Acts of kindness find a place 'alongside the shade' of pandemic

There's a saying that "good news is no news", but during the COVID-19 pandemic, four Nine platforms in Australia are tapping a need for "some light alongside the shade" in their coverage... and welcome.

In an INMA post, Sydney Morning Herald editor Lisa Davies and audience development head Aimie Rigas tell how the masthead - and its stablemates in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth - teamed for a 'Good News' initiative to balance pandemic content.

"There's a portion of our audience who are so disheartened by the news, they disengage completely," they say. "It became obvious pretty quickly the issue would be exasperated if we didn't focus more on demonstrating the breadth of our coverage during the pandemic."

Through various feedback channels and research projects, readers had told the publisher to also look for hope in communities and balance coverage with constructive and optimistic reportage.

As a result, newsrooms began actively commissioning optimistic and hopeful stories. "We wanted to ensure these stories were not lost in the flood of news so we created a 'Good News' tag to easily collate the stories into an index that could be highlighted via Editor's Notes to subscribers, our COVID-19 newsletter, and via callout boxes on our article pages," say Davies and Rigas. "This also enabled Good News stories to be easily found and distributed on our homepages, print editions, iPad editions, newsletters, subscriber emails, and social pages."

A tag was created almost immediately and a Good News Facebook group followed shortly after.

As teams stepped up working in a remote environment, the Good News initiative went national through the newsrooms of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times and WAToday, meaning it really relies on everyone contributing.

Slack became a "best friend" with a #Good-News Slack channel where editors from around the country could drop in their good news stories and tips. And a journalist who had been working in production but had fewer responsibilities during this time was "redistributed" to focus on writing a couple of Good News articles each week.

Social media editors take turns running the group, with homepage editors keeping an eye out at morning and afternoon news conferences for pitches, and print editors are "finding space" for good news in our newspapers.

"For all the planning, research, and analysis we usually conduct (and rightly so!) before launching a new initiative, the Good News project is an example of how quickly newsrooms can get something off the ground when it's a priority," say Davies and Rigas. "When your audience is begging you for a change of pace at a time like this, it makes sense to listen to them."

The platforms also worked to close the feedback loop with readers. "The Good News Group on Facebook is largely filled with community posts, many of which form the basis of articles we later commission," they say. "For example, Mates' volunteer start-up makes global connections. We first heard about this initiative via The Good News Group, and the people we spoke to in the article made international connections via the comments section in The Good News Group. Being able to facilitate and promote positive initiatives in this way is a success measure we hadn't planned for."

The group was an immediate success, with "just shy of 3,000 members" joining - it's more than 4,000 now - and 6,400 posts, comments, and reactions in the past 28 days. Almost half of the group have been 'active members' in the past seven days.

Among steps to quickly address the immediate need for good news coverage:

-a Good News tag automatically collates our good news stories across topics into an index that can be distributed off-platform (newsletters, social);

-the national Good News Facebook group offers readers "a sense of community and a reprieve from negative news";

-a 'Life in Lockdown' content tag includes constructive stories on what people can do during this time, with a Life in Lockdown strap on the homepage of The Age performing better than its predecessor, which was a general coronavirus coverage strap.

The Sydney Morning Herald is also running a daily First Person Pandemic column, both in print and online, giving readers an opportunity to share their poignant, humorous, or heartbreaking stories from lockdown - such as a reader whose neighbour coordinated a 'round-robin' style cook-up between households in their street. Each participant was given the name and number of people they were to cook for. Or another, who offered ongoing take-home meals for the 40 staff members he had to lay off.

With the Good News stories and Life in Lockdown stories having a home in print in the Home Front pages in the print editions, they also provide good imagery for print pages.

The initiatives have been promoted to subscribers via coronavirus coverage emails and Notes from the Editor. Stories are also featured in a 'Bright Spot' section in the daily coronavirus newsletter and under Another Thing and in Editor's Picks in the morning edition newsletter.

Massive reader response has led to a series of articles - one about Adam Scott calling a 76-year-old who is suffering from seven brain tumours and believes the professional golfer is his best mate; another profiling some of the Australians doing wonderful things for their communities.

Responses have been overwhelmingly positive from readers, one of them in self-isolation since returning from overseas and keen to have "happy, good things" to read about to help them cope. Others commented that they were "sick of seeing and hearing nothing but negativity" or wanted to know about other good things going on to which they could contribute: "Surely we're better people than those who just empty supermarket aisles without thinking of others."

Pictured: Creative chalking sharing The Good News on Facebook; (below) Chamber musician Josephine Vains plays a social distancing 'concert' for neighbours in Melbourne's Brunswick.

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