The Afterlife is a new LMU Magazine department in which thought leaders and experts in the LMU community explore the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic may change our work, interactions and daily life. This inaugural edition is about the impact of the pandemic on the profession of journalism and two young practitioners of the craft. —The Editor
Jermaine Johnson II ’19 thought he had gotten his dream assignment. Just a few months after graduating from LMU with degrees in marketing, African American studies and journalism, Johnson was hired to cover sports for The Sun-Gazette, a small weekly newspaper in Tulare County, California. As the paper’s sole sports reporter, Johnson attended high school sports games nearly every evening, conducting interviews, shooting photographs and even laying out the publication’s sports pages.
Then came the pandemic. Almost immediately, the teams that Johnson covered stopped competing, as school officials grappled with how to carry on while the virus spread throughout California. Johnson, who had long planned for a lengthy career in sports journalism, suddenly found himself without a beat.
“I was a sports reporter with no sports to cover,” says Johnson. “I basically pivoted to doing general assignment reporting. I was going to city council meetings. Instead of sports photography, I was doing news photography. I was going to local businesses and asking them how they were affected [by the pandemic]. There was a completely new skills set that I had to develop.”
In February, some high school sports teams began competing again, and Johnson is transitioning back to his work as a sports reporter. Thanks to loans made available by federal COVID-19 relief legislation, The Sun-Gazette, which is privately owned, did not have to resort to layoffs or cease publication even as its advertising revenue waned during the pandemic. Other news outlets did not fare as well.
A month after states began shutting down schools and businesses, the New York Times reported that, as a result of the pandemic, news organizations had laid off, furloughed or reduced the pay of some 37,000 employees.
Even before the pandemic, many news organizations were in trouble financially, particularly local newspapers that struggled to adapt to web-based business models. Thousands of papers have shut down across the country since 2000. Between 2008 and 2019, according to the Pew Research Center, half of all jobs in newspaper newsrooms were lost. The pandemic hit surviving local newspapers hard because many rely heavily on advertising, one of the first costs that businesses cut when the economy slowed due to the pandemic.
But the pandemic’s impact on the journalism industry hasn’t been a total loss. It’s bred innovation, too. National television news broadcasters have learned that they can book guests who are located far from large studios, using Zoom and Skype, diversifying the voices that can appear on air. Some news organizations that previously buckled under the expense of office space are learning they can function with reporters and editors working from home. And local city councils and school boards have grown accustomed to live-streaming public meetings, making them easier for reporters to cover.
In May 2020, Ali Swenson ’16 was hired to cover misinformation for the Associated Press. She had planned to move to New York City to work at the AP’s newsroom there but is instead living with her sister in Seattle and working from a desk in her bedroom.
“I’m proud of the way the Associated Press and my team have adapted to remote work,” says Swenson. “We have people working all across the country and the world. We’ve been able to stay connected via Slack, email, Zoom and continue to create the same journalism we would have pre-pandemic.”
Swenson’s job revolves around debunking conspiracy theories posted online, many of which involve pandemic-related matters like the efficacy of masks and safety of virus testing and vaccination. “COVID-19 has affected the [misinformation] beat tremendously, because it’s the biggest thing people are unsure about right now,” says Swenson.
As difficult as the pandemic has been for the news business, it has also reminded audiences of the industry’s indispensability. Readers, viewers and listeners are hungry for reliable information about COVID-19, and news organizations that provide it are benefitting. STAT, a highly respected health news website, saw its audience increase nearly 20-fold in 2020, according to a report from Harvard’s Nieman Lab.
A frequent criticism of mainstream national journalism is that it focuses too much attention on the people and cultures found on the coasts and in large cities where news organizations are based and journalists live. The pandemic may ultimately upend this paradigm, proving to newsroom managers that reporters and editors can live anywhere and still report the news. Swanson says: “Not as many reporters are concentrated in urban hubs. They’re more spread out, and they’re seeing more communities and different parts of society.”
After nearly a year working remotely, Swenson says she is eager to return to a newsroom. “I do my best work when I can work in person with my colleagues,” she says. In addition to the spontaneous conversations and brainstorms that happen in a newsroom environment, Swenson says she’s looking forward to meeting colleagues that she’s so far only seen on screen.
Kate Pickert is associate professor of journalism and English. She covered federal health care reform for Time magazine and has worked as a newspaper reporter. Pickert is the author of “Radical: The Science, Culture and History of Breast Cancer in America.” Her interview on LMU Magazine’s Off Press podcast can be heard here. An interview with her appeared in the winter 2020 issue (Vol. 9, No. 2) of LMU Magazine.