By Steve Newvine
It was one year ago, March 2020, when life in our world changed forever.
The coronavirus pandemic changed life in many ways. Face masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer, outdoor restaurant dining, and so many other things were forced into everyday life.
It also changed the way our local media handled an on-going crisis.
Five local media outlets were asked to share their perspectives on covering the COVID story over the past year. The Merced County Times, KYOS Radio, and MercedCountyEvents.com responded. Repeated requests to the Merced Sun Star and KFSN-TV Channel 30 were not answered.
“The biggest challenge in my opinion was the initial lack of press access to restricted government meetings that were broadcast instead of open for an “in-person” audience,” said Jonathan Whitaker, managing editor at the Merced County Times. “Covering “virtual” meetings is no way near the same thing as actually being there as a reporter before, during and after the proceedings”
The Times petitioned the City of Merced to allow them access in the room for Council meetings as an emergency worker in the “communications” field. After a week of review with the City Attorney, the local media was permitted to attend meetings in person.
“This was a natural disaster that caught everybody off guard to say the least,” said Whitaker of the Times. “I think maybe the media was not exactly the first thing on government leaders’ minds as they struggled with this deadly virus.”
Whitaker believes local government relied too heavily on their own social media sites to get information out.
Brad Haven runs the local events and community organization website MercedCountyEvents.com. Like the other media covering the region, his website adapted to the changing landscape. “I am not sure anyone thought that COVID would have been around for as long as it has once it was first reported,” he said.
Over the local airwaves … “Our biggest challenge was staying up-to-date as much as possible,” said Radio Merced Operations Manager Christopher Moreno. The company operates six stations in the Merced market, including the news/talk station KYOS 1480. “We sought to strategically place alerts throughout the day so as to not bombard our listeners.”
The station changed a lot of things during the early COVID coverage. Community Conversations, the weekly public affairs program, conducted guest interviews over the phone rather than in-studio. Commercials featuring clients who traditionally came into the studio to record their spots were asked to record over the phone.
Live remotes, generally a routine activity for radio, disappeared in an effort to keep listeners and staff safe.
COVID forced the weekly paper and the radio stations to look at how their businesses dealt with change.
“We had to make various financial moves,” Whitaker said of the County Times. “Some were needed, some we later learned, were not.”
Said Radio Merced’s Moreno: “A radio station is a resource for information and a place of refuge for our listeners. We did things like a COVID-free hour in the morning so that our audience could get a balance between information and entertainment.”
These local media outlets are proud of how their staffs functioned in the COVID emergency.
“A widespread pandemic was unprecedented for all of us,” Whitaker said. “I doubt we would do anything differently with the resources we have.”
Radio Merced’s Moreno agrees. “We did the best we could. I would like to see more live remote information like a vaccination drive, but we have to balance putting on an event while heeding health department advisories urging everyone not to engage in public activities.”
MercedCountyEvents webmaster Haven agrees that lessons were learned. “The one thing which I would have done better is somehow helped more local businesses who needed free advertising and promoting.”
Covering a big story like this one brings back memories of other big stories over the years. News media often carries out the routine stories such as a law enforcement briefing or a local government meeting all the time. They record what they see, flesh out the story with perspective from all sides, and present the story in a final form.
A crisis like COVID forced everyone away from the comfort zones of routine story telling. Parallels can be found in such stories as the California wildfires in recent years to El Nino-triggered flooding from several years ago.
Whitaker of the County Times looks back with a real sense of accomplishment. “Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, our reporters were willing to put on a mask and go where news was happening.”
Says Radio Merced’s Moreno, “We’re in one of those jobs where we can’t take the day off. We are an essential business.”
Life did indeed change in the early months of 2020. Like the rest of us, local media adapted to the change and did the best they could do with the resources they had.
And like the rest of us, lessons were learned. We all will be a little better prepared for the next time.
Steve Newvine lives in Merced. His latest book Can-Do Californians is available at BarnesandNoble.com and at Lulu.com. You can reach him at SteveNewvine@sbcglobal.net