Notes on a pandemic: A year covering COVID-19
A look behind the bylines
My father-in-law, the best journalist I know, joked earlier this month that he didn’t know he’d been social distancing his entire life. It only took a global pandemic for him to realize it.
He mentioned this, with a wry smile, during his first trip to Colorado in more than a year to see his grandkids after getting vaccinated.
And it’s true. Like the memes that circulated last spring, COVID-19 is an introvert’s dream.
But even for introverts like me, who often prefer a good book or a magazine to company, the vast remoteness of the past 12 months has gotten to be too much. One can only take so many Zoom calls and happy hours before craving real connections.
I say that, knowing that Zoom has been the most important tool we’ve used as a newsroom over the past year.
When I arrived back at the Vail Daily in January 2019, nearly 14 years after I’d left, it was like stepping into a time warp. The office layout had changed, but not much else.
Stories were still created in a dated content management system for the print newspaper, and then scraped for the web — a workflow that was totally backward for a modern newsroom. And communication between reporters and editors was a tangled mess of emails, texts and phone calls.
At CBSSports.com, where I’d worked the previous eight years, everything was done in Slack — a channel-based platform that organized a whole constellation of editors and reporters across the country into tidy chat rooms. You could direct message anyone on the editorial team at any time to get an answer on something, and every chat room — NFL, NBA, MLB, college football, golf, and on and on — was its own little universe where story ideas were batted around and content worked its way through the publishing conveyor belt.
When I explained how Slack worked, Sean Naylor, the Vail Daily’s digital engagement editor who’d been a Slacker just like me in previous jobs, explained that the Daily had something similar called Zoom.
After a quick spin through the video-conferencing app, every Daily staffer was quickly ordered to download the app on their phones and henceforth, all newsroom business would be primarily done through Zoom.
A year before COVID-19, we were truly prepared to go completely remote as a staff. But we were never prepared for a global pandemic. There’s no app for that.
Just like you, we adapted, evolved and figured out how to keep pushing on in a year that stretched every single one of us personally and professionally.
Zoom, at first, was a blessing. It kept us connected in isolation. We had weekly all-staff Zoom happy hours in those first few months to help keep each other’s spirits up. We had robust brainstorming sessions to figure out how to best cover our community from one emergency to the next, from COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis that came with it to the social unrest brought on by a national reawakening to racial injustice to a historic wildfire season. The deaths of community members, so many of them friends or acquaintances we knew, hit especially hard.
As the weeks and months passed, and nerves got frayed as COVID fatigue set in, it became ever more difficult to read the Zoom room. The center started to come apart.
The most challenging part? Meeting the needs of our community that was so desperate for reliable, valuable information when our own business was in turmoil. In one week, last spring, the Vail Daily lost about half of its advertising revenue. The fallout was brutal: reduced hours, furloughs and layoffs across our newsroom.
Those hard conversations with loyal staffers, over Zoom, no less, were painful.
Equally as hard, at least for me: Juggling fatherhood duties while trying to run a newsroom. No matter what I did, or how hard I worked, I felt like a failure in either role. There was just too little of me to go around.
Through it all, we never once mailed it in or forgot who we were working for: loyal readers like you who relied on our reporting and who told us when we were doing a good job and when we needed to do better.
We’re proud that we reached a larger audience than we ever have, leading all Swift Communications and Colorado Mountain News Media properties in 2020 for page views and reader engagement. But none of us got into reporting because we’re math whizzes.
What I care about, along with every single one of my staffers, is what those numbers say: that we delivered the essential reporting our community needed in a time of crisis. That reporting was the antithesis of click bait — just reliable, locally-sourced news, as fast as we could deliver it.
As we close the book on this series, “Shining Through,” that looked back at how our community responded to the challenge of COVID-19 over the past 12 months, we tip our hats to you, our readers, who made us better and supported our work. And we look forward to the days this summer, with our valley rapidly approaching herd immunity, when we can see so many of you in person to say thanks — whether at a live show, or on the softball diamond, or out and about around the valley.
Thanks for letting us tell the story of an amazing comeback that’s just getting going.