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As the pandemic rages, local newspapers try to break through to readers

Media outlets large and small are facing a challenge in connecting with readers despite an outbreak that threatens to spiral out of control in several parts of the country.
Image: Covid spores and a slice of a newspaper headline that reads \"People need to know it is real\" and \"Deaths, worry surging.\"
Local newspaper reporters have seen Covid fatigue in their communities.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Grace Juarez knows people are tired of newspaper stories about the pandemic.

One of two reporters for The Lufkin Daily News, which serves 35,000 residents in East Texas, she's heard from community members and officials who either don't take Covid-19 seriously or are battling coronavirus fatigue. And she's seen how readers react: Many responses are supportive and thankful of health care workers and the journalists covering the pandemic — but about two-thirds contain messages either denying the reality of the pandemic or calling it misinformation.

“We are committed to showing this no matter what political or religious or whatever beliefs we hold personally," Juarez said. "This is our reality in East Texas. This is what’s going on."

Lufkin, like many communities in the U.S., is dealing with a surge of Covid-19 cases that have led to increased hospitalizations and deaths.

Headlines out of Lufkin echo those of other local newspapers, many of which have recently run front-page stories with some variation of the same message: "It's real." The Arizona Republic led its front page with the headline, “This isn’t hyperbole, This is reality," and The Star Tribune in Minneapolis ran an article with the headline “No beds anywhere."

With the one-year mark of the first reported coronavirus case nearing, media outlets large and small are facing a challenge in connecting with readers despite an outbreak that threatens to spiral out of control in several parts of the country. And while there’s no shortage of Covid-19 coverage, local media remains more trusted by consumers than national news outlets. Local newspaper subscription numbers have increased in numerous markets amid the pandemic, according to Kristen Hare, the editor of Locally at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, who focuses on how local media is covering the pandemic.

That's been coupled with a resurgence of obituary sections, which are now often several pages long.

“A lot of newsrooms have devoted time and space to telling the individual stories of people we’ve lost to coronavirus,” Hare said. “That’s been a really important function and a way for local newsrooms to remind people of why they’re so important. The New York Times is not coming into your community to collect and tell the stories of everybody there that died of coronavirus.”

The Lufkin Daily News front page from Nov. 22, 2020.The Lufkin Daily News

But local media organizations across the U.S. are still in the midst of a decadeslong economic decline. About 1 in 5 newspapers has closed over the past 15 years, sometimes leaving communities with little in the way of community reporting. And the ones that survived have endured deep staff cuts. The Lufkin Daily News is down to two reporters, from three, because of Covid-19-related cuts and switched from printing the paper daily to three times a week, in addition to its daily digital edition.

Newspaper publishers and editors who spoke with NBC News detailed the challenges of covering the pandemic in a highly politicized environment, particularly one that has been brewing for almost a year.

“I’m not sure what the playbook is for a pandemic, but covering events in person where people are actively against wearing masks is especially challenging,” said Erin McIntyre, co-publisher of the Ouray County Plaindealer in western Colorado. “We wear masks to protect ourselves and others, but the reality is when you show up and you’re a reporter and you’re the only one wearing a mask, that changes the dynamic, especially in a rural area when they’re already skeptical and think you’re fake news.”

In Kansas, The Hutchinson News serves about 40,000 residents with a five-person news team. Covid cases in Reno County, Kansas, where the paper is based, started peaking in late October and have only continued to increase.

But even so, one of the biggest challenges the paper faces is still reader exhaustion, managing editor Cheyenne Derksen said.

“Now that mask wearing has become politicized, we're viewed as biased when we run stories that lean one way or the other,” Derksen said. “We can't win, but we have to get up each morning and do it again because the lives of our friends and neighbors depend on it.”

The Sunday Star front page from Nov. 22, 2020.The Sunday Star

Derksen said the issue is further complicated because many readers are getting their news from social media and only really reading headlines.

“It’s easy for people to find whatever they want to believe on the internet, so it's hard for us to change minds with real facts,” she said. “That’s the Sisyphus battle we face every day.”

It’s a common struggle even in areas where Covid-19 cases are prevalent. Malheur County in Oregon has the highest number of Covid cases per 100,000 people in the state with a total of 2,418 cases. It’s also the poorest county in Oregon and has a very conservative constituency.

Les Zaitz, publisher and editor of the Malheur Enterprise, which serves the 33,000 residents of Oregon’s Malheur County, said there’s a lot of skepticism around the seriousness of the pandemic.

“We’re glowing bright red on all the Covid maps that you see,” Zaitz said. “But we are dealing with a certain number of readers who think we are part of the national media hyping this for some odd business reason. The local political structure is equally suspicious, the county judge has been very skeptical about the data and has not been any sort of a voice for mandates.”

Malheur County also faces another challenge in that it borders Idaho, which has less stringent Covid-19 regulations than Oregon. Many of the workers in the county commute in from across the state border, which is something the paper continues to focus on in its coverage.

“Malheur County has become an importer of Covid,” Zaitz said.

Not every newspaper is facing the same challenges. The Methow Valley News has a circulation of about 2,500 and covers an area of rural north central Washington state with two reporters. The community has been very compliant with Covid-19 regulations and mask-wearing is the norm, even among visitors, which is crucial since the economy there depends on tourism, according to Don Nelson, the paper’s publisher and editor.

San Francisco Chronicle front page from Nov. 24, 2020.San Francisco Chronicle

“We’re more liberal compared to the rest of the county, so we started out more inclined to take it seriously and react appropriately,” Nelson said. "There’s broad community agreement that this is what’s necessary for us to survive with this fragile economy, which has made our job easier. It allows us to really talk to people and institutions about more than what they’re doing to get people to wash their hands or wear a mask.”

Reporters and editors who spoke with NBC News said that while they are conscious of how their readership reacts to Covid-19 coverage, they're not pulling punches. Hare, of Poynter, said this is something she’s noticed.

“The coverage I have seen has all been rooted in reality,” she said. “I’m not seeing people trying to softsell any of this.”

For The Lufkin Daily News, that's meant highlighting stories about more than just hospitalizations and deaths. Juarez said the paper has already taken measures to avoid overwhelming readers, such as switching from providing daily updates on Covid-19 cases to doing so only on a weekly basis. Some of its alternative coverage has included an article about nonprofit veterans service posts that were surprisingly subject to Gov. Greg Abbott’s mandated shutdown of bars and a piece on residents responding to mask orders with indifference and physical confrontations.

“Our goal is to always present the truth," Juarez said. "But we have to present it to the people that we serve."