Partridge-Hicks, a junior at Fordham College Lincoln Center who was then the news editor of The Observer, raced down to the office to write the story. When she got there, the first thing on her computer screen was a video she had worked on earlier in the week featuring students’ reactions to COVID-19.
“[There] was that video of students saying, ‘it’s not that big of a deal,’ and there I was writing that they canceled [on-campus] school,” she said.
“It was just so surreal,” added Partridge-Hicks.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Fordham student journalists to move their operations entirely online and remotely cover the news that’s impacting their community, it’s also given them an opportunity to expand their coverage and try new things.
“What it has done is make us get a little more creative in how we’re seeking out stories,” Owen Roche, outgoing editor-in-chief of The Observer and Fordham College at Lincoln Center junior, studying English and new media and digital design, said. “For example, our arts and culture team is covering a group of Fordham kids who have made a Minecraft server, where they’ve recreated the Rose Hill campus. These sort of things may have flown under our radar or have maybe gotten buried…so this situation is sort of giving us new ways to report…and new things to report on.”
The publication has also been working on “news you can use” stories, such as one on ways to maintain a healthy immune system.
The pandemic has allowed The Observer to fully move from a biweekly to a weekly production schedule. The staff had begun the transition last semester, publishing a print issue biweekly, and articles online in the “in between weeks.”
“The only silver lining I can really identify from this is … we’re producing a full issue every single week now, which we’ve never been able to do,” said Partridge-Hicks, who has since been elected editor-in-chief of The Observer. “It was a goal that we felt maybe was a year off or six months away and we just were able to respond to the situation. I think this has also shown us how much we can achieve digitally.”
For the editors at The Fordham Ram, Rose Hill’s student newspaper, the pandemic shifted their coverage to trying to keep the community informed and provide some sense of normalcy.
“We’ve been trying to highlight student groups and clubs that have been active on social media and online events that they’re putting on,” said Sarah Huffman, a Rose Hill junior and news editor. “We’ve also been doing a lot of coverage of budgets and what is happening with the reimbursements and seniors and commencement. A lot of people have questions right now so we’re just trying to figure out what people care about the most and trying to get answers.”
What’s most important during this time, according to Helen Stevenson, editor-in-chief of The Fordham Ram, is still capturing the student experience. That includes reaching out to student groups, faculty, and staff to see how the pandemic is affecting them.
They’ve also tried to utilize their culture section to include playlists from editors and a “quarantine diary series”—personal features that can help readers stay connected to the Fordham community remotely.
In one recent diary column, Erica Scalise, projects editor emerita for The Fordham Ram, wrote about how she’s struggling to find joy during this time.
“I keep feeling invaded by those classist social media posts about the people who stayed home and read books and cooked meals, about how joy isn’t canceled and laughter isn’t canceled and how I’m somehow supposed to feel compelled to start baking bread because of this,” she wrote. “Yes, I could bake bread while cogitating on all of the ways I could possibly write about New York. I could remain painstakingly hopeful or possibly even amass enough sentimentality to absolve this state of listlessness that lives with me most, if not all, of the time. But I don’t want to make a sourdough starter. I don’t want to take up running or even pretend to like it at all and I’m tired of peeling back layers of myself that were formed in a city where I’m suddenly not.”
Telling COVID-19 Stories
One of the biggest challenges the student journalists have faced is trying to tell COVID-19-related stories in a different way, a problem that many media companies in general are facing, according to Molly Bedford, a design editor at The New York Times who also serves as a visual adviser to The Observer, and an adjunct instructor at Fordham.
“It’s also a time where you need to reinvent your coverage a little bit—it’s a story that needs a new angle, they’re really trying to reinvent new ways to tell similar stories and that’s a challenge across newsrooms everywhere right now,” Bedford said.
Partridge-Hicks said they’ve been trying to cover stories that are unique to their audience.
“We can’t really compete with CNN and The New York Times, but what is beneficial to being college reporters? What’s the information, what’s the data that we can get that makes us stand apart?” she said.
One of the stories that stood out examined the impact on study abroad programs.
“I spoke to nine or 10 students with really different experiences,” she said. “One girl was studying abroad in London, but her parents lived in Tokyo, but they wanted to send her back to the [United] States, and at the time they thought that McMahon and campus housing would be open.”
At The Ram, Huffman said that a piece they published shortly after news broke that campus would be closing for the semester really left an impact.
“[We] wrote a feature about how campus changed as soon as people left and how it was affecting business owners in the community—all the different ramifications of this virus and of the campus shutting down,” Huffman said. “That was emotional to read and work on because everything was changing and we didn’t really know what was going to happen.”
Bedford said she was impressed with the variety of coverage the students were able to tackle.
“They’re able to take this global story and make it relevant to our community,” she said. “Many years from now…students will look back at the time and look to The Observer’s coverage and know what it was like to be a student in 2020.”
A Great Balancing Act
Another challenge for the staff members is the reality of being a student journalist in 2020—having to cover what’s happening and deal with the fact that it’s also happening to them.
“The one thing I learned from the first day on the job is being a student journalist is one giant conflict of interest,” Roche said.
While the staff members have tried to mitigate some of that, by having commuter students report on residential life activities or having students report on programs they aren’t enrolled in, sometimes the emotions are unavoidable.
“When we first got the news that we wouldn’t be returning to campus for the remainder of the semester, it really broke my heart because I’m a current senior,” said Courtney Brogle, outgoing managing editor of The Observer. “They announced that graduation was postponed and that also was so heartbreaking to hear—obviously it was the only option that we had, but it’s still so heartbreaking because you work so hard and build such community and we don’t know when we’re going to see each other again.”
Stevenson said that she usually goes into a “robotic mode,” when breaking news happens, so when she heard that campus was closing for the semester, her adrenaline kicked in.
“I remember receiving the emails that we would not be going back to [campus]and again my fight or flight kicks in—I typed out an article real quick, and then it went out, and not to get too personal but I was bawling,” she said. “It really just hit me that the world would be changing.”
Passion and Commitment
While adjusting to their “new normal” was a challenge, many said they’re grateful to have their fellow newsroom colleagues for support during this time.
“Having production every week and still being able to write and still being able to cover Fordham events and ideas and stories—it’s kind of helping [us]keep sane through all of this, myself included,” Stevenson said.”I know I really do well with the routine and The Ram is such a big part of my life and everybody else’s life when they are on campus.”
Roche said that he was expecting a “downturn in production” with everyone moving to remote reporting, but that never happened.
“We were expecting a dip in productivity and we saw the opposite, which was surprising, and a testament to this staff and all they’re capable of and just the ambitions they have,” he said. “I think this new situation has shown the power of not being afraid to try new things and ask and take risks.”
Bedford and fellow adviser Anthony Hazell, FCLC ’07, said that they were proud of the dedication the students have shown.
“I think most people that age would give up on other things like a student club that they are part of, but I would say that the students on The Observer pulled together in a way that is the strongest that I’ve seen,” said Hazell, who works as the communications director at Bay Ridge Prep, a private school in Brooklyn. “It’s just really impressive the content is stronger than it usually is, it’s strong to begin with, but it’s certainly stronger than it usually is.”
Partridge-Hicks said her goal is to continue to build on that content, using what she’s learned during this time period, when things “go back to normal.”
“That means extensive social media, podcasts, multimedia videos… I think we’re all very proud of what The Observer is producing but we just want to make it more dynamic and more accessible for our readers.”