Two days before the nation’s first announced COVID-19 death jolted our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined, we held a meeting in our newsroom. The topic: The long year ahead of coronavirus coverage.
We had already run several stories about the nation’s first known case here in Snohomish County, and many more from our news services on the global outbreak. But at this point, public health officials were still saying the risk to Americans was low.
The purpose of our meeting on this day was to firmly establish that this coverage would be a top priority for us for the next year, on par with the presidential and gubernatorial elections. Based on what we were hearing and reading, we assumed the virus would gain a foothold in the state and country this year, slow down in the warmer summer months, then hit hard in the fall and winter. And we wanted to be ready.
We assigned a team of six reporters across our metro, investigative and business teams to lead our coverage over the next year. Our sports and features departments would also play a huge role, as would photo, video, graphics. One of our newest digital producers, Anika Varty, had already put together an online timeline showing important developments of the global spread, and was a natural to continue as our lead producer for the team. We assigned Gina Cole, our morning assistant metro editor, to coordinate all of our coverage, to make sure we weren’t tripping over ourselves as we hunted down the stories that would matter most to our readers.
It was a great plan. And two days later it was obsolete. That was Feb. 29, the day health officials announced what at the time was thought to be the nation’s first death. We knew then this virus wasn’t going to dally across the U.S. and take the summer off. It was hitting hard. And now. Our six lead reporters became engulfed in an all-hands, newsroom-wide effort. Cole, instead of coordinating a few stories over weeks and months, was wrangling dozens a day.
The first chance we had to come up for air, we convened again — this time not to talk about where coronavirus fit in our priorities, but how we would have to evolve instantaneously to cover what we now understood would be the story of our lifetimes. A story that cut across every stitch of our society. Health care, schools, transportation, politics, the economy, sports, the arts, restaurants, homelessness, law enforcement, front-line workers, the privileged and the disadvantaged. Most important, we asked ourselves, what do our readers need to know to keep safe?
Our newsroom is barren these days. But our 155 journalists — working in kitchens, bedrooms and basements across our region — haven’t slowed one bit. They will continue to ask the tough questions; examine the response to the outbreak by our government, schools and hospitals; capture the visual history of this singular moment; provide resource guides and tips to stay healthy and entertained; and offer stories of inspiration, as we are through our ongoing Stepping Up series. Today, we begin another series remembering the lives of the people we’ve lost.
Our colleagues who keep our printing presses rolling, deliver our papers, and keep our business operations going — they haven’t slowed either, even while retooling how they work to keep themselves and our customers safe. And readers have responded, flooding our website like never before and fueling our efforts with notes of encouragement. In 25 years of journalism, working at all levels of this industry, I’ve never seen such overwhelmingly positive support from readers.
We have our detractors too, people who believe coronavirus is a hoax, or media coverage of it overblown. And as this pandemic further widens political divides in our country, we’ll cover that, too — it’s part of the fabric and history of our country at this moment. But we’ll continue to devote most of our resources to finding answers to the questions that matter to you most. Questions like, when will widespread testing finally become a reality? When will the health care workers, first responders, grocery store employees, bus drivers and others we have come to depend on so much be able to go to work without fear of becoming infected? When will we be able to enjoy more mundane pleasures, like sitting in the sun-soaked cheap seats at a Mariners game, or taking our children to a live birthday party, not one on Zoom?
To me, knowing what questions to ask demonstrates the value of a locally owned news organization. We’re here, taking calls and emails from readers who are scared about exposure at work, grief-stricken because they’ve lost a loved one, interested in science, angry about the government’s response, delighted by helpful neighbors. We hear you because we are you. And when we aren’t asking the right questions, we want to know that too. Email me your thoughts or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Use the subject header “ST Coronavirus coverage.” I always try to respond quickly, but appreciate your patience if it takes a day or two. Thank you for reading, and for your continued support.
Ray Rivera is the managing editor of The Seattle Times. He was previously the deputy managing editor over investigations and enterprise. He started his journalism career at a small paper in his native New Mexico, and has been a staff writer at The Washington Post, The New York Times and, in a previous stint, The Seattle Times. He lives in Shoreline with his wife and three children, two cats and a new puppy.