Robyn Tomlin

By Robyn TomlinLMA Guest Contributor

I don’t like asking for help.

Call it self determination or just plain-old stubbornness, but I’ve always been slow to admit it when there are intractable problems I cannot solve on my own or in collaboration with trusted team members.

But there are times in our lives when we have to step outside of our comfort zones, and this one one of them.

The coronavirus story first surfaced in North Carolina on Super Tuesday, an already busy news day. The first N.C. case was announced that afternoon — as we waited for election results. Within moments of that initial story posting online, we decided to exempt our virus coverage from our metered paywall.

Like so many other news outlets that made similar decisions, we knew we had a duty to provide critical health and safety information to as many people as possible. It was the right thing to do.

Readers of The News & Observer were craving current, fact-based local and statewide information from sources they could trust. Our staff delivered by publishing more than 750 stories on the spread of the virus through our communities and across the state over the next month.

Like most newsrooms, we quickly reorganized our entire team into new coronavirus-specific beats and coverage teams and started scheduling reporters and editors to be on duty 18/7 to handle the crush of news developments along with answering hundreds of questions, connecting people with needed resources and telling powerful stories about those affected.

As a result, our digital audience and traffic soared — up more than 300% vs. February. But without the metered paywall stopping readers along the way, our subscription numbers showed only a modest, but steady, increase.

And while the increased readership was gratifying and the related programmatic ad boost was helpful, as communities and the state overall issued stay-at-home orders effectively shutting down most local businesses, we saw the same core advertising declines that most news outlets have experienced.

So as we rounded the corner into April and it became increasingly clear we were heading for a rough road ahead, I decided it was time to do something I’d never done before.

I asked our readers for help.

I laid out the situation in the column and explained that we would be putting some — but not all — of our coronavirus coverage back behind the metered paywall.

Then I asked our readers to help in one of two ways — to subscribe (if they aren’t already) and/or to contribute to our Report for America fund.

Working in partnership with Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project, we refocused the three reporting positions we’d been awarded for 2020-2021 around long-term coronavirus reporting and recovery efforts in our region and state.

We know we’re going to need reinforcements to effectively cover the long-term economic, health and social impacts of COVID-19, and we’re grateful that this program allows us to add some new staff members to help us do just that.

I posted my column on April 1 along with an accompanying tweet thread and Facebook post. The column ran in print the following day and we sent it via email to all of our newsletter lists (subscriber and non-subscriber).

What happened next surprised me.

First, we saw an immediate increase (about 75% week over week) in voluntary subscriptions, and as our metered paywall was reinstated on stories, paywall starts also increased significantly.

We also started getting a stream of donations through RFA from our readers. So far, these have totaled nearly $35,000, and they are still coming in — so far from more than 350 people.

With each contribution, a box on the form asks the contributor to say why they are doing so.

“I believe in a strong and free press, and I appreciate our journalists and good newspapers like The Raleigh News & Observer,” wrote one.

“I’m already a subscriber, but I believe the work you do is extremely important.  Thank you for what you do,” wrote another.

“The N&O’s coverage is essential — now more than ever!”

As these started streaming in, we shared them with our staff. I wasn’t the only one who got teary-eyed as we read these messages of support.

I work as a regional editor for 11 McClatchy news sites located across the Southeast. Most of the editors in our group have followed this model in the weeks since. I wish I could say we’ve seen identical responses in every case. While we’ve seen similar subscription increases and significant contributions, none have been quite as large.

I’m not entirely sure why one appeal works better than another. Maybe it’s timing or the directness or something specific about the community or the emotion of the appeal.

But as I’ve followed up with readers sending thank you notes and having email exchanges, one thing has become clear.

Our readers want to help. We just need to ask.

Robyn Tomlin is the president and editor of The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun in Raleigh/Durham, N.C. and the regional editor for McClatchy’s southeast newsrooms.