Journalism relies on interaction. Whether covering an event, interviewing a source or producing a story, communication is critical, and it’s usually best done face-to-face. However, once the pandemic began, universities and colleges across the U.S. began to transition fully to virtual learning, and student journalists and journalism students were forced to confront the challenges of an online era.
Challenges facing student newspapers
When it became apparent that the coronavirus was not going to subside by fall, universities around the U.S. began announcing their plans for the upcoming school year, many of them either going fully online or assuming a hybrid version of in-person and online learning.
Harvard was one of the first schools to decide to go completely remote. The president of The Harvard Crimson, Aidan Ryan, had to figure out how to keep the student newspaper running without meeting on campus.
“We spent a lot of time meeting in-person and we’re lucky enough to have our own building, which is a great space for collaboration,” Ryan said. “Going remote, we are definitely missing out on those in-person experiences. The feeling of a newsroom when you’re together is such a special feeling, and you can’t replicate that remotely.”
Ryan said that the Crimson has reporters who are scattered across the world, making it difficult to work together remotely while accounting for the different time zones. However, the newsroom continues to get by through frequent Zoom calls and communication via email.
Student papers across the country are dealing with similar challenges, and adapting quickly is vital to ensure that content is consistently being published. The Daily Tar Heel, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, started the school year in-person. However, they had to quickly adapt after the university went fully remote just a week into the semester in response to a surge of COVID-19 cases on campus, which the student paper described as a “clusterfuck” in its widely circulated editorial.
“In normal times, we’d be walking through campus to go to class and would see potential stories, but that’s not possible anymore,” Anna Pogarcic, editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel, said.
Pogarcic’s newsroom organization now entails live edits over Zoom, and she makes efforts to check in virtually with all of her editors and staff to see how they are adapting.
Adjusting to remote reporting
The challenges for reporters that accompany the inability to be on campus are clear, but the good news is that if student journalists aren’t on campus, neither is anyone else.
“We’ve started to rely a lot more on social media to find stories,” Pogarcic said. “No one goes to campus anymore, so there is a lot more activity on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.”
Being active on social media is a quick tip for student journalists struggling to find stories. Check out the online communities for campus clubs and organizations to see what they’re doing to stay active during the semester, and to stay up to date with the University's online presence.
Although running a student newspaper during a pandemic is not quite what Ryan and Pogarcic signed up for, they have seen unexpected benefits of remote coverage. For the Crimson, one of those was increased interest and engagement from the staff.
“When you’re on campus, so much of your time is spent with other people and walking from place to place, but when you’re at home and alone, you lose that interaction and gain a lot of time,” Ryan said. “People just want to write and keep writing.”
Reporting in an unprecedented time has also allowed Pogarcic and her staff to explore new ways to deliver content.
“Not coming to the office gives us time to do a lot more social media reporting, videos and other multimedia,” Pogargic said. “Going into this year with the recognition that things are going to be different has freed us from things we’ve done in the past. It’s pushed us to see how we can do coverage a little differently.”
If you’re a student journalist, take this time to consider new forms of reporting, whether it be through podcasts, photography or video. There are a number of resources that introduce new types of reporting, such as NPR’s guide to starting a podcast and photojournalist Sarah Espedido’s tutorial on making videos for news.
Instructors adapt, too
Many reporters for student publications hone their journalism skills in class, and journalism professors rely just as much on face-to-face interaction as students do in carrying out their course plans. Cheryl Phillips, a journalism professor at Stanford University, teaches three classes that used to heavily rely on meeting together in the classroom.
“When I came to Stanford, I came with the mindset of treating the class like a newsroom and helping the students learn that way,” Phillips said.
Phillips has had to switch her project-based classes to Zoom. During her lessons, she discusses the challenges of virtual reporting with her students and strategizes ways to land interviews with sources virtually.
While learning and teaching in-person is preferred, Phillips said that there is no better time than to set foot in the journalism field.
“You’re like every other journalist out there,” Phillips said. “All journalists are having to adapt by sitting in their homes and interviewing people remotely, and they’re still getting great stories.”
Ayelet Sheffey is a journalism student at American University in Washington, D.C.