Q&A with Randy Parker, deputy Pa. editor for Gannett

How Pa. news organizations are handling the COVID-19 pandemic

Continuing our conversations with newsroom leaders about how the coronavirus is affecting their operations, today’s installment is a conversation with Randy Parker, deputy Pennsylvania editor for Gannett. Randy oversees the York Daily Record, Lebanon Daily News, Chambersburg Public-Opinion and the Hanover Evening Sun.

The Q&A below has been edited lightly for clarity:

PA Post: How is your newsroom doing?

Parker: [The coronavirus pandemic] is a challenge that we could have never dreamed of facing. As a manager, it’s been important for me to continually communicate with my staff on a group and individual basis. It’s been difficult not to collaborate and work together in person, though we do have a daily video meeting and several other group calls as needed. Our reporters have dived in with a tremendous amount of passion and focus on their beats. We restructured [our team] early on to allow us to use every single person in the newsroom to help cover the coronavirus, and they have been driving hard ever since.

How has this changed your news coverage?

Every single reporter’s beat was restructured in some capacity to help ensure they had a focus on the virus. We obviously backed off from live sports coverage and shifted those stories to Division I athletes and how this has affected them personally or how an athlete that had a promising spring season is dealing with the impact.

Have you/your employees been “out and about” for news coverage purposes?

No one has worked in the office since early March and everyone is set up to work remotely. Our reporters are working from home unless they must go somewhere for a story, and if they do need to go somewhere, they must contact their editor and have a specific conversation about safety strategies. We have provided every reporter and photographer with face masks, gloves and disinfectant wipes. And if there is a story that would require more significant personal protective equipment — such as face shields or a Tyvek suit — to let us know and Gannett would work with us to get it as quickly as possible.

What has the response from your community been to your news coverage?

I have received some of the most heartfelt expressions of appreciation and gratitude from readers that I have seen in 35 years in this business. We’ve received emails from people almost tearfully thanking us for continuing to deliver the newspaper through the pandemic. It’s been special to be able to share those notes that we get from people who are almost surprised that we are still at it. Our readers felt the particularly strong need to see local news to help balance out the national news that they are inundated with.

We’ve seen a huge increase in readers, but I don’t think that’s something you can celebrate – that’s not what it’s about. We try to use those metrics in ways to help us understand if we did all of the right things to get that story out and whether we are telling stories that resonate — there is a tremendous amount of hunger for this coverage right now.

How do you feel the community has responded to COVID-19 itself?

Our region hunkered down hard early on and has really stayed that way. We are now starting to hear some voicing the need to reopen, and people are seeing this as a rebellion to force a reopening. However, when I go out and about, I really do see people out for essential needs and I know that in the neighborhoods I’ve gone through, it seems like most people are working from home and staying at home.

How are you engaging the with community during these times?

We launched a video series called “Ask the editor,” and we’re using a piece of software called StreamYard that allows us to do a higher-level production on Facebook Live. Two or three times a week, I talk with some of the newsmakers and stakeholders in the community and we have a 30-minute conversation about the important issues of the day. We answer live questions from the audience, and it’s been a really great way to connect with people. Some of the conversations we’ve had have been very deep and in some ways, I feel a lot closer to some of these sources, even people I’ve known for years.

Do you feel as though this will change the climate and opinion of news organizations?

I believe and hope this is an opportunity for people to recognize the unique role that local news plays in their lives. The 24-hour news cycle on TV has its value, but a worldwide story like [the coronavirus] really comes down to how it is affecting communities locally. The mission that we set for our newsroom has been to help our readers make the best decisions that they can for themselves and their families. That’s the goal of our coverage.

What do you do to manage the stress personally and for your team?

One of the things that’s helped me personally is that both of my kids came home from college. When you reach the point that your children are off to college, you quickly realize that you aren’t going to be spending that much quality time with them anymore. This year, we got the gift of them coming home, and it’s been a lot of fun to spend this time with them. They are at a great age to be able to rekindle friendships.

For my team, when we first started having video meetings, I tried to stress the importance of pacing yourself, taking breaks and staying relaxed. I encouraged my team to spend time outside and take walks to help decompress at the end of the workday. Just because we are working from home, we can’t let that be a reason to work around the clock. For the first several weeks, we had a 5 p.m. staff meeting that was shaped as a 30-minute happy hour where we did not talk about work and spent the time laughing and joking around as a signal that it was time to quit for the day.

Interview conducted by Kate Landis.

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