Covering Coronavirus: Tips, best practices and programs

University of Alabama journalists find sources – and community – when campus is closed

Savannah Bullard
Editor-in-Chief, The Crimson White
The University of Alabama

No on-campus activities. No commencement ceremonies. No sports (gulp). No students. 

No problem, said Savannah Bullard, editor-in-chief of The Crimson White at University of Alabama. 

In an email interview, Bullard shared her staff’s sourcing strategies, engagement successes and the importance of leading with grace amid uncertainty.

How are you finding and talking to students? 

There is a beautiful goldmine of information called the Alabama Student Ticket Exchange. It’s a Facebook group of over 76,000 people (most of whom are students/alumni) that operates as a catch-all for life at ’Bama. Members can sell athletics tickets, furniture, clothes and textbooks, ask about classes or UA news, bicker about which apartment complexes to avoid, and everything in between. It’s kind of a circus — but great for finding students who want to talk about why they’re back to living in their childhood bedrooms for the time being…  We’ve got connections with many of the major student organizations on campus already, so we’re at an advantage there. With a student population of 38,000 and the magic of social media, source hunting isn’t too tricky. 

How have you shifted your publishing strategy to reach students? 

While our twice-weekly print product has been suspended for this semester, we already have a well-established website, so the transition to online coverage was no trouble at all. I think we’re finding it difficult to generate unique and original visuals to accompany our stories, but we’re managing with screenshots from virtual town halls, stock photos we have saved of the university and the (many, many, many) fair use COVID-19 graphics online right now. We did create a tab on the homepage of our website called “CORONAVIRUS.” That’s where all these stories live, and everyone can access our work more easily. 

What has the reaction/engagement been? 

On social media, we have a Twitter following of 65K, Facebook has 23K and Instagram is just shy of 3K. So publishing articles there, utilizing the “Stories” feature on Facebook/Instagram, and engaging our audiences with Twitter polls, questions, etc. has been fairly successful. We’ve been doing this for the past year now, so our online operation has not seen much change, thankfully. 

What stories are your readers responding to most?

The breaking stories tend to get the most traffic … . One heavily-trafficked tweet was from last week, when seniors were charged a $50 graduation fee for a commencement they’ll never attend. We got a lot of angry students on that one, but UA cleared that by saying it was an automatic charge that they’re reversing. Our Twitter polls also see a few thousand participants, and that is generally more fun, light-hearted content. So it’s certainly a mixed bag. I’m happy to say that the CW is often one of the first outlets to break news from the mayor or the university. We hold our own among the big guys like The Tuscaloosa News and 

What’s been the biggest lesson/surprise so far in covering this global story for your local readers? 

My staff has been so incredible adapting to this crazy time. I love them now more than ever for not abandoning the paper …. 

Perhaps our largest hurdle was recognizing that we, as journalists, are still students and people being affected by this. 

I think many essential people in this time (reporters, first responders, medical professionals, service workers, etc.) are trying to toughen up and muscle through all the new (WILDLY lofty) expectations in light of this global tragedy. Our jobs are so, so difficult, each in their own unique ways, and at least for me, it’s so much easier to just fight through the emotions and auto-pilot my way through Zoom meetings and press conferences and late-night editing. 

But at the end of the day, I had to learn that as a leader of a staff that’s really, really hurting right now, I need to make sure that my folks are given the time to grieve the loss of their senior years, the loss of formals and honors day ceremonies and end-of-year banquets and walking across the stage in Coleman Coliseum in May. 

I made a newspaper almost a month ago and had no idea it was going to be the last. I’m a first-generation college student who will never see my graduation stage, and that is painful. I am also the big sister of two high-risk, immunodeficient siblings, so my life is even more topsy-turvy compared to other college students right now. 

I, along with my staff and school community, need a hefty dose of grace. That’s the biggest lesson we’ve learned since COVID-19 wrecked our lives: we’ve got a job to do for our school and community and what we do is so important, but most of all, we are so imperfectly human. We need to allow ourselves to process this extremely emotional time and grieve in whatever way is appropriate for us individually. Without grace and love – for each other and for ourselves – we will not survive this. 

And, of course, all those meetings definitely COULD have been emails.