Remember April 2020? COVID information was changing daily, and our newsroom — CapRadio — was firing on all cylinders. Our workflow shifted to focusing more on direct public-service reporting, with reporters answering a firehose of Hearken questions and crafting their stories for maximum usefulness.
For many audiences, especially in rural areas, that public service was somewhat limited. CapRadio is a regional broadcaster, and our signal reaches nine counties in Northern California and Nevada. Headquartered in Sacramento, CapRadio usually focuses its news coverage on Sacramento and state government. The dynamics of the pandemic in rural counties — caseloads, economy, supply chains — were not well represented on our airwaves. This gap in coverage felt particularly acute during a public health crisis. How could CapRadio offer valuable information to these communities in ways that were participatory, bolstered the work of the area’s local news and information providers, and kept everyone safe?
Here’s how CapRadio, during the early months of the pandemic, built relationships in Plumas and Sierra counties, two mountain communities about three hours from our station. About a half-dozen planning conversations resulted in a seven-part feature series based on community feedback. Stories were shared back with residents through email newsletters, local Facebook groups and community newspapers.
Back then, it was challenging for engagement practitioners in public radio to forge new connections because of the pandemic. And it still is. Not only are people and organizations exhausted, but in-person meetings can be risky in the face of COVID, extreme weather and wildfires. With COVID caseloads surging once again, we wanted to offer ideas on how public radio stations might approach sustained relationship-building remotely.
Establish community partnerships with groups people trust for information and support
jesikah began by assembling a group of people and organizations that saw working with CapRadio as a natural fit with their own information delivery work. Her first call was to Holly George, the former director of UC Cooperative Extension Plumas-Sierra Counties. Cooperative or university extension agents are important information brokers in many rural communities. These agents apply research to improving local ecologies, food systems, economies and more. Just like journalists, extension agents’ mission is to deliver high-quality, verified information for the public good. George was interested, and she brought in two colleagues, Ryan Thomkins and Tracy Schor.
The next call was to the Plumas and Sierra County public health departments. These agencies are charged with sharing critical information people want and need, and are focused on keeping people safe — they were on board if collaborating with public radio meant sharing information people needed. jesikah also reached out to the county arts councils in both Plumas and Sierra counties. Local arts councils understand the power of storytelling and are always looking for creative ways to elevate community voices and local culture. Plus, they tend to be connected with a different set of community members than cooperative extension and public health. Plumas Arts and Sierra County Art Council joined the group. Finally, we contacted our sister station, North State Public Radio, whose coverage area overlaps with ours in parts of Plumas and Sierra counties and reaches pockets of these areas that we don’t.
Representatives from cooperative extension, county public health, arts councils and public radio met every Tuesday afternoon for 90 minutes over Zoom from mid-April through May. We talked about information needs they were noticing and how a public radio reporting project could help. We brainstormed how collaborating on a journalism series might benefit their own service efforts during a pandemic. What would success look like? How much time do they have, and what would be a good process? jesikah usually translates this into a memorandum of understanding or charter that all partners would sign, but everyone felt compelled to move quickly — it was mid-April and COVID cases were rising in rural areas. We jumped right into our next step.
Find an engagement tool that aligns with partners’ networks and bandwidth
Our planning group felt an urgent need to connect with Plumas and Sierra residents in those early, scary days of the pandemic. Could we table at food banks and pharmacies? Stick flyers in grocery bags or go door-knocking? The group decided digital engagement was safer. A survey was faster, more efficient and could offer partners actionable information. We had our doubts at CapRadio; we hadn’t had much luck with digital surveys in other engagement projects. Plus, it felt like every organization under the sun was running a “how you are doing under COVID” survey. We were dubious people would respond, but happily we were wrong!
Our partners collaborated with us to co-design the survey, workshopping questions and suggesting appropriate language. Veronika Nagy, CapRadio’s user experience designer, helped refine the survey and make it mobile-friendly, since partners felt most people would access it on their phones. We created a simple outreach plan: Each partner identified organizations, community leaders and networks that they would personally share the survey with. Our partners circulated the survey for only 10 days, and we ultimately collected 224 surveys. That’s a strong response from sparsely populated counties, especially given that the outreach took place over email and texts from a handful of community partners at the height of the lockdown.
Bring community partners and local journalists into the editorial process
Our survey focused on two questions: What are people’s top COVID-19 concerns, and how are they finding moments of connection, comfort and inspiration while sheltering in place? jesikah compiled, reviewed and bucketed survey responses — public health, jobs, schooling — and shared the results with partners. Then we hosted an editorial meeting with community partners, CapRadio reporters and editors, and two regional journalists: Jane Braxton Little, a national freelance reporter based in Plumas County, and Sarah Bohannon, NSPR’s news director at the time. Together, we discussed the survey results and came up with a story budget based on community feedback.
The top three concerns people shared were public health, mental health and the local economy. Many respondents were worried that tourists would bring the virus to their towns. How do you reopen the economy when tourists from places with more cases are your number-one source of revenue? That became our first story.
- Managing pandemic-era tourism to the Sierra
- Grappling with economic and cultural loss of canceled events
- Finding solutions to local food insecurity
- Coping with the summer of COVID as a teenager
- Scuttling the Downieville Classic bike race
- Struggling with internet problems while trying to learn
- Weathering COVID-induced market changes as a rancher
jesikah assigned stories, connected reporters with sources and provided them with relevant survey data. She also kept in touch with community partners, providing updates, responding to questions and inviting input as we moved forward.
Plan for how to share the stories back with residents
Our planning group told us how important it was for stories to appear where Plumas and Sierra residents would organically find them, and for the most part that was not CapRadio. In our survey, residents said they wanted to get the stories via email, Facebook groups and local newspapers. Many people even named specific Facebook groups they relied on for news.
That survey feedback was our road map. Olivia wrote and sent weekly email newsletters to the roughly 225 survey respondents, sharing the reported stories and other updates. She contacted the named Facebook groups and asked them if she could post the stories. Olivia also invited local newspapers — Plumas News, Sierra Booster and The Mountain Messenger, California’s oldest weekly newspaper — to reprint the stories and photos if they were interested. Circling back to audiences with stories and nurturing partnerships is key, and it takes a dedicated staff person to do it.
What did we learn?
It is possible to meet and engage new communities during the pandemic. Plumas and Sierra counties were not places that CapRadio has regularly covered, despite being within signal range. Our goal was to share information that was useful and meaningful to residents, and to move through the reporting process with respect and collaboration. Digital metrics (thanks to Veronika Nagy, who set up our user-tracking system) and evaluation feedback point toward success: Of the 6,000 unique pageviews that our stories received, 25% of people arrived there through the e-newsletter or links we posted in local Facebook groups. Most of the readers were first-time visitors to CapRadio’s website.
Partners also told us they liked the collaborative spirit of the project. “I appreciated that the collaboration was easy and organic but also did not overburden anybody. You did us a huge partnership favor,” one member of the planning group said. Another member said regular communication was helpful: “You were constantly alerting me, letting me know, calling me and emailing me. The communication was open, you asked for my opinion, you let me know what was coming up.” A media partner said the news stories met the mark, too: “What went well for me was that I got copy that I could use immediately, that was very relevant and that was communicative to the people around here about themselves.”
This was a brief project, and CapRadio continues to wrestle with how to reflect the many communities its signal reaches. However, it’s an encouraging case study for engagement practitioners in the midst of crises that prevent face-to-face gathering. We do not have to be on the ground and in person to build meaningful partnerships and create participatory journalism.
Olivia Henry is a former Participatory Journalism Fellow at CapRadio. She recently completed a master’s degree at UC Davis focused on worker and community ownership of news organizations. @oliviamqhenry
Chris Hagan, Bob Moffit, Nick Miller, Tessa Paoli, Drew Sandsor and Nina Sparling from CapRadio and Andre Byik, Kacey Sycamore and Kim Weir from NSPR contributed to this project.
Thanks to our community partners for their collaboration. Special thanks to the Listening Post Collective for supporting this project.