Last year, journalists at The Cincinnati Enquirer wanted to document the big picture of the pandemic. They had no idea just how big that picture would get. Like all of us, they were living it one day, and one story, at a time.
Journalists followed Nina Salzman, a 7-year-old suddenly going to school at her dining room table; Donna Kinney, a cancer survivor who lived alone and wrote letters to stay in touch; the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr. and other faith leaders working to connect with their communities in dark times, and so many others.
It’s easy to forget how life pivots around small things, said Amy Wilson, Enquirer Media’s storytelling coach. But last year, at a time when we were all stuck in our own little worlds, “it was good to see all the other little worlds.”
At the end of last year, the Enquirer published “Holding On”, a narrative, and “2020: The year that revelated us,” a 50-minute documentary. They weave together all those small worlds as the world itself shut down and changed with the pandemic.
Twenty-five reporters and photographers worked on it.
I spoke with the core team behind it in January, a few days after the insurrection at the Capitol and have been trying to get to this story since. As more people get vaccinated and the world slowly opens up, it feels like a good time to see how one newsroom captured a year we might want to forget, but owe it to each other and the people we lost not to.
A locket, a badge, a baseball season
What felt like a project that might last a few months turned into nine months of work. And that work went from collecting people’s stories in words, photos and videos to figuring out how they all fit together. It wasn’t just about the pandemic, said Dan Horn, a storytelling reporter, but Black Lives Matter protests, politics and the presidential election.
As they collected stories from people’s lives, the team struggled to find a unifying idea, until they realized that each person they interviewed had something they held on to — a locket that reminded a medical assistant of the parent she lost to the pandemic; the quarantined friends a 7-year-old ached for; the badge a Black female police officer wore with her riot gear at the protests; the fraught baseball season for a Cincinnati Reds player.
The journalists who worked on “Holding On” found their sources from work they’d already done and were doing in their community, with sources they’d already built up connections with.
“We were already covering events and stories,” said Amanda Rossmann, a photojournalist. “It was easier to bring it all together because we were already there.”
For better and worse
As people worked remotely and found new ways to cover their community amid a pandemic, the project was also an opportunity to relearn how they work, said Meg Vogel, a staff photographer, and how they could tell people’s stories, from Zooms to social distance to disposable cameras.
The stories in “Holding On” are both universal, Horn said, and show how people dealt with 2020 in their own ways. They also show that, even when we’re not united, “we all are in this together for better or worse, and I think this is a reminder of that if nothing else.”
The pandemic “brought us closer together with what matters and what readers are curious about,” Rossmann said.
Vogel agreed, quoting from the name of the documentary.
“This is the year that revealed us.”
This piece originally appeared in Local Edition, our newsletter devoted to the telling stories of local journalists.