In 32 years with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, breaking news reporter Kim Bell has conducted thousands of face-to-face interviews. On the crime beat, she visits victims’ neighbors and families to collect their stories.
“Those are things I would have done before the pandemic.” Bell said recently. “Now I don’t feel comfortable knocking on peoples’ doors.”
For the past two months, Bell has been collecting the news from her home, working the telephone.
The coronavirus contagion has handed journalists a double-edged challenge: Cover one of history’s biggest stories while the story itself is life threatening. And stay with it, even as the virus erodes the financial support for your work.
“It’s certainly a whole new ballgame, different from anything we’ve experienced before,” said Dwight Bitikofer, owner and publisher of the St. Louis County weeklies, The Webster-Kirkwood Times and The South County Times, and the bi-monthly West End Word.
The coronavirus has gut-punched the journals. With a combined print circulation of 87,000, publication of the three newspapers has been suspended. As shops, restaurants and other businesses have been shuttered, advertising that supported the newspapers has dried up.
Almost everyone has been laid off except a skeleton staff that provides local news online. Readers can contribute to it through a “support local journalism box.”
“It’s more or less paying for the online product,” Bitikofer said.
At a time when the public needs information the most, journalists covering the pandemic are confronting obstacles. Getting to the sources of news is often out of the question. Some public officials are less than transparent. And the pandemic has cut a swath through news staffs facing layoffs, pay cuts and furloughs.“
We were thinking, ‘Wow! This is going to be a great year!’ Then, this hit and the revenue really started sliding.”Kevin Jones, chief operating officer, St. Louis American
Since 1928, many members of the St. Louis black community have read the weekly St. Louis American. Kevin Jones, chief operating officer, said the month of February was the best in the publication’s 92-year history.
“We were thinking, ‘Wow! This is going to be a great year.’ Then, this hit and the revenue really started sliding.”
Jones said advertising is down 40 percent from its usual level, and the size of the paper has shrunk to 26 pages from 36. But no one has been furloughed. Three members of the staff were working from the office, while 19 were working from home.
The newspaper has received government financing under the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal small business loan program designed to keep workers on the payroll. It has also received a grant from Facebook under a Covid-19 project, which underwrites news coverage where African Americans have been especially hard hit by the pandemic.
The American’s normal press run is 60,000. But Jones said distribution of the free weekly has been squeezed by the closure of some places where the paper had been available.
“We’re holding on for now,” Jones said.
The alternative weekly The Riverfront Times suspended publishing March 18 and laid off most of its staff. The RFT online is being updated. The pandemic’s effect on broadcast revenues has prompted several St. Louis area radio stations to pare staff.
But if there is a silver lining, it’s that the public will come to recognize the value of reliable, timely information, including news about life and death issues. Recent Gallup polls show Covid-19 news has generated a spike in public attention to local news. The pollster reported in March that 44 percent of U.S. adults were paying attention to local news, a significantly higher percentage than recent measurements.
“We are a vital part of this democracy, and this story has demonstrated that,” said Gilbert Bailon, Post-Dispatch editor-in-chief. “Vital information for the local community is what we’re about. I hope that sticks, and people remember the role the media plays in our community on a day-to-day basis.”
The Post-Dispatch focused on pandemic coverage even before Missouri’s first death from the virus on March 19. Ten days earlier, a story about a father and a sister of an infected coronavirus patient drove readers to the newspaper’s website since the father and sister had attended a father-daughter dance in St. Louis County.
Since then there have been stories recounting grim statistics, the number of available hospital beds, the homeless camp situation, the response of churches, emergency food distributions, school closings, parents dealing with at-home students, the virus’ impact on African Americans, the effect on municipal revenues, how St. Louis facilities are helping in the search for a vaccine and human interest stories on the pandemic’s toll on health care workers and victims’ families.
“Readership has been very strong,” Bailon said. “The number of online readers has increased and print subscriptions are holding steady.”
‘Essential ink-stained wretches’
Barbara L. Finch, co-founder of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice, recommended journalists’ work in an April 25 op-ed. While not essential like hospital workers, Finch wrote that the “ink-stained wretches” deserve gratitude: “Now, more than ever, we need to recognize and say thanks to those who keep us informed and enlightened.”
Coverage of Covid-19 is not the first time the newspaper has reported on a pandemic. The archives contain a Post-Dispatch front page from Oct. 7, 1918, reporting the city’s shutdown on the mayor’s orders to combat “the prevalence of Spanish influenza.” The newspaper reported 115 cases in the city and 900 at the Jefferson Barracks army post where seven soldiers had died.
Bailon said the newspaper’s work from 102 years ago has informed coverage now. “One of the lessons from 1918 was do not reopen too soon,” Bailon said. “There was a relapse. We’ve done coverage on this. St. Louis was much more assertive in having people stay home.”
Today’s journalists are equipped with communications tools that enable nearly all of them to deliver the news remotely. Bailon said only he and three or four other editors are staffing the newspaper’s main office.
Telephones, texting, Zoom meetings, computerized virtual private networks and a document sharing facility called Slack allow the staff to stay in constant contact. Journalists meet through the Internet, set agendas, collaborate on stories and file the pages that publish the print newspaper remotely.
Amanda St. Amand, the digital editor, has been able to update the newspaper’s website, stltoday.com, from the comfort of her home.
Since the pandemic began she has watched interest spike to the point that now the newspaper dispatches two newsletter alerts per day devoted to just the virus. The pay wall has been removed for news about the pandemic.
“You can see there is a hunger for coronavirus news,” St. Amand said. “It’s just on the very local and personal level. It’s gratifying to see that kind of interest in our work.”
Still, some are on the street.
“We have to be out and witnessing things first hand to do our job,” said photographer David Carson. “I’ve never made a picture over my phone. I have to go where people are.”
Carson said photographers try to keep a safe distance from their subjects. Often they wear masks and take other precautions. But wearing a mask creates a barrier when interacting with people.
“A smile can help put your subject at ease,” he said.
Working remotely is not an issue. Photographers have been able to file their pictures from the field for years. “That part of my life is not radically different,” Carson said.
Kurt Erickson, who covers the state capital in Jefferson City, had to report on the Missouri government remotely during the early days of the pandemic.
“The governor was holding press briefings but we couldn’t attend,” Erickson said. “We submitted questions to the press secretary. She read them, and there was no follow-up.”
Later when the lawmakers returned, Erickson would go to the capitol building wearing a mask. “We don’t have the same access to the floor while legislators are there to ask questions,” he said.
Carson is vice president of the United Media Guild unit that represents non-management employees at the newspaper. Because of the pandemic’s impact on newspaper revenues and to avoid layoffs, the union members voted to take two-week, unpaid furloughs during the three-month quarter that ends June 30. Management employees are taking pay cuts during the same period.
“We’re in scary times for journalism,” Carson said. “We’re trying to do what we can to make sure the company is viable to sustain the newsroom to keep reporting on the community.”
The last recession took a toll on newspapers. Researchers at the University of North Carolina have found that since 2004 roughly 2,000 newspapers, most of them weeklies, have closed through mergers or shutdowns. The virus’ impact on revenues could weaken the industry further.
Bitikofer, the publisher of the three newspapers in St. Louis County, believes the journals he’s fostered for 42 years are under siege.
“We recognize that local journalism is important and local journalism is something that is struggling across the country,” Bitikofer said. “I hope there will be a way for it to continue. We shall see.”
Terry Ganey was a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 28 years.