Creative Loafing Tampa Bay moved into a new office last December. Editor-in-chief Ray Roa was on paternity leave while the other employees settled into an open-concept work floor with tall ceilings, exposed bricks and natural light. They’d enjoy yoga classes and team bonding experiences in the office’s event hall, CL Space, which also acts as a main revenue source as it can host up to 200-person gatherings.
Soon after Roa returned to the office, the COVID-19 pandemic forced him to work from home with his four-month-old baby and wife who’s a nurse. The Creative Loafing office is just a short bike ride down the road. He didn’t maintain a desk at home.
“I brought my second monitor from the office along with my laptop stand, and it’s on top of one of those IKEA record organizers. I sit on either a medicine ball if my wife’s not using it, or on this hard IKEA stool with two pillows on it,” Roa said, his baby crying in the background. “I feel like I’m losing some synergy and energy and communication by not being around each other [in the office].”
Reporters are careful not to complain too much, considering how much harder it is for others who are working during the pandemic. However, the effort to report on the COVID-19 story has brought challenges to journalists as they navigate teamwork, try to gather information remotely without losing accuracy and seek to develop a sense of the place they’re writing about even when they can’t be there.
I feel like I’m losing some synergy and energy and communication by not being around each other [in the office].Ray Roa, Editor-in-chief, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay
With financial pressures mounting during the COVID-19 crisis, Roa had to lay off seven editorial employees.
“Every newsroom that [parent company Euclid Media] had was reduced down to digital editor and editor-in-chief,” Roa said. The office of 12 soon became five, with the sales team keeping three full-time employees.
Some photojournalists have donated work for free, and some freelance writers have accepted payments at 25% of what they normally would get. Even so, the loss of the full-time staffers means Roa is writing more for the publication than he has in a long time. “The quality of your work—you always kind of doubt yourself, but even more so now. You’re frustrated because you can’t spend the time that you want on the story itself,” Roa said.
Alice Yin, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, has a similar story about dislocation from colleagues and inability to spend more time with sources.
“I share a room with my boyfriend. So sometimes he uses the desk—like he’s taking a final right now—sometimes I’m on the bed, sometimes I’m working on the couch in our living room,” Yin said. “I don’t like it when I’m doing an interview right in the same room as someone just because I know that person would probably feel uncomfortable if they knew someone was listening to the conversation, even though they’re not actively listening.”
Along with navigating the confines of working at home, how journalists conduct their reporting has changed.
“Journalists will have learned new skills just by sheer nature of having to in this time period,” said John Shertzer, Executive Director of the Society of Professional Journalists. “They will have learned how to use technology more effectively, how to do research in a different way simply because they have to use the work-from-home techniques and tactics in order to achieve their work.”
Among tactics cited by Shertzer: Taking photos from their cars and using different online avenues to uncover a story as opposed to traditional journalistic routes.
Yin asks her sources more detailed questions to gather the color she’d otherwise be able to get in the field, like what clothing they’re wearing, how they’re feeling right now or what their daily routine is like. She also said she’s gotten more creative in how she reaches her sources.
Since we can’t do much man-on-the-street reporting, it requires a lot of creative thinking about social media and how to find story ideas from there.Alice Yin, reporter, Chicago Tribune
“Since we can’t do much man-on-the-street reporting, it requires a lot of creative thinking about social media and how to find story ideas from there,” Yin said. “There’s lots of gain from doing man-on-the-street reporting where you reach out to people you see on the street, but you might not be getting people who are working a crazy shift or people who have disabilities.”
Still, Yin misses creating an in-person connection with her sources, misses seeing how they let out their vulnerabilities, misses seeing who they are as a person. Yin was finishing a stint as a crime reporter when the pandemic hit hard in Chicago. Before, she’d go to both the crime scene and the hospital to gather interviews and observations.
“After that, I would go to scenes, but I’d stay six feet away from people, which meant I only got, I think, one interview during the entire two to three weeks I was still doing crime reporting, and that was when I was standing behind a fence and the witnesses were at their doorway,” Yin said.
She recently became the Cook County beat reporter and wishes she was with her co-workers to build in-person connections with her team.
“This pandemic, in many ways, opens up the fissures in our society and contributes to inequalities, but there are still ways that it unites us in the sense that we are all going through the same worries and struggles when it comes to anxiety and worries about the future, worries about jobs,” Yin said.
In the U.S. from 2008 to 2019, newsroom employment dropped by 23%, according to the Pew Research Center. SPJ’s Shertzer emphasizes the importance of having a sense of community to help navigate these times.
As journalists learn new ways to go about their day-to-day work, Shertzer said it’s helpful to share techniques and support with colleagues in similar situations.
“Having the community means you’re not alone in dealing with this,” Shertzer said. “I think that that’s as important today as it’s ever been, simply because we’re all in a very uncertain and complicated environment right now.”
When feelings of anxiety and uncertainty build up, Cheryl Carpenter, leadership faculty at the Poynter Institute, suggests an array of strategies to keep those feelings from seeping into journalists’ relationships with their editors and co-workers, and their careers as a whole.
Among them, Carpenter urges journalists to give emails an “emotional edit,” or reread them aloud before sending to avoid including unnecessary baggage. “It can really make me aware of how that receiver, who is also under pressure, might hear it or might receive it,” Carpenter said.
She also says to give peers the benefit of the doubt and to have something to look forward to when the pandemic subsides.
Everybody wants to be part of something bigger. That’s part of why newsrooms are great places. ...Cheryl Carpenter, leadership faculty, Poynter Institute
“Everybody wants to be part of something bigger. That’s part of why newsrooms are great places. It’s because you begin to see that you are a player in an organization and in an institution that is bigger than you,” Carpenter said. “If you’re giving [colleagues] a reminder of how important the work is, it helps to get you through this enduring uncertainty that we’re struggling with right now.”
There’s no knowing when it will be safe for journalists to return to newsrooms, but there’s a consensus that they’re eager to get back.
“I look forward to being in the office with my co-workers, being openly frustrated about a press release or making a joke about something,” said Creative Loafing’s Roa, who recently started going into the office two days a week on print production days. “As much as we may disagree about things or disagree about the way we do things, we’re all working at the same place, we all believe in the same thing.”
Carpenter echoes Roa’s outlook. “I’m looking forward to seeing what my colleagues learned when they were all in isolation and how we might be able to collect that and turn it into something bigger than we expected,” she said.
Article image by Tech. Sgt. Robert Sizelove, U.S. Air Force