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From the Newsroom: A busy year becomes profound

On New Year’s Day, I could have told you 2020 was going to be a busy year for The Columbian’s journalists.

There’s a presidential election this year, statewide elections, what I expect to be a hard-fought congressional race, and a whole host of legislative and local elections. There is fight against the continuing problem of homelessness, and the first review of Clark County’s home-rule charter (wonky but important). There could be big news on the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project, and at the very least an inconvenient repair to the current drawbridge. There would be stories about millions of dollars of development at The Waterfront Vancouver.

Then, only three weeks later, a Snohomish County man who had been visiting relatives in Wuhan, China, was diagnosed with the first U.S. case of COVID-19. Of course, you know what happened next. We covered it! In fact, between that day in January and Thursday, the term “coronavirus” pops up in 477 of our local stories, and “COVID-19” in 77 local stories (some stories may contain both terms).

Now we are in the midst of another big story. Since May 25, when George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, the world has been outraged. We’ve already published 123 stories, including some letters to the editor, containing Floyd’s name, and you will undoubtedly see more stories in today’s print edition and on our website.

So much for my New Year’s notion of this year’s big stories.

For a news staff of 31 people, balancing all of these important stories has been a delicate art. Complicating the situation, we are mostly working remotely, and to save money during the business downturn, we’ve temporarily reduced the number of pages in the paper and moved up our deadlines. As a business, we need to react to the lack of advertising while many of our traditional advertisers are closed or suffering.

I think one of the toughest challenges has been trying to do a good job at covering protests.

There are large protests going on daily in cities including Seattle and Portland. Although we could send reporters and photographers, I have resisted doing so. Instead, we are employing our usual strategy of relying on wire services for their coverage. That means the stories are often a day late by the time they appear in print; but frankly, even staff-generated stories would likely not be finished in time to meet our earlier deadlines, because most of the protests start in the early evening and go late into the night.

Our coverage strategy is different for Clark County. There are a lot of rallies and protests, and we are trying to cover them as best we can with our deadlines and resources — while observing social distancing guidelines.

To me, one of the most fascinating things about the Clark County rallies is how many of them have grass roots. Usually a rally or protest is called by an organization, such as a political action group or labor union, with whom we have an established relationship. They send a news release in advance.

That is sometimes happening with these rallies. But a lot of events in support of black lives are springing up on short notice, generated by social media posts and groups of friends. To me, that demonstrates the depth of community feeling around the issues of disparate treatment by race and the inequity of white privilege. That’s news. We should cover it.

But, these short-notice rallies are hard to work into our planning, and I fear we are missing some.

While I was writing this column, I was commiserating with reporter Katie Gillespie that the news horizon this year seems like about two hours into the future. Who knows how many unforeseen top stories lie ahead as this newsiest of years continues? But rest assured that as they arise, we will do our best to cover them for you.


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