When the current editors of The News-Letter went through election interviews last April, nobody asked them how they would adapt their roles to a global pandemic. A year ago, no one imagined life as we know it changing so drastically. Even a month ago, the extent of the effort required to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was only starting to sink in.
In the span of a few days, though, students scattered to their homes, events across the city largely ground to a halt and many editors were left wondering how they could adjust their content to keep up.
“What happened first was that professional sports got cancelled,” recalled Sports Editor Eric Lynch. “We were like, ‘Oh! What are we going to write sportpinions about?’ Then all the campus sports got cancelled, and we were like, ‘Oh! We’re only going to have sportpinions.’”
Indeed, it’s hard to form sportpinions (a portmanteau of sport and opinion) when sports around the world are on pause. Arts editors, who this year strove to diversify their section with more coverage of Baltimore’s arts scene, suddenly found local venues shuttered and many artists struggling to stay afloat. And what can writers recommend for Your Weekend, beyond staying home and observing proper social distancing?
After Hopkins suspended in-person activities, it became clear that The News-Letter would have to transition to an online production formula. Through turmoil on a global and personal scale, editors have balanced their commitment to the paper and its readers as we step into a new virtual world together.
For Lynch, the disruption of the print issue, which chronicles the front lines of history at Hopkins, feels significant. News & Features Editor Rudy Malcom said that temporarily shifting production online doesn’t affect the mission of The News-Letter, which he added is important now more than ever.
“With students not being on campus, we still have the responsibility to represent their voices, make sure that their concerns are being heard and that their experiences are reflected in the historical record,” Malcom said.
The paper’s new production schedule, in which content is published throughout the week rather than all at once alongside the print issue, has important advantages for the news team, according to Malcom. For instance, they can update developing stories more easily or publish a piece as soon as it’s ready to inform readers more quickly.
News has shifted almost entirely to publishing features, which editors previously balanced with coverage of events on campus and in the city. Assistant News Editor Katy Wilner said that after meeting to list questions about the effects of COVID-19 at Hopkins and for Hopkins students, the team had brainstormed over 30 potential features. “That had just never happened before,” she added, underscoring the demand for dedicated reporting from The News-Letter despite the emptiness on campus.
From her reporting on challenges related to mental health in the wake of the virus, Wilner suggested that physical separation had exacerbated a division between Hopkins students and administrators.
“Students are so frustrated because they feel like the University is not supporting them, and then I talk to people from the University and they’re so eager to support students,” Wilner said. “It’s such a clear disconnect between the administration and the student body.”
She added that The News-Letter could help bridge that distance. Malcom said he hopes they can illuminate the divide to administrators, who “can see how students feel and how that may or may not match with [administrators'] intentions to support them.”
Discord between Hopkins students and administrators is hardly new, though, and The News-Letter has always had the capacity to act as an intermediary. The benefits of a more flexible online publishing schedule will carry on when the paper returns to print, letting The News-Letter navigate heated issues more deftly as other important stories come back into the fold. At the moment, though, COVID-19 has been undeniably all-consuming.
“There’s so much that students want to know about what’s going on right now,” said Assistant News Editor Will Edmonds. “When we have developments constantly and breaking news at least once or twice a week, a non-traditional production schedule is almost imperative.”
When it comes to answering questions from readers, Science & Technology Editors Trisha Parayil and Laura Wadsten have felt heightened responsibility in the last few weeks because of their section’s position to report on COVID-19 at Hopkins through a unique lens — the lab.
Parayil said that Hopkins is on the forefront of the medical response to COVID-19, adding, “COVID has allowed us to expand our purview a little bit by looking more at what Hopkins specifically is doing in terms of research.”
“We’re lucky that we’re connected to the people who are literally working on it,” Wadsten said. “We’re trying to educate people and put the best information out there.”
In addition to unanswered questions, many editors observed that students also have more to say than they have in the past, possibly because they are spending more time at home and feeling disconnected from campus. And while every section strives to represent the perspectives of Hopkins students one way or another, those in which writers can air out their feelings and experiences most directly have seen upticks of interest.
Opinions Editor Ariella Shua, who sometimes struggled to fit content from her writers into the one page set aside for op-eds, doesn’t miss the constraints of the print layout. Each week since spring break, she has published more content than would fit in a single print issue, most of which is related to COVID-19.
“People get very worked up, passionate and emotional about the things that are most directly impacting them,” she said. “Coronavirus is impacting every single person’s life in major ways that are unprecedented.”
Shua said that she tries to be sensitive in her communication with writers, something I heard from almost every editor I talked to. Voices Editor Sam Farrar said he wants to avoid creating stress related to The News-Letter for his columnists, understanding that they may be facing their own challenging circumstances.
Like Shua, most of the content Farrar is publishing relates to COVID-19, but he emphasized that the section still showcases a diverse range of experiences and perspectives and can be a good outlet for writers who may be understandably stressed.
“There’s a lot of concern and anxiety in our community, and this section is a place where you can express that,” he said. “A lot of other sections have been having trouble finding content and writers, but it’s like I’ve had the opposite problem.”
While many editors expressed uncertainty about how much they could lean on writers, both writers and editors alike reaffirm that The News-Letter offers an echo of what life was like before mass-quarantine. Most sections have a dedicated staff who continue to do amazing work, but some editors are questioning what is even left for them to cover.
Some sections have had to get creative with their content, including the paper’s photo staff. For one thing, reflected Photography Editor Neha Sangana, would-be photographers are stuck at home and discouraged from venturing out to explore. And even if they did, added her co-editor Eda Incekara, human subjects are an important part of bringing photos to life.
“You can only take empty photos of the empty campus so much before it gets old,” she said. “Not having public spaces full of people or any sort of social events will definitely change how photojournalism looks within the next couple of weeks and months.”
This year, writers for Arts & Entertainment upped their coverage of the arts in Baltimore, checking out local venues and museum installations and — importantly — bringing the voices of community members into the pages of The News-Letter. Now, Arts & Entertainment Editor Katy Oh worries that the section will lose momentum.
Still, she outlined how COVID-19 has increased attention on the arts.
“Everyone is watching movies, listening to music, really engaging with the arts,” she said. “At this time, I feel like we all turn to the arts as our one medium of communication.”
Fellow Arts Editor Jae Choi agreed that we often look to the arts in times of crisis, both in terms of what we might stream on Netflix and what we might read in The News-Letter.
“As opposed to something like News or Opinions where a lot of the content can sometimes be colored by things that are happening in wider society, I think arts gives writers the opportunity to escape that,” he said.
While Choi and Oh don’t want to ask too much of their writers, there are still important stories to cover in Baltimore. Last week, Oh published a piece on the impact of COVID-19 on Baltimore’s artists and arts organizations.
“We’re all consuming media and work that is produced by artists, and at the same time, they’re probably one of the most impacted groups,” she said. “Being an artist isn’t always the easiest thing, with venues closed and everything.”
There’s room for more pieces like this in Arts, as well as other sections, and editors could consider hitting up the paper’s news team to collaborate on reporting that their writers may find daunting (particularly with the added wrinkle of social distancing). Editors can trust their judgements to find a pragmatic balance between escapism and necessary coverage of COVID-19.
That being said, while some editors may not miss the length constraints of the print issue, others don’t miss laying out their pages for the opposite reason — Oh and Choi have seen their section’s pace flag and would struggle to find enough content to fill their pages at the moment. And perhaps no section has felt this as acutely as Sports.
In this article following spring break, Sports Editor Brandon Wolfe introduces some of the devastating consequences of COVID-19 for student athletes (he focuses on seniors). With seasons cancelled, teams split apart and uncertainties about how solutions to these challenges will play out, many student athletes have found their livelihoods torn away.
For Sports Editor Eric Lynch, the section plays an important role in recording their experiences and perspectives.
“There’s a lot of different ways we can help student athletes get their feelings out there,” he said. “It would be interesting to see if any of them would want to write about sports as a substitute for playing a sport.”
Certainly, there are stories that can be reported without pestering too many student athletes, who may not want to dwell on the lost season while it’s still so fresh. What does the dip in revenue from the cancelled games mean for Hopkins Athletics? Will adjustments impact incoming student athletes? What do alumni (and specifically former Blue Jays) think about alumni weekend going virtual?
Lynch identified ways to take advantage of the circumstances to do things they wouldn’t have space to do otherwise — previewing the fall seasons, for instance. He said that the impact of COVID-19 made him consider diversifying more of the section’s content away from game recaps and sportpinions, which he said could feel cookie-cutter at times.
And with a return to print, he would advocate for sticking with a more flexible online publishing schedule (as would most of the editors I heard from). This would help the section expand the scope of its sports coverage. Under a stricter print schedule, for example, a Wednesday night game wouldn’t make it into the next day’s issue, but would no longer be timely a full week later.
“We limit ourselves to four recaps a week, and there’s a lot more than four sports going on at one time out there, and we just don’t get to cover them all,” he said. “We usually end up missing some good games.”
Despite its effects on his section and in the broader world of sports, Lynch ultimately returned to the unmatched scope of the virus. Every editor I talked to reaffirmed the importance of maintaining health and mental health, for themselves, their fellow editors, their writers and their readers. Editors insisted that the challenges they have faced in their roles in the last few weeks must be considered against the all-encompassing context of COVID-19.
“A lot of sports fans — sometimes we take sports too seriously,” Lynch said, adding that COVID-19 puts things in perspective. “It’s nice to say that no, sports has to stop. There’s something more important.”
With a global pandemic disrupting the semester, the sports season and the production of a student newspaper nearing its 125th year in print, it seems we have no choice but to adapt. But don’t worry — every week, we will still put out the paper.
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