As a nation comes together in self isolation and social distancing, I’ve been adapting my face-to-face journalism courses that promote in-the-field experiences for a new virtual and remote reality.

I have never felt such a feeling of unknown. Yet I know I’m not alone.

I am an assistant professor teaching multimedia journalism classes at Eastern Kentucky University, but a large part of my job is to advise student media. I have worked the past three years to prepare my student journalists at the Eastern Progress for the real world. I’ve coached them in leadership roles, guided them through sticky situations with sources, advised on personality conflicts amongst staff members and pushed them to dig deeper on issues and stories that need more light shined on them.

But what’s unknown for them amidst the COVID-19 outbreak haunts me.

Little did I know I should have been preparing them for a far worse economic reality than I faced when I graduated from journalism school 11 years ago. According to a recent CNN article, more than half the jobs in the U.S. are at risk due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This new reality is prompting the U.S. Congress to consider one of the largest financial relief bills in hopes of stimulating an economy on the brink.

This economic downturn could be especially detrimental to journalism. 

Businesses are having to close and tighten their own purse strings, affecting advertising revenue for newspapers and TV stations. A drop in ad sales could mean layoffs or the shuttering of operations completely. That’s especially problematic for small-town, hyperlocal outlets that have a dedicated audience but an already small budget. 

The lack of journalism jobs is discouraging for these students getting ready to graduate. There are extraordinary student journalists across the nation, and there are a number of them in Kentucky; but I worry if they’ll have job prospects.

The silver lining here is that this isn’t going to affect how outlets report. If anything, this outbreak is encouraging outlets to be more innovative.  

Newsrooms are finding ways to tell stories. Broadcast anchors have taken to reporting from their homes, and print and digital journalists are less boots-on-the-ground and more phone-calls-on-the-couch. If anything, this could reinforce the importance of good, quality investigative work– something that’s been pushed aside in the increasingly digital environment.

Despite these anticipated economic outcomes for graduating student journalists, my students– both upper and lowerclassmen– are rising to the occasion in these new and uncertain circumstances. 

Kelley, front right, has been advising student journalists for three years, but she writes nothing could have prepared her for advising them on covering a pandemic and finding jobs in the current economy. She’s pictured here with her Fall 2019 editorial staff. From left to right, Joseph Steele, visuals editor; Kara Holbrook, opinion editor; Kamille Johnson, social media director; Samantha Tamplin, features editor; Jacob Broadwell, podcasting director; Zachery Combest, sports editor; Jennifer Kaylyn Perkins, editor-in-chief; and Seth Littrell, business manager. Photo: Courtesy of Tricia Fulks Kelley

Those of us who advise journalism students encourage them to adapt to any given situation. When a source falls through, when the story focus switches gears, when a global pandemic pushes you out of your campus surroundings and you find yourself having to report from home: adapt.

The cessation of print products has thrust student journalists out of their comfort zones. The “digital only” option has them thinking more on their feet and considering the potentially larger reach of content. Weekly face-to-face meetings have been replaced by Google Hangouts or Zoom meetings, and communication on Slack has seen an uptick. Student editors must go beyond their everyday hyperlocal campus focus to coverage of a much larger scope.

Specifically at the Progress, student editors are turning out stories to answer questions our student population may have during this time. They’re considering the state, national and global scope of this outbreak when it comes to storytelling. For years I’ve told them that we’re a print weekly and an online daily. Now they are learning to exclusively tell stories online. 

Despite these challenges, opportunities have presented themselves. Student media across the nation are telling stories in conditions they aren’t accustomed to. Journalistic organizations around the country are putting together guides for journalists– student and professional, alike– in covering this crisis. 

Journalism– whether it’s print, broadcast or digital– provides a vehicle for epidemiologists, infectious disease doctors and health care workers and scientists on the front lines of this outbreak to tell the nation what this virus can do and has done. Outlets are able to give government officials a platform to inform their constituents of new measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

News doesn’t stop with campus closures and calls for social distancing. In fact, one thing is more clear now than ever before in my lifetime: journalism is more important than ever. 

Tricia Fulks Kelley is a freelance journalist and professor and student media adviser at Eastern Kentucky University. 

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