How the pandemic has changed student journalism for one NE college newspaper
With fall seeing many Massachusetts universities return to some semblance of normality, the once totally remote staff of student-run newspapers find themselves back in their offices. Although they are coming home after more than a year of working remotely, one publication has noticed that they are not only stronger in outreach, but now distribute far more varied content compared to their pre-pandemic distribution.
Located in the heart of Boston, Suffolk University’s The Suffolk Journal was unsurprisingly thrust into a period of instability. March of 2020 saw not only every editor at the Journal graduating that semester, but the announcement of the state shutdown came while students were away on spring break. Due to the change of leadership and massive disruptions to daily life, underclassmen were tasked with stepping up to the vacant roles, while developing skills from home that would normally be honed on the streets around their school.
One thing the staff of the Journal didn’t expect was the publication to evolve into a more dynamic and arguably stronger presence than ever before.
The Journal’s content has always focused on Suffolk University, as is the norm of collegiate papers; non-collegiate papers producing original converge around the greater Boston area is a strong incentive for students to not retread coverage and focus on unique pieces. This standard method of coverage was jeopardized with Suffolk closing its doors for the pandemic. Infrequent major events happening within the campus forced Journal staff to dig deep into a creative place none of their predecessors had to in order to find stories to fill their pages. The young journalists realized that it was time to operate on a larger geographic scope, something that was helped by students being sent home to their families.
Now more spread out, Journal staff were able to produce some of their strongest content to date, such as coverage of a talk by Dr. Esther Choo on systemic racism within the country’s healthcare system earlier this year. This public event would be more likely to be passed up on in favor of coverage for something more tied to Suffolk if it was held in a pre-COVID time. Now, it instead presented a great opportunity for the student journalists to expand their skills outside of Suffolk-centric coverage.
Editor Katelyn Norwood, who was promoted to her position shortly before the pandemic began, saw the silver lining presented to her staff in this difficult time. “We had so much more freedom in our coverage. We even started a podcast, which we would have never had done before just because we wouldn’t have had the time,” she said. This abundance of time, now free of meticulously covering the university, allowed the staff to take on more ambitious projects. One of these was a deep dive piece on discrimination from within Suffolk Athletics. This story, published last Spring, featured numerous interviews and details that simply would not have been achievable in the past. The article may as well be the Journal’s equivalent to something produced by the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe, featuring a much deeper dive than a normal article would.
The Journal also found itself with the time and resources to produce a higher quantity of content than ever before. With the restraint of content being required to relate to Suffolk removed, staff writers could dip their toes into whatever they wanted to cover. Pre-pandemic, a pitch may have been passed up for something more important; now, that same pitch is unhindered by the limitations of a print publication.
“The space issue that comes with putting together a physical paper was totally gone,” Norwood said. “We were able to publish 99% of what we created, all of it being much more diverse than pre-COVID.”
Norwood is unsure of the immediate future of the paper, but is set on the eventual return to the way things were before while maintaining the benefits gained from the Journal’s pandemic transformation. “Now that we’re all back, the question on everyone’s mind is where do we go from here?”
Journal staff do have some broad goals for the rest of the year and beyond. “We’re 100% returning to a paper issue, nothing really beats that, but we’re going to miss the level of coverage we had during this,” she said, adding “we do want to take advantage of every new resource we have.” Referring to the use of Zoom, journalists at the Journal had access to live events they never had before, further adding to the change in content produced by the paper. Zoom leveled the playing field for young journalists; regardless of your credentials or the reputation of who you wrote for, a live Zoom event can be covered by anyone with the link, a device, and an internet connection.
“I would love to use everything we have access to. We (as a paper) do not have the same access and resources a Globe reporter would have.” Norwood said. “When I call someone to talk, I have the Suffolk Journal, not the Boston Globe behind me. I don’t have the badge. It’s that ‘college’ word, attached to the front of ‘journalist’ that sometimes you’re not treated as a journalist at in person events.”
The effects of this newsroom metamorphosis could potentially still be felt years from now. Students who joined their newsrooms in 2019 know a collegiate reporting experience that is unrecognizable when compared to what the freshmen of 2020 know today. It may be too early to discern whether it is better or worse, but there is no denying that the landscape of these newsrooms has changed dramatically.