Monday, June 27, 2022
June 27, 2022

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From the Newsroom: Friday fiasco foretells transition

By , Columbian Editor

I could sense the looks of horror, even under their masks.

It was a week ago Friday, the last day before workplace mask mandates were due to expire.

As 2 p.m. approached, I realized that everyone who was essential to the afternoon news meeting was in the newsroom. Could this be the first chance in two years to actually meet in person to decide the front-page lineup? We had been meeting via text chat since March 2020.

“Today’s afternoon news meeting will be in person in the newsroom,” I announced, assuming everyone would relish the decision.

But we weren’t mentally ready for change. The reaction was swift and negative. Would we be required to sit next to each other in the conference room? Do we need to print story budgets? How am I going to refer to the transcript of the meeting later? How can we send funny GIFs (little animated jokes) to each other?

I was astonished and resolute. We held the meeting in the middle of the newsroom, wearing masks and standing at least 10 feet apart. We used the paper budgets, and sent the GIFs after the meeting. It all felt so awkward!

Afterward, I realized that just as the sudden pandemic changed our work lives in March 2020, its easing is changing our work lives again this month. At our Monday video meeting, I asked some of our journalists how they thought it would change their jobs.

Several said they were looking forward to attending government meetings. “I would love to see how they unfold in person,” said Lauren Ellenbecker, our city hall reporter, who joined us last year and has yet to attend regular meetings at City Hall.

Education reporter Griffin Reilly pointed to the potential easing of media access restrictions. With the exception of sports events, we’ve rarely had access to public schools and students since the pandemic began. “They’ve been completely locked down, some of them,” Reilly said, making it hard to interview or photograph students and teachers.

Will Campbell, who covers business news, said the lifting of restrictions may make stories more interesting to readers, because our reporters will be able to visit more places in person, and describe the scene and the action, rather than just relate what people said.

That will hold especially true for photography. Particularly during the surges in the pandemic, our photo staff was limited to shooting photos of humans outdoors and at a social distance. Often the subjects wore masks, which are good for preventing disease transmission but terrible for conveying mood and emotion.

Campbell also said that easing of mask restrictions will end the awkward “Do we have to wear masks?” conversation he’s had on a lot of visits to worksites lately. Finally, “It makes my job 10 times more enjoyable to see them in person,” he said.

The easing of mask restrictions won’t benefit everyone in the newsroom. County reporter Shari Phiel also covers small cities, and finds that easier to do when meetings are conducted online.

Our courts reporting team, Jessica Prokop and Becca Robbins, have enjoyed the online dockets, which are lists of short hearings grouped together for the convenience of judges and attorneys. Oftentimes only one of the items on a three-hour docket has potential news value. If we’re sitting at the courthouse and the case we are following winds up at the bottom of the docket, we can waste a lot if time.

During the pandemic, they’ve multitasked, listening to the hearings on the internet while doing other work. Prokop said the good news is many hearings and dockets will continue online for a while yet, particularly if the defendant is in jail.

By the way, after the Friday fiasco we didn’t hold any afternoon news meetings in person this week. We’ll build up to the change, and do it when it feels right. For now, I think we would all prefer to move very carefully into our new work routines.


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