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Opinion >  Column

Rob Curley: Spokesman-Review staff pivots, shifts to keep delivering the news

None of us have done this before. There was no playbook to follow. None of the newspaper’s historical emergency publishing plans explained what to do if there was a worldwide pandemic that would cause us to abandon our newsroom desks for months on end.

In some ways, not knowing exactly how we should do it almost certainly made it better. When you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, you simply focus on what you know. And the one thing The Spokesman-Review’s journalists have always known how to do is tell stories using words, photos and graphics.

It also weighed on everyone in our newsroom that this was the news story of the century. It’s likely, even hopeful, that none of us ever have to tell a story of this scale again. This is exactly why some choose to serve their communities through journalism – for the moment when keeping your neighbors informed might be a life-or-death situation.

They rose to the occasion in ways none of us could have imagined or predicted.

Our newspaper’s reporters, photographers, designers and editors told more stories than at any other time in The Spokesman-Review’s history.

The reason was simple: This is what they do. At the heart of this newspaper is a group of great local journalists who give a damn. They’ve told the stories of Eastern Washington and North Idaho with care and passion and skill. Now, it’s time to tell a few of their stories:

When Arielle Dreher joined The Spokesman-Review as one of Washington’s first Report For America grant reporters in June 2019, she knew it would be a challenge. She was about to become one of the only reporters in the nation to focus on rural health care, one of the most under-covered topics in the world.

But no one could imagine that less than a year later, the biggest story in the past century would literally become her beat. Without even looking up, she immediately jumped in and began telling stories that have become must-reads for most people across this region. She’s a model in consistency. More important, she’s a pro at taking complicated medical language and making it easy for readers to grasp.

It wasn’t that long ago The Spokesman-Review no longer had a business desk. This newspaper’s business coverage primarily came from wire services. Editor Paul Smith, along with reporters Amy Edelen and Tom Clouse, has helped rebuild that section almost from scratch, making it one of the most important and impactful in our newspaper.

Now think of how many of the major stories related to the coronavirus have been about massive layoffs, iconic businesses shutting down overnight, confusion over federal assistance, the region’s thriving restaurant scene immediately losing all of its momentum and how Eastern Washington’s agriculture-based economy would be impacted with each daily development. Their coverage has been some of the most-read of the past few months.

Chad Sokol is a bit of a generalist when it comes to our newsroom. On one day, he might tell the story of far-right politicians across Eastern Washington and North Idaho fighting against statewide responses aimed at lessening the possible devastation and loss of life to COVID -19, and the next day he’s writing authoritatively about how local hospitals rationed face masks for front-line medical workers amid a global shortage.

Jonathan Brunt and John Stucke have always been important figures in The Spokesman-Review’s newsroom. When you’re the government editor and metro editor, respectively, a whole lot of this newspaper’s daily coverage flows through them. They work with reporters often from concept to completion on most stories you read on either our front page or in the Northwest section. It’s not an easy job even under the best circumstances, but when you take away all face-to-face communication for a group based on constant dialogue, things get even more complicated very quickly.

Yet, you’d never know it if you watched how John and Jonathan seemingly seamlessly moved to a world now built around phone calls with constantly dropping cell service, awkward Zoom video conferences, more email than any human should have to deal with and some piece of software called Slack, which is really just a stripped down social network, only without any of the fun stuff.

You wouldn’t believe how much of your daily newspaper is the direct responsibility of these two. And they figured out how to do it in a completely different way at the almost immediate snap of fingers covered in blue-latex, medical-grade gloves.

One of the most complicated stories of the past few months is what would happen when local schools no longer could teach students in their buildings. Jim Allen has told these stories with depth and detail. Parents immediately had to become educators. Classroom teachers had to pivot to online programs, even when many students didn’t have computers or internet access at home. How would low-income students who turned to schools not just for education but for food be served? Then there were all the graduates who certainly won’t get the graduation pomp and circumstance of their predecessors. Jim told these stories in ways we all not only could easily understand, but appreciate.

Jim Camden is the dean of statehouse reporters in Washington, and it’s his deep ties across Olympia that have helped readers in ways you can only get if you not only know where to go, but who to call.

When COVID-19 shut down sports, including an NCAA Tournament with a route specifically through Spokane, many newspapers began to lay off their sports writers. Our sports writers and editors continued to write about all of our favorite teams, but also pivoted to also cover lots of news stories across the region and helping with other sections of our paper.

Madison McCord and Rachel Baker don’t typically work with each other much in our newsroom. Madison is the assistant sports editor, and primary sports designer, while Rachel just recently became the person in charge of the newsroom’s biggest community events. Only with little sports and no events, the two combined to create what has become one of The Spokesman-Review’s most-popular new pages, the daily Water Cooler.

These pages are filled with tips on how to fill your day with activities, extra puzzles and a look at what’s happening across social media.

Once the coronavirus shut down all public events, it seemed like our popular book club and community forum series, Northwest Passages, would probably go dark. Hardly. Longtime Spokesman-Review photographer Jesse Tinsley is at the heart of why it hasn’t. Northwest Passages quickly moved to a live streaming forum, complete with audience questions. Only now the topics would be even more varied – from university educators to Gov. Jay Inslee and from some of the biggest college coaches in Washington to local mayors across this region. If you’ve participated in or watched any of these forums, you haven’t seen Jesse. But he’s there. He’s running all the behind-the-scenes parts and technical aspects of a series, keeping the virtual version of Northwest Passages as popular as the real one.

The photo staff at The Spokesman-Review has long been amongst the nation’s best in the newspaper industry. Now think about how you would photograph a community that has been told to stay indoors and not go near each other. Then think back to just how good the photos have been in this newspaper over the past couple of months.

One of the key missions of a newspaper’s features department is to help the community understand and appreciate all the events and restaurants and art across the region. When those events disappeared and many of the restaurants closed, the features department didn’t miss a beat. The types of stories changed but at the core, they focused on all the arts and entertainment that still make this area unique.

The Further Review section first appeared a few years ago as a way for our newspaper to focus on full-page visual stories. Charles Apple has perfected that exact sort of storytelling at some of the biggest newspapers in the nation, including USA Today, the Orange County Register and Houston Chronicle. About a year ago, he joined The Spokesman-Review and began producing a few Further Review pages one or two times a week, while also helping to design many of the feature pages in our newspaper.

As COVID-19 stories began to dominate our pages, we wondered what would happen if we asked Charles to do a Further Review page at least five times a week to help us offer a better mix of stories in our newspaper. He jumped at it. What’s happened is that the Further Review pages have quickly become some of the most-popular pages in The Spokesman-Review. And not just with our readers. Newspapers across the nation have started publishing our Further Review pages over the past few weeks, including major-market newspapers like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Kristi Burns helps run our Northwest Passages book club. Once it was clear all of these popular events were going to be canceled, she kept her focus on books – just a different kind of literature. Over the past few months, Kristi has helped The Spokesman-Review quickly build one of the largest video catalogs of people reading children’s books on the internet.

What makes these videos even more interesting is who she has reading these books. Some of the most notable people from across Washington are reading these children’s books for kids stuck at home. A sitting member of Congress. A major league pitcher. University presidents. A professional boxer. A weather forecaster. A state senator. A Hollywood actor.

School districts across the nation are having their students watch The Spokesman-Review’s new “Storytime from the Tower” series. And Kristi is the one behind a whole bunch of that magic.

Emma Epperly is one of The Spokesman-Review’s breaking news and public-safety reporters. But over the past month, you’ve seen her focus on a very different type of person, whose work mostly happens behind the scenes. She has been the primary writer behind our “On The Front Lines” series. Emma has found essential workers doing jobs we’ve never thought of as being so important. And she’s told those stories in a way that makes sure we remember that not all heroes wear capes.

Nearly every day, across social networks filled with newspaper editors and page designers across the country, The Spokesman-Review’s creative front pages have become big discussion points. Chris Soprych is a big reason why. It all starts with good stories and powerful photos, but what happens when you mix in a heavy dose of magazine-design sensibilities with striking graphics and a colorful use of fonts? It seems like you get the front page of this newspaper. Readers comment on how much they love that “their newspaper” looks so different than other newspapers. Chris is a big reason for that.

Lindsey Treffry leads our copy desk, the small group of people that works nightly to put all of the pages of our newspaper together. If you’d seen them work at night in our newsroom, they talk to each other all night – asking questions of each other, asking each other to read a story or look at a page.

Now imagine doing all of that on deadline when none of you is in the same room. That’s what Lindsey has helped build over the past few months, a department that was never designed to not be seated together now works together from different houses and apartments across Spokane, using mostly chat software and email to communicate.

I easily could have written something about every person in our newsroom. They’ve all stepped up in ways that inspire me each and every day. So many people have done so many great things. But at least now you know a little more about how our newsroom has worked over the past few months to give you such a great local newspaper for one of the most challenging and important stories in a century.

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