The Big Story: Uncharted territory

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Students at the March 12 impromptu banquet, one-day after university officials announced they were moving to remote classes for the remainder of the semester.

College newsrooms shift focus amid coronavirus pandemic concerns

By Elizabeth Smith and Courtenay Stallings
Pepperdine University

“This is big.” That was the reaction of Graphic News Editor James Moore when Pepperdine University announced seven weeks ago the suspension of its international program in Shanghai, China, as COVID-19 spread across Asia. Over the next six weeks, as the virus spread across the world, the university eventually suspended all seven of its international programs and closed the Malibu campus, moving to all-remote instruction. James was right— it was big.

Over the past few weeks, university presidents have announced campus closures in rapid succession. While these closures pose unprecedented challenges for classrooms and campuses, they are uncharted territory for student newsrooms, too.

While professional newsrooms have shifted to reporters and editors working remotely, college newsrooms have the added disadvantage of having staff members relocating across the globe. For staff members of the Graphic, the focus continues to be on delivering in-depth, urgent news content. To meet the goals, the staff is relying on a broad newsroom contingency plan that focuses on methods of delivery, a sharper focus on multimedia content and rethinking the use of technological tools.

Contingency Plans

Pepperdine Graphic Media is the student newsroom at Pepperdine University that closely covers the campus community through the Graphic newspaper (print and digital), social media, special editions, podcasts and a features magazine. As Pepperdine students returned from spring break Sunday, March 8, advisers sent the following contingency plan to the entire staff. At the time that advisers distributed the contingency plan, campus closure seemed possible but not probable. Three days later, university administrators announced the campus closure.

The following is PGM’s contingency plan:

  1. Reporting and editing: Most of our work can be done remotely. Reporting and editing shouldn’t experience much of a disruption from a possible outbreak. Please plan to continue reporting and editing, although stay in close and regular contact with your section editors as story assignments could change quickly.
  2. Photos: We will need to rely on file photos or courtesy photos for much of our coverage. Since Elizabeth Smith is on campus, she will act as a point-person for retrieving photos from the server. She will put out daily calls for images that are needed.
  3. Digital-first: Getting stories online in an extremely timely manner is always our goal. This will continue to be a top priority.
  4. Social: In the event of an outbreak (or disruption to classes being held on campus), social media will continue to be of paramount importance to distributing content. Section editors will appoint one staff member to assist with all social media postings.
  5. Design: In the event of a disruption, we plan to still produce a print product, although we would significantly reduce the number of papers printed. I am working to secure Adobe access to each section editor, so that pages can still be produced. I will update sections on this matter in the budget meeting.
  6. Art: Art can be completed remotely and shouldn’t experience much of a disruption from a possible outbreak. Artists should plan to stay in regular contact with their section editors.
  7. Advertising: We will continue to solicit print and digital ads.
  8. Meetings: We would continue any regularly scheduled meetings via Zoom. Zoom links will be distributed via email and Crew.

This contingency plan is based on past experience. In a Letter from the Editors, Executive Editor Channa Steinmetz and Managing Editor Madeleine Carr wrote, “This isn’t the first time PGM has had to do this — in November 2018, our staff reported remotely following the Borderline Shooting and Woolsey Fire and was able to produce digital content, alongside the physical special edition that hit stands when students returned to campus. This is to say, we feel we are adequately prepared to cover any news that unfolds, whether from off-campus apartments or hometown desks.”

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A massive wildfire that burned campus and a mass shooting that took the life of a Pepperdine student made for an excruciating time for the Pepperdine community as they experienced these back-to-back tragedies. However, the lessons from that two-week closure informed the contingency plan for the COVID-19 closure and newsroom shift to remote work. Additionally, a clear articulation of expectations of multimedia coverage and use of technology is intended to support the contingency plan.

Multimedia coverage

Although the Graphic intends to still print small batches of its weekly editions for the next four weeks, most community members will rely largely on social media and digital content to keep up with campus news. To meet this need, the Graphic intends to shift to the following:

  • Daily episodes of the Graph, the news podcast
  • Daily editions of the Pixel, the email newsletter
  • More frequent social media updates (PGM regularly posts on social media platforms daily)

Technology and Communication

It is unclear what these remote student newsrooms will evolve into, exactly. Technology will shape how the staff communicates with each other and with its audience. The following tools will take on new importance:

  • Slack/Crew: PGM senior leaders discussed keeping the conversation on this app (in this case, Crew) focused only on the news at hand; this is to keep the conversation focused and not to lose the attention of staff members of notifications.
  • Zoom: PGM will conduct online meetings via Zoom, a remote conferencing service acquired by the University and utilized for remote learning and meetings.
  • Adobe Creative Suite: PGM uses the Adobe Creative Suite widely. Adobe announced free 90-day licenses for students to help manage campus closures and limited access to technology. This means everyone in the newsroom can help with design and editing remotely.
  • Camayak: PGM uses this cloud-based workflow system for all content. This makes writing and editing remotely seamless and without any changes from more typical newsroom editing.
  • Chartbeat: PGM uses this (in partnership with Camayak) to monitor real-time analytics.
  • Mailchimp: PGM uses this for distribution of the email newsletter

PGM’s contingency plan was shared on the College Media Association email distribution list Monday, March 9. Advisers intended to share this as a resource as other newsrooms developed their own plans. The response has been tremendous. Dozens of schools have since shared their contingency plans for remote coverage. Each plan, while unique to their newsroom, articulates the importance of communication via technology tools with a focus on hyper-local coverage. Despite the specifics, advisers and editors should craft plans that consider the needs of student journalists in a time of major fluctuation, accommodates logistical shifts and (most importantly) serves the community. This is an important opportunity—student journalists are being given the chance not only to write the rules, but to write the whole playbook, from the inside out.

Elizabeth Smith, director of Pepperdine Graphic Media

Courtenay Stallings, assistant director of Pepperdine Graphic Media