparent: Journalists must be clear with potential sources about their intentions. They must let people know what they’re trying to achieve and how they’re hoping to help. Journalists can also be advocates for media literacy, educating their communities that they play a critical role sharing necessary information. 
  • Be patient: Even in a crisis, relationship building takes time. Be willing to take no for an answer. Start small and build up to bigger collaborations. Not everything will — or even should — result in a story for publication.


2. Identify places where communities congregate online — or offline

Even before the pandemic, communities were turning to online sources for information, camaraderie, and fun. Not everyone has access to a computer or phone, it’s important to think of how to reach folks who don’t use the internet the way journalists do. Here are some strategies for how journalists can work with online communities.  

  • What are you currently doing?: Many outlets already run successful online communities on their own platforms or off-platform. What are you already doing that’s working? What’s not working? Could you survey your audiences to see what they like? By assessing your current offerings, you could expand and reach new communities.
  • Look for active Facebook groups: In the United States, Facebook groups, for better or worse, remain hives of activity in many communities. They can be a great jumping off point for identifying key topics of conversations and influencers. Don’t always look for the biggest group, but start with ones that have a lot of activity or conversations.
  • Abide by the rules: Communities online have their own rules, guidelines, and structures. Journalists should always follow the group’s rules and should identify themselves as journalists. 


3. Safely visit places where communities are still gathering

Even as many of us are staying home and social distancing, there are still places where people are congregating out of necessity: Grocery stores, food distribution sites, places of essential employment, and more. Journalists can utilize the following strategies to reach communities in-person.

  • Connect, from a distance: Utilize tools such as posters or white boards to communicate. For example, reporters from KBBF, a California public radio station, used a white board with a phone number on it to encourage people to call and ask questions.
  • Go old school: Utilize retro strategies such as flyers or postcards that you can leave with people’s homes or businesses to share information or provide a place to ask questions. 
  • Stay safe: Staffers’ own safety and wellbeing should be a priority. Use common sense. Don’t venture out if you’re not feeling well. Wear a mask. You can’t continue to perform essential journalism if you’re sick or at home. 


  • The Listening Post Collective created a guide for creating community signs to expand the reach of your engagement.
  • The Center for Health Journalism published a guide for how reporters can stay safe while reporting on COVID-19.
  • Here’s how one journalist used post cards to report on gentrification in his Boston neighborhood.

4.  Ask questions — and then listen. Be responsive to what people want to know. 

Successful engagement is built on curiosity. Ask questions. Don’t assume the answers. Listen with an open mind. Use your journalistic skills to get answers for people. It’s that simple, but, of course, it’s more complicated than it looks. Here are some tips:

  • Meet people where they are: Don’t expect that readers will come to your website or already engage with your audience. Use the strategies we described above as a starting point. Once you’ve built trust and identified ways to engage, you can act.  
  • Manage expectations: Be clear with audiences what you’ll be able to provide. Include them in the process when appropriate. Keep them updated. Just because you’ve written a story about a topic previously, it doesn’t mean they necessarily know about it. Resurface or re-use archival coverage. 
  • Respect everyone’s time: Be upfront with community members about when they might hear back from you. Emergencies can be overwhelming for everyone, so it helps to be realistic and clear on timelines. Set a clear schedule so individuals know how to reach you and when you’ll be available. Keep your office hours so people can build a habit and build your engagement into their routines. 


  •  Here’s a sample Information Needs Assessment from the Listening Post Collective. It can help with each of these steps, but also give you an idea of the types of questions you can ask your community:
  • Resource 2: Here’s Hearken’s guide to answering questions during the pandemic.
  • This is how Connecta Arizona is providing news and information to Spanish speakers during the pandemic.

Please feel free to email us at [email protected] with any questions or feedback. 

Local News Solutions

The Lenfest Institute provides free tools and resources for local journalism leaders to develop sustainable strategies to serve their communities.

Find Your News Solution
news solution pattern