In a week’s time, a lot has changed. COVID-19 has sickened more than 482,800 people, according to official counts on Thursday morning. At least 21,896 people have died, and the virus has been detected in at least 171 countries. Nationwide, more than 1,000 deaths have been reported. As of Thursday, eight people in Vermont had died.
More than 3 million people filed for unemployment benefits in the United States last week, sending a collective shudder throughout the economy that is unlike anything Americans have experienced.
In the half-century that the government has tracked applications, the worst week ever was 695,000 “initial” claims in October 1982. Closer to home, the state reported some 3,667 Vermonters applied for unemployment insurance.
There is not a preponderance of good news, although it does keep popping up.
There is no drought of news during a pandemic.
This week, when Gov. Phil Scott gave his “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, it made one clear distinction: news media is essential.
We think so, obviously. We are often frustrated by social media posts that pass for news, but actually spread misinformation with the greatest of ease. Conversely, it is equally frustrating to have our reporting, fact-checking and editing marginalized because it does not jibe with what the talking heads are putting out on television and talk radio.
While we take seriously our role to gather information, separate facts from fiction, and get that information out to you, it takes effort. And effort has a cost.
Several times in the last week, we have been asked, “How are you doing it with so few people?” A week ago, Publisher Steven Pappas laid off nearly half of the employees of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald as a cost-savings aimed at the long-term viability of both newspapers. Every department was affected. He also reduced the number of publishing days from five to three, a move to cut expenses.
But during the week, the staff produced dozens of stories, packing the Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday newspapers with locally generated content. In fact, even with “off days,” the reporting staff of five reporters across both divisions could not keep up with the number of stories that needed to be written.
So how are we doing it?
It’s very challenging. Nearly everyone we need to talk to for stories is working remotely, which means extra effort has to go into tracking them down via email or cellphone numbers. Town and state offices, where resources are abundant, are closed. Courtrooms are closed. Most of the information we use is behind a locked door. At a minimum, it is at least a phone call away; there are practically no face-to-face interviews, since we want to keep our journalists healthy and safe as well.
That means the news staff is not working from the office (which is also closed to foot traffic but still open via phone and email). Reporters are working remotely too. In some cases, the journalists are an hour or more from the communities they cover. It is like being the eyes and ears of the public wearing earmuffs and having a hat pulled over one’s eyes.
Remote technology is a beautiful thing. Both newspapers depended on it during the flood of 2011, which wiped out The Times Argus offices and press, soon followed by Tropical Storm Irene a few months later, which scattered staff and production.
As businesses around the world have learned during this pandemic, if you have a plan, a committed plan and the resources, you can persist.
We are grateful that we can continue to gather, produce and disseminate the news. And through the support of loyal advertisers and subscribers throughout out community, you have proven that you feel the work that we do is essential.
Newspapers and news organizations around the nation are truly struggling. But it is not for a lack of desire nor commitment.
Every newspaper wants to inform its audience. Our mission is no different; our commitment is just as impassioned. We want to be at the center of this community and, when this crisis is over, we want to be at the center of the community building that will follow.
Our staff may be scattered by COVID-19, but our singular focus is to be essential to you every step of the way.