A datavisualization from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. (Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash)

The world’s in crisis — here’s what we learned from checking in with the digital journalism community

By on April 2, 2020

Given the upheaval caused by the CONVID-19 pandemic, I’ve started every call for the past several weeks with a pointed, “How are you? Really?” I’ve received refreshingly candid answers from peers, friends and family alike. Personally, I feel like a racquetball ricocheting in an enclosed space: some moments up, some down, some accelerating or decelerating, some like I’ve been hit into a new trajectory by the emotional weight of the news, none of it really in my own control.

On March 19, ONA’s Executive Director/CEO Irving Washington took a similar approach with the ONA community, sending out an email to ask “Are you OK? How can we help?” People were invited to simply reply, or to complete a short survey.

True to form, our community rose to the occasion under extremely challenging circumstances. We received hundreds of thoughtful, heartfelt responses outlining a variety of concerns ranging from immediate logistical challenges to general anxiety over the long-term implications of this global crisis.

We wanted to share what we learned from the survey so you can see how we are interpreting what’s top of mind for the digital journalism community. Here is our analysis by question type:

What professional needs resonate with you?

First and foremost, financial insecurity is a major concern. Lost revenue from events, advertising and other channels has led news organizations to implement financial measures including  layoffs, furloughs and salary reductions. Freelancers are having difficulty finding their next role and are seeing an early end to assignments.

Mental health also rose to the top. Covering the pandemic is stressful. Working from home while also caring for others requires scheduling acrobatics. Fears of burnout, fatigue and contracting or spreading COVID-19 are never far from our thoughts.

Journalists, of course, are also figuring out the best ways for covering COVID-19. We’ve heard it’s a challenge to convey both the local context and the global impact simultaneously. It’s difficult to create a coherent narrative about the societal changes we’re witnessing, from health and food worker safety to market volatility and business closures. Newsrooms need resources to guide urgent ethical questions, such as whether to provide live coverage of White House briefings or how best to contextualize public testing results.

Sentiment analysis from the community check-in survey ONA conducted in March 2020.

Finally, navigating uncertainty as our temporary new normal frequently came up as a challenge, particularly for team leaders and educators. Productivity has slowed, and bosses want to be appropriately sensitive to individual stay-at-home realities while still getting work done. How do you keep teams motivated in the face of uncertainty? How do you lay out reasonable goals for the next 30 days, or 60, or 90? For educators, how do you ensure students are meaningfully engaged from afar?

Notably, a good portion of respondents reported they are fine (and I’m sure would agree it’s OK if you’re not), but even that feeling was coupled with a different concern: those who are doing well want to know how they can help the rest of the community.

How can ONA be most useful to you?

Respondents were eager to connect with peers who might understand what they are going through and provide some mutual moral support. People are also eager for learning or idea generation and networking, particularly in the face of job instability. There were also asks for more specific connections, such as mentorship matching and topic-specific subgroup connections.

And, of course, because we are a community of innovators, many people want to dive in now and determine where they can best provide useful resources.

We’ve narrowed the feedback to five general challenges which ONA could help the digital news community unpack:

  • Creating time for self-care and connecting with peers or family
  • Giving context to COVID-19 and ethical implications of coverage
  • Leading teams through a crisis
  • Navigating revenue and fundraising challenges
  • Prototyping tools and creating resources for supporting colleagues

Our first effort to tackle these areas is a new initiative we’re calling ONA Community Circles. Look for information on how to get involved when it launches next week, and expect more opportunities to come this month.

Please share any bright spots in your work.

Finally, we asked for bright spots, such as work to lift up, or resources. We received a surprising array of funny anecdotes, links to best practices and important projects journalists are already working on.

We learned about efforts to highlight positive news within the LGBTQ community during the crisis; in-depth coverage of the outbreak in Milan and Northern Italy; reporting on the impact of COVID-19 on education tech and more. We’ve started sharing this work in the ONA Weekly newsletter and on social media, and are looking into other ways to amplify it.

Two general observations worth highlighting:

  • Managers and organizations taking a direct, personal approach that acknowledges the challenges we are facing resonated with the community. Leading with empathy opens the door for productive conversations, and people wanted to let us know individuals that had done this well. For privacy reasons I won’t share those here, but keep up the great work! And if leading with empathy isn’t your strategy, perhaps these results will help you reconsider.
  • There is amazing work being done with data visualizations, and an urgent need for more tools to quickly and easily create maps, graphics, charts and other visual tools. There’s definitely some fertile ground for all journalism organizations, foundations and technology companies to grow amazing projects, as well as new training opportunities.

ONA and other journalism organizations, funders and supporters have plenty more resources in the works for the journalism community. To keep abreast of all the opportunities emerging, here are a few options:

I hope you’re well, and getting sleep, exercise and a good meal when you can. It’s OK to feel stressed out in the most pressing public crisis many of us have experienced in our lifetimes.

Your amazing reporting, community engagement, support, technology and educational leadership is helping to keep people informed and safe, raise the alarm on infrastructure failings, and reduce risk. Helping people understand extreme safety measures is contributing to perhaps the largest collective life-saving action ever undertaken — a population-wide effort that spans the globe. We’ve had setbacks, and it is imperfect, but messages are getting through and we’re starting to see some progress. Keep up the great work.


Trevor Knoblich

As ONA's Chief Knowledge Officer, Trevor works to coordinate information sharing internally, oversees learning for all ONA programs, as well as registration and logistics for events.