It was two weeks ago that I really began to understand that COVID-19 was going to have life-changing effects on our newsroom.
Almost anytime there is a major event that impacts all of us, the effects on journalists are two-fold. First, and it usually does come first, we think of our role as journalists: How will we cover this? What information do people need? What stories must be told? How can we help our readers? Second, we feel the impact as humans, with the same concerns and anxieties as everybody else.
When I first began to think about changing some internal protocols because of the virus, the discussion was met with some polite skepticism in the newsroom. People understood why we were having the conversation, but no one was feeling too concerned.
We had a meeting of TH department heads and began to formulate a plan for staff logistics: who could work from home, what the IT needs were, whose job required them to stay in the building. At that first meeting, it still felt fairly hypothetical, and we had the discussion sitting elbow to elbow around a conference room table.
Every day after that, the gravity of the news pulled harder. Because we believe our first obligation is to inform the public in times of crisis, we decided we needed to lift the paywall on all coronavirus content to make our stories available to everyone, whether or not they subscribe.
On March 15, Managing Editor Dustin Kass told the news team to come with ideas the next day, ready to map out a coverage plan for the week. That day we moved the meeting from our usual conference room to a bigger space down the hall with chairs spread out. We talked for an hour and Dustin came away with a list of more than 30 stories we could pursue over time, and a game plan for the next week.
Once restaurants and bars closed to dine-in traffic, Dustin suggested we try to help out small local businesses by running a list of restaurants that had altered their business model to carry-out and curbside delivery. We thought that would provide a nice service for readers and an opportunity to lift up some of our local small businesses. They are the lifeblood of our communities.
At the same time, we began to move employees out of our building at Eighth and Bluff. Our department heads meetings to discuss the topic had moved to videoconference. By late last week, nearly everyone was gone except some of circulation, a few in accounting, most of editorial and IT. The next step was to spread out editorial employees throughout our building, since we are the biggest group with 35-plus working journalists. We stuck folks in offices and corners to disperse us so that people could isolate and avoid any close contact. Several members of our staff are working from home as well.
Reporters have spent more time working the phones, sending emails and video conferencing than they usually do. We suspended efforts to get videos of key sources for most stories in an effort to spare our staff and our sources of that proximity. We imposed a rule that reporters and photographers should do their work in public spaces and outdoors, avoiding going into anyone’s home. That makes it harder to tell stories — particularly when home is exactly where most people are, but we’re trying to take precautions.
It’s that balance of trying to be cautious but not overly cautious so as to limit our folks’ ability to do their jobs — jobs that are more important than ever — that is so challenging.
When (and these days it’s when, not if) I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, I sometimes find myself thinking about Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds. I think that on a much broader scale, she is facing a similar balance — protecting people without putting unnecessary restraints on citizens and their ability to live, work and play. I know that those decisions must weigh heavily on her, and I feel for her.
I don’t have the weight of 3 million constituents on my shoulders, but I do care deeply about the people I work with and the readers we serve. We will continue to adjust and revise our gameplan, and we have plans for getting out newspapers even if all our journalists have to work from home. I hope you won’t mind lots of photos of Dave Kettering’s backyard, if it comes to that. Knowing him, they’d still be pretty good photos.
We plan to be here to help you through this. That’s our job. I hope that as new readers access our reporting during this difficult time, they will see that we are serving this community in a way that no one else does. We’re a small business that needs support, too, you know. Together, we’ll persevere.