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‘Public service journalism’: What education reporting looks like now in a college town

Centre Daily Times editor Jessica McAllister

Education reporting has been an “all-hands-on-deck” situation at the Centre Daily Times during the pandemic, says executive editor Jessica McAllister. 

The newspaper — located in State College, Pennsylvania — is the hometown media outlet for Pennsylvania State University. Since students returned to campus on Aug. 24, McAllister and her team have reported on the rising COVID-19 case numbers and other school news impacting the greater community. 

The Journalism Institute reached out to McAllister to learn more about education reporting in a college town during coronavirus.

Can you share what education reporting looks like right now for the Centre Daily Times?

McAllister: Education reporting has been hectic at the Centre Daily Times since the start of the pandemic, but it became nonstop once Penn State’s campus reopened and students returned. Town-gown relations have always been an important coverage area for us, but it’s never been more critical to our readers, as the return of students has meant a drastic increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in our county. We see reporting on those numbers and putting them into context as public service journalism. At the same time, there’s a need to hold leaders accountable for their decisions, explore the impact of remote learning on students, faculty and staff, and look ahead toward the future.

That’s also often meant an all-hands-on-deck approach to education reporting with our small staff. Just like COVID-19 has been everyone’s beat over the past six months, all of our reporters have played a role in reporting on education and its broad implications.

How are you handling covering the virus while fewer students are in person? 

McAllister: Using social media as a tool to identify potential stories and sources has grown in importance as walking through campus to talk to people becomes less of an option. Various Zoom conference calls and town halls have also led to sources to follow up with and stories to pursue. And like any other situation, more reporting leads to more trust and sources coming forward. And our journalists have produced hundreds of education stories over the past months.

We’re still touching base with numerous sources every day. Despite a decrease in face-to-face interactions, our reporters have found it hasn’t been difficult to unearth information; the trickier part has been prioritizing everything and moving swiftly before a story becomes outdated. Reporter Josh Moyer was working on a story about experts’ thoughts on the need for a more updated Penn State case dashboard, for example, and then the dashboard became bi-weekly. With the ever-changing news climate right now, it has made our jobs more challenging but has also placed an increased emphasis on having the pulse of the community.

What are your top three tips for reporters on the education beat during the pandemic?


  1. Keep accountability journalism a main focus. Even small decisions made by school leaders have the potential to affect entire communities.
  2. Go beyond the numbers. That has been important throughout the pandemic, but education reporting includes more factors — testing, infection rates, community spread — that are relevant to school systems and readers.
  3. Have a close eye on the education landscape. Knowing what paths other universities have taken and why can lead to more questions, unique content and sources.

How are you staying safe during your reporting?

McAllister: We make sure to do all the things we’ve been reporting that people should do for six months now. Our journalists are all equipped with PPE including masks that are worn on assignments and maintain appropriate distance when reporting in person, which is at times necessary and beneficial.

Our newsroom has also been working remotely since March and will continue to do so through at least January. We miss the feeling of the newsroom and seeing each other in person, but understand it’s another safety precaution to keep us all safe.

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