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The Journalism Students Helping The Times Cover California

2020-06-03 09:00:24

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It’s axiomatic: Reporters run to the story. They don’t sit it out.

So the prospect of teaching journalism during a pandemic — via videoconferencing, safe and stationary — struck David Barstow not only as uninspired but also antithetical.

For more than 20 years, Mr. Barstow was an investigative reporter at The New York Times, where he won a Pulitzer Prize four times. Last year, he joined the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism to lead its Investigative Reporting Program.

And in mid-March, as word came that the Bay Area was being ordered to shelter in place, Mr. Barstow realized the fortuitous position he was in to help The Times cover the mushrooming crisis.

“I had this flashback to 9/11,” he said. “I remember that feeling you have when a huge story is breaking out and basically everything has changed, and we need to change to meet that moment.”

Mr. Barstow proposed a collaboration to leaders at The Times. His pitch: Could the journalism school help expand The Times’s coverage of how California and other western states were responding to the coronavirus?

Times editors embraced the idea.

“We have this huge story playing out all across California with an unlimited number of angles, and here’s a group of students with eyes and ears across the state who can help,” said Marc Lacey, editor of the National desk.

Around 80 students — roughly two-thirds of the graduate school — and 21 instructors joined the project. Participation was voluntary and counted as course credit. The school continued holding its regular classes.

“I was just thankful to be able to do something, not just sit behind my MacBook and look at the world falling apart,” said Ali DeFazio, who covered Fresno County as a student in the program and who graduated last month.

A makeshift newsroom formed. Mr. Barstow supervised the project alongside Geeta Anand, the director of the school’s Investigative Reporting Program and a former Times foreign correspondent. Mr. Barstow and Ms. Anand served as intermediaries between the students and Times editors.

The school assigned at least one student to each of California’s 58 counties. Many had to cultivate new sources, and most of the reporting was done remotely. Instructors acted as editors and team leaders to groups of three or four students, tackling logistics and safety concerns. Some students were tasked with specific lines of reporting, including how the virus was affecting homeless or incarcerated populations.

Articles were then pitched to editors at The Times, who accepted stories that fit the national report.

The students were largely uncertain about what types of stories they’d uncover. They were guided by tenacity and a directive to find newsworthy features or “slice of life” stories on a granular level.

“It’s been incredible to do public service work during this unparalleled time,” Ms. DeFazio said.

The Times’s National desk produces more journalism in California than in any other state, Mr. Lacey said. He added that the students’ contributions enhanced an already-vibrant report led by Times correspondents.

So far, work from 29 students has been featured in The Times, taking the form of bylines, photo credits and reporting contributions to data and multimedia journalism. Four students have done work that was published on the front page.

One of those front-page stories, by Brian Wollitz and Ms. DeFazio, was an early-April portrait of a school district in rural San Joaquin Valley with the last of the state’s 10,521 public schools still open. Another article, by Katey Rusch and Casey Smith, focused on a team of district attorneys in Santa Clara County who were monitoring and responding to thousands of complaints about shelter-in-place violations.

Berkeley created a summer internship program to continue its partnership with The Times. More than a dozen ongoing stories remain in the pipeline. If published, students will be paid as freelancers since they are no longer reporting in exchange for course credit.

“We’re really impressed with the quality of the journalism we’re getting,” Mr. Lacey said. “Readers are benefiting.”

It was an opportunity that brought purpose and consolation to the graduating students as they entered a media world in the grips of angst. Media outlets, like so many companies nationwide, are laying off or furloughing workers. Yet, the commitment to journalism persists.

“I’ve always known this is what I want to do, and I’m not going to let low-paying, scarce jobs scare me away,” said Ms. Rusch.

Telling stories and holding the authorities to account is especially critical in disheartening times like these.

“This gave so much encouragement to students at what otherwise could have been a very low point,” Mr. Barstow said. “It really has solidified their relationship and their commitment to pursuing journalism.”

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