Continuing our conversations with newsroom leaders about how the coronavirus is affecting newsrooms, today’s installment is a conversation with Tom Murse, the executive editor of LNP | LancasterOnline, a family-owned newspaper serving subscribers in Lancaster County and south-central Pennsylvania.
The Q&A below has been edited lightly for clarity:
Tom Murse is the managing editor of LNP | LancasterOnline, a family-owned newspaper serving subscribers in Lancaster County and south-central Pennsylvania.
PA Post: How has the pandemic changed your news coverage?
Murse: A lot of coverage areas went away with the lack of live cultural and entertainment events. We’ve had to shift coverage to an enterprise focus in those beats. Instead of covering softball playoffs, we’ll talk to a senior athlete that has had her full season evaporated right before she heads off to college.
Elsewhere in the newsroom, our food reporter has pivoted to doing instructional videos for our readers about how to make pizza dough or how to build a meal for your family out of what you have in your kitchen cabinets. On the news side, we’ve for the most part collapsed a lot of beats into exclusively looking at the pandemic’s impact on our health and economy in Lancaster County. Essentially, everybody on the news side of our operation is collaborating on stories related to those two areas.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic presented any significant struggles in your news coverage?
The struggle we do have revolves around reporting on numbers as they relate to COVID-19. It is so difficult to get the right number of people who have died from this pandemic in Lancaster County. In the moment, we have a few different numbers – we have one number from the Pennsylvania Health Department, a different number from the CDC and a third number from our county coroner.
The big challenge right now is explaining to our readers what is actually happening in our county and municipalities based on the data we’re given. The data we’re given is either incomplete or inconsistent and that’s an issue – it’s been hard to wrap our heads around what the true impact is in our region.
Have you/your employees been “out and about” for news coverage purposes?
The reporters are definitely out and about. For a while, we had a reporter who was walking through the aisles at different supermarkets just to take an inventory on what was available and was not available. Our photographers and reporters and videographers are out talking to people and finding stories.
Have you noticed LNP journalists exhibiting extra stress or added anxiety after covering stories in-person?
I would say that they’re handling it about as well as you possibly could. Yes, they are stressed. Yes, there is concern. There’s concern, obviously, about getting sick as well as concern about getting others sick. We have a supply masks and gloves and we’re using them, but it’s still stressful. The most basic fear right now is am I going to get sick, or get someone else sick from doing my job?
What has the response from your community been to your news coverage?
We’ve seen our digital metrics climb and our print circulation has held steady. I have seen a much higher level of engagement in the sense that people are not only being less critical of our coverage, but they’re also tipping us off to a greater degree than I’ve seen in a long time. They’re emailing and calling me and our reporters with details [on happenings in the region] and information about businesses that are not abiding by state guidelines.
There is such an appetite for authoritative, accurate information and people are starved for it. They are finding it in their local newspapers and local news organizations, and now I really feel that they are helping to do the reporting in a much bigger way than they used to.
Do you feel as though this will change the climate and opinion of news organizations?
I’m an optimist and the optimist in me says that this is a moment that will help solidify trust in your local news organizations. I think the impacts of our reporting during this pandemic will pay off in the months or years after we emerge from this.
How are you engaging with your community during these times?
We’re asking them questions and conducting surveys and polls on our digital platforms, though having reporters out in the field – exercising caution — is very important right now. Nothing beats having a reporter take a drive around town and talk to folks about how they’re enduring [the pandemic]. It’s especially important that my team is still immersed within the community as to better understand our audience and who we are writing for. We’re constantly asking ourselves as journalists what our readers are going through at the moment and how we can best serve and write to them.
For example, we’ve been talking to homeschooling experts or parents who were homeschooling before all of this started so that they can offer advice for parents who are now unexpectedly charged with helping their kids learn for the next couple of months.
How do you feel the community have responded to COVID-19 itself?
It’s been a mixed bag, for the most part. The overwhelming majority of folks are abiding by the guidance from public health officials, and in my experiences when I’ve been out, people are paying attention to and abiding by the rules.
What do you do to manage the stress personally and for your team?
I think one-on-one conversations and group conversations are very important during this time. I make a simple phone call to my reporters and editors asking them how they are doing as often as possible. I’ve encouraged all of my supervising editors to also reach out to their teams and ask how they’re doing or if they need to talk.
A group of reporters has a Friday afternoon virtual happy hour to decompress and just talk – I’ve sat in on a couple of those and just seeing other people’s faces via Zoom or Microsoft Teams is a really good thing.