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How COVID-19 transformed The O’Colly newsroom

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Coronavirus transformed how The O'Colly newsroom operates, in some ways for the better.

Coronavirus has drastically altered the way the world works in a matter of months, and in doing so, it has transformed The O’Colly newsroom.

As the spring 2020 news editor, one of the seven editors who make up the editorial board that runs the newspaper, I’ve seen first-hand how The O’Colly operations have changed. We used to have weekly writers’ meetings and five-hour production nights, but now one-hour Zoom calls and constant Slack messages dominate our news days. When COVID-19 made it impossible to meet in person, The O’Colly adapted to life without a physical newsroom.

When we published our first coronavirus story at the beginning of February, none of the editors foresaw how much the virus would affect our daily life. But after seven weeks of running an online paper, we can look back to see how crazy the semester has been.

Feb. 10 – OSU suspends travel to China

Our first coronavirus related story hit The O’Colly newsstands when Oklahoma State University announced all university sponsored travel to China had been suspended. The story didn’t even make the cover, which is the coveted spot reserved for the biggest story of the day. Instead, it ran as one of several smaller stories inside the print edition of the paper.

The news put coronavirus on our radar, but without a confirmed case in Oklahoma, it still felt like a problem that was a million miles away. Additionally, articles comparing the virus to the flu and reports that it didn’t affect young people led us to believe it wasn’t that serious. So, we continued planning future papers and stories as though coronavirus didn’t exist. I didn’t even assign a follow up story about the travel suspension because I thought it would expire without incident. I was about to find out how wrong I was.

Feb. 27 – OSU considers canceling study abroad programs

A few weeks after our first coronavirus story, Craig Freeman, director of the School of Media and Strategic Communications, popped into The O’Colly newsroom with a tip. The university had called a meeting with faculty from all departments that were participating in study abroad programs. Coronavirus had spread to other countries, and Italy had been hit hard, so the university had to rethink how it was going to handle students’ overseas studies.

I walked all over campus until I found the meeting, and I wrote a story about how study abroad programs to COVID-19 hotspots had been canceled. All other overseas programs were pending risk assessments. We moved some preplanned stories around and ran this one as a package – a full cover story with a second article explaining the coronavirus.

The editorial board realized as spring break grew closer, coronavirus would be at the forefront of people’s minds. As we entered March, we planned a few COVID-19 update stories, including stories about how OSU prepared for a potential outbreak, and we speculated how the virus might affect us in the future. We realized what we once thought would be another round of the flu was actually much more serious.

March 12 – O’Colly prints last paper edition of the semester

COVID-19 continued to make headlines around the world, and as we got closer to spring break, it was all anyone seemed to talk about. Then the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11. Rumors spread that the university might move in-person classes to online classes, and on the morning of March 12, those rumors were confirmed.

OSU moved to online classes for two weeks after spring break, and that was just the first in a long line of tumbling dominos that led to The O’Colly’s new virtual newsroom. Press announcements came one after another as professional sports leagues suspended their seasons, collegiate athletics conferences canceled spring sports and universities nationwide closed their campuses. The editorial board quickly realized the traditional spring break edition of the paper, which is normally filled with lighthearted stories about what to do over break, wasn’t going to happen.

We hit the phones, calling writers, photographers and the other editors to assign stories and get updates stories in the works. All afternoon, the newsroom was a flurry of activity. I entered the newsroom about 11:30 a.m., and we didn’t submit the paper to be printed until almost 10 p.m., right before deadline. What started as a fairly normal Thursday quickly turned into my longest news day in three years working for The O’Colly.

It was one of the most chaotic days of my life, but we pulled together and made a 12-page newspaper entirely about how COVID-19 had affected OSU and the country. To celebrate, the editorial board headed to Fuzzy’s to get some tacos and drinks. We talked about the fall, when we thought Boone Pickens’ death would be the biggest news we would cover all year. We now knew coronavirus was much bigger, and we realized we would have to stay flexible and learn how to work in pandemonium just like we had that day.

March 18 – O’Colly officially moves online-only

Almost a week later, OSU announced all classes would move online for the rest of the semester, and The O’Colly shifted online, too. Realizing we would lose a lot of writers because they wouldn’t return to campus, The O’Colly Adviser John Helsley informed the editors, who don’t normally have minimum story requirements, we would each have to write at least three pieces per week and we would make an electronic version, or e-edition, of the paper three times a week.

The other editors and I began brainstorming story ideas that could be used for the rest of the semester. The e-edition is like our regular print newspaper, but there aren’t any ads and it gets published to Twitter instead of printed. So, we knew we would need lots of content. I emailed all the news writers to let them know what was going on. I told them if they wanted to continue writing for the paper this semester, communication was going to be even more important than usual. Only one writer responded. Without my regular writers, I knew going forward, I would have to rely more on myself for news content.

March 24 – O’Colly makes first online paper

The O’Colly published its first e-edition of the paper the Wednesday after spring break. Because there were no ads, the paper could be as long as we wanted, but we decided to stick with four pages so it would be easier to publish to Twitter.

Editor-in-Chief Kayla Dunn added pages to our digital daybook and asked us to start planning the paper in it while she figured out Zoom. Our first Zoom meeting was lighthearted; it was our first time seeing each other in almost two weeks. We talked about how our stories and online classes were going, and we got tips from each other on how to improve our stories.

We also discussed what we wanted the digital paper to be. The O’Colly has always emphasized that we are a professional news organization, so the stories that go into the paper tend to be more serious: how the census can affect students, features on key players from OSU sports teams, album reviews etc. But The O’Colly is a newspaper meant for students, so in a time when depressing and alarming headlines dominated the news, we really wanted to focus on writing stories that college students would want to read. We all decided we wanted to take advantage of the creative leeway the new digital format of the paper would give us and do just that.

March 29 – O’Colly gets creative with Joe Exotic edition

From the chaos caused by COVID-19 rose the mayhem that is Netflix’s “Tiger King.” In its first 10 days of streaming, 34.3 million people watched the documentary, according to the data firm Nielsen. The O’Colly editorial board tuned in, too, and a little research revealed Joe Exotic once visited OSU when he ran for governor, which led to one of the most creative papers The O’Colly has ever made: the Joe Exotic edition.

I began to enjoy making the online paper more than I had the regular paper. Even though I no longer hung out with the rest of the editorial board in the newsroom, we were having more fun with the content we were creating. We still wrote serious stories, such as those about dorm closures, postponed graduation and the pass/no pass grading option. They all contributed to The O’Colly having more breaking news stories in the past seven weeks than in the past three years. But we had decided we didn’t want to limit ourselves to just hard news, and that shone through with our Joe Exotic cover.

April 30 – With 3 papers left, editors reflect on semester

Throughout the month of April, we kept building off the lessons we learned early on in our virtual newsroom. We had fun with our stories. We wrote about video games and TV shows, and I ran a binge watching tournament on Twitter, which is a platform I began to rely on for sources and story ideas. I tried different mediums; I did photo stories and made cooking videos. We didn’t stay grounded in tradition. We were flexible, and we got better at writing with quick turnarounds. Coronavirus had given us the perfect opportunity to improve ourselves and make the paper what we wanted, and we took it and ran.

As the semester winds down, the editorial board is preparing to go on hiatus for the summer. A new editorial board will take over in the fall, but we will all remember our semester covering COVID-19. I’m going to take everything I’ve learned to my summer internship, and I hope The O’Colly continues to grow and improve like it has over the past couple months.