How Block Club Chicago Reporters are Effectively Answering Reader’s COVID-19 Questions

by SOJC students Hannah Gray and Emilee Mulay


In November 2017, a team of former DNAinfo Chicago editors launched the non-profit online news organization, Block Club Chicago. Their goal was to not only bring back local news, but news that made a positive impact on the community. The team of reporters prioritize objectivity, reliability, and importance in the stories they cover, and shed light on communities who are underreported. Come the year 2020, Block Club Chicago began covering stories regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, so much so that they had an extensive amount of knowledge on the topic. The team decided to put that collective knowledge to use by creating a free coronavirus hotline. In October 2020, they launched the service, allowing readers to get answers to their questions from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday. The hotline is open five days a week, eight hours a day and readers can reach them by calling, texting, or sending an email. Hannah Boufford, Block Club’s newsletter and hotline manager, says “It doesn’t require an internet connection, so the calling is a really big part for us because we wanted to make sure people without the internet connect with it.”


Project Goals: The reporters at Block Club Chicago spent endless weeks covering COVID-19 stories and answering an influx of questions sent to the newsroom by worried readers, many of which had already been covered in their previous news stories. “Block Club’s whole structure and mission is to cover the Chicago neighborhoods, we have reporters who come from a handful of neighborhoods, who typically live in those neighborhoods, so they are living and meeting the people in their own neighborhoods, and run their own neighborhood newsletters,” said Boufford.  After some time, Boufford said they decided the team needed a better solution to navigate these questions more directly and effectively. Additionally, because a third of Chicago’s population is Latino, they wanted to provide bilingual support to the Spanish-speaking community.

Project Resources: The primary resources in this hotline are the English and Spanish-speaking hotline specialists and the reporters who covered hundreds of stories regarding the coronavirus, and built up an extensive amount of knowledge on the topic. Block Club Chicago also provides an FAQ, resource guide, and coronavirus newsletter to help answer reader’s questions. 

Tools & Technology: Block Club Chicago makes a telephone hotline available, accepting voice or texts, as well as an email address which users can expect responses within 48 hours. The team had to use programs such as Google Voice and Gmail for users who call and text in. Another program they used was Trello, which made organizing the details of the calls (such as demographics, locations, etc.) easier.

Impact: Everyone has questions about COVID-19 and the impact the most recent mandates have on their lives. Block Club Chicago’s COVID-19 hotline is an important resource for people in the Chicago area and elsewhere to get their questions answered, and hopefully assist in putting people’s minds at ease while helping the public become more informed. As of July 2021, more than 870 questions have been received from all over Chicago, the nation, and even a few from Canada.

Here’s How it Happened

The COVID19 pandemic sent the world into a spiral of fear and confusion, making the demand for easily accessible information that much more necessary. Block Club Chicago started a hotline where residents of Chicago and people all over the United States can get answers to their pending questions regarding the current state of the pandemic, such as recent protocols, vaccine and testing information, and unemployment information. Residents are conveniently able to address questions via phone call, text message, and email. Block Club’s breaking news editor Kelly Bauer also covered and live-tweeted nearly every press conference throughout the pandemic.

Here’s What Worked

  1. Information is easily accessible through Block Club Chicago’s website and information from hotline workers
  2. Members of the team are responsive, either immediately on a phone call, or within hours through email
  3. Members of the Block Club Chicago team live in neighborhoods of Chicago and were already involved in their communities prior to the pandemic 
  4. Members of the team receive information directly from COVID related press conferences held by the CDC and the local, state, and national government. They also independently researched/read research and interviewed experts and officials to answer people’s questions.
  5. The site is updated as new information comes out about the pandemic and its protocols

Here’s What Could Have Worked Better

1. Be prepared for constant updated information

Because new data is discovered regularly  about the coronavirus, there is always more information being disseminated, and continuously updated, from local and national health organizations. Boufford stated that they’ve given out information and within hours it’s been changed or updated. She also says it would have been beneficial to speak with the city ahead of time to determine the best ways to go about reaching out to them and getting answers in situations where a question by a hotline user could not be otherwise answered.

2. Getting feedback

While it’s no question that the coronavirus hotline has been impactful, there is no way of knowing the extent of just how impactful it’s been. “I would also make sure we found a way to incorporate feedback surveys into our hotline,” says Boufford. This would open up an opportunity for users to share their experiences  after speaking with a hotline specialist, and Block Club Chicago could understand how useful the users thought it was, the impact it had, as well as the satisfaction of the users.

3. Tracking statistics

The coronavirus hotline team doesn’t currently have an automatic method of tracking where calls come in from or frequency of questions asked. While they can do this manually, it takes a lot of time and effort. Boufford says a better system and understanding of the software Trello, which is what they used for the hotline, would’ve made this issue a lot more doable.

Here’s What Else You Should Know

The coronavirus hotline does not offer medical help. Users who call with a medical question will be advised to consult a physician. The hotline runs from 9-5 everyday of the week, and emails are answered within 48 hours. Although the information is tailored to Chicago neighborhoods, anyone is able to contact the hotline. Block Club Chicago also offers an FAQ, resource guide, and coronavirus newsletter to help answer reader’s questions.

Learn More

To learn more, feel free to email or DM her on Twitter, @hannahboufford. Check out this article to learn more about the project: Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus hotline connects readers with questions to reporters with answers (API).

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