How Can Journalism Create a Path to Recovery from COVID-19?


Updated May 29, 2020

Collaborating with communities, taking charge of tech and rethinking business models are among the key steps journalists and newsrooms should take as they struggle to persist in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, said three top editors during a webinar hosted by ICFJ and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism this week.

“You can't do it alone,” said Maria Ressa, executive editor and CEO of the Philippines’ independent news site Rappler. Instead ask, “How can we collaborate? What can we build together?”

Ressa, along with Ferial Haffajee, associate editor of South Africa’s Daily Maverick, and Inga Thordar, CNN executive editor of digital worldwide, joined ICFJ Global Director of Research Dr. Julie Posetti and Prof. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, for a panel to mark the launch of the Journalism and the Pandemic Project’s global survey.  

As part of its mission to hold the powerful to account, Haffajee said the independent Daily Maverick’s strategy is to “build very good citizen networks so that you ensure you don't become rarified, cosseted, only giving out the official line, but that you are deeply rooted in communities.” 

Daily Maverick’s membership community is so strong that several trusted people are helping moderate comments during the crisis, and a clinical psychologist is providing counseling for traumatized and overloaded Maverick journalists.

In addition to fact-checkingdisaster risk reduction, and helping small businesses survive, Rappler also aids a community of about 50 volunteers who weekly monitor government COVID-19 spending. These are extensions of historic projects curated by the organization's social action arm. 

Ressa advised journalists: “Don’t forget the people who are there even if you can't get to them. Due to lockdown rules, she said, “we couldn't go to where urban poor are more afraid of hunger, of not getting help from the government than they are of the virus.” Still, cell phones are ubiquitous in the Philippines, so Rappler has activated its community of collaborators to aid the reporting process. “They've taken photos for us,” she said. “We can still tell their stories.” 

Thordar said that reliance on user-generated content, more common on mainstream news sites a decade ago, is seeing a resurgence. CNN’s gender equality project  As Equals “really empowers [citizen] journalists on the ground, in areas where we don't normally get to, to send us content and do their own stories,” she said. “Those are the people who will have the expertise on the ground.”

Journalism fundamentals are even more important at a time when “it is getting more and more difficult to hold people to account,” Thordar said. While technology is essential, “old-fashioned good journalism is what has sustained this. No shiny object has helped us with that.”

Rappler and the Daily Maverick were both born on the web and cover national news. They  have remained financially sound during the COVID-19 crisis, according to Ressa and Haffajee. 

[View past webinars]

Rappler had to rethink its revenue models after the Duterte government tried to shut the site down in 2018.  “Our team came together and actually said, ‘What are we doing as journalists that we can turn into a product that other companies--our advertisers--advertisers who were too scared at that point to advertise on us that they need. What can we as journalists offer that is unique, that that allows us?’ ”

Rappler used the answer to build a business-to-business model that grew revenue by 1200%. It’s also launching a new tech platform, which Ressa said is designed to create a space that combines publishing, engagement and the “movement of communities to social action.” Ressa said she believes the solution to the problem of big tech “platform capture” is to develop journalist-led technologies.

For Rappler, a crisis turned out to be the right time to rebuild in a new way. Now, she said, many other news outlets find themselves in a similar position. 

“Everything is tragic around us. But if you accept that it is tragic and that you’re standing on the rubble, then you’re going to have to create,” she said.

The webinar, “How is the #COVID19 Pandemic Transforming Journalism?” formally launched the global survey - the first work of the ‘Journalism and the Pandemic Project’ - a collaboration between ICFJ and the Tow Center. The survey is mapping the impacts of COVID-19 on journalism worldwide, and it aims to help inform the recovery. Learn more, and take the survey, here. 

You can read more about the development of Rappler and Daily Maverick in these reports from Julie Posetti, Felix Simon and Nabeelah Shabbir published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) at the University of Oxford:

The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).

[View past webinars]

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