Student media advisers in new territory during campus shut downs over the coronavirus

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash

Editor’s note: Check out the Student Press Law Center’s guide to covering the coronavirus pandemic for resources and tips to help with your reporting. Advisers, see SPLC’s resources for teaching remotely.

How do you find story ideas when your students aren’t at school? How do you transition tried-and-true lesson plans to work in an online format? How do you keep morale up during a pandemic? Student media advisers face unique challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads through the U.S., leading to school closures and cancelled classes.

Sarah Nichols, teacher and student media adviser at Whitney High School in Rocklin, California, and president of the Journalism Education Association, said advisers wear a lot of hats — they’re also teachers, parents, travel agents and chaperones. But COVID-19, a respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus that can spread from person to person, has made their job even more challenging.

More than 4,000 cases of the coronavirus have been detected in the U.S. as of March 16, 2020, according to Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Whitney High School, which moved online on March 16, is located in the Sacramento area, one of the outbreak’s hotspots, though no cases have been detected in the school district.

“It’s certainly a new territory that we’re charting given the fact that emotions are running high,” Nichols said. “We’ve had a lot of talks about students taking care of themselves first and dealing with the emotional wear and tear that closing the school can take. For me as an adviser, I want the students to be people first and journalists second.”

Kelley Callaway, student media director at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and president of the College Media Association from 2015-17, said that while her students are focused on their stories, she’s been working behind the scenes to make the transition to remote work smoother for the students.

I want the students to be people first and journalists second

Callaway met with The Rice Thresher, and yearbook, The Campanile, about how to keep their content schedule as normal as possible, how and when to have remote meetings, and making sure every student has the resources they need to work remotely.

So when Rice went fully digital for the rest of the semester starting on March 12, due to a university employee being diagnosed with the coronavirus, Callaway said “we were better prepared than we would’ve been when we got the news that they were sending students home.”

She said the College Media Association member listserv has been a big resource for advice on how to advise her students, the College Media Business and Advertising Managers have helped with moving to remote sales, and the College Broadcasters Inc. informed her on properly sanitizing the radio board.

T. Andrew Wahl is the adviser of The Clipper, the student newspaper at Everett (Washington) Community College. Everett closed its campus for a deep cleaning, and moved in-person classes online until April 27.

Wahl also teaches journalism classes. He says he’s getting advice from the CMA listserv as well as consulting the Pacific Northwest Association of Journalism Educators for tips on teaching journalism online.

“The college media community is a pretty awesome community,” Callaway said. “We’ve really come together to help each other and share information freely. I’ve been really reliant on those folks during this really strange time.”

‘Mental health mode’

Nichols has been fielding calls to high school advisers all over the country, and she said one thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t just a time to be journalists — advisers also need to remember the students are human beings.

Callaway said she’s focused on students’ mental health as the coronavirus moves through the country. She is working through her own emotions as the seniors leave ahead of schedule.

“When the news came out that the campus was going online only, I’ve been preparing them to think through their emotions during this troubling time,” Callaway said. “Even I was just not considering how I’d feel not having the seniors in the same place, so I had a little cry in my office about that.”

When thinking about what to cover, we go see what other students are worried about

Not only has she been preparing the students to deal with their own internal crises, she’s been encouraging them to speak with their peers to report on their concerns.

“Right now, we’re kind of in mental health mode,” Callaway said. “We’re a pretty tight knit campus so when thinking about what to cover, we go see what other students are worried about.”

She said the editors have been consulting her about loosening the opinion section policy to make it a quasi-forum for students to express their concerns about the coronavirus.

Wahl said he isn’t in “mental health mode” yet at Everett because a lot of his students just see this time as “an extended spring break.”

“We aren’t getting that sort of tension yet,” Wahl said. “ But next quarter will definitely be a part of that. Once students have to deal with being fully online with their classes and their work, I think it might start taking a toll.”

This is a dangerous virus, but it’s also important for the students to get to learn how to cover it

Wahl set up a Zoom teleconference meeting with the editors to start brainstorming contingency plans for keeping the content schedule regular and making sure everyone is in the right headspace.

“When I have to weigh the safety and wellbeing of my students with actually teaching them journalism, it gets kind of murky because yes, this is a dangerous virus, but it’s also important for the students to get to learn how to cover it,” Wahl said.

Story idea drought

When Rice closed the campus, and Conference USA canceled the season, The Rice Thresher was in a crisis about not having sports events to cover.

But Callaway reminded the students that even the closures and cancellations are stories, and encouraged them to write about how they’re affecting the players and their families.

“I’ve just been kind of trying to remind them that the stuff they’re talking about is news, and kind of giving them the big picture when the little one is this weird,” Callaway said.

Nichols said her students are also focusing on covering the effects this is having on athletes at the high school level — one upcoming story is a feature on the students who had recruiters coming to watch them play, and what the cancelations do to their college prospects.

Covering the virus can be emotionally tricky for students reporting on their peers.

“When students are covering the virus these stories are very much about themselves as well as their friends and family, so just recognizing that as an adviser is very important,” Nichols said.

She also said her students were looking forward to their April Fools issue, which they’re no longer going to print. They began considering ways to make a satire section on the website so that while informing the campus on the pandemic, they can keep the mood light.

Growing online/digital strategies 

Callaway said that it’s hard to look for a silver lining during the outbreak, but if anything, she hopes the remote work will help shift the newsroom’s focus away from print and more towards digital strategy.

The Rice Thresher published its latest issue on March 11, two days after Rice closed because they had commitments to their advertisers. They went fully digital (for now) on Thursday March 12. Callaway said the students already came up with messaging to their publishers and advertisers to cancel print. 

Moving the The Rice Thresher online does present a financial challenge, because it is primarily reliant on print for ad revenue. Callaway hopes the campus closure is an opportunity to shift the revenue online.

She’s also curious to see how students are going to handle communicating with one another during their remote work. She said if they can make it through this, brainstorming and communications during a normal semester will get even better.

Wahl said they’re lucky the closure coincided with spring break because they tend to go dark on the website and in print during that time anyway. This gives them more time to plan. He also said that in times of crisis, he gets to see which students are most serious about their careers as journalists.

“The one thing I would say is that it’s pretty obvious to me is which ones have journalism in their DNA,” Wahl said. “It’s that old joke that journalists run towards the chaos, not away from it.”

Nichols said that while this is a confusing time, her students are practicing the most important journalistic skill — giving voice to the voiceless. 

Teaching while advising

In addition to advising his student journalists as they cover the pandemic, Wahl has to worry about making sure his regular classes go smoothly.

“One of the challenges is that I have to balance my role as an adviser with my role as an instructor,” Wahl said. “Since we evacuated campus, I’ve been converting our courses online and having online meetings as school does contingency planning for next quarter. Right now, since we shut down the college, new fires are erupting just as quickly as I’ve been putting them out.”

We’re not good advisers if we aren’t modeling for our students that it’s okay to take a break and to care for yourself

Wahl said he has two very different types of students to worry about right now: The ones who are serious about journalism as a career, and those who are just taking his class as an elective. Tailoring the class to those two types was already difficult in-person, but a digital course schedule makes the class more impersonal, something Wahl is attempting to overcome with the help of his colleagues.

But moving his classes online has taken his attention away from The Clipper students at a time when they need his advice more than ever.

Nichols realizes how stressful teaching and advising can be while schools go online because of the coronavirus. They’re learning how to move their own classes online while handling canceled events the yearbook was supposed to cover and making sure students have adequate laptops and the software they need like Adobe Indesign for designing their print issues.

She says that during this time, advisers should remember to put themselves first.

“Advisers need to be mindful of their own self-care,” Nichols said. “We’re so passionate about our students and because of that, we sometimes put ourselves at the bottom of the list, and so I certainly hope advisers know we’re there for each other and that they can take care of themselves. We’re not good advisers if we aren’t modeling for our students that it’s okay to take a break and to care for yourself.”

SPLC reporter Cameren Boatner can be reached by email at Follow her on Twitter @camerenboatner.

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