• Michelle Levander, founding director, USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism
  • Margo Snipe, national health reporter, Capital B
  • Yanqi Xu, reporter, Flatwater Free Press
  • Letitia Stein, health and science editor, Philadelphia Inquirer (moderator)

By Keren Landman, M.D.

The United States has lost more than a quarter of its newspapers since 2005 and continues to lose an average of two newspapers a week. As news sources dwindle, health stories reach fewer local readers than ever and drive subscriptions less than other stories do.

During this session, Letitia Stein and several innovators in local health coverage shared strategies on how to change that.

Panelists said covering local health news in ways that are responsive to each outlet’s audience is important to drawing readership and boosting revenue. At the Inquirer, Stein found the best-performing stories were about local health care facilities, local emerging health risks, and high-profile local medical personalities. Local accountability and enterprise stories also draw readers. 

At Capital B, a new nonprofit news outlet targeting Black audiences, readers appreciate health coverage that shows how issues impact Black communities in particular, or at the intersection of health with education and transportation, said Margo Snipe, the outlet’s national health reporter. Meanwhile, Yanqi Xu noted that a mix of locally focused investigative stories and feel-good features keep readers engaged.

An important takeaway: Finding local frames for national stories is one of the best ways to get local news audiences’ attention. “National coverage of a topical wire story does not resonate in the same way that a local story does,” Stein said.

Panelists also shared strategies for taking on ambitious health journalism projects with short-staffed newsrooms. Michelle Levander, said that in the course of the USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism’s 18 years of granting funds for newsroom capacity-building, she’s learned outlets are more willing to commit funds to projects that already have grant funding. 

Breaking up large projects into multiple smaller stories is another way to broaden their reach,  Stein said. This strategy also serves to draw additional sources out of the woodwork, which can strengthen future stories, she said. Several panelists said partnering with other beats or other outlets to work on larger projects can also be helpful.

Panelists also shared some unique audience engagement strategies. Xu said the Flatwater Press’ strategy of making their content free to any partner organization helped increase readership and impact. In turn, Flatwater includes other outlets’ stories in its weekly newsletter. Staff have also conducted a series of listening tours, have done some “journalism on stage” events, and have held online office hours with people who could not attend events in person. “We’re trying to cultivate a sense of media literacy,”  Xu said.

That also means helping audiences understand what to do with what they learn from the outlet’s stories. For example, after publishing a story on nitrates infiltrating a local water supply, the outlet used a variety of engagement opportunities to recommend water testing to readers.

Capital B assigns two reporters weekly tof report out who their audience is and what they want to be reading, Snipe said. Meanwhile, the Center for Health Journalism has a dedicated community engagement editor who uses a variety of creative techniques to capture readers’ diversity of ideas, Levander said. As a result, outlets working with the organization have set up community advisory councils for specific projects, and reporters have done tabling or set up texting services that allow two-way communication between journalists and community members. 

These give you a different level of confidence on how an issue is being perceived, said Levander, by allowing journalists to get answers to questions like “Where do you want us to go from here?”

Keren Landman is a senior health and science reporter at Vox and is based in Atlanta. She is a 2023 AHCJ-Health Care Performance Fellow.