News Beat Goes On, Remotely and Free, at Democrat-Gazette

News Beat Goes On, Remotely and Free, at Democrat-Gazette
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s virtually abandoned newsroom last week. (Cynthia Howell)

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette made a little history last week in covering a historic threat, the COVID-19 outbreak that has shut down normal social life in the United States and around the globe.

“We held our first virtual budget meeting, led by the paper’s first woman managing editor,” said Terry Austin, the Sunday editor, 30-year veteran of the paper and my deskmate there for nearly a decade. He put the word out on Twitter, explaining that in newsrooms, a budget meeting isn’t about the bottom line, but rather “what goes on the front page.”

The new managing editor is Eliza Gaines, daughter of Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. She took over from retiring editor David Bailey last week as journalists worldwide coped with a new normal of reporting, avoiding once-crowded newsrooms, banning studio audiences and replacing face-to-face interviews with phone calls and teleconferencing.

Little Rock TV reporters were conducting interviews via Skype and similar programs, and many news organizations limited employee travel even as they pursue the biggest global story in years.

Cynthia Howell, one of the paper’s most experienced reporters, posted a photo on Twitter showing the vast Democrat-Gazette newsroom with rows of empty desks, with only two journalists in the frame. “Not a typical 7 p.m. Monday,” she said. “We are still working — just from our homes. It’s the new normal for now.”

Gaines said she was impressed with how her team “has pulled together both in the newsroom and remotely,” with a feeling “that we’re all in this together.”

The Democrat-Gazette, an early proponent of paid content as Hussman saw the folly of giving his news away when other publishers were rushing to free website models in the early 2000s, lifted the paywall on its virus coverage. The information, President Lynn Hamilton said, was simply too crucial for the public good to reserve only for paid readers.

“Newsroom staffers made that request,” Hamilton said, and he agreed it was a “good call.” He said employees were allowed to work at home “where technology and job duties allow.”

Gaines, who turned 33 last week, told Arkansas Business that the pandemic was “an unprecedented situation,” an elephant to tackle in her first week leading the Democrat-Gazette’s 100-worker newsroom. She had sat for an interview last month for a March 9 cover profile in Arkansas Business, discussing her faith in the paper’s new business model: gathering subscribers to pay $34 a month for digital subscriptions and printing a hands-on newspaper only on Sundays.

But the virus threat is, at least temporarily, superseding almost all business models. In a letter to readers, the paper said it was freeing up reportage “for the well-being of all Arkansans,” and working hard to provide “the most important and up-to-date coverage on COVID-19.”

A landing page for pandemic news is comprehensive and interactive, with headers like Arkansas cancellations, a map of in-state cases and answers to frequently asked questions. At a click, readers can also ask a question.

The free coverage comes with a pitch, not that there’s anything wrong with that. “Hopefully nonsubscribers who are turning to us now will realize the value of our product and become subscribers,” Gaines told Arkansas Business.

She said readers could expect a redeployment of some resources like the sports staff, which now has no games to cover. “We’re coming up with some creative solutions to fill the news hole due to canceled events and games,” Gaines said, advising readers to stay tuned.

In February’s interview, Gaines reflected on the importance of local journalism to Americans needing facts and on-the-ground reporting from sources they trust. These days, they increasingly put their trust in local outlets.

“My generation is very interested in knowing what’s going on in our country and our state,” she said. “I think the ‘fake news’ thing really helps us as a news industry because people don’t want to be fed false or biased information, and they are tired of getting their news from social media and then learning that it’s fake. We want to report straight facts and let them decide what the truth is.”