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On Fridays, Jake Goldstein-Street usually wakes up at 9:55 am, just in time for his first class at 10:30. On March 6, he woke up at 8:10 am to an e-mail announcing that starting Monday, all classes at the University of Washington would be held remotely. Frazzled, he rolled out of bed. In less than an hour, he had written a breaking news article for the school paper, The Daily of the University of Washington —the first of four he would write or contribute to that day. Between filing the article and heading to the university president’s press conference, Goldstein-Street took a shower, still shaking with adrenaline.
As The Daily’s news editor, Goldstein-Street has been covering Covid-19 since January, when the first cases appeared in the Seattle area. After the deaths in late February at Kirkland’s Life Care Center nursing home, he ramped up the student newspaper’s coverage. Over the past three months, he’s published more than 30 articles covering the virus, many cowritten with science editor Ash Shah.
Around the country, colleges and universities have closed campuses and transitioned to online learning in an effort to help flatten the curve. And though students are no longer on campus, student-run college newspapers continue to publish news about Covid-19—now mostly remotely.
Reporting campus news during a pandemic that has emptied out colleges and universities, while visiting unprecedented consequences on society and the economy, is something for which students, obviously, were not prepared. “There’s no textbook for the Coronavirus,” Benjy Renton, editor at large at The Middlebury Campus, said. Student journalists are “writing that book right now, and every decision we make is something that must have a lot of thought put into it.”
Student journalists, for example, have had to learn how to find sources when their campuses have closed. Both Goldstein-Street and Marissa Martinez, editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern, said that they and their staffers have been relying more on their social and professional networks. The Northwestern, along with other newspapers, such as The Daily Texan, have also created survey forms for readers to ask questions and send tips. And according to Martinez, the Northwestern has been conducting interviews, frequently via video chat, based on the questions students have submitted through the form and social media.
For Goldstein-Street, the pandemic is “a rapidly-changing situation…. it’s a lot about meeting people where they are and talking to them in situations where they’re most comfortable.” He said that they’ve conducted interviews exclusively over text messages or direct messages on social media.
When she’s editing articles for publication, Penn State’s Daily Collegian’s editor-in-chief Elena Rose said she has become very particular about word choice. She omits phrases like “yet again,” and “cases are climbing”—phrases that sensationalize the news or instill panic in their readers. “Stories need to be told, but we can…say what is happening in the most honest way,” she said.
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Goldstein-Street and Martinez see their organizations’ reporting as a way to be honest with the student body about the seriousness and urgency of the virus. “We want people to be taking this seriously, because now students are going out and spreading this unknowingly. It’s a big deal,” Goldstein-Street said. “They’re going out and spreading it without even showing symptoms.”
To engage with readers, student newspapers have been leaning heavily on social media. the Collegian has added local updates about the spread of the epidemic in its 60-second news roundups. The paper has also expanded its multimedia content to include informational videos—one instructs students about how to best wash your hands. Along with The Diamondback, the Collegian has added a “Coronavirus” segment on their Instagram stories. To reach Spanish-preferred speakers, the Northwestern—which also acts as the only daily newspaper for both Northwestern University and the town it is located in, Evanston, Illinois—has also been translating their Covid-19 coverage into Spanish.
Penn State junior Taylor O’Rourke depends on student media to stay informed about campus. While Penn State publishes news on its website, according to O’Rourke, it’s only updated daily—versus the multiple posts per day by both the Collegian and Onward State, another independent student media outlet at Penn State. She added that the university also doesn’t send regular updates to students, and if she does receive one, it usually ends up in her spam. For important news, like campus moving to remote learning, “it’s easiest to be scrolling through Twitter or Facebook,” she said “and then just read their [the Collegian’s and Onward State’s] articles, instead of going onto [the Penn State news page] and hoping to find something that might not necessarily be there.”
University of Maryland senior Selena Rawlley says her student newspaper is a lifeline to campus. Now that campus is closed, she’s home, separated from her classmates and friends. For this senior trying to come to terms with a college career cut short, the isolation “almost makes you feel like you’re the only one experiencing it.” However, after reading her best friend’s column about the canceled commencement, she found an article about how other members of student organizations are coping with a shortened year. When she saw the headline, crying, she “braced” herself. As she read the article, she started to feel comforted, knowing “I’m not the only one who’s disappointed.”
Like Rawlley, student journalists are trying to cope with a new reality. However, as they move back home or look for a place to live, adjust to online learning, and look for extra income, student journalists continue reporting. “We’ve been doing it because we love our community and we love our campus,” Martinez said. “We want to make sure that everyone has the right information.”