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June 3, 2020, 12:18 p.m.
Audience & Social

KPCC is finding a new role as LA’s COVID-19 help desk. Here’s what it’s learned along the way.

Since early March, our newsroom has received more than 3,300 pandemic-related questions. To date, we have personally answered more than 2,900 of those questions.

As an engagement intern at KPCC-LAist, I expected to get a few bylines and learn the basics of engaged journalism. But I started in late February, just weeks before the pandemic took hold in the United States. So my internship has been far from basic. Instead, I’ve had a crash course in information sharing — and meeting community needs fast. I’ve learned journalism can be — and sometimes needs to be — the simple, straightforward answering of somebody’s question. It’s not just 3,000-word narratives or a sound-rich audio feature. It’s meeting information needs, in whatever form that needs to take.

Since early March, our newsroom has received more than 3,300 pandemic-related questions from Angelenos and beyond. Nearly a third of questions have come from out of state, some from as far away as India and the UK. To date, we have personally answered more than 2,900 of those questions, leveraging the reporting our newsroom is already doing. Our approach to answering questions, which has grown to include email and text, didn’t take shape overnight. It’s the result of years of developing an engaged newsroom — and we’ve had our fair share of growing pains along the way. [Ed. note: KPCC acquired LAist, which was shuttered as part of the DNA Info/Gothamist closures in 2017, in 2018 and relaunched it with a $50,000 crowdfunding campaign.]

Our volume-to-response ratio is unlike anything any other newsroom is taking on according to the folks over at Hearken, the technology platform that allows audience members to ask questions directly to journalists on our website. We are also working with GroundSource, a messaging platform through which we text back and forth with community members.

Our newsroom first began answering community members’ questions through an initiative then called Human Voter Guide, which focused on the mechanics of voting. (You can read more about it here; the work has now been folded into KPCC-LAist’s Voter Game Plan.) We further developed our ability to rapidly — and personally — answer questions as part of our wildfire coverage.

In four years of Human Voter Guide, we answered 1,000 questions. But the intense need for coronavirus information catapulted us past that benchmark in only four weeks.

How we’re doing it

With the flood of information requests coming in from our audience, we’ve had to adapt our workflow. It’s also made clear the opportunities we have to reach and serve new and existing audiences not only with stories but with essential information. In doing so, we can grow audiences, deepen relationships, and tell better stories. To do this we have:

— Staggered work schedules for our seven-person engagement team, allowing for coverage on weekends and evenings
— Held weekly check-in meetings
— Worked in close coordination with the digital editor charged with keeping the website’s FAQ up to date.

We maintain a master database for the newsroom that includes questions, source contact information, the status of their question, and whether a reporter is interested or has reached out to them — among other details. It easily allows producers, reporters, and editors to jump in and search for trends, story ideas, and potential sources.

So far, we’ve answered a wide range of questions, many heartbreaking. Panicked families on their last few dollars have asked us where to find help. People experiencing homelessness have asked us how to stay safe during a pandemic. There’s an emotional toll for our team. We’re directly answering these questions, not just writing stories anyone can read. For that reason, mental health breaks are deeply encouraged.

With so many questions coming from outside of Southern California, we invited fellow engaged newsrooms to help point us toward answers for question askers in their respective parts of the country. (Click here to learn more.)

We’ve also offered coronavirus stories for free republication to community, ethnic, and in-language media partners like Boyle Heights Beat and Happy 50 Plus. This builds on our newsroom’s collaborative approach to covering the 2020 census.

We’ve thought a lot about how to answer people’s questions where they are. That can mean many things, including the language we use or the platform we choose (think social media, website, text, etc.). We’ve also thought about how to reach people without reliable internet access, which is still true for many people in L.A. County. For those who don’t have internet access, texting may be the only way that they can reach us. It also has an intimacy that’s helped us build relationships with people in unique ways. Our texting service has grown into a coronavirus news roundup that is sent Monday through Saturday to nearly 300 people.

We sent information-packed mailers to residents in neighborhoods with less access to computers and broadband internet. We’ve leveraged these platforms to reach those in low-income and Spanish speaking communities through an information-packed coronavirus mailer that was sent to neighborhoods with less frequent access to computers and broadband internet. (You can read more about how we sent mail to thousands of families — with kids’ activities — here.) This prompted us to launch a dedicated Spanish line for our GroundSource service (text VIRUS to 626–423–6777).

Responses from this and Spanish-language questions from Hearken are all handled in-language by the Spanish-speaking members of our team; engagement intern Nubia Perez plays a leading role here.

What we’ve learned

When our audience comes to us with a question, they also provide insights into how the pandemic is affecting their daily lives in real time. This has guided KPCC-LAist’s reporting to some of our best performing virtual events and stories this year — and ever.

The question askers fed our reporting right from the beginning of the pandemic in Southern California, like the concerned mother who asked whether she should cancel her daughter’s wedding and the gentleman who wrote in about how to bury his father.

When business and economy reporter David Wagner started his investigation into the unemployment crisis, this led to one of our best performing stories and virtual events of the year — and spurred about 750 new unemployment questions to our newsroom. There have been times, in fact, when the newsroom was receiving nearly 10 questions per minute.

Phone lines are long these days — especially for unemployment — so our ability to message community members directly helps them not feel like a number. The situation has been hard on those who were already financially strapped, but people have been grateful to get a response even if we don’t know the full story yet. And for those who are alone right now, what if that’s the only message they receive all day?

The needs are real, and by leaning into our ability to provide quality journalism and essential information, we are seeing the biggest audiences we’ve ever experienced at both March and April beat our previous monthly record by well over 200%. And we’re finding more ways to keep this bigger-than-ever audience engaged. More than half of the people who ask questions are also opting into our newsletters. To that end, we’ve leveraged the increased production of our reporters and producers to launch a second daily newsletter: a morning briefing that brings readers the latest coronavirus developments. Its open rate is nearly double that of our afternoon newsletter.

What’s next

As we started to feel overwhelmed by the questions pouring in, we knew we urgently needed to create a triage process that would enable an expedited sorting of questions into themes, topics, and trends so that our reporters can answer them as quickly as possible. To address this, we turned to the machine learning team at Quartz (which unfortunately was part of that organization’s recent layoffs) and the developers at Hearken to partner on exploring how we can apply machine learning to reduce the amount of time it takes us to process our audience’s COVID-19 questions into thematic buckets based on their content. We plan to train the AI to become increasingly accurate and targeted with this growing data set and to be able to map out topics and trends as the disease runs its course, allowing journalists to provide broader insights and be on top of the most relevant lines of public inquiry.

Not only will this allow us to stay on top of COVID-19 questions, but we also see it as a path forward in covering prolonged breaking news — something we experience during every Southern California fire season.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to meet people where they are and to strive to prove ourselves essential to them. We’ve had some success there, too: One question asker recently shared that she’d never heard of LAist until she was googling how to find answers to her COVID-19 questions. When we not only provided a space to ask but also a quick response, she found herself coming back to the site over and over — now saying she won’t go anywhere else for essential news.

Ashley Alvarado, Caitlin Biljan, Giuliana Mayo, Nubia Perez, Olivia Richard, and Stefanie Ritoper also contributed to this story.

A version of this story ran on Medium.

Clockwise from top left: Stefanie Ritoper, Giuliana Mayo, Caitlin Hernandez, Nubia Perez, Caitlin Biljan, and Olivia Richard.

POSTED     June 3, 2020, 12:18 p.m.
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