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Illinois College Newspapers Continue To Chase The Story From A Distance

 J.J. Kim sitting down and typing on his laptop from home.
J.J. Kim
Sophmore Daily Illini Editor-in-Chief J.J. Kim working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Illinois colleges and universities might not be hosting in-person classes, but many school newspapers are still operating.

Campuses are quiet across Illinois. It’s also quiet in The Daily Illini newsroom at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Reporters for the student newspaper have been sent home for their own safety to endure the pandemic. But they still do their jobs via email, texting, phone calls and even video conferencing.

On top of all that, the paper also has a new Editor-in-Chief.

Sophomore J.J. Kim earned his position at the beginning of the pandemic in March. He’s still working, but he has had to make some difficult decisions.

“[In] my first week as Editor-in-Chief, [I] was trying to decide whether or not we’re going to print for the rest of the semester,” Kim said.

“I believe in about 150 years that we’ve been around as a paper, we have not not published before, and so that was a huge decision on my end,” he explained. “Obviously, I don’t want to ruin that streak of 150 years, but also I have to take into account the health of the staff as well, so it was really a bizarre experience.”

Printing has been replaced by an online-only publication for the time being. With few students around to pick up a paper copy, Kim said the digital version is the best way to get the news out.

Students at Illinois State University who continue to work on that campus’s newspaper, The Vidette, are in the same boat. John Plevka is the general manager and editorial advisor there. He said the paper transitioned to remote reporting fairly well, and just like the Daily Illini, has focused its production entirely on a digital edition.

Plevka said his photography staff has little to shoot these days with the campus nearly empty. But that hasn’t stopped them. They’ve been using their staff artist to draw creative covers for the paper.

“To have that type of a resource on our staff, someone who can draw and create visual content, that’s a big plus when we can’t get out and actually put cameras in people’s faces,” Plevka said.

He said the staff is still turning out a variety of stories with a focus on the pandemic.

“One of our photo editors actually wrote a very clever column..[on] advice to parents, that your students are home right now and they’re not home on break.”

“The students have work to do. They have projects due, they’re doing their online classes and they still have the stresses of what typically is a very busy time of the semester, so stay the heck out of their way.”

Jonathan Barlas, Senior Editor-in-Chief at The Vidette, directly manages some of the staff of the paper.

He said initially, they were challenged with finding interesting angles to cover. But as time has gone on, Barlas said student reporters have worked hard to write stories that affect their peers, including one that covered a petition for Illinois State to move towards a pass/fail grading system.

“Our Features reporter, Hailey Bialas, she was one of the people that kind of brought that to [the] limelight,” Barlas said. “She reached out to a couple students, and she also reached out to the person who formed the online petition and reached out to, I think, another ISU official.”

Barlas said times are particularly tough for senior reporters, who anticipated much more from their last year of college.

“I feel personally a little bit down just because I don’t get to go back to my desk at the office for my final two months of my senior year,” Barlas said. “I feel like we’re just kind of taking it for what it is and putting out the best quality work that we have been all year because we don’t want that to go to waste.”

The story is nearly the same at Southern Illinois University, which hosts the campus newspaper The Daily Egyptian, and news editor Kallie Cox has been helping to organize her staff through apps like Slack.

Cox said though they are reporting remotely, the staff was able to come together.

“We’ve had some sports reporters step up and write news articles for us, we’ve had some really great graphics people keeping track of everything that’s going on and make us some really cool graphics tracking the COVID-related stats,” Cox said.

Cox went home to Springfield for the rest of the semester, and has gone from working in a newsroom full of technology to her grandmother’s basement with no door and a fold-up card table. That hasn’t stopped her from covering events like a recent protest at the state Capitol building.

“I actually found out about the protest the midnight before and I just rushed there the next day to cover it, and honestly, it’s probably one of the hardest stories I’ve ever done because I’ve never taken pictures for a story before, I’ve never live-streamed or any of that, and it was just really interesting,” Cox said.

Back at the Daily Illini, J.J. Kim said papers across Illinois’ college system have been dealt a tough hand, but so far, student journalists like those at the U of I have played it well.

“The staff has done a really good job despite their own personal circumstances, whether it be dealing with classes or being driven crazy by living with family again, they’ve really made everything work smoothly so far, so I’m eternally grateful for how well they’ve handled the situation,” Kim said.

For now, university papers may have stopped the presses, but they haven’t stopped reporting. And most of them can now say they’ve covered what will likely go down as one of the biggest events in recent history.

Mike Smith is a graduate Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2020 legislative session.
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