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May 19, 2020, 9:38 a.m.
Audience & Social

They’re not “the other,” they’re our readers: How one site is helping its aging audience through the pandemic

The older you are, the more dangerous COVID-19 is. Next Avenue, a news site aimed at “America’s booming older population,” is changing the way it serves its readers — who may have to continue to isolate themselves even if the rest of the U.S. opens up.

The older you are, the deadlier the coronavirus is: Nearly 80 percent of people who have died of COVID-19 in the United States are ages 65 and older, according to the CDC. While the virus discriminates by ethnicity, gender, class, and preexisting conditions, “the age skew of the coronavirus trumps all of these disparities for scale,” David Wallace-Wells wrote for New York magazine last week.

That means that Next Avenue, one of just a handful of publications aimed specifically at older adults in the U.S., has a particularly complex and essential mission right now. Next Avenue, “public media’s first and only national journalism service for America’s booming older population,” was launched in 2012 by Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) in St. Paul, Minnesota. It has three editors and three audience engagement staffers whom it shares with another TPT publication, Rewire (a site aimed at adults in their 20s and 30s, not to be confused with Rewire.News, the news site that covers reproductive health).

Within its mission of serving people ages 50 and over, Next Avenue sees three different audiences, said Colleen Wilson, TPT’s VP of digital publishing. “Nowadays, people are living so long that [50-plus] can be a 50-year span, and we look at it as three life stages within that. The first is folks who are beginning to plan for what the next chapter of their lives may be, generally people in their 50s and 60s. The second category, we consider folks who are ‘liberated’ — they’ve moved on to the next chapter of their lives, maybe they’ve downsized their homes or moved into cities to be closer to amenities. The third category is for the oldest old, folks who are typically in their 80s and 90s. We consider this to be a ‘sustainer’ stage where their options are increasingly narrowing, and they are looking to maintain health and quality of life.”

For most of its life, Next Avenue has been an evergreen publication covering topics like retirement planning, decisions around housing and caregiving, and maintaining mental health and wellbeing. There are few emergencies, but COVID-19 was one. The site’s first COVID story, published in the last week in February, was an interview with an epidemiologist, but it quickly became out of date. “We knew we needed to change the way we worked,” Wilson said. The team replaced that static interview with a frequently updated FAQ. Then they met to talk about what Next Avenue’s approach to covering COVID-19 should be. “We’re not breaking news. We have a tiny team. So what are we uniquely suited to do?” Wilson said. “We prioritized helping readers navigate every stage — helping older adults themselves, as well as their families, navigate the stages of the pandemic, everything from prevention and diagnosis to management of symptoms through end-of-life planning.”

Stories had once been scheduled at least two weeks in advance. But “we saw that our organic search traffic was beginning to grow quite significantly, so it was more important for us to get stories into readers’ hands than hew to a standard publishing schedule,” Wilson said. “We began to turn around stories more quickly and publish them the minute they were ready.” Since that first story in late February, Next Avenue has published more than 100 coronavirus-related stories. “It’s a much more rapid pace than we’d worked at before.”

Next Avenue also re-envisioned and redesigned its twice-weekly email newsletter, which is a major driver of traffic to the site. It’s now focused on coronavirus coverage and includes a resource block pointing readers to resources like the CDC, NIH, and PBS NewsHour. Two weeks ago, the newsletter’s open rates began to go down. “It was the news exhaustion that we’re all really familiar with now,” Wilson said. They redesigned the newsletter — moving images, making headlines bigger and content easier to scan, adding reader comments — and the open rate ticked up again.

“As a publication we do a lot of audience research and consistently prod our audience with questions about what they’re looking for and what they need, but at the same time, our audience is unique in that they consistently and actively engage with us on social media and via our newsletter,” said editor Grace Birnstengel. “For a lot of them, Next Avenue is more than a digital publication that they go to and read articles. It’s a community of people who are committed to living well throughout their entire lives. That stuff comes through organically. I feel lucky for that, because not all journalists have the privilege to hear from readers so much.” Lots of comments come through on Next Avenue’s Facebook page and in its private Facebook group, according to managing editor Richard Eisenberg, and Next Avenue uses Hearken on all its coronavirus story pages to ask readers what they want to know more about.

“The concerns of our readers are largely the same as most Americans — how can I keep myself and my family and community safe and prepared,” said Birnstengel. “But it’s elevated for Next Avenue because we serve a high-risk population. So we have this extra responsibility to be super-vigilant. The reality is that many of our readers will get sick or know someone who gets sick, whether it’s a moderate or severe case, and so we need to help them be prepared.”

One reader wrote in to ask, for instance, how they should decide to go on a ventilator if they were hospitalized with COVID-19; Birnstengel wrote a story about what it’s like to be on a ventilator and helped guide readers through deciding if it was something they’d want. “That is an example of a story that applies across the ages but is extra-relevant to our audience.” Next Avenue has published stories about, for instance, helping families decide whether they want to take loved ones out of the long-term care facilities that have become hotbeds for contagion. “Grief and loss is a big part of our coverage regardless of the pandemic, but we’ve done stories on funeral planning during this time, and offering sympathy when you’re not able to be close to somebody.” The site is also covering issues like loneliness and isolation — concerns across generations right now, but one that impacts older people disproportionately — retirement planning in a time of crisis, and ageism and job loss.

“We’ve been writing about ageism in America ever since we started Next Avenue, but as the pandemic has gone on we’re seeing that bubble up even more,” Eisenberg said. “People are now more bold about saying the things they might always have been thinking.” He recently wrote a piece about how COVID-19 will worsen the “decline narrative” of aging. “This is what a lot of our readers are thinking and worrying about: Everyone’s looking at and talking to them as if they are ‘the other,'” he said, “whether that’s how they’re treated if they need healthcare or how they’re treated as employees.”

“We’re seeing this cumulative effect that’s been bolstered in mainstream media — unintentionally, I think, I hope — the dehumanization of the elderly,” said Wilson. “It’s turning them into this monolithic group that is perceived as all at great risk and helpless and frail. If you ask the question, who even is elderly? I tell you, ask anyone, nobody is going to say ‘Oh yeah, that’s me.'”

It seems clear that, even as society begins to open up and restrictions begin to loosen, older and vulnerable populations may have to continue to isolate to protect themselves from the coronavirus. “I fear that as things begin to open up, the news will overwhelmingly shift to covering that and forget the people who are still being told to stay home,” Birnstengel said. “In the coming weeks and months, Next Avenue is going to have to continue to bring voice and light to that. We’ll be continuing to guide readers through that isolating and scary experience. It’s one thing to have to halt life collectively as a country or a state or a community. It’s another thing to be doing it alone, when others are going back to normal.”

In thinking about this next phase, Next Avenue’s team has begun thinking about ways beyond journalism to create connection in readers’ lives. Wilson said she’s thinking about initiatives like text messaging experiments and virtual journaling prompts. “We can create these opportunities for our readers,” she said, “to help them through.”

Self-portrait by Elvert Barnes at Westminster House Apartments, Baltimore, used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 19, 2020, 9:38 a.m.
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