Working remotely because of the coronavirus presents unique challenges for student journalists. In this guide we provide answers to some of your top questions about how to continue doing high-caliber reporting and maintain staff morale and efficiency during this time of crisis.
Related: More coronavirus resources from SPLC
• How do we keep our reporters safe during this outbreak while still doing our jobs and covering what needs to be covered?
• What do I do if sources won’t return my calls?
• What do I do if administrators insist on sending questions ahead of time, route all questions through an uncooperative PR department or decline interview requests outright?
• How do I find story ideas now that beats are disrupted?
• How do I cover meetings that should be open but aren’t meeting in person anymore?
• My public records request has been denied / delayed because the record holder isn’t in the office because of the outbreak. What can I do?
• Where can I find ethical and legal guidance for covering the coronavirus?
Newsroom management questions:
• How do I manage my staff remotely?
• What kinds of online meeting/collaboration tools are available for free?
• How do I renegotiate with advertisers now that we’re online only?
• How do we financially plan for next year and in the long term?
• Our budget has been cut, what can we do?
• Our adviser’s job has been threatened or cut, what can we do?
• How can we increase our online readers now that that’s the only way to reach them?
Questions about reporting:
Q: How do we keep our reporters safe during this outbreak while still doing our jobs and covering what needs to be covered?
A: Just like everyone else, reporters must take precautions to keep themselves safe, and to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Follow the guidance from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention including:
- Frequently wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- Avoid touching your face
- Practice social distancing
- Sanitize surfaces frequently Here is a list of disinfectants found to be effective.
- Avoid contact with people who are sick
- If you develop symptoms, stay home and self-isolate. If it gets serious, seek medical attention.
Additionally, follow guidance laid out by the government. If your mayor or governor has announced a shelter in place order, adhere to it as best you can.
That is NOT to say you should stop reporting. Student journalists play an important role in crises like this one and are crucial for providing accurate information their peers need about how their lives will be affected by this pandemic. Although your ability to do “person on the street” reporting or events coverage is now limited, most stories can still be reported from the safety of your own home. PBS Student Reporting Labs put together tips for conducting effective virtual interviews.
Keep reading for tips on how to efficiently work online.
Q: What do I do if sources won’t return my calls?
A: Because you can’t go to a source’s office or try to catch them in person, you’re going to be mostly reliant on email and phone calls. But good journalistic strategy still applies — if they aren’t returning your calls, find them on social media and direct message them. Many people are being inundated with emails and calls as they adjust to working or studying online, not to mention other responsibilities and stress at home. Still, they likely will be keeping up with social media during their time away from their office/classroom. If a source’s privacy settings don’t allow you to DM them, don’t be afraid to tweet directly at them; just make sure to identify yourself as a reporter and tag your publication. If you can’t find contact information for the source you need, try calling colleagues or others who may know how to reach them. Don’t be afraid to call multiple times and be clear that you’re on deadline so a source knows how long they have to respond. Always maintain your professionalism and be polite when requesting a comment.
Give sources a last call, telling them if they don’t get back to you by a certain time you’ll have to run the story without their comment. If a source is central to a story and doesn’t respond to your interview requests or declines to comment, mention it in the story so your readers know you tried. If possible, find another source with a similar perspective, or search online for any documents that might have what you’re looking for. Once you have spoken with a source, make sure you have a way to reach them for follow up questions. If a source was difficult to reach initially, there’s a good chance they will be again.
Q: What do I do if administrators insist on sending questions ahead of time, route all questions through an uncooperative PR department or decline interview requests outright?
A: Try to determine if this behavior stems from legitimate difficulties raised by the coronavirus or if administrators are using the pandemic as an excuse to stonewall student reporters. Evaluate your past history with admin: did you have these problems before the crisis began? Also look at how they’re interacting with other groups: if they’re staying in contact with national news media and promptly responding to student government but shutting out student media, that’s a red flag. Read up on other warning signs for how PR departments try to suppress student journalism.
Contact SPLC’s legal hotline for help.
- Keep a record of all the ways your administration and PR have criticized, stonewalled or suppressed student media, especially if you think any of their actions may have been for content-based reasons.
- Make sure your publication has a written policy on sending questions to sources, and stick to it. Reference that policy and explain the reasoning behind it when you speak to administrators.
- If they refuse to speak with a reporter, include in your story that they declined to comment.
- If they ignore you or take too long to respond, include that they did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
- Make sure you’ve given them as many chances and as much time as possible to respond. If they respond after the deadline, consider updating the story.
- When you request interviews, be clear about when your deadlines are. Make it clear that you will publish the story with or without their comment, but explain why it’s beneficial to them to weigh in.
- Understand that school administrators are in unprecedented times and have many priorities and responsibilities aside from student media. Know your rights and stand firmly by them, but be civil and try to work with administrators where possible.
Q: How do I find story ideas now that beats are disrupted?
A: Now that sport seasons have been cut short and extracurricular groups like clubs and marching band aren’t meeting (at least in person) you’ll need to get more creative with your coverage. Remember that the disruptions to your beat are also newsworthy. Find ways to cover how the coronavirus — and resulting cancellations and closures — are affecting students.
- What happens to high school athletes who won’t be scouted now?
- How are music and art teachers trying to teach remotely?
- How are donations to individual organizations or the school as a whole being affected? (Keep an eye on how this affects tuition, scholarships and student fees going forward.)
- What staff are considered “essential”? Who, if anyone, is still required to come to campus and what are they being paid? Do custodial staff get healthcare coverage? Has anyone been laid off or had their pay cut? What has happened to part-time or hourly workers, like adjuncts, teacher aides, cafeteria staff, bus drivers, security guards, groundskeepers and custodial staff? What happens to work-study students whose jobs can’t be done remotely?
- How are members of Student Government meeting with their constituents? And while this is election season, how does this change how students are campaigning?
- Are any extracurricular groups being defunded or cut back?
Like always, finding story ideas requires being in tune with what students and the community at large are struggling with.
- Pay attention to what peers are saying on social media.
- Check out student coverage from other schools around the country (here’s a list of more than 30 student publications covering the pandemic).
- Stay up to date with national news and think about implications for your specific community.
- Many national news outlets including The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN have coronavirus-specific newsletters
- Make it simple for people to suggest story ideas (a tipline on your website, asking on social media what questions folks have, etc.) and really listen to their suggestions.
Q: How do I cover meetings that should be open but aren’t meeting in person anymore?
A: Student government, board of trustees, faculty senate, and other organizations’ meetings should still be public, even if they aren’t in person. Daniel Bevarly, president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said meetings that were once open to the public should still be during coronavirus. He said government bodies should be livestreaming their meetings on a platform with a chat feature for public comment. Afterward, in case anyone had connection issues, they should post the recording on the website.
If the meeting is already online, you can quote comments in your story, and follow up with the people involved afterward over the phone. If the organization you’re trying to cover isn’t holding open meetings, they’re in violation of state open meetings laws, which designate proceedings open to the public. SPLC’s legal hotline can help.
Q: My public records request has been denied / delayed because the record holder isn’t in the office because of the outbreak. What can I do?
A: Bevarly said that the pandemic isn’t an excuse to withhold public information. Send your public records office a copy of this statement from NFOIC and 131 other free speech organizations including SPLC. The statement calls for government transparency during this pandemic, and provides guidance on fulfilling public records requests remotely.
NFOIC said the best way to be compliant is to publish the records without waiting for a request. NFOIC suggests records holders:
- Digitize documents for easy remote access
- Create an email service to release any important information ahead of time
- Use an online public records portal
- Make sure to always use public email addresses and company phones for public information-related matters
- Designate a public records custodian in each department to expedite the release of records
These are best practices, but not necessarily the reality on the ground. If a records holder is not responding to your records request, contact SPLC’s legal hotline for help.
Q: Where can I find ethical and legal guidance for covering the coronavirus?
A: SPLC has an in-depth guide to covering the coronavirus that answers your legal and ethical questions like how to access information about school closure plans, how privacy laws like FERPA and HIPAA apply (and don’t apply) in this situation, and whether journalists should identify a source who has tested positive for coronavirus by name. It also includes links to additional resources and advice for reports who are covering the virus from groups like World Health Organization, Poynter, Education Writers Association and AP Stylebook. You can also find a list of student coverage of the outbreak and relevant SPLC tipsheets.
Questions about newsroom management:
Q: How do I manage my staff remotely?
A: Every staff is different and although there’s plenty of advice out there, you’ll likely need to adapt it to the unique needs of your newsroom. Think about what already works (and doesn’t work) for your newsroom and then try to find ways to transition that for online work. For example, if you normally invite the public to attend your budget meetings, make sure there’s a way for them to join your new meetings conducted using video calls. Editors and other newsroom leaders may need to schedule more meetings than usual with staff to ensure smooth communication.
The American Press Institute wrote about how their team works remotely including tips for how they keep communication consistent and morale high. API recommended teams meet daily via video call (like Google Hangouts or Zoom). Each meeting is focused on a particular goal or challenge the team can work through. For student newsrooms, staff can do this on production nights. Meetings can focus on:
- Story pitches
- Team priorities for the week
- Briefings on content that will run each night
- Editorial ideas
- Reporting and celebrating daily accomplishments
- Debriefing what they have been working on over a meal
Messaging platforms designed for workspaces are also key ways to maintain communication within your staff. Slack, Google Suite and Zoom all have free options. Try to work with platforms your staff is already familiar with, and train them when introducing a new tool.
Q: What kinds of online meeting/collaboration tools are available for free?
A: There are tons of tools out there designed to make remote work easier and more convenient. Here are some to consider:
- Airtable uses spreadsheets to help you keep track of progress, deadlines and responsibilities in any kind of group work. Their basic plan is free, but you can pay for additional features.
- Asana helps manage group tasks and track deadlines. The basic plan is free for up to 15 members, but you can pay for additional features and more accounts.
- Google Drive allows multiple people to edit the same document and syncs up well with platforms like Slack and WordPress. It also provides free storage of photos and videos.
- Google Hangouts is a video call tool that allows for multiple participants and is free for people with a gmail account. Calls can be scheduled directly through Google Calendar.
- Slack is a messaging platform for business. You can set up different channels for each of your sections, leadership and other subsets of staff. You can also set reminders, make calls and connect apps to help streamline workflow.
- Trello is a workflow tool that allows you to organize and prioritize tasks for your staff.
- WhatsApp provides online calling and end-to-end encrypted messaging if privacy is a concern. There are mobile and desktop versions of this free app.
- Zoom is a platform that allows up to 100 people to video chat. This is perfect for remote pitch meetings. The free version of Zoom cuts meetings off at 40-minutes. It can be paired with Google Calendar or other calendar options.
- Poynter pulled together even more tools and resources here.
Q: How do I renegotiate with advertisers now that we’re online only?
A: These are uncertain times, especially for advertisers. Some of your publication’s clients have either moved to minimal operations or shut down entirely. Tami Bongiorni, president of College Media Business and Advertising Managers and assistant director of Kent State Student Media, said when the Kent Stater ceased print production for the remainder of the school year, they canceled all ads and gave advertisers a choice to move the ad online if it was still applicable. Publications lost projected revenue for the ads that couldn’t be moved to digital platforms, like ads for events that are now canceled.
Bongiorni said it is important to let advertisers know that you are there to support them during this tough time and hope to continue working with them. At Kent State, is working on featuring local take out/delivery businesses at a discounted listing offer.
Flytedesk newsletter, a national campus advertising network, strongly suggested students work with advertisers to switch their print ads to digital or social media space if they are continuing to provide services until the end of the school year. Other ideas:
- Many student publications are experiencing a dramatic spike in online traffic as their peers search for information on the coronavirus — if this is true of your publication, use it when negotiating with advertisers.
- Try creating more ad space on the site so you can have more advertisers.
- Think about on campus recruiting events that were canceled. Reach out to employers who were supposed to be part of career fairs to see if they would be interested in purchasing a digital ad.
- Give advertisers who shut down operations and couldn’t advertise digitally a voucher to advertise in the fall.
- Consider pushing payments out or offering refunds to businesses facing hardship because of the virus. Discuss offering delayed billing for businesses that are continuing with online ads.
Q: How do we financially plan for next year and in the long term?
A: Communication and early planning are key. Create a team with staff members, student media advisers and staff from your business office who can work to develop a plan. Set up virtual meetings to talk about how you will allocate funds in the upcoming year. Even if your publication is funded through student fees, it’s important to have sources of revenue outside of the school. Schools have been known to cut student media budgets in difficult economic times. If you’re independently funded, you’re likely already starting to feel the economic effects of the coronavirus. Businesses may cut their advertising budgets, digital ads are typically priced lower and donations/subscriptions might start to fall.
Contact organizations like the College Media Business and Advertising Managers and Society of Professional Journalists to see if they can provide support or guidance in your planning. This is also an opportunity to think creatively how you can diversify revenue streams for your student publication. Ideas include:
- Reaching out to alumni of the publication and school who can offer donations in times of financial uncertainty
- Create a donate button on your website. Do some homework first—it takes effort to put infrastructure in place that correctly processes credit card information.
- Save money where you can for the upcoming year. Look at money your publication had on reserve for this year and see if you can allocate those extra funds to the next year.
- Get more staff members involved in the business side of running a publication, the more folks brainstorming and working to address financial issues, the better.
Bongiorni said during times of uncertainty, it’s important to look to the future and plan for what your publication needs. You need money to produce quality content and reach bigger audiences, which in turn attracts advertisers, which helps fund your work. She added that collaborating with other schools and media organizations “will be key to ensure we not only survive, but move forward.”
Q: Our budget has been cut, what can we do?
A: Read SPLC’s guide for what to do if your budget gets cut and contact SPLC’s legal hotline.
- Call the person or group that decided on the cut and ask why they did it. If it was because you aren’t printing anymore, explain that your outlet plans to continue printing once people return to campus, which you may not be able to with the cuts.
- Ask your publication’s alumni to donate. You can also organize them in other ways like withholding donations to the school and writing letters to the administration explaining why the paper is important.
- Write about it. Tell your readers if the budget cuts will hurt your ability to inform them.
- If you think your budget was cut in retaliation for something you published, it’s time to get a lawyer, SPLC can connect you with an attorney licensed in your state who is willing to take on the case pro bono. Contact SPLC’s legal hotline for help.
Q: Our adviser’s job has been threatened or cut, what can we do?
A: Contact SPLC’s legal hotline, our attorneys can talk you through the legal protections for advisers in your state and options for how to proceed. Advisers are in a precarious spot when it comes to unhappy administrators. Standing up for their students in a censorship situation can be insubordination. Unfortunately, great advisers have lost their jobs for taking their students’ side and encouraging them to report on important but unflattering news stories. SPLC’s tip sheet for student media advisers lays out what advisers can do to protect themselves.
Q: How can we increase our online readers now that that’s the only way to reach them?
A: Interact more with your current followers and students on social media. Listen to what your readers are saying and engage with them — if you answer the questions they have about the virus, they’re more likely to come back to your site the next time they have questions or want to get informed. Consider re-allocating some of your printing budget into boosting social media posts.
Look to groups like Poynter, Online News Association and Neiman Labs for advice about connecting with online audiences. Read up on how the professionals reach online audiences. ProPublica wrote about how their reporters practice engagement journalism. Journalism school-affiliated groups like Columbia Journalism Review and Reynolds Journalism Institute are a great place to find ideas and strategies.
Get creative with the ways you deliver information. Use everything from Instagram stories to TikTok to newsletters to reach people. Partner with other student or local publications in your area and see if you can cross-promote your content. Be creative with how you visualize stories. Interesting maps, photos or even drone footage can break through the onslaught of news and draw in readers.
Look for opportunities to submit your work to groups highlighting student coverage. SPLC is keeping a growing list of student coverage. Email SPLC Digital Strategist Danielle Dieterich at email@example.com with the subject line “My coronavirus coverage” to have your stories added. The Society of Professional Journalists and Associated Collegiate Press created the College Coronavirus Coverage contest specifically for student journalists’ coronavirus coverage. The prize? Your stories get published to SPJ’s and ACP’s Twitter accounts, with a collective 77,000 followers and you get a free one-year membership to