University publications across the country use unique techniques and perspectives to grapple with the multi-layered challenges student reporters face in wake of COVID-19

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In the days after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Canadian universities began a rapid shift to distance learning models, shutting their doors to all in-person classes and events.

And as the news continued to heat up, the student journalists whose lives were upturned by everything from changes at their schools, to their employment status and housing adjusted course to make sure they could keep the digital presses rolling.

Quality journalism from and for students despite looming uncertainty is vital for their readers to make important choices and share their stories, student editors told J-Source. 

“It’s basically the same thing as having a really strong local news ecosystem,” said Alex Nguyen, co-ordinating editor of the University of British Columbia’s The Ubyssey, who tells J-Source the team had a contingency plan in place for working remotely and publishing online four days prior to their school’s transition to online classes on March 16. “The news about UBC closing libraries … or UBC allowing residences to stay open, it’s definitely worthwhile for students to know.” 

Student journalism has been a part of Canadian post-secondary institutions as early as the mid-1800s (such as the Brunswickan, which as operated since 1867), with accolade-worthy reporting — including the Queen’s Journal with its 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards-winning feature on facing antisemitism in Kingston — coming from the country’s next generation of journalists.

In Ontario, Queen’s University’s campus paper has received daily emails from student leaders concerned with different aspects of their university’s COVID-19 response, such as the continued run of the school’s graduate classes while undergraduate classes had been suspended. 

They’ve published stories on Queen’s students collecting medical supplies for family members in affected areas such as Wuhan, China, and student fears about finding employment during a pandemic and recession. 

“We have acted, I think, as a positive accountability mechanism,” said Queen’s Journal managing editor Iain Sherriff-Scott.

But for the Journal and other campus publications in Ontario, the production adjustments posed by physical distancing aren’t the first major changes they’ve had to navigate in the past year.

The Queen’s Journal started to get used to alternative arrangements in September 2019 when it transitioned from weekly to twice a month print editions for the first time in its 147-year history as a result of the Student Choice Initiative, a provincial directive that allowed Ontario students to opt out of some university ancillary fees. 

“When we’re not putting out that paper, our staff will work from home because we don’t have to do the typical layout,” said editor-in-chief Meredith Wilson-Smith. “So we’ve gotten pretty good at working from home this year.” 

Although the SCI was struck down by provincial courts in November, Queen’s Park was quick to announce it would appeal — meaning it’s still possible that less student funding will be the status quo for Ontario student papers. 

“This year was a very rocky year for the Lambda,” said Shanleigh Brosseau, editor-in-chief for the Laurentian University student paper in Sudbury. 

In the tumult and diminished funding following the SCI, the Lambda had no choice but to move completely online in November 2019. But despite losing the print edition, being entirely online has “definitely been more beneficial to get news up more quickly,” said Brosseau.

She referred to her team springing into action on March 11 when Laurentian became the first university to close due to COVID-19. 

“Student pubs are definitely showing that they’re essential services on campus,” said Nguyen. “A lot of student publications are super devoted to keeping their students informed of news on campuses and I think – especially with this pandemic – it really shows that we’re essential services.” 

Publications such as The Ubyssey, which Nguyen says has been prioritizing digital publishing since 2014 when the paper reduced to one print paper per week from two, have found success relying on online publication amid university closures, adding to the five-fold increase in downloads for remote-working apps including Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack.  

“A lot of the COVID news has been breaking news anyway,” she said.  “So I think it just fits,” she said. 

But that frequency of news can also weigh on student reporters. 

“Updates are usually coming out every day. Sometimes within a couple of hours. So that puts a lot of strain on our news team,” said  Andrew McWhinney, editor-in-chief of The Gateway at the University of Alberta, whose newsroom has covered everything from university announcements to federal measures affecting students, such as Canada’s moratorium on student loan repayment. 

While students learn to live with the uncertainty ushered in by COVID-19’s spread, several student editors said there’s a juggling act in maintaining academic performance, commitments to their publication’s readers and life under quarantine.

“Even in extraordinary times like this, we still have to fulfil that mandate,” says Gateway editor-in-chief Andrew McWhinney. Photo courtesy of Andrew McWhinney

“Our reporters and staff having their lives upended,” said McWhinney.

One editor of his staff was required to vacate from St. Joseph’s College Women’s residence on a day’s notice. “So it was very difficult for them to reset all of that and also still be responsible for editing and soliciting content,” they said. 

“If [students] pay a student fee and pay to support us … we need to be making sure that they’re getting the information that they need,” said McWhinney. “Even in extraordinary times like this, we still have to fulfil that mandate.” 

“I don’t want to say that this situation is normal, because it isn’t,” said Kristy Koehler, editor-in-chief for The Gauntlet at the University of Calgary, whose doors closed on March 14.  “But we have a population of people – student journalists – who are super busy anyway and who always kind of do work at odd hours.”

The happiest surprise from her volunteer reporters was “everyone’s ability to just be like, ‘yeah, OK, we’ll pack up and move online,’” she said. 

But moving to remote work means more than just reorienting classes, said Koehler. “You’re asking [students] to move their courses online – in some cases be in homes with family members that they may have to look after or have environments where they’re not particularly motivated to work.” 

The commitment required to restructure one’s personal, professional, and academic life under quarantine is immense for student journalists, said Koelher. “They’re going to have to learn how to work through pandemic and then work through crises and realize just how important fair and factual journalism is during these times.”

“Our term expires on May 1, and we’re going to keep bringing people the news until then,” said Sherriff-Scott.