When COVID-19 began to spread across the United States earlier this year, local journalists were on frontlines reporting on the virus. From Santa Fe, New Mexico to Columbus, Georgia, local newsrooms have served as the first source of information for many communities trying to navigate life in the midst of a pandemic.
As local newsrooms struggle to stay afloat in the midst of ongoing industry changes, we interviewed journalists reporting across the country to learn how they have reported on COVID-19 in their communities, and how the virus is changing local journalism beyond the pandemic.
While the first cases of COVID-19 hit the U.S. in January, 2020, it was not until March that the virus began to spread across the country. For many local journalists, it was around this time that coronavirus became the dominant story in their newsrooms as the first cases began to arise in their respective states.
“We started right away in March. We were wondering how we were going to do our old reporting, and it suddenly occurred to me, this is the story, there’s no other story right now,” said Sara Solovitch, executive director at Searchlight New Mexico in Santa Fe. Solovitch and her team dedicated all their resources to covering the virus in their state, even if it meant closing the door on other investigations.
“We had stories ready to go that, when the pandemic really exploded, all of a sudden seemed suddenly irrelevant,” said Ed Williams, a staff writer at the publication. For example, writing on a local school district when schools quickly closed.
Romy Ellenbogen, the health breaking news reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, experienced a similar rush to cover the virus in the initial months, following the first two cases in the Tampa Bay area in early March. “We had people working late into the night those first couple of weeks because the state would put out their first numbers at 11:00 or 12:00 at night,” Ellenbogen said.
In both Tampa and Santa Fe, the initial rush to cover what originally appeared to be a story that would last two or three months transformed into much more sustained coverage as the virus continued through the summer. It was also a period in which journalists were forced to adapt to remote reporting methods and techniques, as many offices closed down to allow for social distancing.
For staff at the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia, the switch to reporting remotely occurred immediately after the first cases occurred in March. Many people also had to pivot to cover the developing story from other beats. For Nick Wooten, a staff writer at the publication, transitioning from a culture reporter to a health reporter involved learning how to reach out to health and disease experts remotely, often through Twitter.
“You can pull the data out, but the tougher part is the analysis,” said Wooten. “That’s been the key thing: the people who have this knowledge and are willing to share it with us have been readily accessible throughout this pandemic.”
Reporting remotely has had an effect on the mental health of reporters. “At the beginning, we thought this would be a thing for maybe a month and then life will move on,” said Lauren Gorla, senior editor at the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. After realizing it would last much longer, the isolation of reporting on the virus at home became a major source of difficulty.
“We’re a friendly newsroom, and to lose that and now be here [in isolation] seven months later has been really hard for us,” Gorla said.
In Tampa, Ellenbogen experienced similar challenges. “Isolation can lead to feelings of burnout,” he said. “We don’t have the tools we had in the newsroom.”
In New Mexico, Solovitch and Williams found that reporting about the pandemic often required traveling to virus hotspots in person. “In this case, the journalist is just as vulnerable,” said Solovitch. “And they’re afraid they’re bringing back this sickness, this invisible thing into their household and their family, and whether they have children and a spouse – it’s a really hard thing to ask your reporters and photographers to go out and do their job.”
For Solovitch, weighing the danger of reporting in hotspots meant oftentimes deciding not to put her own journalists’ health at risk by directing them into the field. Although some stories still required going in-person.
“Sometimes, to tell the human part of the story, you can’t do that without being there. So there’s times with the story where you have to go. And that’s the bottom line,” Williams said.
Whether it be navigating the mental task of isolation, the risks behind in-person reporting or the politics surrounding virus measures such as facemasks and lockdowns, local reporters have also found a real impact in their reporting.
In Georgia, Wooten has also found a new appreciation from the community that was absent before the pandemic. “Over the past couple of months, I’ve received just an amazing amount of emails from people who say, ‘Thank you for writing about this. This reporting factors into what I’m going to do today,’” he said. “People acknowledging us, supporting us, supporting our work and sending notes like that has been really important. It sort of restored my faith in this.”
“It drives home something I fundamentally believe for years, in that local news needs to be supported and funded. You need to know what’s going on in your community – we are most impacted by the most immediate area around us,” Ellenbogen said.
As reporters move to covering the next stage of the virus – issues like the economic fallout or long-term impacts on children’s education – they have also found that having local reporters on the ground who know an area intimately is not just important, but necessary for the stories they cover.
“When you have a reporter who is from there, who actually has the reins to write about it in a really big way, I think it just fascinates people worldwide,” Solovitch said. “It’s no longer just for the locals.”
For example, a Searchlight New Mexico story reporting on food insecurity among Navajo elders circulated worldwide, but would not have been possible without a Navajo reporter on their team doing the reporting in her own community. “You can’t really replace someone who has the relationships and understanding of all the dynamics within a given community, and that’s all the more important right now to understand how a community is dealing with this crisis,” Williams said.
Journalists say that the virus has shown just how important local reporting is to their communities, but stress that newfound trust in local reporting still remains fragile.
“As we keep coming out of this, it’s going to be more crucial to keep up that trust, and after the public health crisis is over, to try to demonstrate to people we still have value even when the world isn’t burning around us,” said Gorla
Devin Windelspecht is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.