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By Emma Ledbetter, Washington State University
The first Wednesday morning of January 2021, I unlocked an empty newsroom and waited for it to fill with editors — many of whom had never worked there in person.
I was editor-in-chief of The Daily Evergreen in spring 2021 when Washington State University was fully virtual. My Zoom classes ended around noon on Wednesdays, and then I was editing until midnight. Someone would inevitably call me asking to be let into the locked building or message me saying they had to work virtually because of a COVID-19 exposure.
At that time, one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Evergreeners were balancing a shift from daily to weekly print and a continued work-from-home production system, both of which contributed to declining mental health among staff members — struggles that persist to this day.
A lot of student newspapers are hurting now more than they’ve ever been — from mental health challenges, funding cuts and everything in between. My hope is that younger student journalists will learn from my experiences and lead successful, healthy newsrooms in a digital, post-pandemic world.
Daily becomes weekly
Before the pandemic, The Daily Evergreen printed daily. Unfortunately, like a lot of other student newsrooms, the pandemic exacerbated preexisting budget deficits, and we had to shift to weekly print. Wednesdays became our production night for Thursday’s print edition, and throughout the rest of the week, we published online only.
The Daily Evergreen was already increasing its digital presence with the help of our social media and web editors. But we were really a print-first publication.
The pandemic forced us to change our priorities, putting greater emphasis on our social media channels (hello, Instagram) and maintaining the same rigorous standard for things “just” published online.
Will we ever go back to daily print? I can’t say for sure. But as we move forward, we’re focusing on reaching our online audience with multimedia packages, shorter breaking news stories and eye-catching social media posts. While our print edition mainly reached professors and community members, we’re now reaching more students with these online components.
Printing once a week meant editors never had to come into the newsroom if they didn’t want to. They put stories on our website from home. Everyone had full access to InDesign on their laptops, so they didn’t have to rely on the newsroom computers for page design. I checked in with editors via Slack or Zoom instead of walking over to their desk in the newsroom. Even training at the start of the semester — the most crucial time to have in-person attendance — was done from home.
We still maintain the flexibility of working from home. Editors can do almost all of their work remotely, although most of them come into the newsroom on Wednesdays for the social aspect. This has created a more comfortable working environment — editors have a space dedicated to work, but the freedom to leave if they want or need to be elsewhere.
Unfortunately, this has made it difficult to pass on institutional knowledge. Working outside the newsroom meant the culture and ideas we developed there were lost.
Shifting mental health
As a result of our work-from-home situation, the line between work and everything else became blurry. We messaged at all hours of the day and night instead of saving our conversations for the newsroom. Slack has a neat feature that allows you to turn your notifications off at set hours — which very few of us chose to use.
I watched my staff’s collective mental health slowly circle the drain. At least three editors actively sought counseling services, which are very limited in our rural community. Others were suffering silently — missing deadlines, falling asleep during production, telling me days later that they had had a panic attack or cried until they couldn’t cry anymore because of work.
WSU canceled spring break, instead giving us several midweek “mental health” days. But one day wasn’t enough to recover from everything we were doing.
Halfway through the semester, I started to worry that the Evergreen wasn’t going to make it. We canceled production for a week in March and took our own “spring break,” putting out an editorial board statement explaining our decision.
Evergreeners, and student journalists in general, are a resilient bunch. But covering pandemic-related news for a year, attending online classes and still trying to produce a paper almost broke us.
Newsrooms need to dedicate more effort to preventing burnout and mental health crises. Reporters are not a limitless resource. Similarly, requiring editors to work with no break is not sustainable, especially during a pandemic.
Our solution was a series of newsroom contingency plans. Who will assume an editor’s responsibilities if they have to take a day or a week off? What will happen if an editor quits, and how will we make sure that added responsibility doesn’t harm other editors?
Having someone quit is obviously less than ideal, but not having a plan is worse. Having a plan is how you care for your coworkers and staff during “unprecedented” times.
Before, we would have pushed through a mental health crisis and done our work until we hit a breaking point. It wasn’t healthy, but it got the paper out. Now, we know to stop before then, reevaluate the situation and work together to figure out a way forward that will keep us all mentally healthy. And we still manage to get the paper out.
Emma Ledbetter is a senior microbiology major at Washington State University. She is the former editor-in-chief and current news editor of The Daily Evergreen, WSU’s independent student newspaper.
More from this series
This newsletter issue is part of an ongoing series about platforms and news distribution. Previous issues:
- What student-focused outlets learned from publishing during COVID
- How one newsroom embraced digital-first publishing and doubled its audience
- Where’s your audience? Most of them aren’t reading print
One story worth reading
American newsrooms focused on hiring for diversity, equity and inclusion roles after Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. For Nieman Lab, Hanaa’ Tameez checked in with 12 journalists hired into these roles and heard experiences all over the board, “from enlightening to reassuring to exciting to absurd to horrifying to sad.”
“Some of the journalists I spoke with feel more successful and supported in their roles than others,” Tameez wrote. “But many say they are still missing meaningful support from their managers to do the work they want to do. They agreed that one reporter or one beat isn’t enough to cover a community, subject, or issue with nuance. At the same time, not having a dedicated reporter on the beat can mean certain stories will get overlooked.”
Opportunities and trainings
- Apply for scholarships from the National Press Club by March 18.
- Apply for SPJ’s Student Leadership Institute by March 21.
- Apply for the Global Press Freedom Advocacy Institute, a six-week online program for student journalists hosted by the Student Press Law Center and PEN America.
- Apply for the NABJ student multimedia project by March 28 for a chance to cover the yearly conference in August.
- Register for ONA’s free career day event, to be held virtually March 31.
- Students and early-career journalists, apply to join the ONA Board of Directors by April 7.
- Register for the JEA/NSPA National High School Journalism Convention, to be held in Los Angeles April 7-9.
- High school students, enter The New York Times’ student editorial contest by April 13.
📅 Programming note: I’m on spring break next week and will be sitting on the beach, far away from my laptop. The Lead will be back on March 30.
💌 Last week’s newsletter: What student-focused outlets learned from publishing during COVID
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