The nation’s top newspaper editors on the key to covering the coronavirus story

Your Thursday Poynter Report

April 2, 2020
Category: Newsletters

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The coronavirus pandemic is the biggest news story most of us have ever seen. You would think covering it would be nearly impossible because of its many layers. It’s a health and science story, but it also involves economics and politics and, when you think about, pretty much every other aspect of life.

Yet the journalism throughout it all continues to be superb, even though every newsroom in the country really isn’t a “newsroom” anymore. Virtually every journalist is working remotely, making it even more difficult.

I reached out to some of the nation’s top newspaper editors, including Dean Baquet of The New York Times, Marty Baron of The Washington Post, Scott Kraft of the Los Angeles Times and others to find out more. I asked them: What’s the key to covering this story, especially with everyone working remotely? Their answers are below, in their own words.

I’ll start with one editor, who actually has been preparing for this kind of story for years.

Audrey Cooper, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle

We’ve practiced a work-from-home operation for years to prepare for the inevitable earthquake that could take out our historic building and other key infrastructure. We usually run a drill twice a year — around the anniversaries of the 1906 and Loma Prieta earthquakes — to make sure everyone is ready for that, and we did a drill a few days before deciding to shutter the newsroom on March 12.

I’m not sure the rest of the country can appreciate the level of disaster preparedness necessary on the West Coast, where we’ve had years of devastating wildfires, power outages and of course the unexpected earthquake or two. Those events, which can rage for weeks, have prepared our newsroom for staffers to play out of position — and to do so for a long time.

Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times

I can go through the litany of journalistic steps we have taken, of course, like leaning into our science and medical writers, and the fact that we had already started building a way of covering live news events that put us in a good position to cover this story.

But I think the best thinking we have tried to convey is to remind people of the obvious — we are all actually living the story we are covering. We all have relatives and friends whose lives have been upended. Our own lives have been profoundly altered. That should make us empathetic and give us story ideas. Most importantly of all, it should remind us that we have to take care of ourselves and our own families.

More from Cooper

We also know how important it is to watch out for everyone’s emotional wellbeing even in the middle of a crisis. For example, we’ve set up remote counseling sessions for staff. We also try to anticipate who might be overworked and encourage them to take days off — like, say, the health reporters or metro editors.

Marty Baron, executive editor of The Washington Post

The key has been having a highly talented, resourceful, flexible and motivated staff that is invigorated by the challenge of covering this important story in all its dimensions, that values collaboration, that has a record of rising to every challenge it faces and that feels a profound responsibility to serve the public.

Scott Kraft, managing editor of the Los Angeles Times

We have scrambled our staff to cover many major breaking news stories over the years, but nothing quite compares to the logistical challenges of this one, which is both global and local for us.

While the website and print paper are being designed and edited from our homes, we have dozens of reporters out in the field covering news, developing narratives and pursuing investigations related to the coronavirus. Deputy managing editor Shani Hilton is leading the coordinating effort across the newsroom, working closely with deputy managing editor Shelby Grad, who is responsible for California coverage.

Brian McGrory, editor of The Boston Globe

Everyone on staff ran at this thing with everything they had. They were displaced and out of sorts. They were stuck at home, some of them alone and others with testy partners and needy kids and guilt-inducing dogs. Everyone was uncertain about their own health and finances.

So in many ways, it was sheer commitment that drove them to do the work they did, commitment to readers and to their craft. It has been talent and expertise that has carried them from one phase of the story to the next. And it is humanity and an understanding of our readers that has made their work so essential to so many people.

Julie Anderson, editor in chief of the South Florida Sun Sentinel and the Orlando Sentinel

The South Florida Sun Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel have been working remotely for more than two weeks. I am amazed at how well it’s going. We are using a variety of ways to communicate with each other, including Slack, video and audio conference calls, and old-fashioned email.

We also quickly incorporated the Sports and Entertainment teams into the regular news reporting and home page and editing shifts, as their regular beats slowed down. I’m very proud of how we’re coping.

Mark Katches, executive editor of the Tampa Bay Times

When you’re working together with a bunch of extraordinarily creative people, a lot of your daily success is driven by chemical reaction — the kind of reaction that your staff develops over time by knowing each other’s body language and just being able to read people and situations and ride the rhythm.

Thousands of conversations a day happen in a newsroom outside of planned meetings. Tapping a shoulder, leaning over a cubicle, running into the right people at the microwave, or walking over to the next pod to connect with an editor or a reporter or a photographer or a producer.

But now, that special work rhythm feels discombobulated. And despite a dramatic change in our work habits, and despite a load of distractions that have hit us especially hard as a company, everyone is so motivated by a sense of pride and duty. Reporters and photographers are still in the field but being extra careful. Virtual meetings are happening throughout the day. We’re on Slack constantly. We’re on Teams or Zoom calls multiple times a day.

Even though you lose something by taking the regular flow of communication and collaboration out of the equation, nothing is holding back this amazing group of journalists determined to get the job done.

Susan Ellerbach, executive editor of the Tulsa World

Communication and organization have been key for us. I send out a daily email with reminders, key asks if needed, and a list of editors on duty for that day so everyone knows ‘Who’s on first.’ Our department heads keep that contact with their staffs and we have two virtual meetings a day. We’ve all learned to use Google Hangout and Zoom, which was a little foreign to us prior to three weeks ago.

We’ve also had great content support from Lee Enterprises, our new owners, with puzzles and COVID-19 updates that have helped us keep page counts up in the print edition. We just have outstanding people here and we’ve been through multiple floods, tornadoes and, some of us, even a bombing in Oklahoma City. Now we can add a pandemic. It’s what we do.

More from Kraft

One of the many challenges has been to make sure our reporters and photographers in the field are safe, and we’ve been working with our support staff to secure necessities such as masks and disinfectant wipes, as well as putting reporters through regular training sessions.

It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment, of course, and we have redirected staff from all parts of the newsroom to focus them on this story, including our top investigative and enterprise reporters . As always, the key to producing such a huge volume of smart, authoritative coverage is the skill and dedication of our remarkable staff.

Finally, this from Cooper

In the San Francisco Bay Area we don’t have much disagreement about how seriously to take this threat, and you can see it in the early response. Scientists, doctors and biomedical companies are all very appreciative of the resources and depth of information The Chronicle can uniquely bring to this situation, which also means they are more likely to give us their time to help educate the public.

Now to the rest of today’s report …

Tweet of the day

Pope Francis. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

This tweet from Pope Francis:

“Let us #PrayTogether for all who work in the media, who work to communicate, to inform us, so that people are not so isolated, and to educate children. We pray for all those who are helping us bear this time of isolation.”

Coronavirus town hall

Fox News and Facebook will co-host a virtual town hall on the coronavirus tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern. Fox News’ Martha MacCallum will host the one-hour, commercial-free town hall with medical experts, including White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Deborah Birx and Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams. In addition to Fox News, the town hall also can be seen on Fox News’ Facebook page and CoronavirusNOW.com.

Moving to the front

Are you a fan of PBS’s terrific show “Frontline?” You should be. Anyway, PBS has announced that in addition to publishing new episodes on its website, “Frontline” will make all upcoming documentaries available for free on the PBS Video App at 7 p.m. Eastern on broadcast days and on its YouTube channel at, usually, 10 p.m. Eastern on broadcast days.

By the way, more than 200 “Frontline” episodes are available online and on the PBS Video App.

Three thoughts about the White House coronavirus press conferences

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus at the White House on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • On Wednesday night, the White House Correspondents’ Association voted to remove One America News from the briefing room rotation. CNN’s Oliver Darcy and Jim Acosta have the details. I say: good. One America News, better known simply as OAN, is not so much a legitimate news outlet as it is a propaganda machine that too often floats irresponsible conspiracy theories. And derails press conferences. They had no business being in there to begin with.
  • The national networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — are now routinely cutting away from the press conferences when they conflict with local and national news broadcasts. CNN also has been cutting away from the news conferences before they are over. Fox News, MSNBC and C-SPAN are the only ones who are, for the most part, carrying the news conferences in full.
  • While the White House correspondents in the room are doing solid work, it would be a welcome sight to see more health reporters asking some of the more complicated health questions to the experts.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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