A major part of the reporting process for many journalists is being on the ground and on the scene when news is happening.
Whether going out in the field to report a feature (and then returning to the office to write and produce the story) or responding to breaking news and having to file stories on the road, reporters are accustomed to working remotely. Plus, nothing beats a first-hand account. But, given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — and Gov. Jim Justice’s statewide stay-at-home order — the West Virginia Public Broadcasting newsroom and other staff are largely working remotely in ways we could not have imagined.
Sure, we realize that news organizations have been deemed essential in the governor’s executive order. But, collectively, we’re trying to slow the spread of COVID-19 by limiting the work we are doing outside of our own homes.
The current work-from-home reality presents its own set of challenges. But there are also some perks, too. Each one of us at West Virginia Public Broadcasting is approaching it differently. With that in mind, we thought we could share what reporting the news (and making sure it goes on the air and online) looks like in these times.
The Show Must Go On
While the reporting staff can largely work from home, our hosts and production staff don’t always have that luxury. To help keep the news on the air, our engineering team is still checking on transmitters and other equipment in the field. Hosts still have to come to work and are taking extra precautions to keep our studios safe.
Our video production team is also still going out into the field, observing social distancing, of course. Largely, they are shooting outside, updating the IDs you see on our PBS stations.
Dave Mistich, Senior Reporter (Morgantown)
For most of my time at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, I’ve had a steady mix of working from the office and out in the field. As a person who thrives (and, believe it or not, enjoys) the rush of breaking news, it’s kind of a happy medium. A story breaks, I report what I can from my desk, get out to the scene, report some more (file if I can) and then return to the office. Over the years, I feel like I’ve filed stories from a lot of different places — the state Capitol, hotels, a city council meeting, the sites of industrial and environmental disasters, a Trump rally, my car, literally the middle of a street in Mingo County, a McDonald’s in Summersville or a coffee shop in Parkersburg. The most uninteresting place, of course, has been my home. Sometimes news just happens when a person is at home and they have to take care of it. But reporting on this pandemic feels different. Aside from the slight burden of not being on the scene and relying more heavily on the phone and email for sourcing, my days aren’t all that much different in practice. To be sure, things are certainly a bit more difficult (not getting a question in during a conference call, not getting a response to a call or an email and the occasional tech failure, etc.). The upshot, though, is that I was authorized to bring home an additional monitor and some other equipment that makes my life easier. I’ve also created a system in which I can attend a virtual news conference, transcribe it in real time and record the audio for a story. (It’s all about efficiency, baby.) I can also #alwaysbesnacking — and I can always find a reprieve from the news cycle with my Playstation 4. But my biggest concern falls outside of work: making sure that my girlfriend, who works as a nurse in the emergency department at Ruby Memorial, has everything she needs when she gets off work and is as safe as possible when she heads to the hospital. (Disinfecting wipes are like gold in my house.) If this is the “new normal” for a while, I suppose I will enjoy this newfound introvertedness. Really, though, I’m just ready to hang out with my friends again and play some softball.
Kara Lofton, Appalachia Health News Coordinator (Charleston)
About two weeks before the coronavirus pandemic really took hold, I called interim news director Glynis Board and asked to use the rest of my leave to work part time for a couple of weeks. I had come back from maternity leave in January and had been working from home with my infant. I was really struggling with it, but my husband and I were waiting to put our baby in daycare because of the bad flu season, wanting her immune system to build up a bit. Ha. Remember the flu?
I went part-time for about two weeks. Now, I probably work 60 hours a week. I’m WVPB's lead health reporter reporte in the middle of a pandemic, and I have mastered the art of breastfeeding while conducting an interview. Joke is on me. It’s a juggling act around here. I have four large dogs who take protecting the yard from cats very seriously, and a 7-month-old baby who is attracted to anything cord-related like a magnet. My husband is an ER nursem and is finishing up a nurse practitioner degree this spring, so most of the time, I try to schedule interviews during naptime and pray the baby doesn’t decide to babble when it is my turn to ask a question during the governor’s virtual press conferences. Most of my days are spent working in five-minute increments: edit a story, feed the baby, write a spot, walk the dogs. Working parents, I see you. If you want a glimpse into my life tune into the biweekly coronavirus Facebook lives I’ve been hosting — you’ll see peeks of my husband and dogs ducking out of the background!
Caitlin Tan, Folkways and Southern Coalfields reporter (Charleston)
It’s been a strange few weeks at the Tan household. I’ve never worked from home for such a long stretch of time, and it’s been the best and the worst. The No. 1 highlight: My two dogs are so happy. We have been spending all of our time together. They patiently lay beside me as I type away, my lunch break has become an hour for us to take walks around the neighborhood, and treat time has become much more frequent — for them and me.
My boyfriend, Sam, lives with me and he’s been working from home, too. Surprisingly we are not sick of each other yet! We work in separate rooms and take turns making lunch and breakfast for each other, which is great — although he’s taken a strong liking to Spam, which is not great. There are downsides with working from home. First, the way I work, primarily including gathering audio for my stories, has completely changed. Since I can’t go out and record people in person, I’ve been having sources record themselves on their phones, including everyday things like baking with their kids or feeding theor animals. It weirdly feels like I’m giving people homework. And the other snag is that strange feeling that my life and work have collided, and it’s just one continuous loop in which weekends don’t really matter. I’ve been trying to do a lot of artwork and cardio to break up the monotony. It’s not lost on me just how fortunate I am to be healthy and still have a job, so that helps me check my privilege as well.
Brittany Patterson, Energy & Environment Reporter (Morgantown)
Much to the chagrin of my partner, I’ve totally taken over our kitchen table as my new home office. And the dog has taken it upon himself to find the squeakiest toy and loudly play with it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. I have an interview or record something.
Daily walks in our neighborhood are really important, as is finding time to exercise. A lot of baking is happening, which means my snack game is strong. (These cookies broke the internet for a reason.) One thing I’m trying to do is check in with my colleagues and be transparent when I need to take a break. Trying to find balance is key right now. Another thing that keeps me going are the stories of hope and resilience shared with us here at WVPB.
Emily Allen, Statehouse & Southern West Virginia Reporter (Charleston)
When I moved to Charleston and picked out an apartment last year, “DIY recording studio” was not the first thing that crossed my mind after I saw the closet space.
Fast forward 10 months and here I am, sitting on a kitchen stool between two sweaters with my laptop balanced on a mobile shoe cart, which my cats usually end up knocking down mid-recording. Times are dark and the things we’re covering aren’t easy. I miss my friends, and I’m scared for my family out West. I worry endlessly for my loved ones who are essential workers, who can’t prop up a stool in their closet and call it a workspace. But I am so grateful to still have a job reporting on West Virginians making a difference in their communities. Hearing real voices and meeting new people from all over the state is my favorite thing about working for WVPB. As the trees change colors and flowers bloom around Charleston, I long to load up the car with my radio gear and spend a day in the field, having face-to-face conversations and learning more about this gorgeous, welcoming state. In the meantime, slow jogs along the Kanawha river and hikes in the state forest will do.