COVID-19: USA’s Trib Total Media boosts AI-backed hyperlocal journalism

Trib Total Media, a local news publisher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, published two daily print editions seven days a week and 13 free weekly publications that were mailed to readers before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the USA in March.

Credit: Trib Total Media on Twitter

by Neha Gupta | January 12, 2021

Like many publishers around the world, the company made the transition to having most of its newsroom staff, more than 350 people, work from home. Jennifer Bertetto, President and CEO, joined WAN-IFRA during the Newsroom Summit 2020 to share with us the challenges the company faced during the restructure. 

Trib Total Media lost 80 percent of its revenue overnight and was forced to shut down one of its largest commercial print accounts that had been in publishing for 150 years after being hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We didn’t anticipate the scale of the pandemic and had less than 12 hours to convert the organisation into a remote workforce,” Bertetto said. “However, the company had purchased new laptops and software to equip the 92-person newsroom.”

Trib Total Media from a product stand point, which offers free content to its readers, is based on the principle that journalism should be accessible to everyone, regardless of one’s socio-economic status. The brand made a digital replica – usually a paid subscription or free for a print subscriber – of its daily newspaper free for the first 11 weeks of the pandemic.

While the company’s goal is to keep its journalism free, when the pandemic hit, it had to figure out ways to reduce expenses while keeping readers informed. As a result, it combined two of its daily hyperlocal editions and stopped publishing the weeklies.  

The company also publishes an easily navigable page of COVID-19 reporting on its website and app. 

“We are particularly proud of our enterprise reporting regarding the number of nursing home deaths because of the coronavirus and exposed shortcomings within these establishments,” Bertetto said. “Based on the company’s enterprise reportage on nursing homes, a criminal investigation was launched by the Attorney General.”

She said the company sensed an intra-community need for people to talk to each other and find information specific to their neighbourhoods. This gave the brand an opportunity to source reader generated content in the form of news tips, stories and images. They also launched trusted contributors, an effort where journalists went to the school districts’ local chamber of commerce’s nonprofit organisations and asked them to share their news with their audience.

These websites are run on a proprietary artificial intelligence system that Trib Total Media has dubbed MeSearch. MeSearch was born out of the roots of one of the first AI algorithms that was created for commercial use at Carnegie Mellon in the 1990s called The Knowledge Kiosk. When a user visits these sites, the algorithm learns more and more about the things that they like, dislike, where the engagement rests on and the content the user spends most time browsing, to provide a tailored and customised experience.

Content creators on MeSearch are not currently compensated but once the company has a better monetisation system, it plans to compensate 20 percent of the total value of the article back to the creator.

When Trib Total Media started working with MeSearch, its algorithm already had the ability to identify 2,500 human emotions that help in identifying if a story has been written with a bias.

“I don’t think our readers realise that they are being sent curated news, because we are still working in beta and haven’t pushed it out officially,“ said Bertetto. 


During the peak of the pandemic, Trib Total Media’s flagship website saw an increase of about 40 percent in its daily traffic, a standard across the USA that most publishers were seeing.

Once the company began charging for its e-edition, it was able to garner 342 new paid subscribers from the 1,600 accounts that had signed up for free; this was a 21.3 percent conversion rate, the highest the company has seen to date. 

Today, the company prints only one edition four days a week and two editions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This change was incorporated in September, last year, once high school sports resumed and businesses reopened. The brand’s weekly products have also restarted printing in all markets.

“Prior to the pandemic, they would print every week regardless of profit or loss. Now, we have certain profitability markers that must be met in order for those publications to go to print,” Bertetto said.

The company continues to see rapid growth in the number of hyperlocal sites under its wing and is working to onboard more community contributors, with the ultimate goal of having up to 160 local community sites, but at least 60 by this time, next year.

Adjusting to remote work

Trib Total Media replaced in-person meetings with video calling on Microsoft Teams, which gives them some value of face-to-face interaction. The company also installed a Swedish engagement software called Work Puls, for employees to effectively manage their time.

“The productivity stats from Work Puls show that one in three employees needs additional help from their supervisor and in some cases to help identify people who are working way too much, one of the challenges of remote work,” Bertetto said. 

Adaptability, a necessity for the future

Studies have shown that the workforce under 35 years of age desires flexible scheduling, and remote and non-traditional work hours. Bertetto said that in the US, prior to COVID-19, only about 2 percent of the workforce was working remotely. The younger workforce is also more skilled and equipped to work remotely, and is comfortable with technology. 

With social distancing rules in place, it is no longer feasible to send out a photographer or videographer accompanying reporters, requiring journalists to become more self-sufficient.

“We have been working on learning these skills for the last 4-5 years and now everyone’s been forced into adding these extra elements of storytelling to their work. Over the last six months, we have analysed that in a post COVID world, at least 18 percent of the jobs within our organisation will be long term, remote jobs,” said Bertetto.

Staffing challenges

The pandemic forced the company to reduce its headcount by 10 percent, and its monthly expenses by $1 million, a portion of which comes out of salaries and benefits, and expense management with vendors with newsprint. 

Bertetto said that headcount reductions, early retirements, voluntary buyouts translate into losing the older newsroom staff, the veterans who come equipped with institutional knowledge and community connections they rely on for tips and good storytelling.

“You lose the experience and the unofficial newsroom leadership because some of the most valuable lessons are often taught peer-to-peer,” she said. “What do you do when certain bylines disappear? What impact does it have on our readers who have grown to know and trust so many of our reporters?” 

Trib Total Media laid off about 20 percent of its staff, but has been fortunate enough to bring a large number of those people back into the workforce.

Neha Gupta

Multimedia Journalist

Share via
Copy link