Just a few days ago, this week’s print edition was going to be a special issue on March Madness. Now, suddenly, it had turned into a special issue on a global pandemic.
“I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” editor in chief Nik Popli, 20, told his staff before they signed off for the day. “None of us are. We’ll take it one week at a time. ”
It was a feeling shared by budding journalists at campus news outlets across the country. As the virus sends shock waves across the globe, shuttering schools, battering the markets and compelling state governments to force businesses to close, the students have not stopped working.
Instead, they’ve diligently chronicled the impact of the virus on their communities — even as they found themselves losing advertisers, unable to access their newsrooms and unsure when, or even if, they’d be able to return to school.
“In a time of uncertainty, what we can assure you of is this: The State News isn’t going anywhere,” Michigan State University senior and editor in chief Madison O’Connor wrote in a note to readers. “With the responsibility — and honor — of empowering you through credible information, we will continue to provide accurate, reliable coverage of covid-19 and its effects on our community. ”
Many college newspapers are independent of the institutions they cover and are run entirely by students, meaning that the most experienced person on staff typically has four years under their belt at most. Despite being so early in their journalistic careers, college journalists across America are pulling long hours and churning out thoughtful work as their daily lives have been upended by the growing threat of the virus.
The Daily Tar Heel, the University of North Carolina’s paper, built an interactive map showing covid-19 cases across the state. The Harvard Crimson wrote about the repercussions of the school’s sudden closure for first-generation and low-income students. Ohio State University’s Daily Lantern reported on international students grappling with where to go.
In some cases, student-run outlets were among the first to report infections connected to their universities. On Monday, the Eagle reported that a student living on campus had become American University’s first confirmed case. On Tuesday, the Alligator appeared to break the news that four University of Florida students had tested positive for the virus.
“It really seems like all across the country, student journalists are rising to the occasion on covering something that’s just unprecedented, and something that directly affects them,” said Chuck Clark, a board member with the Associated Collegiate Press and director of student publications at Western Kentucky University.
He added: “Everything that is normal has been turned upside down in the past week, and I think that they see this as an important moment for them to make sure that they’re delivering the best coverage that they can. ”
For many student journalists, that has meant covering the news despite deciding that a print edition was no longer feasible and even as their campuses were emptying of students. Several school newspapers had started running live blogs about the virus’s implications on students and faculty. Western Kentucky’s College Heights Herald had launched an email newsletter to reach the now-scattered student body.
The websites of many student publications, meanwhile, carried editor’s letters pledging to keep readers informed.
The editors of the Yale Daily News noted that the paper’s print operations had been suspended just twice before — once “when the bulk of its editors were otherwise occupied on the front lines of battle in World War I” and again during World War II, “when our building at 202 York St. was converted into a headquarters for the Navy and the Marines. ”
“The last issue of the war was printed on May 8, 1943, and the paper came back to life on Sept. 12, 1946 — with an empty bank account, no paper and a mixture of editors across class years,” continued editor in chief Sammy Westfall and managing editors Serena Cho and Asha Prihar. “Still, the paper successfully resurrected itself and eventually flourished, bringing us to where we are today. ”
Staff at several newspapers said that as students themselves, they felt uniquely situated to document the pandemic’s pervasive effect on their universities. Pointing to the slashing of staff and resources at many local newspapers, they said they also felt a strong sense of duty.
“We’re doing our best to keep our audience informed because they might not have any other place to find verified information,” said Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez, editor in chief of the Daily Tar Heel. “We’re verifying and reporting the news that matters to our audience on a local level, and I think that’s the most important thing that we’ve tried to keep in mind as we’ve been working on this coronavirus story. ”
They had found no shortage of questions to answer for readers, from how federal work-study students would be affected to how students could retrieve their belongings to what their campuses looked like in the midst of historic closures. (A “ghost town,” one video put it.)
At the Alligator, Editor in Chief Christina Morales said there were signs that people were relying on the coverage. They had seen interactions with the paper’s Facebook posts leap 602 percent, she said, as page views also spiked. The editors had decided to put a reporter on call every night to watch for updates from the Florida Department of Health, some of which had been coming in about 1 a.m.
When one was delayed by an hour and a half, they reacted in true college student form: They tweeted a SpongeBob meme at the agency.
Unlike many of their peers, the Alligator was still putting out a print edition three days a week. After hitting the 40-minute limit for conference calls on the free version of Zoom, they planned to review the pages of the print edition using Google Hangouts.
Morales, who remained at her off-campus apartment in Gainesville, acknowledged the stress of covering a story that has direct implications on her own life. As a senior, she was reeling from the uncertainty over her commencement and the economy she would graduate into. “Should I be the hero,” she questioned, “or should I step back like everybody else?”
“The fear and the panic is something that I think about,” Morales said. “I’m really scared of getting the coronavirus as much as anybody is, and we also have to go online with our classes, we also are being told to leave the area. I think it’s a really complicated position for student journalists to be in right now. ”
Complicated, and to a great extent unprecedented. Even the adults in some student newsrooms, the faculty advisers, were wading into uncharted territory.
“Advisers sometimes reach into their tool bags that they have in different situations — like, I’ve spent 28 years in newsrooms around the country,” said Clark, of Western Kentucky University. “So sometimes we reach into those experiences to coach and to mentor onto how to tackle something. I don’t have anything that equals this in my bag of experiences. ”
He said college media advisers were setting up a Zoom chat “to sort of talk about how things are going,” and noted that, “I kind of called it the adviser therapy group. ”
The student editors, meanwhile, had a group of their own on Slack. A week ago, as the wave of college closures began, “a lot of newspapers kind of popped on and were like, ‘What are you guys doing? We don’t know what to do,’ ” Morales said.
Yet they soon seemed to hit their stride.
At the Cavalier Daily, the editors spent the week coordinating with writers from afar, covering the first case connected to the university and rattling off more story ideas. They wanted to look into the continued crowds at the campus strip the Corner, the situation inside the dormitories that remained open, the plans of college athletes.
They were also putting the finishing touches on the print edition set to come out Thursday. It could end up being “our final issue” of the semester, Popli told the staff.
But even that, like just about everything else, was uncertain.