A newsroom guide to covering the coronavirus outbreak

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Megan Farmer/KUOW

First responders and members of the Kirkland Fire Department arrive at the Life Care Center of Kirkland to transport a patient to the hospital on Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Kirkland, Wash.

“Never good when someone calls an 8 p.m. presser,” texted KUOW reporter Ann Dornfeld the evening of Friday, Feb. 28.

I looked down at her message on my phone and gave my husband an apologetic look that he knows means, “I’ve got to work, the kid’s bedtime is on you tonight.”

Ann was right. It was not good. I quickly called our on-call weekend reporter Marcie Sillman, who rushed to cover the news announced by county and state health officials that there were two new cases of COVID-19, the sickness caused by the coronavirus. There had been only one other case in Washington, and it was widely believed the virus was contained.

The next day, news of the first deaths caused by COVID-19 in Washington came in. The number of diagnoses increased. As of this writing, Washington is considered the epicenter of this health crisis in the United States.

As a newsroom, we’ve planned for natural disasters like a major earthquake. We’ve jumped on numerous breaking news stories, from the Amtrak crash in 2017 to the hijacking of a Horizon airplane at Sea-Tac airport.

This story is different. It’s challenging in many unique ways. We are all living this story and covering it. We’re worried about loved ones at risk of contracting the virus. We’re suspicious of anyone coughing or even a small tickle in the throat. We’re planning for what we would do if, horror of horrors, schools shut down and we have to figure out what to do with our kids. And don’t you even think about touching your face! People will move away from you faster than you can get your now ever-present Purell bottle cap open.

I’ve faced a number of challenges leading KUOW’s news coverage of this outbreak. I wished numerous times I had a guide as a resource for making tough calls about measuring risk and reward when sending reporters into the field. A one-stop shop for how to transition your newsroom to almost-all remote work in less than 24 hours. A “here is how you should think about covering the million different angles you could possibly go on this story” kind of guide.

I never found it all in one place. Not to sound like doomsday is coming, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts, “It’s likely that at some point, widespread transmission of COVID-19 in the United States will occur.”

So, I’m taking a quick moment this weekend to write up what we’ve learned in KUOW’s newsroom over the last week or so to help other newsrooms who might find themselves at the center of a coronavirus outbreak.

Lesson #1: Start a blog

KUOW’s online managing editor Isolde Raftery had a brilliant idea early on to start a coronavirus blog on KUOW.org for live updates. There are so many small updates on this story from health officials, hospitals and schools that don’t necessarily warrant a full post but are really useful information to the public. She built it so anyone in the newsroom can post to it. Our social media guru Juan Pablo Chiquiza translates the blog posts into Spanish. A place for live updates makes sense for the story and for the newsroom trying to feed multiple platforms, and it attracts a very large audience. People are reading it in very high numbers, and KUOW.org is on track for its highest-traffic month ever.

Lesson #2: Identify who is doing what

It sounds obvious, but you can easily get your entire newsroom sucked into breaking news on a story like this. We’ve definitely fallen into that. It’s a constant struggle for me as a news director to say, “No, do not cover that day-of news story — we need you on coverage that might be more meaningful or enterprise or watchdog-worthy.”

The KUOW editors and I realized as this last week went on that we needed to pull some reporters off the daily news grind so that they could focus on source-building with vulnerable populations and watchdogging the government’s public health response and preparedness plans. I wish we had done that much earlier. It’s important for many reasons to remember that covering a story like the coronavirus outbreak requires you to set a marathon pace, not a sprint.

Lesson #3: Prepare to transform your newsroom to an almost entirely remote operation

KUOW General Manager Caryn Mathes announced Thursday that most non-news staff would work remotely through the end of March.

To further protect news staff, Chief Content Officer Jennifer Strachan and I identified who actually had to be in the building from the news team and landed on drive-time hosts, producers, our midday newscaster and board operators. They would be supported by a morning and afternoon editor. That’s it from the newsroom. All reporters, most editors and myself would be working and filing remotely. Immediately.

KUOW editor Liz Jones worked up a handy guide for filing remotely, including how to access a web version of NewsBoss. It also included how to record phoners on smartphones and the best way for reporters to communicate with drive times and midday news when they’ve filed a piece.

I communicated with staff about how we would hold editorial meetings using both old-school conference lines and fancy video chats for smaller meetings using Microsoft Teams. We would continue using our coronavirus Slack channel, a running newsroom conversation with tips, questions and leads. Reporters share contacts there and cheer each other on.

We’ve done this one day now, and it was hard. We had troubles with NewsBoss. Communication was a challenge. But it got easier as the day went on. It takes practice. In fact, if we’d really been prepared, we would have done a dress rehearsal for this. I highly recommend giving it a try under less urgent circumstances so you are prepared when the stakes are higher.

Aside from the needed technology to work remotely, KUOW also purchased new boom poles to help reporters in the field keep some distance from the people they interview.

Lesson #4: Check in with your people and yourself

It’s been an emotional time. Many of us haven’t had a day off in quite some time. We’re tired. We’re hearing from people panicked about their own health and their sick family members. Our incredible photographer Megan Farmer is taking photos of people likely living their last moments. We’re trying to stay safe but also get the story for the public. And as a news director, I feel guilty working remotely. I want to be in the newsroom. It just feels wrong. But I also want to set an example for my team. If I go in, they will think it’s expected that they come in too. Germs and all.

I also am lowering my audio standards just a bit, asking whether the risk of going into the field is worth it in each case. Saying, “Yes, a phoner will be fine,” unless I am sure we are taking precautions before going into a possibly unsafe space.

Communicate with staff about who they can reach out to if they need help. We shared a crisis hotline provided by the University of Washington. Editors are checking in with their folks regularly. I am too. And I am trying to say thank you to my people as much as possible.

Another important note handed down from NPR: Your reporters should have veto power. If they don’t feel comfortable going on a risky assignment, don’t make them.

Lesson #5: Think ahead

This story isn’t going anywhere. We are currently setting a schedule for the rest of this month to stagger reporters and editors so we know we are fully covered for news seven days per week. We’re staffing each weekend day with at least one reporter, one web staffer posting regular updates to KUOW.org and a broadcast editor. We are identifying backup news hosts and newscasters in case our folks get sick. And we’re plotting out our coverage far ahead.

To end this post, I’d like to brag about the KUOW news team and the work they’ve produced so far. It might even inspire some of your own newsroom’s coverage.

We also launched a new daily news podcast this past week! It’s called Seattle Now. Host Patricia Murphy and the team of producers went all-in on finding unique angles to cover the outbreak. Each episode is worth a listen.

I do hope that the virus is contained soon and that your newsroom won’t even need this guide. If it does, I hope this helps, even just a little. And as we are saying a lot around here these days, please remember to wash your hands.

Jill Jackson is news director at KUOW in Seattle.

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