Listen to Tracy Briggs read this story below:
It’s more than a little ironic what's on the wall behind journalist Robin Huebner every time she does an online interview or Facebook Live update from her living room — a small star with the word “Calm” spelled out in the center. Perhaps it’s more aspirational than inspirational.
For journalists everywhere, the COVID-19 pandemic is hardly a time of calm. While many reporters and editors are working from home, others are covering stories from the front lines of the fight. For all, it’s become a massive undertaking trying to strike a balance between sharing life-altering, life-saving information, while also trying to calm fears.
“I’ve been in the news business for 40 years, and this will go down as the most important story of most of our lifetimes,” Huebner said.
“I think all of the journalists feel a sense of purpose or importance in bringing timely information to the public,” said Matt Von Pinnon, editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. “I’ve had to encourage them to take breaks once in a while and remind them that this is a marathon. We don’t know when this will end.”
How has this global pandemic changed the way journalists do their jobs and how will it change the future of journalism? Over the past couple weeks, we asked journalists from all over Forum Communications Co. newsrooms in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin to weigh in on the challenges they face and the lessons they’ve learned.
You see one of the clearest signs of COVID’s effect on local journalism every time you turn on the evening news. WDAY-TV anchors Dana Mogck and Kerstin Kealy, who normally sit just a foot apart in the Fargo studio, are at opposite ends of the anchor desk every night at 6 and 10 p.m.
“Every anchor actually has their own spot on the set,” said Kealy. “So you see Dana over there has his spot. No one else will stand there. This is my spot, and the weekend anchor will be in the middle. Everyone is spread out throughout the studio to limit the spread of germs.”
Some reporters who would normally be in the studio to do live shots now do them on location, and the sports team will broadcast from their offices. WDAY took the pandemic threat so seriously they even built a new set in the basement of the building for the 9 p.m. broadcast.
“Our engineers were able to scramble and build this emergency set when the pandemic first hit, so anchors wouldn’t have to share sets,” said Mogck.
First News has its own set in the upstairs main studio along with the 4 p.m, 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. set. The new set on the lower level is for the 9 p.m. newscast only.
News Director Jeff Nelson says they’ve limited the number of people in the newsroom at one time by altering work shifts and paying careful attention to cleanliness.
“We sanitize after every show,” Nelson said. “Everyone washes in and washes out.”
Hand sanitizers and antibacterial wipes are all over the station and used to wipe down the control room, sets, computers, microphones and Microsoft Surfaces that anchors use to read their scripts. Some anchors are choosing to use printed scripts again and throwing them away after the show.
The weather center is usually an active spot for the station’s meteorologists to gather, but Chief Meteorologist John Wheeler says that’s not the case anymore.
“A lot of our weather people working in weather production, building weather graphics or being on social media are now working from their homes, remotely,” Wheeler said. “If they’re not on the air, we’re sending them to work from home.”
It’s a much different, much quieter scene in The Forum newsroom.
“There aren’t a lot of people in the newsroom right now,” said Shane Mercer, the audience engagement manager. “You think of a newsroom as a hustle-and-bustle, stop-the-presses kind of place, but it’s pretty dead right now.”
Von Pinnon says of the 30-person news staff at The Forum, only about three people are working in the newsroom on any given day. The rest are logged in from home, including Von Pinnon himself, who said it was hard to walk away from the newsroom.
“I think it was important as a leader in the newsroom to do what the company was asking,” Von Pinnon said. “Really what this is about is there are certain workers in our building who can’t work from home -- people working in the (printing) press area -- it’s about protecting them.”
Challenges on the home front
But is it possible for newspaper people to be on the same page (pun intended) while working miles away from each other?
Von Pinnon says it’s going pretty well with the help of Zoom meetings, phone calls, emails and instant-messaging tools. And it’s not just communication between The Forum and WDAY in Fargo, but keeping in touch about coverage with the hundreds of journalists in Forum Communications newspapers across the Midwest.
“We’ve been able to reach a much broader audience by working together,” Nelson said. “We meet every day and try to use our combined resources effectively.”
Like most people working from home, journalists struggle with trying to balance new work environments and responsibilities while trying to stay productive.
Forum Deputy Editor Danielle Teigen just returned from maternity leave on March 26, but for her, returning to work didn’t mean dropping her three children at school and daycare and walking into her cheery office on The Forum’s second floor. She’s working from her basement, sometimes while holding four-month-old Kane, while 3-year-old preschooler Katherine plays and 6-year-old Dominic does his kindergarten work.
“It’s pretty crazy, but we’re getting things done,” she said.
Despite the challenges of parenting and working from home, most journalists say they're also enjoying the extra time with their children. Duluth News Tribune Multimedia Editor Samantha Erkkila says her 2-year-old daughter Maya enjoys trips down the driveway to pick up the paper.
Others face challenges with new co-workers of the four-legged variety.
“If anyone has tips for how to keep the cat from walking all over the keyboard, let me know,” said Forum Features Editor Ryan Johnson.
Sports reporters, who have no games to cover, are taking it all in stride, including The Rink Live's Jess Myers, who said he misses being in a hockey rink, but he’s used to working from unusual places. So is Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack.
“We sports guys are used to working from 20,000-seat arenas or writing from cold press boxes,” Kolpack said. “We’re a pretty adaptable species.”
Many of the reporters and editors say while they’re having no trouble getting the work done from home, they miss interacting with co-workers and newsmakers.
“It’s nothing like being with everybody,” said Digital Content Manager Rob Beer. "But we’re doing our best to get the news to you.”
Erkkila says she’s really missing face-to-face interaction when she’s recording video and audio.
“It’s always hard to give people cues, especially on the podcasts,” Erkkila said. “We’re always talking over one another. So you have to stop and regroup.”
Challenges in the field
While the majority of events have been cancelled, occasionally journalists have to venture out to cover the goings-on in their communities.
Sam Fosness of the Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D., recently covered an Easter Egg Hunt in the snow.
“Churches in town have been really creative with keeping social distance, and we’ve been practicing social distancing, too,” he said.
At first, when this pandemic was so new, Pine and Lakes Echo Journal (Brainerd/Pequot Lakes, Minn.) Editor Nancy Vogt found it was a bit unnerving to leave home to go into the community for photos and stories. After doing the story, she'd return home to immediately shower, change clothes and wipe down every belonging with a sanitizing wipe, especially after witnessing that not everyone was maintaining the proper social distance.
As the pandemic has progressed, journalists have gotten even more resourceful. WDAY staff came up with a way for reporters to interview people from a 6-foot distance by jerry-rigging a broomstick microphone holder. Reporters wear rubber gloves and masks when needed. To avoid all of this, they’ve been trying to use Skype, Zoom and Facebook for interviews as much as possible.
Forum investigative reporter April Baumgarten says while many of the court-cases she covers have been postponed, her newsgathering process has been affected.
“One of the things that is different for me is getting court documents,” she said. “I still have to drive to Clay County, but they have to meet me at the front door to hand them off.”
Photographers are still required to be out and about snapping images of what’s happening and, in many cases, not happening.
“Ironically, I probably spend more time driving around these days than normal, mostly because there are fewer events to cover,” said Forum Photo Chief Mike Vosburg. “I’m not spending any time at basketball games or anything else that’s scheduled, so it’s just a matter of what can be enterprised, and that mostly means looking.”
Erica Dischino, a photographer at the West Central Tribune in Willmar, Minn., also spends hours in her car going from one assignment to the next. She says she always makes sure to have a freshly washed face mask, latex gloves and a press pass.
“My press pass is extra important to make sure people know I'm an essential worker,” Dischino said. “Inside the press pass I have a letter from my publisher and my news editor explaining that I work for the West Central Tribune in case there are any more travel restrictions.”
New ways to tell a story
Proving the old adage that "necessity is the mother of invention," for the past month journalists have adopted new ways to tell stories. “New" might not exactly be the right word, in that Facebook Live, Zoom interviews and interactive polls have been around for awhile, but it’s forced reporters to think outside the box and not rely on the same old, same old.
“This has really propelled us to do more live coverage, bringing news to people in real-time,” Von Pinnon said.
Nelson says "citizen journalists" are also playing a greater role in what you see on the air.
“We’ve gotten some fantastic video from people that we otherwise wouldn’t have gotten,” Nelson said. “People are becoming more active participants in the process, and I hope that continues after this is over.”
Nelson says one of the biggest adjustments in storytelling during COVID is the sometimes-frenetic pace.
“I’m amazed at how fast things are changing,” Nelson said. “We can be working on a story at 9 a.m. and by 3:30 it becomes moot.”
Criticism and the mission
The media has been criticized, almost from the beginning of the pandemic, for “over-hyping” the crisis, claims which discourage many journalists in this region.
“We’re in this with you. We live here, too,” Nelson said. “This is impacting our business, too. We’re trying to do the best job we can with the information we’re given.”
Von Pinnon says it’s about trying to ask questions that readers and viewers would want to ask themselves, getting accurate information that might actually calm some fears instead of incite panic.
“I feel like we’ve been one constant in all of this,” Nelson said. “People know they can get information from someplace they trust. It’s not just on social media. It’s good, trusted information from someone they’ve trusted for years. We’re here every night. We’re here every day.”
A final word of thanks
Several journalists interviewed for this story wanted to express their thanks to readers and viewers for reading, watching and supporting local journalism.
“I’m just so grateful to still be working and to be healthy right now,” said Forum Business and Community Editor Angie Wieck. “I just really want to thank the readers. We couldn’t do it without your support.”
Erkkila says, “Our communities have been great. People are doing inspirational things every single day, and if we get to keep telling their stories, we’ll be great.”
Rivertown Multimedia Editor Mike Brun says as he’s out and about covering stories, he’s seeing so many people who need to be thanked.
“I just want to say thank you to everyone who is out here keeping things going,” Brun said. “Everyone, from doctors and nurses to first responders to cashiers to those keeping store shelves stocked, you all are heroes, and it’s an honor to help tell your story.”