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College Journalists Across Kansas And Missouri Are The Pandemic’s 'Frontline Reporters'

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Henry Gamber
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The University News
UMKC student Park Zebley steps into The University News' studio on Aug. 31 for the first time since UMKC closed this spring.

Between breaking news on campus COVID-19 clusters and calling out university administrators, these budding reporters are doing some old-school journalism.

Last spring when most college students were making plans on where to ride out the pandemic, journalists studying at the University of Missouri-Kansas City were just getting started.

Things were happening fast: Buildings were closing, stay-at-home orders were constantly being updated and events across Kansas City were being cancelled. And yet the UMKC students working at The University News were on deadline.

“We were in a mad scramble to change everything, realizing that we wouldn't be printing next time because there would be nobody on campus and trying to figure out how to transition over to a coronavirus-focused newspaper,” said Sam Bellefy, editor-in-chief of The University News.

While many businesses have struggled to keep their doors open since the pandemic began, college newspapers in Kansas and Missouri have never been more essential.

Between breaking news on campus outbreaks, pushing for more transparency from administrators, informing local communities, and keeping up with their own digital classes, student journalists have had their work cut out for them.

“Student journalists have become the frontline reporters on this because they are the ones experiencing it in real time,” said Steven Chappell, a journalism professor at Northwest Missouri State University and the treasurer of the national College Media Association.

Breaking news and openly questioning school officials' decisions, student newspapers are getting lots of attention. And it's about time, said Eli Hoff, managing editor at The Maneater, the student newspaper at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

“I think people sometimes underestimate student reporters and they think they're a bunch of college kids trying to report," Hoff said. "So they get caught by surprise when we actually know what we're doing."

Breaking News And Breaking Readership Records

Reacting to the firehose of information, Bellefy and the other editors at The University News tried to post as many articles about the affects of the pandemic to help students because he knew they were struggling to keep up.

“Our audience grew then when we started doing coronavirus stories, because we went beyond the UMKC students and it started involving people from the Kansas City area who were also trying to get information,” Bellefy said.

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Jodi Fortino
Sam Bellefy and some members the editorial board meet at the University News house every Sunday to plan the newspaper with the rest of the team over Zoom.

The stories published that spring were some of the most popular in the history of the paper, Bellefy said. But when UMKC announced it was reopening in the fall, the paper once again had to focus its coverage back on the students coming back to campus and a print version of the paper.

With cases rising every day, Bellefy said reporters pored through UMKC’s press releases and website updates to get those numbers directly to students.

“It's one of those things where if you blinked, you missed it, there may have been an announcement, but it would be hard to keep track of,” said Bellefy. “They might have trouble finding or even knowing the information was there, if it weren't for the newspaper.”

Student journalists have an advantage when it comes to reporting on the pandemic since many university campuses have become hotspots for the virus, Chappell said. That's led them to break stories faster and dedicate more resources to their pandemic coverage compared to traditional local media, Chappell said.

At Northwest Missouri State, where Chappell works, the student newspaper has provided daily updates on case numbers since their local newspaper failed to, he said.

“Most of the professional journalists I know are still working remotely from home. None of them have gone back into their newsrooms. But every college that's reopened, the students are back in their newsrooms,” said Chapell.

“Their lives are completely different than what they used to be, but we still have news to write.”

Newspapers' New Role: Advocating For Students

Another role that the young journalists have taken on is advocating on the behalf of students. A front page opinion piece would usually be a journalistic taboo, Chappell said, but students are growing brave when it comes to speaking out against school administrators.

This was exactly the case for college journalists at the University of Kansas. The school wasn’t being transparent with their case numbers and reopening plans, said Nicole Asbury, editor-in-chief at The University Daily Kansan.

“We try to be very careful about whenever we editorialize, but with this we had done so much reporting and we kept running into a brick wall with it,” Asbury said.

With students’ well-being on the line, she decided it was the paper’s responsibility to speak up. Asbury and her team decided to release a critical editorial on KU’s plan to reopen and accused them of prioritizing their profits over students’ health.

The risk of releasing the editorial paid off and made national news with a story highlighting the paper’s reporting in The Washington Post.

And while The University Daily Kansan has been breaking readership records every month, Asbury says she doesn’t want to be complacent in their success. She says that their new focus is getting information to students, even if they can’t pick up a paper on campus.

“There's so much value because we're also so distant right now and that people can literally text us or just DM us and say, ‘Hey, I don't understand what's going on with this KU plan. Can you get the answer for us?’ And we'll say, yes, we can,” said Asbury.

Covering Both Coronavirus and Black Lives Matter

The Kansan isn’t the only paper that has found itself in a position of advocacy this semester.

Hoff and his team at The Maneater also released an editorial this semester critical of the University of Missouri-Columbia’s reopening plans.

“We're the voice of students, so we have a responsibility to be the line of reporters who are doing the most dirty work on this. It would be throwing away what we are as a student newspaper if we didn't put in a lot of work on this both in the reporting and advocacy side,” said Hoff.

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Jodi Fortino
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KCUR 89.3
The Maneater is conducting its weekly meetings entirely over Zoom every Sunday evening.

This advocacy has extended beyond just pandemic coverage this semester, Hoff said. The Maneater has also upped its coverage of racial issues following the protests and death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

It's especially important to cover these issues, Hoff said, since MU has made headlines in recent years for allegations of racism within its administration. It’s only fair, he said, to hold his paper to the same standard as the school they report on.

“It's pretty easy with the pandemic going on to distract from the racial justice and say your top priority has to be the pandemic. And while that may be true, we can't let the movement stop just because there's a pandemic going on,” said Hoff.

Asbury said the protests have made her consider diversifying her team and the paper's coverage.

“Leaving folks that are underrepresented out of conversations and not connecting with them, you're doing a big disservice to your community,” said Asbury. “We should be covering those communities better.”

Hoff says the biggest question he’s getting from students right now is whether schools will stay open for the rest of the school year.

All three student journalists say that may be the question they don’t have the answer to yet, but when they get it, they will be the first to report it.