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Student journalists from across the U.S. participate in a Zoom webinar to share coronavirus challenges and strategies.

Benjy Renton

When the University of Maryland’s student-run newspaper, The Diamondback, published its last print edition on March 9, the front page read, “It’s Not Goodbye, It’s See You Online.”

The Diamondback staff had no idea how much weight those words would carry about a week later, when colleges across the U.S. hurriedly moved to online instruction in response to the coronavirus pandemic and several campus newspapers decided to halt their print editions, said Leah Brennan, The Diamondback’s editor in chief.

Maryland’s paper of record had decided to move to exclusively digital reporting months earlier, but the final front page “ended up ringing really true” to the experiences of the thousands of students displaced by the spread of COVID-19, which has quickly become the biggest news story of their lives to date, Brennan said.

“People are trusting us for those updates and looking to us for guidance during this time,” Brennan said. “We are student journalists … This all-encompassing team effort really hasn’t ceased. When all this is changing, people are still devoted to this job.”

Student publications are producing “enormously important” work during the pandemic, telling the stories of young people whose lives have been completely upended, even more so than some adults’ lives, said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, or SPLC. They are covering the pandemic in ways that go well beyond the number of people sickened, she said.

“This is going to be a framing narrative of their youth,” Harris said. “Being able to report this transition of our society from the perspective of a young person is very crucial.”

Though they and their peers have largely left their campuses, student journalists are continuing to work remotely and provide a valuable service to their communities, Harris said. They’re holding staff meetings over Zoom, Google Hangout and other videoconferencing technology to discuss story ideas and plan coverage, which now almost entirely consists of coronavirus stories, said Benjy Renton, editor at large for The Middlebury Campus at Middlebury College, which suspended its weekly print edition as the Vermont college moves to remote instruction for the remainder of the semester.

As student journalists across the United States entered “uncharted territory,” Renton crowdsourced the approaches of different college publications and started a nationwide webinar for student editors and writers to share tips and coping strategies for covering the pandemic, he said. Sixty-five student journalists were on the first Zoom call on March 18 to discuss how to cover empty campuses remotely, new methods of reader engagement and the mental health of staff members.

“A lot of us, especially when these announcements on college campuses came, it was hard to continue reporting when you had to leave yourself,” Renton said. "It made me feel better and others feel better that we’re kind of all in the same boat … I wish it didn’t take a pandemic for us to come together, but I’m really glad we have this community of writers and editors to bounce ideas off each other."

Renton said he is planning future sessions and has heard from more student journalists wanting to join the conversation and approach the unique journalistic challenges they're facing together. Being part of a campus publication can offer consistency for students amid the uncertainties institutions are facing, as well as social engagement and friendship, Brennan said.

For some students, “it’s what they need to get by,” said Katina Paron, a journalism professor at Hunter College in New York. Paron is the editor for Dateline: CUNY, a website that curates the best student journalism from throughout the City University of New York system.

“What you’re feeling, take that and the anxiety can be used to produce this piece of journalism,” Paron said. “It’s a great educational opportunity right now … in terms of dealing with how to find a source when you can’t knock on their door, to dealing with a health crisis, to understanding your own emotions and feelings and motivations behind stories.”

It’s also an opportunity to connect and get input from readers while website traffic is flourishing, Renton said. The Campus and the CU Independent at the University of Colorado at Boulder are two student publications among many that have created online forms for readers to share thoughts and questions about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The Campus is also planning to host virtual forums to engage students, faculty and staff members, Renton said.

“I definitely think we’re needed now more than ever, both as a way to get the information out but [also] as a community forum,” Renton said. “The paper brings a lot of people together, especially now, when we’re isolated everywhere.”

The need for student journalism is evident in the spike in online readers that publications have seen when comparing website traffic before and after coronavirus became a public health crisis, said Robert Tann, editor in chief of the CU Independent. The publication has seen four times the amount of daily site traffic in the last two weeks than in the previous month, Tann said. The Campus readership is up 70 percent compared to last month, said Amelia Pollard, the publication’s digital director.

“That’s one good thing to come out of this,” Tann said. “We’re proving why student journalism and student outlets like the CUI are so vital and important because we do serve a community purpose.”

College journalists will also begin to be recognized on a weekly basis by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Associated Collegiate Press, which announced on March 23 that they would sponsor a weekly awards program for exemplary coronavirus coverage. Winners will get an SPJ membership and social media shout-out, according to the contest’s rules. The idea is to bring student journalists who are in isolation together in collaboration, said Laura Widmer, executive director of ACP, in a statement.

“We know college journalists are doing exceptional work while being kept out of their newsrooms,” Widmer said. “This award will recognize the great coverage student journalists are providing weekly to their audiences during this tumultuous time.”

Brennan, the Diamondback editor, said her mind has not been on her staff winning awards during the most impactful event of their young careers, but on their role as a resource for the local community served by the publication. The CUI’s work has been so “in the moment” that there’s not much time to think beyond producing “clear, accurate and informative” stories, Tann said.

“I’m focused on the here and now and using this as an opportunity to test myself,” Tann said. “It’s definitely the greatest challenge that I’ve faced as a journalist, but I’m here for it and want to step up to the plate. I’m sure a lot of journalists are feeling that we want to do what we can in this moment of history.”

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