Middlebury College journalists double down


THE SENIOR EDITORSHIP team of the Middlebury College Campus newspaper gathered for one final photo together during its coronavirus meeting before dispersing to points near and far. Photo courtesy of Benji Renton

THE NEWSROOM OF the Middlebury Campus stands empty and quiet after students evacuated the college last week, but the student journalist are now be reporting and publishing remotely. Photo courtesy of Benji Renton
Within an hour it felt like the campus descended into mass hysteria. People were crying and hugging. There were (untrue) rumors going around … The most important thing to us was that we get it right. — Bochu Ding, Middlebury Campus co-managing editor

MIDDLEBURY — In the days following the March 10 announcement that Middlebury College, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, would temporarily suspend in-person classes and send most students home, the reporters, photographers and editors of the Middlebury Campusnewspaper reluctantly dispersed to all corners of the globe.

“One of our editors is from Hawaii,” said co-managing editor Bochu Ding in a phone interview with the Independent. “Another is flying to Helsinki (Finland). Another one’s going to China.” 

Ding, himself, spoke from the San Francisco Bay area.

But under the leadership of Editor Sabine Poux, Campus journalists are not about to let physical distance stop them from doing their work.

“The presses aren’t stopping (well, physically they are, but not digitally),” they wrote in their March 12 newsletter, a couple of days before students were required to leave campus. “In a time of immense tumult, we believe that the newspaper plays a critical role in unifying the college community. We are committed to continuing our reporting by conducting interviews remotely and organizing stringers across the country.”

It was never a question of whether the newspaper would continue, Ding said.

“I don’t think that anyone at the Campus was going to stop our operations and our coverage. I think it’s an opportunity to lean in and think about how to be creative about how we approach this, how to maintain a sense of community — and what that means as we choose what we cover and how to cover it.”

In fact, publishing exclusively online may provide additional opportunities to include more voices, he said.

“One of the things we’re thinking about is having people send us little vignettes — little stories about what it’s like being in Helsinki or San Diego or Honolulu. And students who are in Vermont — what will it be like? Will it be a ghost town? So we’re thinking creatively about how we can adapt our content.”

‘A HELLISH WEEK

The newspaper put out one last paper edition on March 12 and kept publishing online right up until students left campus on March 15.

“In general it just feels like it’s been a hellish week,” said co-managing editor James Finn in a March 13 phone interview, just hours before he left campus and drove to Mississippi to stay with a friend. “First we had (the death of Middlebury senior Will Nash), which was incredibly jarring, and then this whole week after has been unprecedented.”

It’s been a lot to process, he said.

“There have been moments when I’ve been interested in what was going on around me from a journalist’s perspective, listening to what was happening, thinking about possible stories,” Finn continued. “Another part of me just felt overwhelmed. I’m worried about my parents getting sick. I’m worried about not being able to go home (to California) for a while. It’s hard to make the best decision when things aren’t clear, or when they’re changing so fast.”

Sometimes he’s just had to stop and let it all wash over him, he said.

GETTING IT RIGHT

And then there was the campus rumor mill.

News about an impending announcement began circulating after a Middlebury professor sent an email to students that seemed to include details of a forthcoming plan.

“Within an hour it felt like the campus descended into mass hysteria,” Ding said. “People were crying and hugging. There were (untrue) rumors going around that someone was infected on campus, that a professor had tested positive for coronavirus — it was just a lot of that circling around.”

Ding, wearing his journalist’s hat, went to the college administrative building to get the facts.

“The most important thing to us was that we get it right,” he said.

The administrative building was in a frenzy, he recalled.

“People were running in and out of meetings. We were trying to get ahold of administrators to get more information. We had all these questions: What would classes look like? What about the staff? What about the town? (But) I think maybe speaking to the Middlebury Campus was pretty far down on their priorities.”

Ding empathizes, he said.

“I think to some extent it was understandable.”

That night, after the college made the official announcement, Campus editors hunkered down to start laying out the paper.

“We hear you,” they wrote in their March 12 editorial. “This wasn’t how the spring semester was supposed to go. In the wake of President Patton’s email Tuesday, announcing the shift to remote learning following an early, extended spring break, to say that things are ‘uncertain’ feels like an understatement. Talk to anyone on campus: chances are they’re upset and confused. We are too.”

They concluded by suggesting that “the impending distance doesn’t make upholding a safe and sensitive community any less important. Really, it’s reason to come closer together.”

AUDIENCE

Local editor and photographer Benjy Renton has posted constant updates to Twitter.

“We have just concluded a meeting of the senior staff at the @middcampus, where we have discussed plans for virtual operations and continued coverage of the college and the community,” he wrote on March 11. “We remain committed to providing our readers with accurate information and a forum to share.”

Part of their focus will be on redefining how they think about — and talk to — their audience, Ding said.

“Our audience is the student who has to go to China. It’s the student who has to stay on campus. It’s the members of the community. It’s the faculty. It’s the staff. They’re all stakeholders, and we’re responsible for telling their stories.”

Students have gotten caught up in the frenzy, he acknowledged, worrying about the academic and social implications of their new situations.

But they’re also worried about the people they’re leaving behind.

“People are also thinking about what this means for the local community — the businesses we love, the people we see. Even though we’re so physically far away, Middlebury and Addison County will be on our minds.”

Editor’s note: The Middlebury Campus was still publishing stories late last week online here.

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.

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