UMass journalism alumni covering news during a pandemic

UMass journalism alumni covering news during a pandemic

Jonathan Kermah, Editor in Chief

With the United States government putting an emphasis on social distancing during this current health crisis, the jobs of many American citizens has changed drastically. The journalism industry is no different. Here at Amherst Wire, we’ve adjusted as best we can to working online using ZOOM and GroupMe to coordinate.

Last week, I spoke with three UMass journalism alumni to see how their lives as journalists have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. And for those wondering, these interviews were done via email and over the phone to remain socially distanced. Below are some of their responses.

What is your role at your publication?

Michelle Williams: My title at MassLive is managing producer. I lead our breaking-trending, politics and Western Massachusetts coverage. I started at MassLive shortly after graduating from UMass, joining as an associate producer handling a mix of spot reporting, social media and updating the website’s homepage and index pages. I was promoted to a beat reporter – covering education and Holyoke – before taking on the role of supervising reporter of a newly formed breaking-trending team. I was promoted to managing producer in recent months, continuing to lead our breaking-trending coverage, work closely with our lead national politics reporter and oversee Western Massachusetts coverage for MassLive.

Stephanie Murray: I’m the author of the POLITICO Massachusetts Playbook and a co-host of The Horse Race podcast, which is done through MassINC.

Mike Deehan: I’m the State House reporter for WGBH News. Primarily I’m a radio reporter. I’m trying to also webcast as many of these press conferences as I can, but that’s supplementary to the radio position.

How is your newsroom handling COVID-19? Are you all working from home? What tools are you using for communicating? 

Williams: We are all working from home in an effort to keep ourselves, families and the communities we cover safe. In some ways, we were better prepared than other newsrooms in communicating remotely as our staff is based across the state, with offices in Springfield, Worcester and desks at the State House. I lead a daily video news call with our reporters each morning during which we check in about the biggest stories of the day and ongoing projects. We stay in touch throughout the day on slack, where we have dedicated channels for different aspects of coverage.

Murray: POLITICO employees are working from home for the time being. Our big newsroom is just outside Washington, D.C., but we also have reporters in New York, California, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois. I’m the only reporter based in Boston, so I was already working from home part of the time. I’m using my laptop to write stories and do Zoom calls, my iPad and TV to keep up with press conferences and I use a snowball microphone for my podcast. The newsroom uses Slack, and I’m always on Twitter! I just recorded a totally remote episode of my podcast today, which was kind of a weird feeling.

Deehan: It’s shifted everything, or almost everything, to a virtual setting. All my editors are at home. Coordination has been a challenge. Because I work from the state house and not from the office, not much has changed for me personally. But initially, everything else was in a state of chaos, but we’re slowly getting a hold on it. It’s actually kind of remarkable how quickly people have adapted to teleconferencing in meetings and quick phone calls and texting and recent technology that they weren’t used to beforehand. We have a slack channel going for virus related stuff. We have switched over to Zoom for our meetings. And for the webcasts I’ve been relying on Facebook live feeds. It’s kind of the same stuff I’ve been doing for a while, just more of it.

Has it been challenging covering news from home?

Williams: Working from home brings different challenges for each person on our staff. Many – myself included – have families and are juggling coverage in addition to the needs of children. Additionally, with social distancing we’ve temporarily lost the ability to work physically side-by-side as a staff, to have in person interviews and meetings with sources.

Murray: Working from home can be tough for everybody. As a reporter, I was used to being out at different events and press conferences every day. When I was covering the New Hampshire primary, I’d be out in big crowds and talking to people all the time. Or I’d go get coffee or lunch with a source, which is a really important part of my job. Part of the reason I love my job so much is because no two days are the same. So it’s been a big change being home all the time, but we all have to do our part to keep the virus from spreading. I will say attending press conferences via Zoom call and asking questions in my sweatpants has its perks.

Deehan: I’ve been off at work longer hours than usual. I honestly haven’t been home. I am personally worried about getting it [COVID-19]. I’m around people every day and in and out of lyfts and ubers. Personally speaking, I’m taking every precaution I can, but I’m still every day in a room with the governor and other members of the press and the public health officials and the staff. Likely over 25 people. It’s not the safest thing to be doing, but we’re getting there.

What stories have you been working on during the quarantine? 

Williams: To stay in touch with our readers, we introduced a new texting service focused on coronavirus coverage which allows direct access to a group of editors, myself included. We launched last week and quickly saw thousands of readers subscribe.

Murray: I write a daily newsletter about Massachusetts politics, so I am focused on what my readers need to know first thing in the morning. People want to know the latest directions from Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and what their elected officials are doing. And political campaigns are trying to figure out where they fit in, too, because so much of campaigning happens in person. How do you run for office when you can’t shake somebody’s hand? I’ve been writing about a push from more than a dozen candidates who want the state to push back a signature gathering deadline they need to meet to get on the ballot. It sounds technical, but it’s pretty simple. The campaigns don’t feel like it is safe to ask strangers to share a pen and sign the same sheet of paper with a contagious virus going around, but if they don’t do it, they will not get on the ballot. It’s something I never would have thought of if I wasn’t covering politics, but it shows how the coronavirus impacts everything.

Deehan: I am required to go into the State House when there are press conferences. We’re still following the governor and following health officials around and keeping track of that. I’ve been at the State House everyday except Saturday since this has started.

What hobbies or home activities have you picked up to fill out your free time stuck at home?

Williams: While social distancing, I’ve found myself reading more and re-watching some favorite shows on Netflix (I currently have “The West Wing” on in the background.) I have two dogs, who I take on long walks or hikes at least once a day to get out of the house. I have regular phone calls and facetime calls with family and friends to stay in touch.

Murray: I like to go on walks around my neighborhood and listen to podcasts or talk to my mom on the phone. I’ve also been watching really bad movies. I paid $4 to rent “Twilight,” which is bad enough, but the next day I realized it was “Twilight” weekend on FreeForm and I could have just watched it for free. So I wasted $4. But I’m not spending money on coffee these days, so I’ll call it a wash. 

Deehan: I haven’t had a moment to myself really. Most of my hobbies were social, or going to the movies or concerts. If things do slow down, I anticipate maybe taking some time off. I had to cancel my vacation. I had plans to hang out with people in the Bay Area.

For more from Michelle and MassLiveNews, follow @MichelleTweetin and @MassLiveNews on Twitter.

For more from Stephanie, follow @Stephanie_murr and @The_HorseRace on Twitter.

For more coverage on the Mass. State House from Mike, follow @deehan on Twitter.

Email Jon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @JonathanKermah.

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