Back in December, editor-in-chief of University of Michigan’s newspaper, The Michigan Daily, Elizabeth Lawrence said she barely realized the gravity of COVID-19.
“It’s funny because it was really just a blip on my radar for so long—which looking back was probably not the best thing,” Lawrence said. “We had a few articles coming in about students sort of reacting to coronavirus in China specifically and talking about study abroad programs that were being canceled. But other than that, no one was talking about it in a way that really anyone thought it was going to affect them.”
Now, The Daily writes about the virus constantly, providing daily updates to its students and Ann Arbor readers so they can stay safe and informed.
As coronavirus has taken its toll on the health and economy of the globe, the journalism industry has taken an unprecedented hit. Major outlets like The New York Times can rely on the revenue accumulated from subscriptions to stay financially stable—but smaller and ad-based newspapers have been struggling.
At least 300 jobs at local papers have been lost across the U.S. due to the pandemic. And journalists who have kept their jobs have been figuring out how to work from home and deliver important news to readers.
Colleges have been dramatically affected by the virus, as well: Students have had to attend class on Zoom; return to their hometowns, find housing off campus or socially distance in their university neighborhoods; and navigate the lines and hoarders at grocery stores. The CDC has included a page on their website specifically advising colleges on how to respond to the virus.
Higher education’s newspapers stand at the intersection of these issues.
Four female editors-in-chief of college newspapers around the country—New York, Ohio, Michigan and the State of Washington—talked to Ms. about the hardships and successes that have arisen as both journalists and university students during the age of coronavirus.
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According to editor-in-chief Kaylee Harter of Ohio State University’s paper, The Lantern, students were initially told that they had little to worry about regarding the virus. Then, suddenly and with urgency, their school lives were completely transformed.
“There was like a one- or two-week period that felt like it was a month long, just in terms of the amount of things that were changing,” Harter said.
Study abroad programs were cancelled, athletes played without crowds and dorm residents were forced to leave unless they had nowhere else to go.
In the midst of transformations in university policies and timelines, college newspapers kept up the changes, serving their campus community by reporting on everything coronavirus-related that could impact students’ lives. This required consistent communication between the student paper and university officials.
Lawrence said UMich respected this relationship.
“The day that they were canceling classes, there were a lot of rumors about when they were actually going to cancel them,” Lawrence said. “We were sort of being told by the communications office to hold off, since they were still discussing things. They definitely were keeping us in the loop.”
After university publications post their latest stories about the virus, the campus community tends to reply with its opinions regarding the administration’s actions.
Haley Robertson, the editor-in-chief of Syracuse University’s The Daily Orange, said that COVID-19’s novelty and complications make it difficult to critique the university’s response.
“No one could have prepared for this,” Robertson said. “There’s nothing to compare this to, you know, you can’t say, ‘Oh, Syracuse should have done better at this because X, Y, Z.’ This is the first time that they’re dealing with this.”
Major institutions have not dealt with a pandemic shutdown of such gravity since nearly a century ago. In the midst of novelty, these universities’ newspapers must serve their communities diligently and thoroughly.
Mira Petrillo, the editor-in-chief of University of Washington’s The Daily, said she recognizes this responsibility.
“I feel really fortunate and then deeply saddened by the fact that there’s a shadow here,” Petrillo said. “This is going to impact certain communities a lot more than others. And, I’m curious and excited, and I’m planning on figuring out what that means for a community in a metropolitan area—in a big university that often feels disconnected—what it means to care for communities that are being disproportionately affected by this.”
Harter said she recognized this journalistic duty to inform the community, too.
“Covering this can be stressful at times, and it can be heavy,” Harter said. “But obviously that’s our job to tell those stories. I think that, without the support system that we do have within the newsroom, it would be a lot more difficult to be able to kind of keep going and keep telling those stories, because I really do believe that they’re important to tell.”
Sharing a similar sentiment, Robertson said she has seen college newspapers across the U.S. address and bolster community not only in their coverage, but in their newsrooms.
“We tweeted out a photo from our virtual Zoom staff meeting, and then we saw The Daily Texan and The Daily Northwestern did, as well,” Robertson said. “It was really cool to see and know that everyone is really adapting and supporting each other while we’re all trying to try to figure this out.”
With an equally positive attitude, Petrillo said that this uniquely digital moment has inspired her and her newsroom in brainstorming content and creative solutions.
“I was like, ‘Wait, this is going to be awesome! We’re going to come out of this with a better understanding of what it means to be digital first,’” Petrillo said. “We’re thinking about like, okay, what does a graduation edition look like, and what does it look like on this platform, and how can it be interactive, and how could we do this and how could we do that?”
Although creative constraints continue to motivate student newsrooms, putting the paper together virtually because of quarantine means the young journalists spend less physical time with one another.
“Being in the newsroom is a big part of our lives and such a big part of what fills our time during the week,” OSU’s Harter said. “The work has gone smoothly; I think that the hardest part for me is just not getting to see everyone and spend time with everyone.”
But, besides Zoom calls, the students have tried to stay connected with one another, as fellow journalists and as friends. Syracuse’s Robertson said her paper’s managing editor has made efforts to lift the staff’s spirits.
“In Slack, we have the positivity channel where people drop photos of their dog doing silly things or funny memes,” Robertson said. “We started a Daily Orange Tik Tok this semester, so we made a Tik Tok during the first week of being home.”
Outside of their newsrooms, these students face the shifting realities of college students right now.
“I wish I had a dollar for every time somebody was like, well, it is what it is. You know?” Harter said. “It’s sad for college individuals who aren’t getting to finish out their year the way that they want. But I think there is also an understanding that there’s something bigger going on, and the fun stuff that comes with spring semester is worth the sacrifice.”
However, students have not needed to sacrifice community, thanks to social media.
“I feel like everyone is really plugged into our Facebook groups more than ever before, plugged into Instagram,” UMich’s Lawrence said. “Even if we’re all dispersed, we still have this deep belonging and pride to the university.”
For those who have stuck around near their schools instead of returning home, an in-person community persists, though it may be a bit more contained than how campus normally feels.
“We’ll go on walks together, and we’ll sit out on our porch and do our homework together during the day,” Harter said. “We ordered a bunch of takeout from a local restaurant that we really like that’s still doing takeout.”
Students away from campus have maintained a slice of community, too, especially thanks to their newsrooms.
“Our Zoom story meetings are the highlight of my day,” Lawrence said.
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