It’s shortly before lunchtime Wednesday, and I am sitting alone at the metro desk, usually the busy hub of a buzzing newsroom. Today, it’s cold and dark — in order to save money, we turned off the lights and turned down the heat — and even the chatter on the police radio seems subdued.
Somehow, we’ve been managing to report the local news and publish the paper since public health authorities began advising people to work remotely and to stay home as much as possible. Although news is deemed “essential” by the government, this new pattern has brought a lot of changes to the ways we work.
First, of course, is the physical look of the newspaper. One of the immediate consequences of the stay-home order was the loss of most of our advertising revenue, forcing us to quickly reduce the size of the weekday papers to 20 pages in order to save costs. Although I hate this, I am at peace with it. Frankly, with the way the world has changed, we don’t have enough news to fill a four-section, 28-page paper. And although I know readers miss the larger paper, in particular the markets page, I have received many encouraging notes from customers thanking us for being out there, reporting the local news. Thank you so much. Your notes have meant a lot to us.
Other changes are happening behind the scenes. Since we are not seeing each other, we’ve been using a lot of “virtual meetings.” For example, our 10 a.m. news meeting is now a video chat. The purpose is the same — the editors discuss what our assignments are and what stories and pictures we will have ready for the next day’s newspaper. It works OK. The video always seems to freeze when someone says something critical, and I have to ask them to repeat themselves. On the bright side, I am getting acquainted with the editors’ pets — Kaya, Bodhi, Fluff, Finlay, Callie, Cameron and Jamie.
The video chat proved to be unwieldy for the larger afternoon news meeting, and some of our key people live in areas without good internet service. So we are using a chat room, where we type messages that can be read by the entire group. The software supports both text and graphics, so we are having some fun trying to top each other with GIFs, which are those short, funny little video clips of weirdness. They boost morale in dispiriting times.
Although they are socially isolated, the reporters and copy editors are doing their regular jobs in mostly regular fashion. It’s just that they are home. Not so for photojournalists, who still have to go out on assignments. For them, safety and logistics have both proven challenging.
On the safety side, our photojournalists, Amanda Cowan and Alisha Jucevic, are following social distancing practices. They have the option to leave any photo assignment if they perceive an undue risk to their safety or health. Of course, social distancing has led to a logistical challenge, as they have avoided getting close to their subjects or going inside their homes or places of business. You’re seeing a lot more photos taken in yards or from a distance, or contributed photos. And when they get home, Alisha and Amanda are using a lot of disinfecting wipes to clean themselves and their gear.
Some of our deadlines have changed. Because we are working remotely, we are at the mercy of internet service providers. We’ve found that bandwidth decreases substantially in the early evening, when we are moving digital news pages from editor to editor. I suspect it has to do with people who are home and streaming online entertainment, such as Netflix. At any rate, the slowdown is discernible enough that have advanced our deadlines, affecting our ability to print lottery results on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Finally, we are changing our weekday circulation customer service phone hours. Starting Monday our new phone hours will be 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays and 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday-Fridays. The phone number has been the same practically forever: 360-694-2312. (Or, OXford 4-2312 if you are old enough to remember what that means.)