September 24, 2020

Stephanie Hayes’ last day as an editor at the Tampa Bay Times was March 13.

She and her husband had a dream vacation to take, then she was coming back to start a new role – humor columnist.

You know what happened next. In addition to coping with the quickly closing world, Hayes had to figure out how to do her new job.

“I was like, oh my God, what am I going to do?” Hayes said. “I can’t start a humor column in the middle of a pandemic. This is nuts.”

Now, a few disclosures: Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times. I am a digital subscriber. I’m working on a fellowship and the Times is my newsroom partner. And I know Hayes best through Poynter’s Women’s Leadership Academy. Right before the pandemic, she came to my house for an alumni dinner.

I’ve also watched with wonder as she made this huge pivot. And I wanted to know – how did she do that? Especially now.

In March, with two weeks off and nothing to distract her, Hayes tried watching mindless home decor shows to fend off the panic. It didn’t help.

A colleague suggested “1 dead in attic: After Katrina” by Chris Rose, who worked at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Something clicked. Rose went through the crisis with his community, Hayes found, “so it wasn’t like he tried to solve their problems or give solutions or really take sides, it was just to be there and to walk through the world with this community after they’d been through something.”

She didn’t need to have answers or solutions or hot takes, Hayes realized.

She just needed to be there.

Her first column carried this headline: “As your new columnist, I’m sorry everything is bad.”

Her columns since have captured the bizarreness of 2020, from pandemic pets (“Look at my tiny dog if you feel dead inside”) to culinary quarantine desperation (“I ordered pizza from Pasqually’s, which is Chuck E. Cheese in disguise”) to social justice issues (“Like tattoos of exes, historical statues will only disappoint”) to the long slog of social isolation (“Does it feel like everyone is hanging out again?”).

Now, a few times a week, she’s giving readers a break when so much is out of our control. The world doesn’t need more political opinions, she said. Her challenge is to swim around all that and find what we have in common.

Often that includes humor. Always, it includes heart.

On Friday night, as news spread of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hayes and her family were ordering pizza and getting ready to watch “Mulan.”

She had already turned in her Sunday column. She stewed all through the movie. Then, she started writing.

By Saturday morning, her piece was live. The headline stopped my morning doom scroll. It read: “In praise of short women.” The ending includes this:

Here’s the part where we say she wasn’t small at all, that she was huge, larger than life. That we can all be huge if we don’t limit ourselves.

But the truth is, she was small. Small is not a bad word. It’s just a word. Every kind of adjective for every kind of human being exists, and they all deserve the same shot in life. That’s the thing Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted us to know.

When there’s so much to feel angry about, Hayes has found a way to use humor to disarm. And sometimes, like with her piece on RBG, she uses her humanity to do that, too.

This piece originally ran in Local Edition, our weekly newsletter on local news. Kristen Hare covers the business and people of local news for Poynter.org and is the editor of Locally. You can subscribe to her newsletter here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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