When the coronavirus, an economic downturn, and the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing came to Ann Arbor, the only daily newspaper to capture its local impact was run by students at The University of Michigan, which has no journalism school.
Last October, seemingly a lifetime of news cycles ago, The New York Times featured The Michigan Daily as an example of student journalists serving communities where local newspapers had closed.
We reached out to Elizabeth Lawrence, The Michigan Daily’s editor in chief for the past spring semester and the upcoming fall semester, to learn how the paper has fared and how it’s preparing for September.
The Daily has been the main news source in the community for some time. According to the NYT, you have an endowment to support you financially, but how has the current economic crisis associated with COVID affected your financial health? What adjustments have you had to make?
Lawrence: We’ve definitely been hit hard financially, as everyone has. Revenue from advertising has dried up considerably as local businesses struggle. The University has also instructed its departments to cut down on expenses, so a lot of our advertising accounts from the University have also dried up. Our special projects, like a Baby Ads book for graduating seniors and our Orientation Issue for incoming freshmen, have been huge money makers for us. The summer staff has still published them and sent them out to families, but it was harder to carry out for sure. We’ve had to adjust our budget considerably. This has also propelled us further along a conversation we’ve already been having about our business model. We’re having to evaluate our print and digital products, and making plans to create a more sustainable model.
The aftermath of George Floyd’s killing has been a time of reckoning in many newsrooms with regards to diversity and inclusion. How has that affected The Daily?
Lawrence: The Daily is definitely included in that reckoning. We are, and have historically been, majority white and straight. For the past couple of years we’ve sent out demographic surveys, and we just sent out another one a few weeks ago. We’ve never released the results publicly but will be doing that this summer after being inspired by a few other student papers. There’s much more to be done, though, and I’ve been meeting with our Access & Inclusion chairs every couple of weeks to plan for workshops and strategies to employ in the fall to improve our culture. The Daily has been having these conversations — about diversity of staff and coverage, and ensuring marginalized folks within and outside the newsroom are being listened to and uplifted — for some years now. But this moment has given them renewed urgency.
When the pandemic hit and schools shut down, how did The Daily adjust? Did student journalists stay in town to carry out their news gathering?
Lawrence: A good portion of our staffers left Ann Arbor in March to finish the semester off remotely. The freshmen, and some sophomores who lived in dorms, had no choice because the University pushed everyone out of residence halls unless they truly had no alternative. Many of the upperclassmen who had off-campus housing stayed in town, but all of our operations were remote. We held daily Zoom editor meetings to discuss each day’s content, uploaded stories 24/7 on our website and worked Sunday through Thursday to create a PDF paper. The podcast team was able to get into our newsroom to record a limited series about COVID-19, but other than that, we ceased all in-person gatherings. Most reporting happened remotely over the phone or on Zoom.
Our summer staff – which is led by the summer editor in chief, Emma Stein – has had more in-person assignments with Black Lives Matter protests and businesses reopening. A fair number of them are in Ann Arbor or the surrounding area.
What extra reporting demands did the pandemic place on The Daily?
Lawrence: The pandemic created so many urgent questions in such a short period of time. Literally everything about the University and Ann Arbor area was disrupted. We had to move quickly to report the more immediate concerns – how are students with limited wifi access going to do remote classes? How will the University coordinate dorm move-outs and refunds? Does the hospital system have adequate PPE? As the pandemic continues and the University makes plans for the fall, more and more questions arise and we have to stay on top of all of them. It’s absolutely vital that we provide clarity and needed information to our readers in this time of uncertainty. COVID-19 has encroached on all sections’ coverage within TMD.
With George Floyd’s murder and renewed conversations about racism, more people are coming out with stories about racism they’ve experienced at U-M.
How would you say the coverage splits between campus news and city news, recognizing that there are obvious areas of overlap?
Lawrence: I would say we tend to have more of an emphasis on campus news, given that we are comprised of U of M students. But our News section is also very attuned to what’s going on in Ann Arbor, as we have a dedicated city, business and crime beats that all look closely at city news.
The university does not have a journalism school, yet you and your staff produce a great newspaper. How do you generate interest among students to join the newspaper staff? Do you find it more difficult to attract student journalists under the current COVID limitations, or is there a greater interest in seeing journalism as a public service?
Lawrence: I was so touched and thankful to see that most of our staff stayed committed and passionate when we went remote in March. We haven’t gone through our formal recruitment process yet, as that starts in the fall, but I’m hopeful people will be interested in joining. Some new staffers have done amazing work over the summer and will continue in the fall. The experience of being in the newsroom with a bunch of other college students is a huge draw, but the work we do hasn’t changed. I think people understand how important journalism is right now, and will want to be a part of it.
What’s your typical day like these days?
Lawrence: I am actually not editor in chief right now! I started in January 2020 and will pick it up again in September. Our summer staff has been working tirelessly to cover this crazy news cycle since the regular school year ended. They are creating a weekly PDF paper and making content 24/7 to push out on our website and social media. I’ve been doing a remote internship with Kaiser Health News, so I’m working 9-5, Monday-Friday from my childhood bedroom in New York.
As editor in chief during COVID, a typical day looked like this for me. I’d go to my online classes for the day from my apartment, texting editors as problems and news-worthy events arose throughout the day. This was basically the same as the pre-COVID couple of months I had — I can’t help but text during class. Our editor meeting started at 6 p.m. on Zoom, where we all go around and say our content for the day. Then stories go through the editing process, with three rounds of copy and section editing. I do the final edit along with my Managing Editor, and after the section editors address our edits, they publish the story. While working remote, we tend to wrap up earlier. On a normal newsroom night pre-COVID, I am usually in the newsroom until 1:30 am.
As I understand it, the University of Michigan will begin the fall semester with a combination of in-person and remote classes. How will that affect your staffing and your approach to news gathering?
Lawrence: I’ve yet to poll the staff on who’s planning on coming back to campus in the fall, so that will be a first step to gauge how many people will be in the Ann Arbor area. The University has mandated that every class will have a remote option, so people can stay home if they feel uncomfortable coming to campus. The Daily will do something similar so that even those not on campus can still participate. We’re still figuring out access to our newsroom and whether we will be able to gather in a small number.
In regards to news gathering, I am going to emphasize staffer safety above all else. If people do not feel comfortable reporting in-person and covering in-person events, they should not do it. Plenty of staffers will feel comfortable, and those staffers should take proper precautions with distancing and mask-wearing. All that good stuff.