When COVID-19 began to spread across the United States earlier this year, local journalists were on frontlines reporting on the virus. From Santa Fe, New Mexico to Columbus, Georgia, local newsrooms have served as the first source of information for many communities trying to navigate life in the midst of a pandemic.
As local newsrooms struggle to stay afloat in the midst of ongoing industry changes, we interviewed journalists reporting across the country to learn how they have reported on COVID-19 in their communities, and how the virus is changing local journalism beyond the pandemic.
While the first cases of COVID-19 hit the U.S. in January, 2020, it was not until March that the virus began to spread across the country. For many local journalists, it was around this time that coronavirus became the dominant story in their newsrooms as the first cases began to arise in their respective states.
“We started right away in March. We were wondering how we were going to do our old reporting, and it suddenly occurred to me, this is the story, there’s no other story right now,” said Sara Solovitch, executive director at Searchlight New Mexico in Santa Fe. Solovitch and her team dedicated all their resources to covering the virus in their state, even if it meant closing the door on other investigations.
“We had stories ready to go that, when the pandemic really exploded, all of a sudden seemed suddenly irrelevant,” said Ed Williams, a staff writer at the publication. For example, writing on a local school district when schools quickly closed.
Romy Ellenbogen, the health breaking news reporter at the Tampa Bay Times, experienced a similar rush to cover the virus in the initial months, following the first two cases in the Tampa Bay area in early March. “We had people working late into the night those first couple of weeks because the state would put out their first numbers at 11:00 or 12:00 at night,” Ellenbogen said.
In both Tampa and Santa Fe, the initial rush to cover what originally appeared to be a story that would last two or three months transformed into much more sustained coverage as the virus continued through the summer. It was also a period in which journalists were forced to adapt to remote reporting methods and techniques, as many offices closed down to allow for social distancing.
Forstaff at the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia, the switch to reporting remotely occurred immediately after the first cases occurred in March. Many people also had to pivot to cover the developing story from other beats. For Nick Wooten, a staff writer at the publication, transitioning from a culture reporter to a health reporter involved learning how to reach out to health and disease experts remotely, often through Twitter.
by Devin Windelspecht, International Journalists’ Network