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April 8, 2024, 10:54 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Dateline Totality: How local news outlets in the eclipse’s path are covering the covering

“Celestial events tend to draw highly engaged audiences, and this one is no exception.”

Incarcerated New Yorkers facing a lockdown (and suing successfully against it). Couples from Vermont to Texas tying the knot. Heliophysics research at Southern Illinois University.

That’s just a sample of the creative, community-rooted stories local news outlets across the zone of totality touching 15 states have already reported ahead of the highly anticipated ~Great North American Eclipse~ on Monday, April 8.

In thousands of communities across the United States, covering the meaning, effects, and experience of this eclipse on the local level requires reporting across several bread-and-butter local news beats. It means public safety stories about potential strains on infrastructure and emergency resources; economic development reporting unpacking the effects of eclipse tourism on local businesses; local government reporting detailing how public officials have (or haven’t) prepared for a massive influx of visitors; guidance on things to do, where to eat, and where to stay; and, of course, the human interest stories (meet the 104-year-old Vermonter who saw the last Green Mountain State eclipse back in 1932) about how people are planning for and celebrating the celestial event.

That range in stories makes the eclipse, as a news event, an opportunity for local news outlets. It’s an audience engagement opportunity, to serve current audiences and broaden appeal; it’s a business and marketing opportunity, to partner with community businesses and organizations on events and special products; it’s an opportunity for experimentation and innovation in editorial and business projects. And in 2024, with news fatigue on the rise, an event as wondrous as an eclipse is refreshing for reporters and audiences alike.

That’s why you see news outlets like Maine’s Bangor Daily News flashing moon-decorated popups advertising subscription discounts. And Signal Cleveland incorporating the eclipse into language encouraging new subscribers. And other local news orgs cooking up all kinds of special editions, community events, Spotify playlists, countdown clocks, graphics, and everything else in between.

It’s also the reason you see reporters from at least two Gannett-owned publications capitalizing on the eclipse in a different way: By going on strike.

Like eclipse coverage itself, the story of how local news outlets are approaching the eclipse is really several stories in one. To get a snapshot, I spoke with local news outlets across the country, from Texas to New Hampshire, about how they’re approaching coverage, business opportunities, and audience engagement strategy around the total solar eclipse.

The Dallas Morning News (Dallas, TX): A sponsored countdown clock and front-page eclipse posters

Total solar eclipse begins: 1:40 p.m. CT

The Dallas Morning News started planning its eclipse coverage last November, assistant managing editor for journalism initiatives Tom Huang told me in an email. “Dallas-Fort Worth is the largest metropolitan area in the path of totality,” Huang noted, and the eclipse is a major audience growth opportunity “because so many people are interested in it for many different reasons.”

Huang is working across all departments — audience, business, education, local news, breaking news, photo, arts & entertainment, and data and graphics — to produce eclipse-related stories. The publication’s Spanish-language website, Al Día, has also been involved in producing stories. (Huang specifically noted that recent science reporting fellow Adithi Ramakrishnan and assistant arts editor Tim Diovanni have played key reporting and editing roles in much of the outlet’s explanatory coverage to date.)

By last Tuesday, the publication had already published nearly 100 eclipse-focused stories. In print, the Morning News published a special eclipse section in its Sunday, March 31 edition. Among its most popular stories so far (as of Tuesday): the basics — what to know about the eclipse, where to see the eclipse, and an Eclipse Day “survival guide.”

Pageviews to the Dallas Morning News’ eclipse coverage grew 96% from the first week of March to the final week, Huang said, driven largely by search and newsletters. (The Morning News gave current newsletter readers the chance to opt into solar eclipse alerts and an eclipse newsletter, and used first-party data to push sign-up opportunities to readers engaging with eclipse content on the site but not yet subscribed to the general newsletter.)

Huang told me he expects about 60 journalists to be involved in the publication’s April 8, day-of coverage.

All of the Morning News’ coverage is behind a metered paywall, Huang said, with some premium stories only available to subscribers. “We’re producing stories that appeal to both local readers and out-of-town readers,” he said. “We know a lot of visitors will be coming to Dallas-Fort Worth for the eclipse, so we are producing a lot of utility stories for visitors, as well.”

Beyond its editorial work, the Morning News’ audience team has focused on mediums including newsletters (including the free eclipse newsletter), Instagram stories, and other social media initiatives, such as a live Q&A with the publication’s science reporter — not to mention an eclipse-themed Spotify playlist. (Yes, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is the opener. It closes with Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”) Instagram is one of the publication’s “most engaged platforms” generally, Huang told me, so the Morning News has counted down to the eclipse by featuring different stories daily there. And on TikTok, the Morning News is creating videos “that debunk common myths” (food prepared during the eclipse will not be poisoned by harmful radiation).

The team created in-person community engagement opportunities, too — including two panels organized in partnership with local universities that drew about 500 attendees between them. On April 8, the Morning News will partner with civic organization Downtown Dallas, Inc. to host an eclipse watch party in a park across from the newsroom.

The challenges Huang sees to eclipse coverage, he told me, have to do with getting its work in front of audiences amid stiff competition. “A lot of TV news stations in the area…will be competing with live-streaming coverage,” he noted.

Starting eclipse coverage early, Huang added, supported the newsroom’s SEO strategy. “We knew that the topic was competitive,” he explained, “and we wanted Google and other engines to recognize us as experts on the topic and connect audiences with our content,” which required publishing its first stories months before.

In my view, some of the Morning News’ most interesting innovations have to do with its strategies to monetize some of its coverage. For instance, the Morning News plans “to sell a poster of our April 9 front page on our online store” (something local news outlets sometimes offer for major sports victories, for instance). Meanwhile, the publication’s online eclipse countdown clock is sponsored by Central Market (a Texas grocery chain), which also purchased a full-page ad in the March 31 special print edition and online display ads.

The Daily Egyptian (Carbondale, IL): A student publication rises to meet the moment of its second total solar eclipse in seven years.

Total solar eclipse begins: 1:59 p.m. CT

Cool fact about Carbondale, Ill.: It’s blessed (or, depending on who you ask, cursed) with cosmic lightning striking twice — its second total solar eclipse in seven years.

National outlets have been quick to point that out. But The Daily Egyptian, the student publication of Southern Illinois University, is fully focused on comprehensive coverage of the latest total solar eclipse for the university and Carbondale communities, editor-in-chief Cole Daily and faculty managing editor Annie Hammock told me.

“We want to be at the forefront of the coverage for southern Illinois, and we really want to use this opportunity to expand our outreach and highlight the incredible work our staff does on a day-to-day basis,” Daily, a junior, said in an email.

The Daily Egyptian typically prints a 12-page edition weekly on Wednesdays, in addition to publishing daily online. But for the eclipse, it printed an 18-page eclipse preview edition, and it’ll print an eclipse recap edition that could be 16 to 20 pages depending on the amount of material gathered, Hammock told me. (Check out its preview and recap eclipse coverage from August 2017 — when the eclipse also fell on a Monday.) Those extra pages, Daily noted, are largely “to fit all of our ad space.”

On April 8, the publication will be “all hands on deck,” Hammock said. “Every designer, reporter and photographer has a specific assignment, whether being out in the field continuously submitting coverage or in the newsroom aggregating that coverage into a real-time live blog on dailyegyptian.com” — about 18-20 students in total. One reporter, for instance, will be assigned to cover the alumni and families visiting for the eclipse, and photographers will be split between shooting for a story or creating photo essays.

The live blog will start at 11 a.m. CT. Compared to 2017, Daily said the DE wants “to have much more effective online coverage” and to push that coverage across platforms, including X and Instagram. “Every member of the staff has a responsibility to gather names and contribute to the live blog with tweets and instagram posts,” he said.

While Carbondale experienced a total solar eclipse seven years ago, the turnover at the student publication means this will be most reporters’ first time either covering or experiencing an eclipse. Cloudy weather or internet issues could prove curveballs on Monday, Daily said, though the team has backup plans.

Hammock anticipates that spotty wifi, strained by the major crowds, is likely to pose the biggest challenge. “Staffers in the field will go to the nearest building with SIU-specific wireless to upload content to the newsroom,” she told me. “It could mean a lot of back and forth for them. I expect they’ll all be getting more than the recommended 10,000 steps that day.”

Southern Illinois University, in partnership with NASA, will host an eclipse viewing extravaganza in Saluki Stadium in what’s likely to be a centerpiece of local eclipse fervor. The university is not allowing the DE to put newsstands inside the stadium, Hammock noted, so the publication’s student journalists who attend that event will be carrying stacks of copies of the preview edition to hand out. “We are taking every opportunity to get into the hands of readers who may not be familiar with us,” Hammock said.

“This is our showcase to prove how advanced our student-workers really are,” Daily added. “We want this event to be something our reporters, photographers, graphic designers and videographers write on their resumes.”

And the DE’s content is for everyone, he emphasized — out-of-towners, locals, and students alike (though the print edition is naturally more accessible and geared toward locals). “We want everyone to check out the content we have poured our blood, sweat and tears into,” he said. “Getting our name out there is above all, and we want all eyes on us.”

Gannett’s regional eclipse coverage — and the two publications striking to disrupt it

With its 200-plus papers and the USA Today network, Gannett has local newspapers in every region along the path of totality. The company has gone all-in on eclipse coverage, and argues, boldly, that “in the lead-up to the eclipse and in real-time and post-eclipse coverage, no news organization is better positioned to enhance people’s experience than Gannett,” as vice president for corporate communications Audrey Pass told me in an email.

USA Today and the network began planning for the eclipse last year, using both the 2017 eclipse and the annular eclipse last October to help inform strategy, vice president for local news Michael Anastasi said in an email. “Celestial events tend to draw highly engaged audiences,” he said, “and this one is no exception.”

The network began publishing eclipse-related stories last November. “Our swarming approach — targeting search audience — produced dozens of stories that generated several million views in March alone, with about half of that traffic coming in the past week,” Anastasi said. That has translated to “an increasing presence of eclipse-related stories in our top headlines in the past few weeks as reader interest and search queries have ramped up.” Eclipse coverage is “intended to serve local readers,” he specified, but is marked as free “due to the service nature of the content.”

The network’s coverage mixes local and regional reporting with some national “shared content,” such as an eclipse by ZIP code viewing guide. Gannett’s nine regional teams each developed their own coverage plan, with beat reporters, especially in the path of totality, monitoring the impact of the eclipse on areas like tourism, education and public safety, Anastasi said.

“We knew it would be a priority early in 2024 to start answering local readers’ most basic questions,” he added. “When is the eclipse (date and time)? And where is the path of totality? And, of course, safety: Do I need eclipse glasses? Where do I get eclipse glasses? We covered these stories in all locations, regardless of where readers were in the path of totality.”

Last month, the network ran a free photography webinar open to the public about how to shoot an eclipse. And in five markets — Akron and Columbus in Ohio; South Bend, Indiana; Detroit, Michigan; and Austin, Texas — the network will distribute eclipse glasses with a QR code linking to an eclipse quiz. On social media, it will work with five newsrooms to show totality as it moves across the country using an Instagram live story, and USA Today plans to host a live stream and potential AMA on Reddit.

But at least two Gannett publications are trying to disrupt this coverage — precisely because the eclipse is a big enough news event that they hope refusing to play ball could send a message to the company. In New York, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle announced on Wednesday that it would go on strike Saturday, ahead of the eclipse, if the company didn’t reach an agreement on a contract by Friday night. (It didn’t.) And on Thursday, the Austin American-Statesman in Texas announced its own strike, which began on Friday and will continue through Monday.

“We’re still negotiating with Gannett five years after our last contract ended, and the company has done everything possible to impede and slow down negotiations,” Tracy Schuhmacher, the Democrat & Chronicle’s food, drink, and features reporter, told me in an email. “Enough is enough. We’re striking during the eclipse to send a message to Gannett: either come to the bargaining table and agree to a fair contract, or pay the price.”

While the strike began on Saturday, the publication’s two dozen staff are prepared to stay on strike until they reach a contract agreement, Schuhmacher told me.

The Austin American-Statesman, meanwhile, is on “unfair labor practice” strike through Monday, and cited low pay among the key sticking points. The publication’s decision to strike was separate from the Democrat & Chronicle’s, Austin News Guild unit chair Nicole Villalpando told me in an email. “We decided to strike because of bad faith bargaining and a refusal to offer decent wages and job protections from AI and layoffs,” she said.

The eclipse isn’t even the only major news event in Austin this weekend — the Country Music Awards are on Sunday, as is Cap10k, a major local foot race. This strike is timed to disrupt the Statesman’s, and Gannett’s, coverage of all three events, Villalpando told me. “We would happily return to work,” she added, “if the company agreed to support its workers.”

In response to my questions about the potential effects of these strikes on eclipse coverage, and the allegations of bad-faith bargaining, Amy Garrard, Gannett’s labor relations counsel, said in a statement Friday that “Our goal is to preserve journalism and serve our community as we continue to bargain in good faith. Readers can be assured there will be no disruption to our ability to deliver content and trusted news.”

Vermont Public partners with a planetarium and creates educational resources

Total solar eclipse begins: 3:20-3:30 p.m. ET

Did you know there’s only one planetarium in New England located in the path of totality for Monday’s eclipse?

According to Vermont Public — the public media company born out of a 2021 merger between Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS — that would be the Fairbanks (Museum and) Planetarium in St. Johnsbury. Partnering with the planetarium for eclipse-related programming including a live TV and radio broadcast, and a live, family-friendly event (don’t miss “eclipse chalk art”!), was a natural fit for Vermont Public, which has a long relationship with the institution. The news outlet first reached out to Fairbanks to talk through special coverage options as early as last July.

Vermont is the epicenter of eclipse-related New England travel, given that so much of the state falls within the path of totality, including Burlington. Brittany Patterson, Vermont Public’s executive editor, told me that the state is expecting anywhere from 35,000 to 200,000-plus visitors. “If we hit the larger end of that range, there’s a good chance basic infrastructure may fail,” she noted. “That is a different news event than a cool celestial science story. So, we’ve been preparing for both.” That means “highlighting stories of cool people doing cool things and also doing a lot of PSA type reporting.” (One combination of those things that stood out to me: “How to enjoy the eclipse if you’re blind? Some Vermonters will listen.” And very much on the PSA side: “Vermont search and rescue teams beg people not to hike on eclipse day.”)

Because Vermont is a fairly rural state, with broadband and cell coverage that “can already be spotty” without tens or hundreds of thousands more people, the Vermont Public team is “definitely worried about reporters not being able to file from the field or be able to do live hits from the field,” Patterson told me. What’s more, because April is Vermont’s mud season, the team is thinking about both keeping its own reporters safe, while being able to authoritatively report on any conditions or areas that are unsafe. Vermont Public doesn’t want its reporters to “get stranded on a mountain or on the roads, while also ensuring that we’ve got people across enough of the state to be able to accurately report on any instances where people might in fact get stranded.”

On April 8, Vermont Public “will have at least nine reporters in the field” on place-based assignments, but other reporters not in the field will also “own” certain coverage areas, Patterson said. “Someone will be all traffic all the time,” for instance, while “another reporter is the go-to person when it comes to monitoring emergency management.”

Pre-eclipse, a special team of producers, videographers, and a host have already produced a half-hour TV special. And like The Dallas Morning News, Vermont Public has created its own Spotify playlist, though this one has a very different vibe from Total Eclipse of the Heart; Helen Lyons, VPR Classical’s morning classical host, created a classical eclipse music playlist.

True to its PBS roots, Vermont Public also offers an array of educational resources for students and teachers from pre-K to twelfth grade, including an eclipse episode of But Why, its kids podcast. Since the But Why listserv includes several hundred educators, mostly in the northeastern half of the U.S., Vermont Public distributed some of its educational resources directly to that listserv, podcast creator, host and executive producer Jane Lindholm told me.

Especially in the last month, reporters, hosts, and producers from across the newsroom have chipped in to pursue eclipse stories, Patterson said. Beat reporters have, in some cases, reported out the eclipse angle on their beat, “but we’ve also encouraged anyone who has found a cool story or great character to pursue those stories.”

To help support all of this reporting, Vermont Public has two eclipse coverage sponsors: Vermont Construction Company’s Roofing Division and, naturally, Norwich Solar.

“Given the radio and TV audience decline happening across the nation, due in large part to news fatigue, the eclipse has provided a wonderful opportunity to unite people,” the team wrote, “and demonstrate the important public service and educational components that public radio and public television are known and respected for.”

NHPR works closely with the New England News Collaborative, and has fun covering the little things

Total solar eclipse begins: 3:28 p.m.

Just the northernmost tip of New Hampshire falls into the path of totality. Because the total eclipse isn’t affecting as much of the state as, say, Vermont, or passing over more populous cities like Manchester or Concord, New Hampshire Public Radio hasn’t devoted as many resources to special coverage, news director Dan Barrick told me in a phone conversation. What’s more, “it was a little tricky to go full-throttle,” he acknowledged, coming off intensely covering the presidential primary through the end of January.

That said, since January, NHPR has collaborated closely with members of the nine-station New England News Collaborative on eclipse coverage. Barrick credited the collaborative’s editor and former NHPR managing editor, Cori Princell, with sharing useful resources related to live coverage, outreach, and features that could be produced ahead of time, as well as helping coordinate what kinds of digital assets local NPR stations could use from the national affiliate. The collaborative, which also includes Vermont Public and WBUR, has created some regional resources like a New England eclipse guide that NHPR helped produce and copublished (targeted toward both locals and out-of-towners). NHPR also plans to contribute to a four-minute audio montage along with other NENC members for the day after the eclipse.

Most of NHPR’s local eclipse reporting so far has focused on the human stories of New Hampshire residents planning for this eclipse (or, in one case, remembering the last one they saw). On Eclipse Day, the newsroom will send its environment and climate reporter and a digital producer to the North Country, Barrick said.

“I’ve been pleased with the amount of people who felt compelled to just share their excitement about a pretty cool, natural phenomenon, and share that with us,” Barrick told me. “It’s nice to cover something that doesn’t come with all the baggage of covering the news right now, whether it’s public health or partisanship or misinformation or whatever — it’s just about looking up at the sky and feeling a sense of awe. And that’s pretty refreshing these days, in a newsroom.”

Story design by Joshua Benton

Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email (sophie@niemanlab.org) or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     April 8, 2024, 10:54 a.m.
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