April 16, 2020

How is your local newsroom telling the story of the coronavirus? Let us know.

“I have to take my temperature two times a day every day,” the journalist wrote about her quarantine after coming into contact with someone with COVID-19. “If I start showing symptoms, we are to alert my pediatrician immediately.”

Charlotte Cohn is 11, a sixth-grader, and a staff writer at the Pelham Examiner in New York’s Westchester County.

The online newsroom is owned and run by middle and high school students in Pelham, and advised by a grown-up journalist and author, Rich Zahradnik. He teaches a journalism class at one school, but the newsroom isn’t associated with the school district, and his staffers are mostly recurited by each other. The site covers Pelham’s two villages.

And in early March, he said, “we found ourselves right next to the biggest part of the story right as it was beginning.”

Pelham borders New Rochelle, the epicenter of the coronavirus before it hit New York City.

Related: The student reporters taking on COVID-19 from their bedrooms

Staffers wrote about social distancing, covered school closures and school board meetings, photographed empty streets, covered the anti-Semitic Zoom-bombing of a local synagogue and, in at least one instance, got to valuable sources for an explainer thanks to help from a parent.

In March, the 20 or so active staffers wrote 150 stories.

“They may not know it’s the biggest story of their lives,” Zahradnik said, “but they acted like it was.”

Not having activities right now means the middle schoolers and high schoolers have more time than usual to write for the Examiner, he said, but they didn’t have to.

“They could have also just switched off.”

The Examiner is part of the New York Press Association, where it got an honorable mention for best newspaper website in the state’s 2018 Better Newspaper Contest. Since it started covering the coronavirus, it’s doubled pageviews.

Zahradnik volunteers his time, and now, former staff writers home from college are also pitching in. He tries to check in with the young journalists on Slack, through email and by checking in with parents of the youngest to make sure everyone’s doing OK.

Related: How this two-woman weekly is covering the coronavirus

This week, he said, there’s a bit of weariness. And for the older students, there’s a sense of loss for all the things that won’t happen for the rest of the school year.

Zahradnik isn’t sure the Examiner’s journalists know that they’re living through the stuff of history. It might take them decades to understand.

But he gets it.

“After four decades in journalism, I’m covering the story of my lifetime … alongside 11- to 18-year-olds.”

Pelham Examiner staff before the coronavirus. (Image courtesy Rich Zahradnik/Pelham Examiner)

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org and writes a weekly newsletter on the transformation of local news. Want to be part of the conversation? You can subscribe here. Kristen can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare.

This daily look at coronavirus coverage by local news is made possible with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation


Correction: Charlotte Cohn is in the sixth grade. 

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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