Editor-in-chief: Why covering the coronavirus hit home in more ways than one
News of the coronavirus hitting had been ramping up quickly that day. With two cases already confirmed among hospital workers within Connecticut’s health network, confirmation of the first presumptive positive case in the state broke around noon on Sunday, March 8.
Our team of almost 200 newsroom staff at Hearst Connecticut Media Group was doing what journalists do — bringing our readers important news in the time of a crisis. Public-service journalism, which results in societal good or change, runs deep in our veins. It fuels us to act quickly, responsibly and thoroughly, heightened furthermore at a time that has now become a global pandemic.
As each of our editors, reporters, photographers, columnists, digital producers, print production team members and many others balanced the needs of their own families and their health and safety, they continued to fully step up to bat for our readers. The many communities we serve across Connecticut are our communities as well. We are your neighbors, our children attend the same schools, we shop at the same grocery stores, attend similar events. Why does this matter? As intense public concern mounts, not only are we publishing news that matters, we are doing so with heart.
Speaking of heart.
At 6.30 p.m. that same Sunday, I got that dreaded call. My father just had a severe heart attack. I told my mother to give it to me straight. Struggling to even get the words out, she said it wasn’t good. Scoring the pain out of 10, he had relayed to the rapidly-growing team of doctors and nurses swarming around him, that it was a 9. Coming from the toughest man I know, that left me with only one choice. Jump in the car and make the nine-hour drive through the night to Canada. (Of course New York state was still bumper-to-bumper traffic that time of night, on a Sunday, and that detour adding an extra 30 minutes might have resulted in some colorful language).
Lights flashing, my father was taken by ambulance from a local emergency department to a specialist hospital. As anyone who has faced a similar situation knows, the minutes matter greatly. Would I get there in time?
Arriving at 4 a.m. Monday, I would later see him pull through a heart procedure which clearly saved his life. In the three days I would be with him in two different hospitals, the pandemic was doubling down in Connecticut. A state of emergency was called, the number of cases were climbing, the impact on the economy and jobs was increasing, schools were shuttering. You could see Canada was about to suffer the same fate. Testing sites were starting to pop up, media coverage was intensifying and even within the emergency department where we were willing for my dad to recover, reports of people stealing masks and gloves. But store shelves were still packed with disinfectants, medicine, food.
I found a great little spot in the hospital where I could make my calls to connect with our news teams back in Connecticut, perfectly positioned near the coffee shop which was much needed. Of course they had no expectation for me to connect, but this is what we do. Were we doing enough for our readers? What else could we do? Is the team safe, what else can we do for them? Truth is, as I knew they would, the team had everything under control.
It is important to note that although this behavior may sound slightly unusual to most, our families are used to this! They recognize that serious face staring into the cellphone, we have become impeccably good at balancing life and work, but admittedly sometimes we need a nudge.
Yet here I was. All of a sudden my dad, a smoker who was otherwise fit thanks to the very physical job he was still doing in his late 60s, went from being someone no one in the family ever worried about, to someone who fit the category of one of the most vulnerable who could succumb to this awful virus.
I’m pleased to say thanks to skilled medical professionals, his fighting spirit and the best sense of humor I know (heard the one about the nurse who said she couldn’t find her thermometer because she left it in some a------, well I heard that one a few times over the course of his stay) he is back home. And better still, he is now a nonsmoker. I was fortunate to be able to help my dad settle in at his home, but after three days of watching him pull through, I knew I had to get back to the state. I made the nine-hour drive back where I then worked from home, with Hearst’s No. 1 priority to keep its employees safe, staff were already working at home or remotely while following smart health and safety protocols. Operationally, this meant publishing multiple newspapers and online websites from makeshift home offices versus what is normally a very collaborative newsroom environment.
So why am I sharing this story? Certainly not for sympathy. I wasn’t the only member of the news team to face very challenging times during this outbreak within my own family. And yet, they did what they always do, they brought you the news. Why? Because it is our job.
It doesn’t matter where we are. At the bedside of a loved one recovering from a heart attack, taking care of our children who are not in school, helping a neighbor, keeping our staff and colleagues safe … as journalists we pride ourselves in the ability to put public safety at the top of our list with these other very important things.
Helping you, your families, is in effect, also helping ours at a time of grave concern.
I cannot recall a time in my many years as an editor-in-chief at various publications where we had to keep such a large workforce safe, while also ensuring we could produce dozens of newspapers and websites from our homes for a long period of time. Don’t get me wrong, our reporters and photographers are still out and about in the communities they serve, but they are doing so safely and smartly with protocols in mind.
Intensive planning was done to make sure we were well equipped to continue bringing you the news given our newsroom doors were closed as a precaution, right down to specifics such as chargers for laptops. At times like this, everyone needs a friend in IT. That said, ever-increasing improvements in technology and the wonders of cellphones have long made it relatively flawless for publications to be put out remotely, think severe winter storm. This time, however, could prove to be the longest stretch.
It isn’t unusual for our multiple news conference calls to now have dogs barking in the background, children becoming restless and the other wonderful sounds of family in the background. There’s a lighter side of all this. There is also most certainly a strong sense of togetherness, both within our teams, but our ever-growing, long relationship with our readers. We are in this together.
At times like this there is also much discussion on journalistic ethics. We have to ensure we are right. Fair, balanced and accurate — the cornerstones of newsroom principles. At a time of intense public safety concern - we have to be even more responsible than responsible. Headlines must be just right, the information adeptly reliable, not creating unnecessary panic.
From the early hours of every morning until the late hours when Hearst Connecticut Media Group’s print products hit the presses, seven days a week, we want to be there for you. Not just because it is our job, because it’s what journalism is all about. Informing you with information that matters. Journalism matters.
It would be remiss for me not to thank our subscribers for supporting our newsrooms to do the work they do. I am pleased to say that our total number of subscribers has been growing for some time now. We are very grateful, and proud, of this. If you are not already a subscriber, we would appreciate your consideration to become one.
I would also like to thank the newsroom staff across HCMG for their outstanding commitment to covering this global pandemic. They will continue to bring you stories about the work of frontline health care experts keeping residents safe, the vital updates from public health and much more.
I can share with you that this is the first time as an editor-in-chief that I have written a column which is personal to my family. I have done so, in part, because I appreciate the ever-increasing role I have as a newsroom leader to highlight the importance of journalism in our daily lives. At times like this, it truly brings that home. I also wanted to share my story, because we are in this together, and I want you to know you can continue to rely on us for the ever-important facts.
Stay healthy, and safe.
Wendy Metcalfe is the vice president of content and editor-in-chief of Hearst Connecticut Media Group. She can be reached at Wendy.Metcalfe@hearst.com