Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 14, 2024

THE PUBLIC EDITOR: COVID-19 interrupted print production. When the paper returns, what changes?

By JACOB TOOK | April 25, 2020


Editors gathered on the Wednesday before spring break to put together a final print issue before The News-Letter shifted temporarily to online publication. Hopkins had announced the suspension of in-person activities through mid-April the night before due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), but editors were uncertain when they would be able to return to the Gatehouse, the home of the newspaper’s production.

“When people were leaving the Gatehouse, they were saying goodbye and hugging each other. It all seemed very final to me,” said Opinions Editor Ariella Shua, who was there finalizing the editorial. She thought to herself, “Okay, I’ll hug everyone just in case.”

In the coming weeks, Shua and her fellow editors would face challenges that none of them could have foreseen when taking on their roles. They have balanced a new production schedule as COVID-19 upended the rhythms of student life. They have adjusted communication with fellow editors and writers who are sequestered in their homes around the world. In some cases they have shifted the scope of their coverage to keep pace with the effects of a virus which sank its teeth into almost every part of life.

Managing Editor Katie Tam said she was proud of how the final print issue turned out.

“I feel like our cover was really nice, the content was good and the way we managed to pull it together was really good,” she said. Reflecting on the changes editors have taken into stride, she said it’s important to think ahead. “Right now we’re looking in the short term, but the way we’re slowly continuing on with the rest of the semester will inform future production.”

The paper’s final front page before suspending print production. Courtesy of Sarah Y. Kim.

The News-Letter has been my top priority for most of the last four years, and I never thought I’d find myself staring down questions about how the paper would continue. But now, readers are seeing changes in content across every section as COVID-19 pushes the paper into a new posture, and their biggest question is simply how it’s all still happening. 

I’ve written before on the future of the print issue of The News-Letter, but that conversation previously centered on how long the paper would hold out against financial pressures facing journalism industry-wide. It seems like COVID-19 forced our hand, at least for now. While the paper plans to return in print when students are back on campus, editors this semester have modeled how their patterns and practices, many of which are tied to the print issue’s weekly cycle, transition to new ways of publishing content.

“This online period is a referendum, in a way, on our usual processes.”

In the wake of COVID-19, I’ve heard from writers and editors alike that The News-Letter has been a thread of consistency amidst the unraveling fabric of life. But writers for many sections are now harder to stay in touch with, have fewer stories to cover and may be overwhelmed with changes in their own lives.

For some writers, said Shua, seeing their work immortalized in print was itself an incentive.

“First-time writers will contact me not because they like writing but because there’s something they’re very passionate about and want to express it,“ she said. “They get very excited about having their names in print.”

Shua is touching on something hard to place about the print issue — as a physical record not just of history at Hopkins but of the work writers and editors put in every week, something about tracing your fingers over the printed words feels more satisfyingly tactile than seeing the same finished product displayed online.

For Copy Editor Sophia Lola, stacks around campus help the paper embody a place in the daily lives of Hopkins students.

“Something that’s really special about print is the layout — having everything all together, seeing everything formatted on the front page, seeing two different pull quotes and the way we’ve organized things,” she said. “It’s a visual experience.”

Of all the paper’s sections focused on production rather than content, Copy has undergone some of the most substantive changes. Lola and her co-editor Rebecca Muratore are in charge of ensuring all published content is thoroughly proofread and fact-checked, an incredibly important but time-consuming process that catches critical errors before they make it to print.

Normally, their work is centered around a long Wednesday night shift, when they hunker down in the Gatehouse alongside a rotating staff of dedicated copy readers to comb through every article before sending pages on for polishing and final approval from the Managing Editors and the Editors-in-Chief. Now, with editors publishing pieces on different days throughout the week, Lola and Muratore have found their workload sharply and unexpectedly redistributed.

“Other sections have deadlines once or twice a week,” Lola said. “To them, it seems a little more flexible, whereas for us it’s really every day, and there’s a lot less wiggle room.”

Muratore said that it’s not significantly more work, just arranged in a very different schedule that they’ve had to balance with their other commitments. She added that the new production formula does place additional demands on their role, though.

“We have to make sure we’re proactive in having other editors tell us when articles are ready,” Muratore said.

There’s no question that long-term changes to the paper’s processes need to keep all parts of production in mind. The current online structure has important advantages — editors can ease publishing timelines to better meet the needs of writers (and even sources), and they can spend more time actually editing content rather than worrying about how it fits together on the page. However, other editors should not have to pick up more work as a result.

Another editor who found herself in a similar spot was Social Media Manager Claire Goudreau, who often used to pick up the paper each Thursday and map out all the paper’s social media posts for the following week. Now, with flexibility around when pieces are published, she can no longer count on knocking out all of her work in one or two sittings.

Still, she said that without physical copies of the paper around campus, social media is more critical than ever in sharing content with readers.

“There’s not just one day when all the articles have been put up,” Goudreau said. “Unless someone wants to take it upon themselves to check the website every single day to see new articles, the social media is putting articles in front of people.”

She added that COVID-19 has affected not just the distribution of her work but also the flow of the paper’s online presence. While she tries to vary a mix of news coverage with content from other sections, the somewhat limited scope of content means she has fewer options.

According to Goudreau, this means she’s sharing a higher proportion of published articles on social media. That sounds good to me — in fact, without the print issue, sharing almost every published article seems imperative to make sure the paper’s content reaches the broadest range of readers. Going forward, the challenge will be facilitating an increase in the proportion of content shared without piling an unreasonable workload on the Social Media Manager.

The value of the paper’s social media doesn’t just lie in sharing content. It’s an important way to see how readers engage with different pieces, and can also help editors access the voices of the paper’s wider readership. Goudreau has worked with other editors to put out calls for folks who may have uniquely valuable insights on different stories.

“Reporters can’t do the things they used to do, like walking around at an event or walking around campus and just asking people questions,” she said. “Nobody’s in one space anymore. Social media can definitely help pull in perspectives of people who might not be the obvious choices.”

In addition to using social media to bring a wider range of sources into conversation, editors see other ways to reach readers more intentionally with a more flexible online schedule.

I wrote my last piece on how the paper’s content shifted in response to COVID-19. Many editors found that the new online schedule allowed them to better stay on top of developing stories and put out more timely content. Many readers have noted that they find themselves reading News-Letter content more often because of the consistent flow of new pieces.

Among many challenges, News & Features Editor Rudy Malcom sees opportunity in being able to publish throughout the week. He said it enabled editors to focus on bigger features without having to worry about striking the right balance of content to fill seven pages each week.

“There are lots of moving parts still, but they seem more manageable,” he said. “This online period is a referendum, in a way, on our usual processes.” He added that they might, for example, evaluate how event coverage and features are broken up.

Assistant News & Features Editor Katy Wilner pointed out that their regular communication about breaking news updates and developing features positioned them to transition to virtual life more easily than she anticipated.

“We’re all constantly on our phones anyway,” she said. “When something happens, usually we decide we’re going to write that story within 30 minutes, and we’ve decided who can write and when it’s going to come out.”

Some editors, on the other hand, can no longer access the technology they need.

In the best of times, a major challenge facing the paper’s Photography staff is a lack of dedicated equipment. Wonderful as it would be, The News-Letter can’t issue cameras to staff photographers, and can’t virtually share the Adobe Suite programs available on the Gatehouse computers.

Plus, as Photo Editor Neha Sangana told me, parts of their role simply don’t translate to the website as well. Photo essays, normally presented at the back of the A section on a full page display, don’t have a comfortable home online.

“We want to work on restructuring the photo essay, working with the webmaster to find a format where it could be something that people engage with online as well as in print,” Sangana said.

The photo essay is just one part of what the photo staff does. And while the photo essay is important, it should not take up the majority of work for the Photo Editors in a given week. Sangana suggested rethinking the photo essay to share on Instagram, which feels natural.

Whatever the status of production next year, the paper could re-evaluate the way it currently engages with visual media. Sections could share their budgets with the Photo Editors, who in turn could reach out to every section, every week to identify a few pieces which may require a photo. Persistent communication with section editors will yield results. On their end, attaching photos to articles should no longer be part of layout. In a web-first production model, almost every piece should have a photo or some other visual media attached.

Change is slow to come to an organization which trades in new leadership year after year. But if each set of editors takes a step in the right direction, we’re putting the next year’s editors one step ahead. And The News-Letter has never been better poised to rethink its workflow on a broad scale.

This can include asking section editors to be more proactive about photos. They could also write social media blurbs for each piece, saving the Social Media Manager hours each week. In exchange, how can the workload of these editors be eased in other areas?

“For the time being, we're able to focus a little bit more on the content itself.”

Without the restrictions of the print layout, editors no longer have to worry about cutting simply to make content fit. For Voices Editor Sam Farrar, this is an important component of letting his writers tell their own stories in their own words.

“It’s been so nice to not have to worry about cutting anything for the space requirements of print, when there’s an infinite amount of space on the online version,” he said. “That’s an industry standard at this point that we should definitely think about adopting.”

Arts & Entertainment Editor Katy Oh reflected that laying out her section’s pages took up a sizable chunk of her time, a frustration which many other editors shared.

“Without that, for the time being, we’re able to focus a little bit more on the content itself, as opposed to making sure that everything is coordinated with the print version,” she said.

With uncertainty about how training next year’s editors in layout can proceed, many of them may be understandably apprehensive. Outgoing editors will do their best not to leave their successors high and dry, but without a firm groundwork of  training in Adobe InDesign, next year's editors will face a steep learning curve that may noticeably frustrate the production process.

Jae Choi, Oh’s fellow Arts & Entertainment Editor, explained that he wasn’t exactly sure how to proceed after one of the incoming Arts & Entertainment editors asked to shadow.

“It was kind of strange, having to explain to her, ‘We might not be able to teach you, or demonstrate how you work on InDesign,‘” Choi said. “We don’t have that at this moment.”

Despite the core responsibilities of her role remaining mostly unchanged, Copy Editor Rebecca Muratore was also apprehensive about training next year’s editors.

“It definitely was helpful having a period last year to learn the ropes,” she said. “We’ll definitely have to do some more training with the new staff before next school year starts, because it’s a lot to just jump into it your first time.”

Assuming that The News-Letter returns to a print issue in the fall, next year’s section editors could just not jump into layout at all.

Relieving at least some sections of their layout duties could be an important step in getting the paper for web-first production. For many editors, this would free up time to focus on improving the quality and scope of their coverage and making writers feel more supported. It would also put the paper on better footing to meet the actual end of its print production, a prospect as unwelcome as it seems inevitable.

Even just a few sections could get the ball rolling. Editors would still need to write headlines, select pull quotes, curate photos and do much of the other work currently rolled into layout.

If editors aren’t laying out their pages, then who will, you ask?

Managing Editors find a majority of their role centered on one long Wednesday night shift, during which they polish pages before passing them on for final approval. During my time as a Managing Editor, I often found myself shifting up the layout of a section to strengthen the overall look of the pages. Going from this process of polishing to laying out an entire section on blank pages may seem like a big step, but it really isn’t, especially if editors are already doing the work of writing headlines, choosing photos and the like. The Layout Editor and two Managing Editors could handle 10 pages a week, particularly if they could get a head start on Tuesday night.

If the paper implemented this step next year, production night would not look massively different. Copy Editors would still come in (but maybe for a shorter stretch) to read recent news coverage and any other pieces which came together on Wednesday night to be published in print the next day. News & Features Editors would still sit down with an Editor-in-Chief to finalize the front page. The Editorial Board would still meet to iron out a final draft. Editors could maintain the familiar rhythm of weekly production.

There’s no question that now is the time. Outgoing staff could focus layout training on the incoming Layout and Managing Editors (if they even need it) and relieve many of next year’s editors of InDesign-related anxiety, for which they can’t fully prepare.

“People's mental health is more important than their role on The News-Letter.”

Many editors may feel an instinctive adherence to consistency in these tumultuous times. In many senses, that’s needed right now. As we all get used to new ways of staying in touch and managing our time, consistency in our day-to-day routine can help us stay grounded. Editors, writers and readers alike are glad to see The News-Letter continue publishing this semester.

Voices Editor Sam Farrar said it was important to preserve as much familiarity as possible in communications with his columnists.

“We’re relearning how to go to class, how to complete assignments remotely and do everything like that,” he said. “I don’t want them to also have to relearn [the editing process].”

Regardless of how the paper adjusts its long-term practices after returning to print, and whatever circumstances next year’s editors face, they will certainly need plenty of dedicated support and attention to ensure they can balance their roles in The News-Letter with their other commitments and their own mental health.

Managing Editor Katie Tam felt like the crisis has sharpened the importance of the Managing Editors, who are there to support editors with whatever they need to make production run as smoothly as possible. 

Tam indicated that they want to be there for incoming editors too.

“It’s a big time commitment, and especially going in during new, uncertain times, it’s kind of like you’re not really sure what you’re getting yourself into,” she said. “We’re not sure if it will be back on campus or not, or all online, and how to navigate that.”

Tam’s fellow Managing Editor, Emily McDonald, agreed that being accessible and understanding was an important way to let editors know they should prioritize taking care of themselves.

“Obviously, people’s health and people’s mental health is more important than their role on The News-Letter,” McDonald said. “Making sure we’re communicating that, and that people feel comfortable coming to us and telling us if they need anything like an extended deadline or something like that, is an important part of it.”

It’s an important reminder that, sweeping opportunistic visions for the future aside, the first priority is always the people who invest their time and energy into The News-Letter — editors, writers and even readers.

There’s another reason why change comes slowly to the paper — editors need their full time and attention to make sure they’re bringing readers the best content. The entire production apparatus of the paper is delicately balanced, and if it’s overloaded at any one point, the entire system can start to slip, leading to dips in quality which readers notice.

The News-Letter has so much room to grow from the trial of COVID-19. Whatever changes the paper makes, though, don’t worry — returning to a print product will ultimately mean restoring many of the patterns that we are all used to because they’re tried and true. The paper may eventually transition to be online, fully and permanently. Until then, maybe McDonald said it best:

“Deadlines might change in the future, but when we do have a print paper, we’ll still always have that Wednesday night, Thursday noon deadline.”

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