In Anton Delgado’s role as managing editor for The Pendulum, one of four student news platforms at Elon University, he’s learned that saying no to story ideas is just as important as what comes next – reshaping them for the staff’s hyperlocal campus audience.
“During a pandemic, naturally there are a ton of things to write about,” the graduating senior said in an interview with the Journalism Institute. “But what matters is being really purposeful about the work you are doing and making sure that every single story matters to somebody on our campus or in our community.”
Managing peers in crisis. Deciding whether to print an edition. Accessing equipment. Finding sources. Learning how to use remote tools. Working with canceled advertising. Wondering whether your staff will be paid. Reaching a scattered, often scared audience.
Student media staff and their faculty supervisors across the country are grappling with the same issues facing their professional peers in covering COVID-19’s outbreak across the country. While challenges are similar, journalism on college campuses poses unique issues — and students are collaborating to find answers. Wednesday, more than 60 student journalists participated in an online discussion organized by Benjy Renton, a student journalist at Middlebury College.
“I wanted to create a forum where student journalists across the country could discuss what they’re doing in these times and share the tools and strategies they have used in their publications,” Renton told the Institute. “We all are committed to continuing our reporting and will do our best to serve our communities.”
That sense of service is pervasive across campuses — especially at Elon, Delgado said. The campus offices and services remained open Thursday.
“It’s not us ‘practicing’ being journalists, we’re not ‘trying’ to do journalism,” said Delgado, who continues to work from his newsroom. “We’re actually in the midst of serving our public with some of the most important information they need to know and seems to have infected every reporter — ooh, that was probably the wrong term to use!”
Our interview with Delgado follows:
So, based on what we’re seeing on the Elon News Network, you’re a one-man operation right now.
Delgado: We are currently working to get folks back on track, to give the whole newsroom enough time to get home. Some people have some pretty grueling trips back and I didn’t want to pressure them into reporting when they are focused on their family members. I know a lot of our folks have older grandparents and parents, so I wanted to give them some time off. So, everyone should be refocusing on their reporting by today or tomorrow. I think most folks have made it home.
How large is your staff, usually?
Delgado: Approximately around 80 or 90 students, in general, across our four platforms.
How are you working to engage your student population?
Delgado: Elon’s a school of less than 7,000 students, so everyone does know everybody. Something we’ve been working on is we have a general Slack channel, and we’ll be like, “Who knows somebody in the Greek dance group that’s leading that push?” or “Who knows somebody from New Rochelle, New York, who might be willing to speak?” And we’re using our phone networks, with our 80 to 90 reporters, and trying to find folks individually through that, either by reaching out individually through cell phones or looking them up on social media. So definitely shifting our in-person sourcing online.
What about the official word that’s coming from Elon? Did you have some relationships with the administration and the communications center? How has that communication changed with them?
Delgado: We’ve always had a respectful relationship with the administration here at Elon. I think they’ve now seen us as a way to get news out there. So, while it has been a bit of a crisis, we’ve been working with them to get access to senior administrators, as well as the folks that are still on campus cleaning up.
How are you doing? How are you managing?
Delgado: Well, I guess it goes back to something my mom always taught me about doing what you can where you are with what you have. … I’m from the Philippines, so that’s been a little bit painful for me to be of literally no help to any of my aging parents or my aging grandparents that are all back home, and it seems to have gotten a whole lot worse. So that’s a tough thing for me to come to terms with. But I realize I can’t fly in. And if I do, I’d have a really hard time getting back to the States.
So, it became more of a conversation of what can I do to help the most amount of people where I am. And that was to continue running the newsroom. And, on a personal level, it’s been going really well. We have such a supportive faculty here that, as I’m working in the newsroom over spring break, I have folks coming in to check up on me and say hello. And it seems like this mentality of what we are doing is a public service — it’s not us “practicing” being journalists, we’re not “trying” to do journalism. We’re actually in the midst of serving our public with some of the most important information they need to know and seems to have infected every reporter — ooh, that was probably the wrong term to use! …People are asking to help out because they all feel this need to help, even though they are spread across all 46 states.
Are you working in the newsroom?
Delgado: Yes, ma’am. I’m about a six-minute walk from the newsroom. The thought of being in my apartment the entire day is just miserable. So, I have my little routine where I go to the gym, then grab some food, then head into the newsroom. And, it’s just me for now, but we are kind of in this weird middle ground with Elon where some folks are expecting — some folks have their flights booked to come back for that two-week online period, because they were booked before the announcement was made. So, if we are to go back, to go online on the 23rd, we are expecting some folks to come back. And of course supposedly the entire newsroom would be back on April 6. So, it’s me right now.
What’s been your biggest lesson or surprise in the last couple of weeks as this story has taken on and taken over life?
Delgado: I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned about, at least student journalism here and serving a local community, is not adding to the noise. Naturally, when the news broke that Elon would be suspending in-person classes after spring break and this coronavirus pandemic was getting worse, people were rushing into the newsroom asking if they could cover, like, national news. They would run in and be like, “Oh my goodness, there’s another case in Washington. Let’s go write a story on it.” And, while their passion was inspiring, I wanted to make sure that all of our stories were serving our public instead of just screaming into the void, “Did you know that coronavirus is coronavirus?”
Having to work with people to shape our stories to match our audience is definitely one of the most important lessons I’ve learned. People wanted to do national maps of every coronavirus case, and I was like, “The New York Times is already doing that, and we can’t compete with that, and that doesn’t serve our audience.” So instead, we created a national map that showed where our students are from and the cases in each of those states. People wanted to write about, “Oh, did you hear that President Trump just put a travel ban on Europe. We want to write about his speech.” I said, “Nope. Let’s write about the effects of his speech on our 60 students studying abroad in Europe.” …
During a pandemic, naturally there are a ton of things to write about and a ton of news that needs to get out there. But being really purposeful about the work you are doing and making sure that every single story matters to somebody on our campus or in our community.
What are the stories you’ve seen the engagement on for your audience?
Delgado: It seems interesting that a lot of our audiences — like, they all seem to understand what was going on at Elon and they wanted to see what Elon students were doing elsewhere. So, our stories about folks being recalled from Europe was really engaged with, our story about the Semester at Sea students disembarking early in Cape Town, South Africa, was really engaged with; the different ways our students in Study USA programs in New York and LA were being handled, that got a lot of engagement. So, it seems that after students on campus realized what we were doing here, they were desperate for information about what their friends and colleagues and peers and classmates were doing all across the world, and that was a really interesting trend to see.
What advice would you have for other student media as this coverage continues and will for some time?
Delgado: The first one is focusing on stories that matter to our local audiences. Don’t get caught up in the turning wheel of national news, but focus on how those national stories can affect individual lives in your communities. That’s naturally what the most people care about, and nobody else is reporting on it. That should always be the role of student media — but especially now. This is when our publics need us the most.
My other piece of advice that we’re pushing into now is to find the people who are being affected. There’s naturally a lot to do with breaking news and these big announcements that tournaments are being canceled, that classes are going online — but who are the lives that are being affected? Are there faculty members or students who have autoimmune diseases? Are there folks who are genuinely struggling as we go online? Maybe there are people who aren’t digital learners. Maybe there are people who don’t have access to computers and Wi-Fi. These are the stories that we are completely ignoring because of the fact it’s been such a mess of breaking news. But finding those individuals that are feeling the impacts of the coronavirus more than anybody else on campus — I think is something critical that all student media really needs to focus in on.