In Pittsburgh, a print staple is finding new audiences online

A bin of letters sits on Kevin Flowers desk at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The envelopes aren’t stuffed with red-pen grammar lessons from retired English teachers. No complaints. No threats.

Each one recounts a random act of kindness, like the grandma who bought pork chops and yams for a shopper who forgot his wallet, the man who drove a hunter two hours to his destination after a deer hit the hunter’s car, and the local librarians, who are just helpful.

The weekly feature started running in the early 2000s after the newspaper’s page two got a makeover. It remained a steady source of good news in print. And, for a long time, that’s where it stayed.

But a year and a half ago, the newsroom surveyed subscribers and asked what they liked in the paper.

“Everyone was saying ‘I always read Random Acts of Kindness,’” said Jim Iovino, deputy managing editor. “We were like, ‘Whoa, OK.’ They know it by name. They knew Random Acts of Kindness as a brand.”

Could that brand do well online, too?

The PPG decided to test it out. They created a section, which soon got sponsorship, Iovino said.

Then, after 11 people were killed in a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last October, the feature seemed like one way to share the good news happening in a place that went through something awful. So the Post-Gazette turned it into a weekly newsletter.

Iovino didn’t share subscriber numbers but did say that it’s currently a small but loyal base. When he spoke with Poynter last week, the latest edition had a 43 percent open rate and a 22 percent click-through rate.

Flowers still compiles the letters for print, and it takes digital news editor Alexis Johnson about an hour a week to curate them into the newsletter.

“The range of acts that we get is pretty incredible,” she said. “It just amazes me that they leave such a lasting impression.”

Kevin Flowers’ box of good deeds. (Photo via Kevin Flowers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

A random act letter running this week starts off the way a lot of them do:

“My favorite section of the Post-Gazette is Random Acts of Kindness, which always confirms my faith in people …”

Flowers started coordinating the letters for print in the beginning of 2018. He checks people’s names and where they live. And he never runs out of submissions.

Since working on the section, he sees the small ways people are kind to each other much more often.

“It’s almost like when you buy a red car, then you see a bunch of red cars,” said Flowers, who’s a reporter and copy editor.

The decision to ask subscribers what’s working came from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative, also known as Table Stakes, which the Post-Gazette took part in. (Disclosure: My work covering local news is partially funded by Knight, and Lenfest is a Poynter funder.)

One goal the newsroom had was to connect with communities in different ways and to reconnect with other areas. Before the Random Acts newsletter, the Post-Gazette newsroom tried this with a condolences page after the synagogue shooting.

“We knew we needed a way for people in the community and beyond to say something,” Iovino said.

And more than 1,000 people did.

Screenshot, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Iovino said he isn’t sure what the plans are next for Random Acts of Kindness. The Post-Gazette newsroom made the news itself after an outburst from its publisher and a new editor was named. And it has other projects it’s working on.

But for Johnson, the newsletter is a way to highlight good news and experiment with newsletters. She thinks it could grow by spreading the audience into social media, adding their responses to the letters, emails and even phone calls Flowers gets each week.

And while good news certainly isn’t new, it is getting another look from local newsrooms, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which launched a good news section in print and online last year; and the Philadelphia Inquirer, which will launch in print and online next month.

“There’s a place out there for this kind of content, and I think people need some kind of reassurance that there’s also good stuff out there in the world,” Iovino said. “You get the 24-hour news cycle of everything that’s bad. Any time we can highlight those little acts of kindness that are out there, too, it’s always a good thing.”

Pittsburgh is the home of Mr. Rogers, after all, he said, “so people take great pride in something like this.”

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