In my long tenure as a journalist, I’ve covered the 9/11 attacks, mass shootings, earthquakes, deadly landslides and volcanos. Often from a crowded, noisy and chaotic newsroom.
So it was a bit unnerving to walk into the emptiness and silence of Civil Beat’s newsroom last week.
But the quiet masks the intensity and energy in Civil Beat’s coverage of the spreading COVID-19 crisis that is reshaping the lives of all Hawaii residents.
Coronavirus is now every reporter’s beat. All Civil Beat staffers — our photographer, our multimedia team, our business and engagement people — are focused on ensuring readers get both thorough and constantly updated information on the impact of COVID-19 in Hawaii.
Like most of you, our staffers are working from home – following the orders for social distancing. The video conferencing tool Zoom and the messaging service Slack have replaced face-to-face meetings.
But our journalists are still going out in the field when they need to, attending press conferences, interviewing businesses and checking on the conditions of the homeless. Each journalist is making sure they practice good social distancing to keep their subjects and themselves safe.
Honolulu Civil Beat’s office is mostly empty these days as we abide by work-from-home policies.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
If you’re puzzled seeing some journalists out on the streets, we do have permission to be there. Mayor Kirk Caldwell, in his March 22 stay-at-home emergency proclamation deemed the news media one of the “essential businesses” that can continue operating. We’re in the act of providing public information, now more than ever.
For the first time, Civil Beat has become a seven-days-per-week news operation, publishing new stories and a new edition each Saturday and Sunday as well as weekdays. Normally, we’re focused on in-depth and watchdog reporting rather than breaking news. But in the new normal created by the virus, we’re constantly updating the newest developments and data each day. We know readers are hungry for the latest facts.
As new information becomes available, we’re providing more graphics and maps on items like frequency of testing, geographic locations of COVID-19 cases and the projected spread of the virus, allowing you to dig into the numbers yourself.
Civil Beat is also planning some virtual engagement events, the kinds of things we have been doing out in the community through community coffees, panel discussions and storytelling events. We’ll just be doing them online and finding ways to keep the community connected.
But we’re not abandoning our mission of in-depth journalism. During a crisis like this, it’s more important than ever to dig beyond the news, to figure out what government policies mean for ordinary citizens and how those policies were put together.
In recent weeks, Civil Beat has taken a deep dive into the question of whether Hawaii is testing enough citizens for COVID-19, examined the panic and anxiety triggered by the virus’ spread and revealed how the city was ignoring CDC advice on provisions for the homeless.
Our photographer, Cory Lum, has been out on the streets of Oahu every day, visually documenting how the virus is altering every aspect of local life. He does it while standing at least 8 feet from his subjects and using a long lens for every shot, wearing a mask and avoiding especially crowded situations like grocery stores.
Our news colleagues around Honolulu are making the same adjustments.
Hawaii News Now, Civil Beat’s news partner, can’t have everyone working from home. But station managers are using single anchors with most broadcasts, interviewing many guests using FaceTime and even considering having their weather reporters do reports from home. Each staff vehicle is provided a pack filled with hand sanitizer, masks and gloves.
The coronavirus story is more challenging than anything we have covered at Civil Beat in our 10-year history. Its tentacles reach out through the economy and every major institution, and most importantly, every family in Hawaii. One of our columnists, Trisha Kehaulani Watson, aptly wrote that the world has stopped feeling familiar.
Our efforts though are really stoked by the community’s support and appreciation — and its thirst for facts and solid public information. The number of people viewing our stories in the last two weeks compared to the first part of March is up nearly 127%. We’ve been flooded with smart questions, story tips, ideas for sources and supportive notes.