September 9, 2020

It would have been so much simpler for Natalie Walters to report on looted Dallas businesses were she actually in the city as planned. Instead, she had to cover them from more than 900 miles away in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia. What’s more, her firsthand knowledge of the place consisted only of passing through once before on a road trip.

Like myself, and several other news interns I spoke to, Walters spent her summer reporting on a place she didn’t know at all.

In late March, Walters and I  started texting back and forth about whether to accept our remote reporting internships. I was to work for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, even though the closest I have been to the city is St. Louis, some 360 miles away. She was picked for The Dallas Morning News.

Walters and I are both obtaining our master’s degrees in investigative journalism at Arizona State University, and we were looking forward to traveling to unfamiliar cities and using everything we learned over the previous two semesters. Even if our positions weren’t canceled outright — like they were at The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times and other newsrooms — we were still crestfallen after learning our jobs would be done from home.

“It was hard to accept and adjust my expectations,” Walters said. “I was growing increasingly excited about exploring Dallas, about working in a real newsroom, about meeting my editor and about meeting other interns. And then overnight that was all taken away.”

She feared working remotely would be a wasted opportunity, as did I, and consulted with family, friends and faculty about deferring until she could report in person. But seeing reporters around the country continuing to produce high-quality journalism, while working under the same constraints, inspired her. Also, this remote reporting thing could be a useful skill to have, since there was no telling when things would return to normal.

Walters was nervous when she started at The Morning News because she was afraid of coming off as ignorant to readers. So she read the paper’s coverage, studied the city’s Wikipedia page and watched travel guides on YouTube. Once work began she took part in twice-weekly workshops in which seasoned reporters gave newbies a rundown of the area.

When reporting on the aftermath of the looting in Dallas, she reached her first business owner by searching social media for damaged shops. That person then put her in touch with other entrepreneurs affected by the demonstrations. After that, Walters said, she began calling random establishments in the general vicinity to gain a picture of the previous night’s destruction.

For her effort, she landed on the paper’s front page — her third week on the job.

Dallas Morning News summer intern Natalie Walters (Courtesy: Dr. Alan Walters)

Adriana Morga worked at Al Día, a sister publication of The Dallas Morning News that reports on the city’s Latino community. She was born and raised in Tijuana, Mexico, and is a senior at San Francisco State University. But she has never been to Texas. Like Walters, she had reservations.

“What if I let you guys down?” she asked her editor. Morga worried about being an annoyance and a drain on her team’s time and attention, but they assured her all would be well. To boost her confidence, she was given straightforward assignments at first, like stories about store closings that don’t traditionally require extensive on-the-ground reporting.

Dana Brandt, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, interned with the investigative team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Had we been working under normal conditions, we would have bumped into each other again and again. Instead, our interactions were reduced to small talk on Microsoft Teams before virtual staff meetings.

Although Brandt lives in Wisconsin, she was only vaguely familiar with Milwaukee. She developed a mindset as the summer went on: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be really upfront when you’re confused about something,” Brandt said. “It’s fine. I’m here to learn and I shouldn’t be afraid of that.” That mantra came in handy when she had to track and continually update a story on marches proceeding through streets she couldn’t name or even recognize.

Still, she said, “Getting to work during such a crazy, historic time and getting to write about something like the coronavirus has been, if anything, more of an opportunity.”

Everyone else I spoke with found a silver lining, as well. For instance, Ashton Nichols, who also interned on the business desk at The Dallas Morning News, said, “I do think I’ve gotten a little better at pulling information out of people on the phone versus doing it in person.” The Ohio University senior worked from Cincinnati and sees distance reporting as a challenge and a newfound skill. Walters said she learned the value of persistence due to the ease with which phone calls and emails can be brushed aside. And, in Morga’s case, being at home allowed her to take a second job at a local radio station, meaning she covered San Francisco and Dallas from the same place.

The distance pushed me to become more resourceful online. In one of my stories, my editor tasked me with finding a new boat owner. I thought it would be simple enough to call some shops and hope for a generous manager to connect me with a buyer. No such luck. I checked boat shop reviews on Google, but found no way to directly connect with commenters; I looked on Yelp, but there wasn’t anything recent enough; I rummaged through message boards in vain. (I may have even done some light praying.) Finally, I found someone by backgrounding the name behind an enthusiastic Google review. Success.

There were also clear and widely agreed upon downsides. One was the difficulty of finding storytelling details from a distance. “It’s hard to add color from a Zoom interview,” Walters said.

Morga found that pure remote reporting can take a mental toll. “I was so unmotivated because I’ve been in my house for four months,” she said. “I feel like I’m in ‘Groundhog Day,’ and I hate that movie.”

She tried to create a sense of variation. “Sometimes I feel like I have to move from my desk, to my bed, to my couch.” And she said the monotony of being at home all day can be a drain on inspiration, as good stories often materialize when you’re out and about.

The most significant loss was the opportunity to form stronger relationships with colleagues — the socializing and chance encounters innate to any newsroom were nearly impossible to recreate. But in my experience this summer, I found the mentorship program created by a collaboration between the Chips Quinn Scholars Program and Gannett, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s parent company, was effective in filling part of that gap.

Overall, the summer remote reporting interns found that good work is still possible but with some caveats. Details like body language can slip through the cracks, and investigative stories may still require a journalist to go somewhere in person. But when I read their work, it’s impossible for me to tell whether Brandt, Nichols, Morga or Walters reported from their couches while wearing sweatpants.

It’s possible there’s never been a stranger time to enter journalism. But our initial reservations about remote reporting dissipated as we learned to do what would have been not only impermissible just a few months ago, but also unthinkable. And we are better journalists for it.

“I would definitely redo it,” Walters said. “I would do it over 100 times.”

Agya K. Aning is a reporter based in Phoenix, Arizona, and is earning a master’s degree in investigative journalism from the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. You can reach him on Twitter @agyakaning, or via email at agyakaning@gmail.com.

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