Information and misinformation about the new Coronavirus has for weeks been easily available to anyone with an Internet connection -- i.e. almost everyone in the United States. So news organizations that don't cover this story until the virus is detected in their community are failing an important test.
People want information because they are justifiably concerned about the Coronavirus. Many people are getting sick, and some are dying. There is not yet a medicine or vaccine to treat the virus. Mobile phones and computers make it easy to find, follow, and share reports about the virus on social media, search engines, and websites.
Local journalists compete directly with the information that people are finding on the internet. Journalists who aren't covering this story are losing this competition and signaling irrelevance to potential audiences. This is not a good strategy when local journalism is struggling to survive.
Searches coincide with developments in the news
I live in Athens, Ohio, a state that has not yet reported any infections. But Google's data on the volume of Coronavirus searches shows interest in Ohio coincides with major news about the virus.
The chart compares Ohio searches on the topic of Coronavirus with Ohio searches on the topic of the flu from December to March. Each topic includes many different search terms. Interest is measured on a scale from zero to 100, where 100 represents a peak in searches.1
The chart begins Dec. 31, 2019, when China first reported the new virus to the world, according to a timeline in the New York Times. Searches for informaiton on the flu have not changed much in response to virus news, but the opposite is true for Coronavirus.
The first Coronavirus case in the United States was reported on Jan. 21, 2020, the day the first spike in Ohio searches begins. The Trump administration announced restrictions on travel from China on Jan. 31, 2020, which was followed by the rapid decline in searches that ended the first spike.
The second spike in Coronavirus searches began Feb. 23, 2020, the day that authorities in Italy responded to a major outbreak by shutting down some Italian towns. The next day the Trump administration asked Congress for $1.25 billion to combat the virus in the United States. Searches in Ohio have been spiking ever since.
The trends in Ohio show journalists throughout the state should have been covering the story no later than Jan. 21.
I live in Athens, home to Ohio University which has extensive international connections and a medical school. So I've been surprised by the lack of coverage in two local newspapers that claim to serve the community. The first Coronavirus story that I read in either paper was just published in The Athens News three days ago, March 4, 2020.I might have missed some earlier stories, but that's because there were few or none.
Ohio is not uniquely interested in Coronavirus. Google data shows interest across the United States coinciding with the same major developments in the Coronavirus story.
Journalists can develop unique local stories
Coronavirus is a complicated story involving science, public health, politics, and local jobs and businesses. So many local journalists will probably have to learn a lot of new information at the same time they are covering the story.
Repeating information that is already available on the internet will not make local stories competitive. Local journalists must provide new and valuable information to attract and hold audience attention.
Fortunately, the internet also gives local journalists direct access to the global conversation among experts trying to contain the virus. This makes it possible to quickly find accurate information that can be used to develop differentiated local stories.
For example, former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb has warned that local health departments and hospitals might be rapidly overwhelmed if the virus becomes epidemic. His concerns are discussed on his Twitter feed (@ScottGottliebMD), which also references his op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.
Local journalists who publish stories on the limited resources available to fight an epidemic are likely to attract an audience that will stay with them for additional coverage.
Journalists risk losing audiences if they don't cover this story
Local news organizations have limited staff. Many local newspapers are struggling financially. But journalists who don't re-order priorities to provide continuing coverage of the Coronavirus risk making those problems worse.
When someone is concerned or frightened they keep looking until they find information that answers their concern. Someone who cannot get local Coronavirus information from their community newspaper or television station will go elsewhere to find what they need. They might never return.
The Coronavirus is a major test of credibility for local journalists. But the virus is also an opportunity for journalists to show audiences why their work matters. I hope journalists pass this test.
1 According to Google, trends data is based on representative samples of all searches on a topic. The samples are used to create an index measuring the proportion of searches on a topic. Increases/decreases mean a larger/smaller proportion of searches in Ohio or the United States were about Coronavirus or the flu. This shows increases/decreases in interest about a topic. Charts do not show the actual number of searches.