Reporting the News Amid a Pandemic
Uncertainty should be scary, but it’s been too long and those effects have since worn off
The first feature story I picked up as a syndicated freelancer with Gannett was on a man who was retiring after 56 years of employment with the same manufacturer. Making metal milk crates by hand, Gary started working there two weeks before his 18th birthday in 1963.
He was the first of his family to find work off the farm, but felt it was his duty. Most of the men in his hometown of Marion were serving in the Vietnam War. Local businesses needed employees and families across Eastern Iowa needed to wake up to milk on their doorsteps.
In 1964, Gary left to do a tour in Vietnam, immediately returning to work nine months later when he arrived home.
During the interview, I asked him to share his secret for success for his dedication to his job.
“How have you stuck it out?” I inquired.
He told me it was by having nothing to do with his coworkers. “I come in, go to my station and do my job. I keep my head down and mind my business. I never spend time with them outside of work, not even at the company Christmas party.” he said.
We met at the manufacturer where he worked in Belle Plaine, 30 miles through rolling fields from where I live in the neighboring county. On the drive back, I stopped along the Iowa River in Marengo to take photographs of the flooding.
It’s tradition for the river to overflow into miles of farmland each year. Every March, spring’s thunderstorms collide with winter’s frozen landscape, and its well into the summer before it recedes. I took six dozen photographs covering over a two-mile span.
They buried my feature on Gary on page 5 of The Star Press Union, but my photographs of the flooding made it to the front page of four USA Today Network newspapers. I felt let down that an annually occurring disaster trumped the story of a man who accomplished something most of us won’t.
The work with Gannett was consistent, but any guidance came as a weekly email. There was the occasional dialog with whatever editor from whatever newspaper for whatever event I was covering, and I’d submit my monthly invoices. Other than that, I was on my own and unlike Gary, alone was out of my comfort zone.
I wanted to plant strong roots in the community. I wanted rapport. I wanted to be someone the people could depend on as fair, balanced and honest. I wanted a newsroom, burnt coffee and morning staff meetings.
None of those things are attainable with freelancing. That’s why when an independently owned regional newspaper offered me an editorial position, I accepted and left the solo life behind. I finally had a team who would have my back, an email address where readers could contact me and the credentials I needed to attend press conferences.
But then, a pandemic swallowed the world whole, and I was alone on the job again.
At first, it seemed easy enough. Who couldn’t wear a mask, wash their hands, social distance, stay home when they’re sick and only go out for essential errands? That’s what Governor Reynolds asked of us when COVID-19 arrived in Iowa through Egyptian cruise tourists back in March, but the deep red state of Iowa refused to act and 30 days turned into nine months.
By summer, Iowa was the only state to permit high school varsity baseball and softball. 328 districts competed in a condensed season. Those games brought community spread to rural communities.
And the saga continues.
In the beginning, I started virtual interviews by thanking the interviewee for meeting with me under such unparalleled circumstances. What once felt like the unthinkable now feels snug, similar to sipping a cup of coffee by a toasty fire, a daily routine or a favorite pair of jeans. Uncertainty should be scary, but it’s been too long and those effects have since worn off.
Today marks 300 days since our staff switched to working remotely, meaning never seen in public. My employer is now the body of an email and my coworkers are names beneath a headline. I interview virtually or over the phone and government, committee and school board meetings take place via Zoom. I attend press conferences in my living room.
Through spring, summer and fall, the pandemic raged on with little mitigation measures in place. During this time, I became a ninja at covering events, always there but always invisible. The region carried on as if their neighbors weren’t dying.
On July 4th, I found myself on the backside of a farm searching for a tree somewhere on a residential property line facing the main road. I climbed 20 feet up into the pine branches and shot photographs of the unmasked clusters and crowds below as the Independence Day parade went marching on with tractors, Trump flags and trumpets.
Three days later, I reported on the first COVID-19 death in the county where I live. A 35-year-old man who left behind a wife and five school-age children. I would have done anything not to have to report on that, and every other obituary that’s stacked up since.
I never thought this would be the job — pandemic, economic recession, civil war, political crisis and a consistency of natural disasters unlike ever before, and the cruelty and lack of compassion known through it all as America. I had no idea the toll it would take on me, the disappointment I’d have to accept from a community who once fueled me with vigor, and their anger directed toward me for doing my job.
This is, after all, my job. The beacon of fair and balanced that I pride myself on, a voice for those who no one hears and a purveyor of truth in a time of dishonesty and misinformation. This is the connection with humanity that I worked hard for and in similar ways, the same connection Gary did everything he could to avoid.
Behind my house, the view sets over a pond and out across the horizon where thousands of acres of farmland touch the sun. I’m standing on the top of a hill, wind scorching my skin as it whips around me, desperately wanting to make sense of it all and what the world is in this moment.
What feels so delicate and sacred will someday be nothing more than a chapter in a history book, and I will be even less significant than I am now, a soldier under the delusion that I can find victory within this war. Trapped in a stronghold, I choose to believe that humanity will prevail regardless of efforts to prove me wrong.
I think about Gary and what he might do right now and if he’s lonely and safe because that’s what the world has become, a place where we are safest when alone. I think about how his retirement didn’t go as planned, the same as my career. The pandemic may have changed how I cover the news, but why I do the job remains the same even while the chaos, death and destruction chips away at me.
As the wind dies down, so do my thoughts. Calmness and clarity take over long enough to realize that human connection still exists, just in different forms such as a memory.