REJ Storyletter: Never Underestimate the Power of a GOOD COVID-19 Newsletter

June 16, 2020

Volume 1

A Letter from Tracie 

The global pandemic and nation-wide protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder make even more clear the relevancy of news organizations led by and for people of color. Supporting the journalists on the frontlines who are already trusted and in relationship with the communities hit hardest by some of the most pressing issues of our time is more important now than ever. This is why we do the work. In March, the Borealis Racial Equity in Journalism Fund released $2.4 million to 19 news organizations, some receiving philanthropic dollars for the first time in their history. Here we share some of the important work that is being done by our grant partners and in the broader publishers of color communities that REJ serves. If you’d like to learn about investing in the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, about our grant partners or about our broader community of publishers, please email me at tpowell@borealisphilanthorpy.org.

-Tracie Powell, REJ Program Officer

Never Underestimate the Power of a GOOD COVID-19 Newsletter

Three weeks before the print date for the April issue of MIA Magazine, publisher Dexter Bridgeman had lost in excess of $40,000 when six advertisers pulled out due to the economic downturn brought on by the Coronavirus. Bridgeman had to think quickly. “The only people who had money at that time,” he recalled, “were political candidates.” Bridgeman also recognized the communities he serves in South Florida’s Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties needed up-to-date information about the coronavirus ravaging the region. And so he pivoted to producing a daily digital newsletter focused entirely on health and COVID-19.

It’s a hit.

Instead of losing $40,000, Bridgeman said he has brought in 25 percent more revenue than he had originally lost. The newsletter itself accounts for about $6,000 to $10,000 in new revenue in the last couple of months. That doesn’t include ad sales for his print product, he said. Bridgeman uses Constant Contact to send out his newsletter to 65,000 subscribers. He pays about $150 a month for the service.

There is little original reported journalism in the newsletter save for a column penned by a local physician. But it is filled with important COVID-19 information public health agencies as well as local and state officials need and want to get in front of underserved communities. Bridgeman provides that space at no charge. Not only did Bridgeman persuade political candidates and lawmakers to buy ad space in his magazine, some also advertised free food and clothing give-a-ways in the digital newsletter, he said. The self-described “businessman, not a journalist,” said he sold the newsletter as an opportunity for local and state officials as well as political candidates to share stories about how they are supporting the community during a time of crisis.

Bridgeman also sold advertising space in the newsletter to the largest hospital serving Miami-Dade County, local physicians, public health agencies and banks.

“Advertisers are flocking to the digital newsletter,” said Bridgeman, who has struggled to transition his legacy print business into a digital enterprise. “It’s also been gangbusters in terms of the traffic to our website, which has risen by about 20 percent. That’s now leveled off to about 15 percent.”

Asked whether he planned to add more journalism to the newsletter, Bridgeman said it’s already in the works. His newsletter will soon begin hosting weekly live-streamed lunch interviews with local leaders about the pandemic response, financial resources around unemployment and more, said Bridgeman. He’s currently searching for sponsorship dollars for the livestream.

Enlace, a North Carolina Spanish-language news organization and REJ Step-up grantee, launched  Latinos en la Pandemia as a response to the COVID-19 crisis. The podcast, a newsletter for the ear if you will, targets Spanish-speaking immigrants with information on a range of topics including the importance of language translators when interacting with medical and health officials, access to care, and living with COVID-19. Latinos en la Pandemia has also profiled a number of essential workers whose voices are rarely heard in traditional news media, including farm and hospital maintenance workers.

Enlace uses SoundCloud to distribute the podcast, a no-cost to low-cost audio distribution platform. But other expenses include production and editing costs along with studio rental, which adds up to $4,500 per month, co-founder and executive editor Paola Jaramillo told me.

The podcast has grown to 400 subscribers in just a month’s time and recently received $66,000 from the Facebook Journalism Project. Things are going so well in fact that Jaramillo said her team is developing a second podcast targeted to the farm working community and is exploring how the podcasts can generate new revenue streams.

In early April, 32-year-old Patrice Peck saw COVID-19 wreaking havoc on people with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and obesity. She rightly anticipated that Black people would likely get hit hardest as the disease spread across America. That’s when she decided to pivot her personal newsletter into one that focused exclusively on the global pandemic’s impact on black people.

“I didn’t trust historically and predominantly white publications to either predict and then to cover the disparate impact that this Coronavirus would have on black people,” Peck told me earlier this month.

Peck’s Coronavirus News For Black Folks is one of several newsletters launched to track the spread of COVID-19. Her unique approach focuses on original stories she reports herself and highlighting/aggregating content created by other journalists, especially those producing content for underserved black communities including immigrants and LGBTQ. The newsletter has become a one-stop clearinghouse for news and information about all things Coronavirus and black people. She uses a free tool, Substack, to publish her weekly newsletter, which is currently a one-person operation. Since its launch, Coronavirus News For Black Folks has garnered 1,100 subscribers and is growing, Peck said. The Brooklyn-based journalist has yet to figure out how to monetize her newsletter, but Coronavirus News For Black Folks is growing in popularity, catching the attention of national media outlets including Black Enterprise, Blavity, Nieman Lab and TheRoot.

KUDOS

The Racial Equity in Journalism Team would like to send a special shout-out to Buffalo’s Fire, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, and Sahan Journal.

Buffalo’s Fire, an independent tribal news organization based in North DaKota, received a Silver Telly Award for its “Water Trespass” video. Buffalo’s Fire placed alongside CBS Interactive, Inc., and AJ+.

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, based in Memphis, was profiled by The New York Times last month. In the piece, founder Wendi Thomas talks about why she started the news site in 2017, initially as a one-year project. Three years later, MLK50 continues to bring justice. Its reporting has led to the elimination of $11.9 million in medical debt for Memphis’ working poor. On June 9th, Wendi Thomas wrote about her experience in ProPublica in a piece titled, “The Police Have Been Spying on Black Reporters and Activists for Years. I Know Because I’m One of Them,” explaining the ongoing surveillance of Black communities and journalists.

Sahan Journal won first place in the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists’ “Best Single News Story” category for their story about East African youth who are breaking the silence over addiction. They also won third place for another story in the same category.

 

FUNDING WHERE FUNDING IS DUE

Finally, North Carolina’s Enlace isn’t the only REJ grant partner to receive funding from Facebook in the last couple of months. In all, 14 REJ grant partners applied for and received Facebook money. Almost all REJ grant partners received money from Facebook and other funding sources, which is fantastic! Providing access to other funding opportunities is part of the work we do at the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund. The fact that closed networks are now opening up is a sign of success. We want to lift all boats. Congratulations again!

See you at our next webinar!

Sincerely,

Tracie