For editors who oversee their newsrooms’ coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, the crisis has brought extraordinary challenges, from prioritizing stories when faced with a daily flood of possibilities, to protecting reporters’ health and well-being at a time of tremendous strain—all while working remotely, in many cases for the first time.
In April, five editors who are managing their publications’ coronavirus coverage took part in a wide-ranging roundtable discussion via email with TON editor-in-chief Siri Carpenter. They shared the difficulties they’re facing and the lessons they’ve learned through the experience so far, their strategies for prioritizing coverage and for balancing COVID and non-COVID stories, the role freelancers are playing in their newsrooms’ coronavirus coverage, and the ways they’re supporting the staff reporters and freelancers they work with.
“For staff and freelancers, I encourage people to check in more often than they might have otherwise, to work when they can but not worry if they can’t, and to take a long view,” says Laura Helmuth, who as the discussion began was transitioning from her position as health and science editor at The Washington Post to a new role, as editor-in-chief of Scientific American. “This pandemic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. We’ve got to look out for ourselves and each other.”
The editors who participated in the discussion were:
Eliza Barclay, science, health, and climate editor at Vox.
Martin Enserink, international news editor at Science.
Laura Helmuth, editor-in-chief at Scientific American, and formerly health and science editor at The Washington Post.
Jude Isabella, editor-in-chief at Hakai Magazine.
Sarah Zielinski, managing editor at Science News for Students.
Siri: What have been the biggest challenges for you, as an editor who is managing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic—and what solutions, if any, have you found for meeting those challenges?
Jude: At Hakai Magazine, since we are on an environmental beat that encompasses the globe—science and society on the coast—our biggest challenge was pivoting to cover COVID-19 for a local audience. We were called in to help out our sister publication, The Tyee, based in Vancouver, British Columbia.
In mid-March, we reduced Hakai Magazine‘s publication schedule and that first week we spent a lot of time in Zoom meetings figuring out how to cooperate with a completely different magazine ecosystem, hashing out story ideas, assigning suitable writers, and settling on an editing process. It was stressful for all of us. When the week wrapped up, I cried at my desk—but it was mostly in gratitude for such a great team of journalists.
Martin: Staying sane has been a challenge. I can’t think of any other time science journalism was so important, and we have published coronavirus stories almost non-stop since January. It means lots of 14-hour workdays for writers and editors, on top of the stress of being cooped up at home and worries about health, family, and friends. We’ve coped in part by simply getting more and more people involved as the story grew.
On a personal level, I try to take breaks to take my mind off the virus. Go for a bike ride (still allowed here in Amsterdam), stay in touch with people, watch Netflix. We’re in this for the long haul so we need to pace ourselves somewhat. But it’s hard when there are so many important stories to do.
Sarah: As managing editor, my job is always one of juggling. Juggling schedules, people, resources, etc. That’s only gotten more complicated with the pandemic. And not only are we putting out regular science coverage and coronavirus coverage—while moving to an all-remote staff—but as a publication for middle-school students, we’re now also providing extra resources for all of those kids learning at home. Trying to do all of this, and continue to do it well, can at times be tough. Like other publications, we’ve been running a bit less content, publishing features every other week, for instance, rather than every week. And our new series for home learners, Let’s Learn About, repurposes old content, which makes these fairly easy to turn out regularly. I’m also having more frequent check-ins with my staff, to make sure that they have what they need through all of this.
Personally managing all this change can be difficult at times. I’m trying to be kinder to myself when things that used to be easy, like writing, are now hard. And I take lots of time to hang out and play with my kitty co-workers.
“I’m trying to be vigilant about … serving the audience with what they need in this critical time when information can be the difference between life and death.” — Eliza Barclay, Vox
Eliza: The stakes of this situation are so high and so one of my biggest challenges is just making sure we continue to stay focused on those stakes, and prioritize the most important stories. There are so many potential stories to do, and with a limited staff and a limited freelance budget, I’m trying to be vigilant about using them well and serving the audience with what they need in this critical time when information can be the difference between life and death. Internal coordination (with reporters and editors outside my team) is challenging but fruitful, as is managing an even greater flood of emails, inquiries, and PR pitches related to coronavirus. My solution to all this is to just try to be consciously strategic and intentional with everything I do, and triage as best as I can.
Laura: I’m between jobs as I’m typing this—I just left The Washington Post and am going to start working at Scientific American next week. I’ll answer this based on my experiences at The Post.
The challenges for me, like the rest of you, have involved long hours, disrupted schedules, and the deluge of information, misinformation and disinformation. But the biggest challenge has been trying to make work sustainable for the reporters and other editors I manage. They’ve been working non-stop since January, nights and weekends and early mornings. Like many of your reporters, they knew immediately that this was going to be a global catastrophe, and they’ve been doing the best and hardest work of their careers.
I tried to impose a rotation of days off, since weekends are meaningless right now, and it worked … a bit. The reporters who have been working hardest keep getting tips, questions from colleagues, messages from sources, heads-ups about news briefings, etc., and it’s hard to stop sprinting when you worry about falling behind. I encouraged the designated day-off person to set an out-of-office email message directing people to me and to put an OOO message on Slack.
We have daily morning teleconferences (with video encouraged) that are pretty open-ended to get a shot of humanity and camaraderie to start the day. One of the reporters has a one-year-old who likes to try on hats while she’s talking, and it made everybody so happy to coo and laugh at the baby while everything else is so awful.
Martin: I also tell my writers to slow down and take time off. (They don’t always listen, unfortunately.) And I agree that small moments of human interaction have become more important. Our Slack channel #petpicturesonly is far more busy than usual.
Siri: With the news moving so fast, on so many fronts, what has been your strategy for prioritizing coverage?
Martin: That’s a key question when you have a small team, a huge story, and thousands of other journalists working day and night. For us, it’s pretty simple: We focus on the science. Our writers are at the forefront when it comes to drug development, vaccines, diagnostic tests, computer models, and so on. We’re very lucky to have many reporters who have long covered infectious diseases. They know the science really well and know lots of people in the field. (I’m thinking of Jon Cohen, Kai Kupferschmidt, Gretchen Vogel, and Meredith Wadman.) Scientists still make room in their crazy schedules to talk to them.
Another priority for us is how the pandemic is affecting science itself: the dizzying speed of discovery, the way scientific communication has changed, the massive disruptions in almost every other field other than COVID-19.
And finally, we’re trying to keep a global outlook. Most of the media attention so far has gone to East Asia, Europe, and the U.S. But we’re proud of in-depth stories we’ve done about about Africa, Indonesia, and India. More are in the works. The Pulitzer Center is supporting our pandemic coverage, and some of that money is for stories from around the world. As Science‘s international news editor, I have tried hard the past few years to expand our network of freelance science writers. That’s now paying off.
Laura: Martin, your team has been doing fantastic work. Thank you for building up your network of international freelancers.
One of the frustrations I had at The Post is that the Health & Science desk is part of the National division, which is absurd because research is the most international endeavor in human history. And of course there’s nothing like a global pandemic to show how connected our health is.
The Health & Science team is covering the research closely, as well as supply issues, public health agencies, testing problems, and the human cost, especially what is happening in hospitals. Overall, the H&S team and the rest of The Post is prioritizing covering the government’s response. The administration should be helping the federal science force share information quickly, clearly, and transparently. Instead we have a president who claimed the novel coronavirus was a hoax and has tried to turn news briefings into campaign rallies.
Sarah: Audience is our biggest consideration. For anything we cover, we ask ourselves whether kids would find this interesting, or whether we would consider it important for them to know. This definitely applies to coronavirus coverage.
“I worry that because of the troubles facing journalism over the past couple of decades, we’ve lost a generation of future journalists and that 20 years from now, we’ll have great reporters but not as many as we need in a crisis like this.” — Jude Isabella, Hakai Magazine
Jude: I have to echo Sarah’s answer, for us it’s fundamentally the audience, which is not strictly a Hakai Magazine audience. We are fully aware, however, of who the readers of The Tyee are—British Columbians hungry for local news. Us. How does the pandemic affect our community? Our priorities have been, for example, stories on BC healthcare workers and steps the provincial government is taking to protect and retain them. (Pay raises and stopping the movement of care aides from one seniors facility to another.) We’ve also focused on issues such as food security, especially on Vancouver Island where we depend on ships to keep our supply chain moving; how Victoria is dealing with a relatively large homeless population when we’re all trying to physically distance; the fear experienced by BC’s indigenous communities with a history of faring badly (that’s an understatement) in the face of infectious diseases brought in by outsiders.
Since we rely on freelancers, and we have such a fast turnaround for The Tyee, we have tapped many former newspaper journalists. They have been fantastic, real treasures, a service to our community. I worry that because of the troubles facing journalism over the past couple of decades, we’ve lost a generation of future journalists and that 20 years from now, we’ll have great reporters but not as many as we need in a crisis like this.
Siri: How are you thinking about your balance of COVID and non-COVID coverage? How do you judge what your audience has an appetite for, and how has that been changing (or not)? And, any predictions for the coming weeks or months?
Eliza: In general I’ve been prioritizing COVID coverage over all other coverage and have transitioned one of my reporters, who typically covers climate and energy, into a full-time COVID reporter for the time being. One of my other science reporters, who typically covers a range of issues, is now exclusively on COVID as well. That said, another member of my team, David Roberts, has still been doing some non-COVID stories in the last two months, about climate change and politics. That said, in recent weeks he’s increasingly been doing COVID-adjacent stories.
Sarah: We can tell from our weekly analytics that our readers are interested in both types of coverage. COVID stories tend to be at the top of the most-read list every week, but we also see plenty of non-COVID coverage getting traffic as well. As for what will happen in the future, that’s always hard to say, and especially now. Our big question is not what kinds of stories will be wanted in the coming months (we would expect that both types of stories would be of interest as they are now), but will we see our typical summer traffic pattern? Science News for Students tends to follow the school year, and our traffic drops off in summer months. But now with kids at home, will that same pattern hold? We have no idea.
Martin: I checked the numbers: 13 of our last 25 online stories were about COVID-19, and 9 of the 16 pages in the current print issue. We started out writing lots of news stories, but now we’re doing features as well, such as this profile of virologist Christian Drosten, who has become a cult figure in Germany. We’re very proud of this exhaustive inventory of the havoc the virus is wreaking all over the body; it broke quite a bit of new ground. It has a companion story, published a bit earlier, that I think was really important as well. We talk a lot about ventilators as life savers. They are, sometimes, but a prolonged stay in intensive care on a ventilator can cause severe damage in itself that some patients never fully recover from. It’s a reason some people decide to forgo this kind of treatment—more so here in the Netherlands, I think, than in the U.S.
We’ll keep doing non-coronavirus stories because there is still other news to report and because we think people want a reprieve from all the grim news now and then. But it’s becoming less. The news is beginning to dry up and, frankly, some of it seems less relevant at the moment.
Our analytics confirm that Science readers still have an appetite for other stories, but traffic for anything coronavirus has been growing exponentially since late January. (It’s the only curve we don’t like to flatten.) Jon Cohen’s candid Q&A with Anthony Fauci shattered every record.
Jude: Despite the global dumpster fire that was the latter half of March, it still managed to be our fourth-biggest month of all time. And, as you know, we pivoted to provide local news to our sister outlet, The Tyee, in Vancouver for about a month. At Hakai Magazine, we replaced most of our content with beautiful, peaceful natural history videos for the most part, with some COVID-related news here and there. We explained why in a newsletter and received many positive replies from readers and no negative replies.
Last week, however, we eased into our regular routine: three or four news stories and one long feature. Honestly, we meant to do so this week (April 13) but a scheduling mishap meant the feature posted on the Tuesday before. And we found to our surprise, the feature—“Footprints of Extraction,” nothing to do with the virus—held its own against COVID-related stories. Although, from a wider lens, it has everything to do with the virus, as do many of our features: the decimation of healthy ecosystems and how that affects the planet, and us.
Since that piece did fairly well, we decided to dive back into our usual schedule. Also, we had given ourselves about a month to lend a hand to The Tyee, and we are easing up now. We provided a whopping 30 news pieces in four weeks, a record for us. We generally do not work that fast.
I agree with Martin, readers may be looking for some reprieve from COVID news. And they seem drawn to particularly long, immersive stories that offer an escape for 20 minutes or so.
We anticipate some holes in our feature well in the fall. Stories we had commissioned have been postponed: Field work is on hold, travel restrictions are still in place, and there’s overall too much uncertainty for planning ahead. Today (April 15, Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday!) we sent a mass email to our writers asking for reported features, or, stories with sources who could spend time with writers on Zoom/Skype/Phone to help them recreate scenes.
“Even non-COVID stories about health and science and history and reality and evidence are so important right now.” — Laura Helmuth, Scientific American
Laura: Jude, that’s great to hear that people are reading (in “Footprints of Extraction”) about Svalbard and walruses!
I’m typing this after a week at a new job at Scientific American, where we’ve been talking a lot about how to balance COVID and non-COVID coverage.
The COVID coverage serves an urgent and potentially life-saving purpose, and most people on staff are participating in it in some way. But even non-COVID stories about health and science and history and reality and evidence are so important right now. Ideally they help reinforce the mindset that there is some observable truth in this world, and that things are knowable, and that reality can be more interesting than conspiracy theories and disinformation.
We’re hoping to republish more articles from Scientific American‘s partner publications in other languages. The pandemic has revealed a lot of racism and xenophobia, but at the same time, scientists and public health officials around the world are sharing info and helping each other and we have so much to learn from how other countries are dealing with SARS-CoV-2.
Which is a long way of saying that we’re continuing to publish the heck out of coronavirus stories but also stories about, like, dinosaurs and galaxy clusters and what makes dirt smell like dirt.
Martin: Good luck in your new post, Laura.
I agree that one important job of science journalism right now is to show that facts, evidence, reason, and truth still matter. I’ve written about the risk of a severe pandemic for almost two decades and I wasn’t really surprised that one happened, or that we were ill-prepared. But I never imagined it would come with the dystopian mix of disinformation, lies, and extreme politics we’re seeing today.
I have this faint hope that in the end, the pandemic will make people re-appreciate the value of science, and that as journalists we can show them why it matters. As Jeremy Farrar, the head of the Wellcome Trust, said in one of our stories: “Science is the exit strategy.” (But then I watch one of those daily White House pressers, or I read that there now are polls about chloroquine’s efficacy in France, and I begin to despair.)
I hope you’re all doing well and hanging in there.
Siri: What role have freelancers played in your newsrooms’ COVID-19 coverage? And, what are you seeing in terms of the challenges that freelancers are facing now, and what forms of support they need?
Sarah: Science News for Students gets most of our COVID-19 stories from our sister magazine, Science News, where staff beat writers have been providing excellent coverage since January. We’ve been relying on freelancers for stories that relate more to the younger audience at Science News for Students, providing angles that are more youth-oriented or cover topics that are more basic than what you might see for Science News‘ readers.
Outside of COVID-19 coverage, some of our freelancers have been having trouble running down sources, especially those in coronavirus-adjacent areas. Others are busy with family obligations and have to take a step back from assigned stories. (This generally isn’t a problem for us as we have long lead times on most of our stories.) Still others are hungry for work, as other outlets they’ve worked with are no longer assigning or assigning as much. We’re trying to be as flexible as we can to accommodate everyone’s various needs.
Eliza: My lead health reporter is actually on maternity leave, so I’ve been using freelancers to backfill behind her. One freelancer I’ve been using regularly has told me she’s extremely grateful for the work because several assignments she had in the pipeline that involved travel are on pause now. I know other freelancers who are in the same boat—lots of work has fallen through and so they’re scrambling to find new work.
Jude: To cover local COVID-19 news, we relied on mostly local freelance journalists, some of whom don’t usually write for Hakai Magazine. Many were former or retired newspaper journalists—obviously they were paid for their work and pumped out quite a few stories, but I think they really perceived the pandemic as a chance to give back to the community, to do what they do best, quickly get accurate information to their fellow citizens. I mentioned this in an earlier answer: We relied on those older, experienced journalists because there are fewer younger ones around who have the experience and contacts to turn around stories quickly. We did have less experienced journalists as well—particularly on the food supply chain beat—but we relied heavily on those experienced journalists.
As for the challenges freelancers are facing now, Sarah, we have not run into the same problem of freelancers having trouble running down sources for non-COVID-19 coverage. I’m not sure why. We kept taking news pitches as well—and we have quite a few assigned at the moment—and no one has reported any problems contacting sources. But yes, we have freelancers very busy with family obligations too. One of our freelancers added this to her signature: NB BECAUSE OF THE PANDEMIC I CURRENTLY HAVE NO CHILDCARE AND MY WORK SCHEDULE IS ERRATIC; PLEASE BE PATIENT! We’ve also run into the problem of feature writers who have been too distracted over the past six weeks to write. So, we’ve extended deadlines. Freelancers are weary—but so is the staff. We’re back to our regular schedule now (mid-April). If we have to miss a week with a feature or publish fewer news pieces, that’s fine. It’s okay for everyone to take time to refill their energy reserves.
I think how our feature writers will be hardest hit is heading into the field with researchers [for narrative features]. Already we have some stories on hold until next year. What we’ve done is send out a call to our regulars for reported features. Reported features can be shorter, and just an easier edit all around.
At Hakai Magazine, we have a robust stable of freelance writers. We have a long lead time so I don’t think the writers who focus on features have had too much trouble—we were still taking their pitches, and assigning.
Laura: This is such a scary time for freelancers. The ones who can cover the pandemic are swamped trying to run down stories and place them and beat the competition, all while being pickled in the horror and uncertainty of it. And freelancers who don’t cover this field are having a hard time getting work because most assignments are going to coronavirus coverage. We editors have to do what we can to make the pitch process quick and smooth, pay everybody promptly, and just check in with them. As hard as teleconferencing is, it’s a real comfort to have a work community during the shutdown if you have a steady job. I hope freelancers are supporting one another in similar ways.
To get to specifics, at The Washington Post, there’s a “Talent Network” of stringers around the country, and The Post has deployed many of them to cover their local hospitals and public health agencies and nursing homes.
At Scientific American, we work with a lot of freelancers (always looking for more!) and have assigned many coronavirus stories. We’re still assigning stories on non-COVID subjects, but the focus, of course, is on the pandemic for now. We publish a lot of expert-written pieces as well. One of the biggest challenges for them is reaching the sources everyone else is chasing after, when those sources are as busy as they’ve been in their lives.
For staff and freelancers, I encourage people to check in more often than they might have otherwise, to work when they can but not worry if they can’t, and to take a long view. This pandemic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. We’ve got to look out for ourselves and each other.
Jude: When we pivoted to help out The Tyee, Laura, we knew features we were editing would be on hold for a while—so we paid our freelancers half the fee for pieces filed and in the works. And we’re taking stories that are COVID-19 related or not, if it’s a good story that fits with Hakai Magazine, we’ll assign it. (We are still providing some coverage for The Tyee, but our main focus is the magazine again.)
Laura: That’s fantastic. Thanks so much for supporting your freelancers in this way!
Martin: Laura’s right—it’s a scary time to be a freelancer. I can’t speak for them, but I can say that freelancers have always been important for Science and the pandemic hasn’t changed that. Several new writers have started working for us the past few months. Because we now have so many staff writers covering the pandemic, your best bet as a freelancer is to pitch smaller, overlooked stories or interesting angles from far-flung places. For example, our freelance writers came up with stories about studies of an old TB vaccine to boost immunity against COVID-19 and a trial of a heartburn medicine, and also this report about COVID-19 among indigenous people in Brazil.
But again, not everybody needs to write about the pandemic. We still want and need stories about physics, ecology, and scientific misconduct, to name a few things.
Siri: What are some of the most important lessons you have learned, as editors, during the course of covering the pandemic?
Eliza: I learned the critical importance of testing for an emerging infectious disease and how badly hobbled the U.S. was in its response because we didn’t have a functioning test for so long. I think the media could have been looking at the testing efficacy and capacity question far earlier. I also learned about the great challenge of reporting in the midst of huge medical and epidemiological uncertainty. I think we did a good job of informing readers about what we didn’t know, but uncertainty remains a huge challenge in helping people understand different possible scenarios for how the future will unfold.
“It’s important that we pace ourselves where we can, or we’ll all just burn out, and that will help no one.” — Sarah Zielinski, Science News for Students
Sarah: I’ve always considered science journalism to be important, and the pandemic has just emphasized that. But we can’t cover everything, do everything—there’s just too much. So it’s important that we pace ourselves (personally, our staff, our freelancers, our publications) where we can, or we’ll all just burn out, and that will help no one.
Jude: Tell your colleagues when you’re weary and need a break. It also sets an example: everyone needs time to recharge. And you’re less likely to just flame out.
Laura: Ha! Another modeling lesson, from Nancy Shute, who I think would be happy to be cited in this way: I talked to her the other day and she said her typos are through the roof, and she’s not correcting them when she emails people on her staff at Science News to show that everybody’s a mess these days.
“One take-away for me is that, despite the terrible times, journalism is alive and kicking.” — Martin Enserink, Science
Martin: Ha! My emails had typos long before the pandemic.
One take-away for me is that, despite the terrible times, journalism is alive and kicking. We’re four months into the science story of the century, and look at how many amazing stories are coming out every day, the breadth and the depth of the coverage. That gives me hope.
There’s one thing I wonder about sometimes: Should we have sounded the alarm more forcefully early on? Several science writers I know were convinced by the end of January that a pandemic was very likely. Looking at what happened in China, how rapidly the virus spread to other countries, it was very hard to see how it could be contained. “Showtime, Martin,” Helen Branswell of STAT DM’ed me on January 26. (I told many of my friends the same thing; some now want me to buy their lottery tickets.)
Of course we weren’t 100 percent sure, so our stories were more nuanced. And even some experts still seemed in denial. (The months of magical thinking, Helen called it in a recent story.) In retrospect it’s remarkable how many countries squandered the first two months, and I wonder if journalists could have changed that.
Siri Carpenter is co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Open Notebook. Follow her on Twitter @SiriCarpenter.