On August 18, Rice University’s student-run newspaper, the Thresher, broke the news that one of the school’s eleven residential colleges would move its freshman orientation activities online after two student orientation leaders tested positive for COVID-19. Coming less than a week before the start of classes, the news echoed through the Rice community. Unlike many of its peer institutions around the country, Rice is offering a full range of in-person classes this fall—although it’s also giving students and faculty the option to participate remotely.
The news that two students had tested positive before the semester even began set off alarm bells for some readers. “What exactly did everyone think was going to happen with everyone back on campus?” one commenter responded on Twitter. Another asked why Rice wasn’t testing students more frequently, noting that Yale was testing undergraduates twice a week, while Rice required only one test a week. (Larger Texas colleges, including the University of Texas and Texas A&M, have not made testing mandatory for all students.)
The story, written by Thresher co–editor in chief Rishab Ramapriyan, is an example of the crucial role student-run newspapers have assumed as universities reopen around the state and country. Front pages once filled with stories about football games and student politics are now dedicated to tracking the latest test results, reporting on breaches of social distancing guidelines, and pressing university administrators for more transparency. “Right now, student media is on the front lines,” Ramapriyan said. “We’re getting information from the ground out to the community.”
The same story is playing out at universities across Texas. The Battalion, Texas A&M’s student newspaper, recently broke stories about coronavirus clusters at two sorority houses and a squadron of the Corps of Cadets. UT-Austin’s Daily Texan reported on a petition calling on the school to inform students living in residence halls if a student in the same hall tests positive. The Baylor Lariat published a fiery staff editorial condemning the university’s COVID-19 response as “an abandonment of the [Christian] values it preaches.”
“We can kind of get the scoop before other local media outlets do, because we’re getting university-wide emails and we’re getting phone notifications,” said Brady Stone, editor in chief of the Battalion. “We’re also on campus talking to people. I wouldn’t say other media are out of touch, but they’re not on campus.”
Many student newspapers have been reporting on the coronavirus since January, when news of the growing epidemic started reaching the United States. The first campus effects were felt by students studying abroad, some of whom had to come home early, and international students, who had to make tough decisions about whether to stay on campus or fly home. By the time universities began canceling classes in mid-March, it was clear that this would be a story unlike any that student journalists had ever covered. Without access to their on-campus newsroom, undergraduate editors and reporters had to figure out how to work remotely, just like so many other American workers.
“In March, there were developments happening every single day,” Ramapriyan recalled. “The hardest thing was keeping up with everything, because we’re a weekly paper. And suddenly everyone was in different time zones, or even different countries.” Like most other student newspapers, the Thresher stopped publishing a print edition when the spring semester was canceled—what was the point of distributing a physical paper when no one was on campus?—and transitioned to online-only publication. It was only the second time the Thresher had ceased print publication during the school year since its founding in 1916 (the first time was during World War I).
As students returned to campus this fall, many college newspapers resumed print publication, albeit with reduced frequency and smaller distribution. The Daily Texan has gone from publishing five days a week to a single weekly issue, distributed on Tuesdays, followed by a digital paper on Fridays. The University of Houston’s paper, the Daily Cougar, has reduced its frequency from weekly to biweekly. The newspapers have made up for diminished print editions by publishing more content online, but the loss of print advertising has hurt. The Battalion, which receives more than 70 percent of its revenue from print ads, lost $75,000 in expected print ads. Emily Caldwell, the Daily Texan’s editor in chief, said that UT’s paper will likely be in the red next year. The Daily Texan has struggled to stay solvent before; in 2013, when a financial crisis forced the paper to consider reducing its frequency, a group of supporters and alumni raised money to keep it going.
The revenue crunch isn’t the only challenge facing student newspapers. Because of coronavirus precautions, including restrictions on the number of people who can be in a single room—ten, in the case of Texas A&M—most student newsrooms remain eerily empty, with only the top few editors coming in. The rest of the staff must work from home, coordinating their news coverage through Zoom calls. At UT, graphic designers use Zoom’s “share screen” function to lay out pages. At A&M, most of the Battalion’s staff chose to take online-only classes this semester to keep one another safe and avoid any potential interruptions in coverage. “I would compare it to the NBA bubble,” Stone said.
Still, student editors have found innovative ways to convey crucial information to their readers. When the University of Houston failed to create a detailed COVID-19 dashboard to track infections, as many other colleges have done, the Daily Cougar launched its own, inspired by the one printed daily in the Houston Chronicle. Of course, it still has to rely on data from the university administration—numbers which, to editor in chief Jhair Romero, seem suspiciously rosy. “It’s a very interesting data set,” Romero said, “especially when you consider the number of infections at other large universities.”
Revenue may be down, but editors said that reader engagement has never been higher. The Daily Cougar had its best-ever June online, and its social media following has grown significantly. The Battalion has attracted more than five thousand new Twitter followers since March. “We are definitely seeing a lot more engagement, and we’ve gotten lots of compliments,” Stone said. “That’s something no journalist is really used to.” Parents of college students, in particular, have recently been turning to student media. “Parents have always read our coverage, but especially now, because of the pandemic, they really want to know what’s going on,” said Ivanka Perez, co–editor in chief of the Thresher.
That renewed attention has helped motivate student newsrooms to meet the challenges. “I’m immensely proud of how our staff has been able to continue to surpass expectations,” said Caldwell, the Daily Texan editor in chief. Stone said covering the pandemic has been “one of my most rewarding experiences as a college journalist.” Some journalists, like the Thresher’s Ramapriyan, a biochemistry and cell biology major, have been able to draw on their academic background to inform their coverage. “It’s very interesting for me,” he said. “I’ve been educating myself about testing so that I can really explain what different results mean, what the different types of testing are.”
Looming over every student newsroom, of course, is the possibility that a widespread coronavirus outbreak will force their school to go fully remote. Editors and reporters are already planning for that. “We’re working right now on a backup plan if we have to leave campus,” Stone said. “Just in case something happens.”