Orlando Sentinel opinions editor Mike Lafferty sits at his desk as staff gather for the final day of their newsroom before permanently vacating the premises during a new coronavirus pandemic, Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, in Orlando, Fla.

Orlando Sentinel opinions editor Mike Lafferty sits at his desk as staff gather for the final day of their newsroom before permanently vacating the premises during a coronavirus outbreak, Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. The building had been home to the daily newspaper for 69 years

I asked a friend the other day if he was eager to get back to the newsroom we once shared. The publisher has indicated that the doors will reopen as soon as midsummer, with people returning for staggered shifts.

My friend’s response was flat: “The newsroom we knew is gone. And it isn’t coming back.”

He wasn’t talking about the physical space, which sprawled over three downtown buildings and six bureaus a few years ago. The future will have staffers from all departments working on one rented floor.

His lament was for the newsrooms that shaped those of us from a certain generation — ones filled with profane language and sharp elbows and high-stress deadlines and the constant fear you’d get beat or get something wrong. But also filled with passion and purpose and creativity and the most interesting people I’ve ever known — people who made you want to be better than your best and had your back over beers when you weren’t.

At their worst, the newsrooms in my career weren’t boring. At their best, they crackled.

I think it is the crackle my friend is mourning most. A year-plus of pandemic isolation can’t be untangled from the 20 years of digital disruption and economic squeeze that came before. Journalists are weary from the recent past and wary of the future. They’ve lost longtime colleagues, work for editors they’ve never met in person, and have no certainty about what comes next.

I’m no longer in the newsroom, so can’t help with any of that. So, we switched to talk about the work itself. By my reading, it has never been better than in the past year.

I cited his own stories as proof: He has found ways to roam around the Pacific Northwest, a shuttered society notwithstanding. He keeps masks and a sleeping bag and change of clothes in his car — and probably a gas mask and Kevlar vest. Sometimes he drives four hours each way to interviews in one day or catnaps in his car. We talked of the photographers we admire, who can’t do their work from a desk; they were the ones who took readers inside both the horrors and hope of Covid in the early months.

After we hung up, I thought a lot about what the last year has taught us, if we’re willing to learn. News organizations never seemed to get ahead of the constant demands of the digital revolution. But Covid, in one dramatic sweep, forced true change, much of it long overdue. What a waste it would be for journalists — editors and reporters alike — to try to erase those victories and return to pre-pandemic rhythms.

As an industry we must resist the illusions of a better past and embrace some hard-earned wisdom.

Two things rise to the top of my list for editors:

First, when the newsroom doors reopen, keep the meetings out. Nothing douses the crackle faster than a bunch of editors traipsing in and out of meetings. Schedule in-person gatherings for snappy brainstorms and celebrations and, when sadly needed, honesty about shared losses. But if Zoom works for anything, it’s day-to-day business. One editor I know still uses a free Zoom account; it forces him to end the planning meeting within 40 minutes.

Second, when the newsroom doors reopen, encourage reporters to stay out in the field, assuming the pandemic allows them to do so. Resist the sense of comfort (and control) that comes from seeing them tethered to their desks, waiting to be tapped in case news breaks out. The last year brought news in epic proportions, and your staffs delivered. Trust them to decide when to be in the field, when to file from home, and when to plug back into the newsroom.

The next two takeaways, directed at reporters:

First, hold on to the initiative you showed in the past year. Make the round of beat sources. Show up at civic meetings. Turn on all of your senses and immerse yourself in stories. Keep the editors informed — but get back into the world.

Second, don’t let the limits of time, proximity or even budgets impose limits on your aspirations, even — and maybe especially — if your aspirations reach toward narrative. It’s way too tempting to think, “They won’t let me,” instead of wondering, “How can I?” Look at the work you and your colleagues have done in the past year. Remember how you did that work — and what you might do even better once the covid cloud lifts.

There’s no substitute for eyewitness journalism, whether it’s to face down a dodgy official or observe the moments that create narrative. But Covid isn’t the first thing that’s kept reporters out of the field. Small newsrooms and tight budgets have always limited travel and time. None of that keeps a reporter from understanding what’s needed for narrative, and then asking for it.

If you can’t be on the scene yourself, you need to turn your sources into surrogates who can bring you as full a story as possible. You need to learn, as another friend of mine says, that the phone is your friend. Ask the kind of questions that help them describe the sounds and sights and smells of their worlds. Help them understand the kind of information you need to write a story that has the full power of the human experience — to paint scenes with words — and then guide them with your questions.

A stand-out example is “What Happened in Room 10?” published in The California Sunday Magazine. Katie Engelhart burrowed inside events and emotions at the Washington nursing home that was the nation’s first Covid hot spot. She reported it all by phone, text and email from her apartment in Toronto.

Josh Sanburn used a hybrid of in-person and remote reporting to take us into an overwhelmed funeral home at the peak of pandemic deaths in the U.S. To report “The Last of the First Responders,” published in Vanity Fair, he wove through storage rooms crowded with caskets waiting for burial, and peered into refrigerator trucks holding more bodies. But much of the emotion of the piece came from the hours he spent on the phone, late into the night, talking to the funeral home director.

Maybe this year of crisis has taught us things we needed to learn and relearn. Publishers had to get clear about the primacy of digital. Foundations are putting money into news organizations, and feisty individuals are starting their own. Readers have hungered for the three most important purposes journalism can serve: Holding power to account, providing and explaining essential information, and exploring the heart of humanity. And reporters have found ways to do all of that, limits be damned.

Journalism will survive Covid, as it has survived every other crisis in history, and often come out with a better sense of mission. When my friends gather — still mostly by Zoom but bit by bit in person — we talk about a stronger sense of priorities for our lives. We seem ready, finally, to let go of things we did just because we had always done them, and to protect time to do what truly matters.

This is the time for journalism to do the same.

Jacqui Banaszynski retired as the endowed Knight Chair in Editing at the Missouri School of Journalism in 2017, is editor at Nieman Storyboard, and a faculty fellow at the Poynter Institute. She won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for “AIDS in the Heartland,” a series about a gay farm couple facing AIDS, and was a finalist for the 1986 Pulitzer in international reporting for her account of the sub-Saharan famine.

Lessons from the Pandemic

Hope that the coronavirus is finally being brought under control has given rise to planning for a return to “normal.” But can, or should, journalism return to a pre-pandemic “normal?” Across newsrooms, the way we once covered education, labor, theater—any beat—is unlikely to be sufficient for the moment we are entering. What are the lasting lessons of this time, and how should we do journalism differently? These are the questions to which Nieman Reports is seeking answers in our essay series, Lessons from the Pandemic.

Further Reading

Show comments / Leave a comment