Schools shut down campuses, but that didn’t stop student media in 50 states from covering COVID-19

The inside story of how Duke students conceived of and created the “How college journalism covered COVID-19” project

August 2, 2020 and

March 4, 2020, was a Wednesday night, which meant print production at the Duke Chronicle office in Durham, North Carolina. Like other student journalists across the country, physically gathering to prepare the next day’s paper was a routine — and, unbelievably now — mundane ritual for our staff. Our office was a hub for discussion, for writing, for reporting.

We didn’t know March 4 would be our last night in the office, but we certainly sensed something was coming. Days later, during Duke’s spring break, the university joined campuses across the country in canceling in-person instruction. Our staff was unmoored, fractured from our office and our time-tested routine.

As editor-in-chief and opinion editor of the Chronicle, we were forced to navigate the challenges that all students faced last spring — online classes, empty campuses, delayed commencements — all while covering breaking news, running op-eds and shifting our pitch meetings from the familiar couches of our office to the awkward grids of Zoom. Our reporters stepped up, working around the clock from their childhood bedrooms to publish stories that kept our community in the loop when the stakes were higher than ever.

Even while isolated, we quickly realized we were not alone. History called student journalists to document the disruption of our generation, and we did not back down.

From Seattle to Providence, Austin to Chicago, Tallahassee to Kansas City, college media outlets shifted their practices, telling the stories that will serve as a lasting record of this pandemic and its rippling waves of devastation.

The coronavirus pandemic revealed a set of American institutions ill-prepared to address mass layoffs, overcrowded hospitals and shuttered schools. It exposed the deep and abiding institutional racism that condemns Black, Indigenous and Latinx Americans to die from COVID-19 at far higher rates than their white peers. With 150,000 American lives lost and counting, the trauma of this period will leave a lasting mark on our world. But we retained hope and inspiration from the quality storytelling of our peers.

As a testament to that tenacity, we collected stories from student papers in all 50 states that bear witness to the experiences of their communities. These stories shed light on the hardships and destruction that occurred in the spring semester. But they also reflect the creativity and compassion of their subjects; they highlight strategies for preserving mental health, trends like recreating campuses on Minecraft and innovations like virtual a cappella concerts.

We solicited these submissions from mid-March to early May, and they are accordingly limited in their scope and timeline. We recognize that this crisis is ongoing and continues to burn — especially as some campuses welcome students back this month. Our hope is that this database will be a living testament to which more students will add their voices as time passes.

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We were humbled not just by the quality but by the sheer diversity of the content we reviewed. The student journalists included in this collection write for papers at small private colleges, large public universities, historically Black colleges and universities, predominantly white institutions. They are not just the future of journalism — they are its present. And their coverage speaks to the resilience and tragedy that characterize this pandemic.

That resilience and tragedy comes in many forms. It is in the health care workers that risk their lives each day to fight the virus. It is in the students organizing to protect their international peers whose residency was threatened by the Trump administration. It is in the millions of people who took to the streets to demand an end to the police violence that murdered George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans in the past few months alone. It is in newsrooms everywhere as they reckon with their role in white supremacy. As college journalists, our commitment to truthful, responsible storytelling takes on a new meaning in this moment. And we will never look away.

To see the project, click here. To submit your student media work in our database, enter your information into this Google form.

Thank you to the following college papers, without whom this project would not exist.

  • The Northern Light
  • The Threefold Advocate
  • The Daily Bruin
  • The Catalyst
  • The CU Independent
  • The Yale Daily News
  • The Eagle
  • The Hilltop
  • The Review
  • The Hornet
  • The Independent Alligator
  • The Famuan
  • The Emory Wheel
  • The Tiger’s Roar
  • The Argonaut
  • Ke Kalahea
  • The Daily Northwesterner
  • The Indiana Daily Student
  • The Iowa State Daily
  • The Kansas State Collegian
  • The Kernel
  • The Lion’s Roar
  • The Court Bouillon
  • The Tech
  • The Tufts Daily
  • The Spokesman
  • The Retriver
  • The Colby Echo
  • The Michigan Daily
  • The Minnesota Daily
  • The Maneater
  • The Daily Mississippian
  • The Summit
  • The Davidsonian
  • The Daily Tar Heel
  • The Chronicle
  • The A&T Register
  • The Echo
  • The Doane Owl
  • The Equinox
  • The Daily Princetonian
  • The Round Up
  • The Daily Lobo
  • The Scarlet & Gray Free Press
  • The Statesman
  • The Miami Student
  • The Vista
  • The Daily Emerald
  • The Villanovan
  • The Daily Pennsylvanian
  • The Brown Daily Herald
  • The Daily Gamecock
  • The Volante
  • The SDSU Collegian
  • The Vanderbilt Hustler
  • The Rice Thresher
  • The Daily Universe
  • The Cavalier Daily
  • The Middlebury Campus
  • The Advance-Titan
  • The Daily
  • The Parthenon

Leah Abrams is a speechwriter crafting strategic communications with West Wing Writers and a former college journalist. She served as the Opinion Editor of the Duke Chronicle’s Volume 115. Follow her on Twitter at @Leah_Abrams.

Jake Satisky is a senior at Duke University and the digital strategy director for The Chronicle, Duke’s independent student newspaper. He served as the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle’s 115th Volume during the 2019-20 academic year. Follow him on Twitter at @jsat15.