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How KPCC-LAist’s COVID-19 help desk is driving newsletter subscriptions — and memberships

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the KPCC-LAist newsroom has invited questions from its audience. Nearly 4,000 people have written in. More than half of them have opted into newsletters, and nearly all have received a personal answer. 

This “win” comes from Ashley Alvarado, who directs community engagement at KPCC-LAist. The newsroom’s engagement team — assistant engagement producer Caitlin Biljan, early childhood engagement producer Stefanie Ritoper, assistant engagement producer Olivia Richard, and engagement interns Caitlin Hernandez, Nubia Perez, and Giuliana Mayo — provided feedback for Ashley’s responses. KPCC/LAist participated in the Poynter Institute’s Local News Innovation Program in 2018-19. 

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: The coronavirus pandemic drove record traffic to the LAist.com website. Our monthly traffic in March, April and May all beat our previous monthly record by well over 200%. People were coming to us in droves for news and information about the coronavirus.

At the same time, our organization, like many others, was losing revenue and faced a bleak financial forecast. Underwriting dollars had completely dried up, as had car donations. These are two typically reliable sources of revenue. How could we provide a public service for our audiences while also finding new revenue sources?

Understanding how to funnel new readers from discovery to loyal, paying members (Table Stake No. 4) had never been so critical. Across the organization, we prioritized capturing email addresses and increasing newsletter signups. This is the surest way to develop habit and loyalty with audiences. It’s also our most effective way — outside of on-air pledge drives — to ask for financial support.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: This effort relates to Table Stake No. 1 (“Serving targeted audiences with targeted content”), Table Stake No. 2 (“Publishing on the platforms used by your targeted audience”), Table Stake No. 4 (“Funneling occasional users to habitual and paying loyalists”), and Table Stake No. 6 (“Partnering to expand our capacity”).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: Our newsroom first began answering community members’ questions in 2016 through the Human Voter Guide initiative, which focused on the mechanics of voting. In the years since, we’ve built an engagement team and further developed our ability to rapidly — and personally — answer questions, most notably during our wildfire coverage.

In four years of the Human Voter Guide, we answered 1,000 questions. The intense need for coronavirus information catapulted us past this benchmark in only four weeks.

Since early March, the KPCCLAist newsroom has received more than 3,800 pandemic-related questions. The bulk of these questions have come through Hearken, an engagement platform that allows readers to ask questions through our website. (See related Nieman Lab story by Caitlin Hernandez.)

We’ve also received more than 200 questions from community members via GroundSource’s SMS texting platform. The volume of questions grew rapidly with 10 questions per minute on more than one occasion. The overall tone of these questions quickly transitioned from curiosity to concern to fear, and they reflected an urgent need for straightforward information and answers.

The KPCC-LAist engagement team has answered thousands of pandemic-related questions. Pictured, clockwise from top left: Stefanie Ritoper, Giuliana Mayo, Caitlin Hernandez, Nubia Perez, Caitlin Biljan, and Olivia Richard. Photo collage courtesy of KPCC-LAist.

As a newsroom that prioritizes identifying and meeting information needs — of existing and aspirational audiences — we felt called to action. We had developed the framework for this kind of help desk approach through previous election and wildfire engagement initiatives.

We have personally answered more than 3,300 of those questions via email and text message, leveraging the reporting our newsroom was already doing. Just as significantly, we’ve seen more than 50% of those asking questions opt into our newsletters.

We overhauled our workflow to meet the information requests flooding in. That included:

  • Staggering work schedules for the six-person engagement team to allow for all-day coverage seven days a week. Given the nature of the questions, mental health breaks are encouraged.
  • Hiring a temporary engagement producer to support the team’s efforts.
  • Maintaining a master database that includes questions, the askers’ contact information, the status of their question, and whether a reporter is interested or has reached out to them, among other details. This allows producers, reporters and editors to easily search for trends, story ideas and potential sources.
  • Working closely with the digital editor overseeing the website’s pandemic FAQ.
  • Many questions have originated from out of state, so we invited other engaged newsrooms to help point us toward answers for question-askers in their respective parts of the country.

Our lessons from Table Stakes have informed this work in many ways that go beyond serving targeted audiences with targeted content and funneling users.

  • Table Stake No. 2: We’ve thought a lot about how to answer people’s questions where they are, in their preferred time frame, language and platform. To that end, we’ve turned to text messaging and direct mail distribution to reach people without reliable internet access, which is still true for many people in Los Angeles County. As a result, our texting service has grown to include a six-day-a-week coronavirus news roundup that is sent to more than 250 people. About 38% of L.A. County residents speak Spanish. So we’ve directed many of our COVID-19 engagement efforts toward Spanish speakers. Of the 12,670 mailers that were sent to households in May, 7,199 were in Spanish and included links to resources and our texting service.
  • Table Stake No. 6: In addition to inviting partners from outside the newsroom to help answer questions from out-of-state question askers, we also turned to L.A.-area community, ethnic and in-language media to reach audiences traditionally outside of our reach with important coronavirus-related information. For example, we made content available to newsrooms like Boyle Heights Beat, which serves an immigrant neighborhood in East L.A., and have had a journalist regularly appear on KAZN (AM 1300), a Mandarin-Chinese language radio station.

Q: What worked? 

A: KPCC-LAist’s use of Hearken has become the single biggest driver of new audience sign-ups for newsletters. More than half of all people who’ve asked pandemic-related questions — or more than 2,000 — have also opted into receiving LAist newsletters. This is important. In our most recent campaign, one-third of membership contributions came in response to email appeals, making those appeals one of the most vital sources for member acquisition. The more emails we are able to gather, the healthier our program will be.

We’ve also heard meaningful feedback from those whose questions were answered, comments like:

  • “If I haven’t said it, ‘Thank you.’ I’m totally impressed that you’re actually asking and responding and being engaged with the community. I think I’ll take my texting fingers to the computer and make a donation to KPCC. I listen all day, every day. Thank you.”
  • “What you do is a great advance and I thank you for the care and resources you provide for CA and I thank you for the ones who forget to say it or perhaps show no gratitude.”
  • Yet another question-asker shared how she’d discovered LAist while Googling her COVID-19 questions. When we not only provided a space to ask but also a quick response, she found herself coming back to the site over and over, now saying she won’t go anywhere else for essential news.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: There are two aspects of this work we struggled with in the earliest weeks of the pandemic in Southern California:

  • Developing a shared understanding of how to prioritize questions and how much time to spend answering a single, complex question. We placed a high priority on questions from local users, as well as questions that were urgent and could be answered quickly.
  • Dealing with the toll our journalists were experiencing, both in their professional and personal lives. They felt the impact of reading hundreds of questions from community members who were experiencing significant emotional distress.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: We first launched the invitation to readers to share their questions back in late January — when the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Los Angeles and Orange counties. We had no way to anticipate back then the high volume of questions we would receive or that we would be answering those questions while working from home. We definitely didn’t expect to see so many questions come from out of state, including questions from India, the United Kingdom and other countries.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: Were we to have a do-over, I would have immediately consulted the engagement team about their work schedules and more quickly moved to a seven-day-a-week schedule. While a 9-to-5 schedule is the default for public radio newsrooms, the pandemic followed no such schedule.

We saw peaks in questions following every major press conference, especially in the first month. We needed to, as is pointed out in Table Stake No. 3 (“Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs”), operate in shifts to provide coverage 12-18 hours a day, seven days a week.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?


Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: This kind of initiative — one that invites questions and provides answers — builds important muscles and muscle memory for a newsroom. What previously took us four years to accomplish, receiving and answering 1,000 community questions, we could now do in four weeks. That’s because we’ve developed best practices, built the engagement team and have started to better understand the financial and journalistic ROI that comes with the work. This month, we also posted a new position: a newsletter automation growth manager whose focus will be to accelerate the digital membership journey for newsletter subscribers.

Related content: Read how KPCC and LAist adapted the public radio fundraising strategy for a digitally native audience