On this special Daily Nebraskan podcast, COVID-19 section co-editors Zach Wending and David Berman sit down with 2019-2020 editor-in-chief Karissa Schmidt, current editor-in-chief Grace Gorenflo and general manager Allen Vaughan to discuss how the publication adapted to the pandemic in the last year. Wendling and Berman also dive into their experiences covering COVID-19 on campus.
Grace Gorenflo: On March 12, I remember being very shocked.
Karissa Schmidt: I was sitting in my Meteorology — it was either 100 or 101 — class, around a bunch of freshman and sophomores.
Allen Vaughan: I was here in the office and thinking, is it gonna happen today? Is it gonna happen tomorrow? Is it going to happen next week? Spring break’s coming up. So, yeah, so I was here in the office and it was just waiting, I think to your point, just waiting for it to happen.
David Berman: I went to the College of Business to cram for, I believe it was an Econ midterm, and yeah, that’s when the notification came up on my phone that Chancellor Green had made this announcement.
Zach Wendling: That afternoon, I get an email from UNL’s public affairs director that this announcement is coming out soon, and it’s me who has to write this article as I have five of my editors on there at the same time, four or five of them, and we’re trying to get this announcement out as soon as possible.
Berman: It’s a day that all of us won’t soon forget. March 12, 2020 — the day the University of Nebraska-Lincoln canceled in-person classes and shifted online for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wendling: We’ve all been impacted in some form or another by this pandemic. In the year since the coronavirus took its grip on our world, we’ve all lost so much.
Berman: My name is David Berman.
Wendling: And I’m Zach Wendling. This is Diving in with the DN. Dave and I are co-editors of the COVID section of The Daily Nebraskan. Since this section formed at the DN in September of last year, we have been committed to keeping campus informed about the pandemic and how the university has responded to it. With the one-year anniversary of UNL’s shift to online classes upon us, The Daily Nebraskan has been working on its “March 12 Project,” a reflection on the how COVID-19 has impacted the past year.
Berman: The majority of that project is up on our website now. As part of that project, we wanted to pull back the curtain on how COVID-19 has impacted this publication. Zach and I sat down with Daily Nebraskan leaders to hear their perspectives on what keeping the publication running has been like.
Schmidt: I am Karissa Schmidt. I was a class of 2020 UNL graduate. I joined The Daily Nebraskan staff pretty much my first week of my freshman year on the photo staff, actually. So my first three years of the DN were on the photo-video staff. I believe it's called the multimedia staff now. So I was a photo staffer my freshman year, assistant photo editor my sophomore year, junior year I was senior photo editor. And then for some crazy reason, I decided to become editor-in-chief my senior year. That was definitely an experience I'm sure we'll talk plenty about here in a little bit. Currently I'm living in Grand Island, Nebraska. I am working for the Chamber of Commerce here in Grand Island as a communications and events coordinator.
Gorenflo: Hello, my name is Grace Gorenflo, and I am the current editor-in-chief of The Daily Nebraskan.
Vaughan: I'm Allen Vaughan. I'm the general manager for The Daily Nebraskan.
Berman: We started off by asking them when they first heard about the coronavirus and the lead up to March 12.
Schmidt: I mean, end of February, beginning of March, you kind of heard some buzz around campus. You kind of heard some people talking about it, but really, I just thought it was kind of rumors or just nothing that was really going to affect UNL. It wasn't something I expected. And we had kind of talked about writing stories about it, but it wasn't something that we thought was ever going to be a big deal, so we didn't really do anything. So when a bunch of us were at the office late for the ASUN election night, a bunch of us were there and our senior news editor Libby was video chatting with us because she had been potentially exposed to COVID, so we weren't in the office. And that was kind of the first little building block of everything else that had happened since then. So she was Zoom calling in and we were covering the election and all of a sudden news broke on Twitter about Fred Hoiberg who was visibly sick during the game. And everyone thought that it was because of COVID. And so I'm over here, like internally panicking, like, “Oh my goodness. Okay. Like what's going on?” Both teams were quarantined in the stadium at that time. And there were plenty of messages between myself and Ally and our sports writers that were there at the game. And so for me, my first instinct is okay, we needed to get them home safely. Like I don't want them to get COVID. I don't want any of this to happen. So we were trying to get them home safely while we're also trying to figure out, does Hoiberg have COVID, will any of the Nebraska players get COVID? Are they going to be bringing this back to Nebraska? What's going to go on? So that was when it was really starting to feel real. And I really was like, kind of internally panicking and kind of outwardly just not knowing what to do. And so Ally and I were kind of talking back and forth and kind of debating on how we would tackle this. And I think if I remember right, the sports writers ended up writing a really great story about what happened, and that was something that was kind of like our first real story about COVID and how it was really going to impact the school.
Vaughan: All of my Facebook memories right now are of me in San Diego, in San Francisco, in Denver. So, we're recording this, what is today, the ninth? So about a year and a week ago was the annual CMBAM conference, which is the College Media Business conference. We flew to San Francisco and we talked about, should we wear masks? And what should we do? But nobody did. And nobody at the conference did. And then we came back and then it was spring break time with my family. And so I flew to Denver to see a friend for a birthday as a day trip, came back and then we flew to San Diego for a week. And it was still very strange because most people weren't wearing masks. And there wasn't anything really — the news seemed alarming, but you would hear it, but then you would see it and it would be different.
Right? And then I remember being in the LAX airport on our connecting flight, and that was the first time I saw a face shield. And then by the time our plane landed in Lincoln. Everyone thought Hoiberg had COVID. That was the day of the basketball tournament. And then the NBA season was shut down. Then I came to work, which, I probably shouldn't have come to work and we should have quarantined, but we didn't know those things either, right? And so then it was like the next day everything got shut down and we barely got back. Who knows, maybe we would've been stuck in San Diego if they weren't letting people fly or what was going on. So obviously not taking it very seriously. Concerned, but really just following what people were telling us. But now, my God, here we all are sitting in a room, very spread out with our masks on and these cute little things on the microphones.
Gorenflo: I cannot, for the life of me, remember the first time I heard about COVID or even the first time I was worried about it. I keep remembering Valentine's Day and going out to dinner and not having a care in the world. And so I don't think I was concerned about it at that point, even though we were less than a month out from school being canceled, which is kind of wild. I do remember being in denial that school was going to get canceled. I did not think that the university was going to make that decision as quickly as it did. I know some people were very sure and some people were already packing up and ready to go home.
Wendling: Next, we discussed the actual day of March 12 and where each of them were when the announcement came through.
Schmidt: I was sitting in my Meteorology — it was either 100 or 101 — class, around a bunch of freshman and sophomores. It was just the middle of the lecture hall. The teacher was lecturing and all of a sudden there started to be some murmurs. Like everyone was just kind of like whispering to each other. And I had my computer open, we were taking notes and stuff and my Slack notification popped up and someone had posted in breaking news about COVID and I looked at it and I was like, “Oh my goodness. Okay.” And that was the announcement that school was being canceled, like we weren't going to be in person anymore. Finally the professor just said, “Hey, what's going on? Why is everyone talking while I'm just while I'm teaching?” And someone had told her about the news and basically we kind of just, we got to leave early and we just, I went straight to the DN and of course, I didn't know what we were going to do. And I went and I talked to Allen. Ally came afterwards and we sat in my office for a good two, three hours just trying to hash out a plan. Like what we were going to do? What was going to happen? But the fact that I was in meteorology around a bunch of underclassmen was interesting. They definitely didn't have the same sorrow as I did, I guess there's the word for it because I mean, it was my senior year, so there was the rest of the year that it wasn't going to be on campus
Gorenflo: I remember being very shocked. And at that time, I was an assistant news editor. So I was definitely in the trenches of the coverage, helping Zach as his editor when he was doing that breaking news about school being canceled. And I remember it being a very stressful time in the office on the afternoon of March 12, but that's when it really hit me, was when school got canceled. I don't think I was really that concerned before that day.
Vaughan: I was here in the office. Thinking, is it gonna happen today? Is it gonna happen tomorrow? Is it going to happen next week? Spring break’s coming up. So, yeah, so I was here in the office and it was just waiting, I think to your point, you're just waiting for it to happen.
Gorenflo: I think It's really funny because on a personal level, like I said, I wasn't that concerned and I barely have any memories, but Allen traveling is like one of the few memories I have because I had just been hired as editor in chief. And so I was in Allen's office a lot and we were talking a lot, so I knew where he was going. And I remember being comfortable in my own home being comfortable in Lincoln, but thinking, “Oh my God, he's going to California. And then coming back, how could he do that?” And I don't know why I was scared of California, but I wasn't scared to go to the grocery store or go to a lecture hall, but I just remembered that's where my fear was at that point.
Vaughan: And our level of safety was, well, we'll take some wipes and wipe down stuff, you know what I'm saying? Like, it's totally different than it is right now. And probably none of it was the smartest thing, but nobody was saying don't do it. So we just did it. And luckily we survived it.
Berman: Once the announcement that in-person classes were canceled was made, Schmidt immediately started crafting a plan with her staff on how to transition the DN’s operations to a virtual setting.
Schmidt: So after all the news broke Ally and I met in my office and all sorts of things were going through our head. First of all, that our staffers; safety was the most important, but also what were we going to do? Like we, weren't going to stop publishing, we’re a student newspaper, this is, if not the most important time for us to continue publishing. So my biggest goal was to have some sort of management system. We had used spreadsheets before, but usually, it was, every section had their own spreadsheets, some sort of method of organization, whether or not it was a very organized method. Everyone had something different. So I wanted something centralized that we could keep track of. And so we knew what was going on. Because obviously our method before was to just meet every night at 5 and we would talk about what stories are being published, but doing that over Zoom call every night would just be so excessive and it just wouldn't have worked out. So we created a spreadsheet and we really just worked on, how do we want to keep everything organized? How are we going to generate story ideas, who are going to be doing these story ideas? What are our sports writers going to be doing? They don't have sports to write about, so can they jump on stories? It was really just kind of a collective of everyone working on different stories that they're not used to. So the culture reporters were having to jump in and help the news reporters, sports reporters. We had photographers jump in and help out and do some kind of culture stories as well because we really needed all the help we could get with that. So it was kind of our big goal to just have a central communication system, a central organization for all of our stories that we write.
Wendling: Another obstacle Schmidt faced was having to train Gorenflo while they were in completely separate states, as Gorenflo was hired on Feb. 24, just a few weeks before everything moved online.
Schmidt: Normally she would come in and we would be chatting all the time. She would be able to go and job shadow people. So she could go sit in the sections and be able to really know what's going on, be able to meet the other section editors and kind of get a feel for what they do. And she didn't really have that opportunity. So it was kind of up to me to be able to explain that to her. So we had plenty of Zoom calls. I don't even know how many Zoom calls we had, but we had a ton of Zoom calls. I made sure I put together a lot of documents for her that she would need and kind of just explaining everything. Luckily we had already been talking even before she got hired, so a lot of the like nitty gritty details she already knew about. So we definitely looked out on that from like all of our conversations beforehand.
Gorenflo: I was trained for this mighty position virtually, and now that doesn't seem like a big deal, right? Because everything's virtual, but my predecessor and I were in different states, Allen and I were in different states. So that was very difficult. I remember when I really took over the operation in May-ish, I was frustrated because I said to myself out of over a hundred years of The Daily Nebraskan, I'm the person who has to deal with this. But then a short time after that I stopped being frustrated and was a little, I wasn't excited, but I had kind of this rush of adrenaline because I was like, you know, there's opportunity to try new things. There's opportunity for change. And it was scary, but it was kind of a unique challenge.
Berman: As a senior, Schmidt wasn’t only ending her time at the DN in a virtual setting, but as a student at UNL as well.
Schmidt: Yeah, it was really sad. Like to be honest, I kinda didn't realize it at the time. Like I was just so overwhelmed with everything that was going on because I was completing my classes, The Daily Nebraskan, and plus my Hudl internship. So I was super busy, and it was kind of rough. Luckily, I was living with three other roommates at the time, so we kind of had each other to lean on. One of them was the photo editor Elsie. So I kind of had her to kind of lean on and when it came down to ending my time with the DN and it was just really sad because I mean, as a freshman, you don't really think about it, but you're looking forward to your senior year because you see all the seniors leaving and their last banquet. You always look forward to that, and that's something that we didn't get to do this year. We had a virtual banquet, but it's just not the same thing. And that was definitely really tough, and same with graduation. I mean, no one wants to sit through a four hour ceremony, but it's still a huge deal to walk across the stage and to have all your family there. So that was really tough. I still celebrated, I went over to her friend's house and we had an outdoor celebration. We brought the big TV outside and watched the graduation on there. So that was like, kind of my substitute, but it was definitely, very uneventful, kind of didn't feel like I had closure. You didn't really have that moment of like, this is my last day at the DN or this is my last moment at UNL. So I'd say that was really hard.
Wendling: Vaughan was just finishing up his first year as the DN’s general manager when the pandemic hit. While still learning the job, he then had to adjust for the impacts the pandemic would have on the publication’s finances.
Vaughan: To be fair, I had been working in this job for seven or eight months. So I still didn't really have a great grasp on what I supposed to do in the normal times, let alone rip it up and start over. I do remember thinking that, “Oh my God, campus has shut down.” And the main way that we make money is through advertising and events. And we couldn't do any of that unless it was on our website. And it's such a small fraction of the way that we make money, that instantly I got sick to my stomach because I was like, how are we going to do this? How are we going to do, like, I don't really know what we're going to do. And so that, of course, we're really trying to focus on what's going on. How are we going to sell digital advertising? The backbone of our business is our relationship with local advertisers and local customers. And they were really hurting too. So we had to be very conscious of that and really tried to be advocates for them — “Listen, if you need to pause your advertising, we understand we'll be for it. We'll be there for you whenever this is over or whenever you're ready.” You know? And it’s funny, I had to go back and close the books on the year, and I'm pretty sure that there were a couple of months where we made like less than a thousand dollars in revenue because we didn't have any. And that was, then we all say, and maybe this we’ll get into a little bit of moving forward with the editorial side too, but everybody can say what we need to be better digitally, right. And that was a really easy thing to say before COVID hit in journalism. We need to be, we know we need to do this. We just need to do it. And we were getting there. We still print the magazine who knows what the future of the magazine is going to look like, but the present of the magazine was there. Isn't one, you know, at that point, right. So what are we going to do? And it really was like, okay, we have to now put our money where our mouth is and we have to be digitally excellent. We don't have a choice now. Right? Not that it was a choice, but now we don't have a choice. So how are we going to reach students where they are, which is all over the country. How are we going to connect advertisers to them? And we just need to have better digital products on the editorial side and on the marketing and revenue side. And so really that it was out of that sometime in April, when I'm like, we're getting hammered. The revenue scoreboard does not look good. What are we going to do? Right. For a sports analogy. And so really it was like, okay, we've got to do this. We've got, how are we going to do it? And then that's when I talked to Grace like, what are we going to do? And I think that the things that you've seen this semester, I think the COVID team is born out of that. I think it's born out of that thinking that I think you illustrated that really well and was very articulate about it. And really it's just, what are we going to do from a business standpoint to make money. To be very transparent, we've been very fortunate that we talked to our publications board and we applied and received the payroll protection program funding twice. So to be honest with you, we would have been in really serious trouble financially if it wasn't for those two times we've been able to do that. So, you know, that's why it's in place is to keep businesses going when they couldn't make money, if you look at that. And so luckily we qualified for that, but if it wasn't for that, we would be in a lot trouble.
Berman: Over the summer, the DN published remotely. Once the fall semester began, the new senior staff moved to an in-person but physically distanced outputting structure. Soon after, Gorenflo decided resources needed to be dedicated specifically to covering COVID-19 on campus.
Gorenflo: As an assistant news editor who was transitioning to editor-in-chief, I tried to take a little initiative and really think seriously about COVID coverage, and as soon as we started having all these breaking news pieces — school being canceled, we're not going to have class for a week and then everything's going to be online and this is how it's going to work. You know, there was so much coverage happening so fast. And so we tried to streamline everything. We created a Twitter thread where I would personally go in and add each article to the Twitter thread and I pinned it to the top of The Daily Nebraskan profile. And I said, this is where you can find COVID information and things like that and tried to streamline in that way. It was not ever perfect because things were slipping through the cracks. Obviously everyone was just out of their minds because we were all trying to figure out how to be a journalist in a pandemic while we were dealing with the personal issues of being human in a pandemic and being students in a pandemic. And so nothing was perfect, but I'm glad we didn't wait. I feel like our COVID coverage was pretty strong right out of the gate, so I'm proud of that. And we've tried to remain that way ever since. And like you said, we had this COVID team that we created in September once school started, and we realized that we were drowning in story ideas, and we had no idea how to get it done. We didn't have enough manpower. We needed to hire more staffers, but those new hires were going to be freshmen. And they're trying to learn how to be college students in a pandemic. And so I had a phone call with former editor-in-chief, Chris Heady. Many people before me have called Chris Heady for similar advice. And I said, “what the hell do I do?” And he was like, “Well, it sounds like you need someone who's dedicated to this and just focus solely on this.” And I thought, yes, that's the answer to my prayers. And so I stole Zach and Dave away from their assignments as section editors and said, “Hey, you're great. I love your work. Can you please dedicate your lives to COVID coverage?” And that's what they've been doing ever since. So it worked out, but it wasn't, it's not something that we figured out overnight by any means, and we're still learning every day.
Berman: So after hearing from Karissa, Grace and Allen, Zach and I also wanted to give our own perspectives on this past year, and on covering the pandemic over the last six months. So Zach, I’ll start by asking you this: When do you first remember hearing about the virus that would eventually be known as COVID-19?
Wendling: Yeah, Dave, I think the first time, like many students here at UNL, I didn't know what the coronavirus was until it was really starting to impact the United States. So that was late January where we actually had our first case in the United States. And then March 6 was the first day for Nebraska. And I think before then, you know, we knew that there was a virus somewhere. We knew that it was on the other side of the world and I think being naive, a lot of us thought that it wasn't going to be here, but that was really the first time was when March 6 came and Gov. Pete Ricketts announced that the coronavirus was here in the state,breaking news articles, writing those and trying to learn what the virus was in just a little bit of time to write a breaking news piece, it really shows how one virus, one instance in Nebraska really started to impact just my life in general as a news reporter. But how about you, when did you start to learn about the virus?
Berman: Yeah, I don't think I remember a specific day or a specific time that I first started to hear about it. I think, you know, it was probably, like everybody else around that kind of mid to late February kind of alley where I really started to realize that this was a very serious thing. I think I thought it would be more like something like a Ebola or like the Zika outbreak where, you know, it would be a big international story, but it wouldn't really affect my day-to-day life. I think very rapidly it started to become clear that this was, this was not anything like those outbreaks that we had seen kind of in the last few years. And that kind of brings us to March 12, the day that the university announced that in-person classes were to be canceled for the spring 2020 semester and that, yeah, the rest of the semester would be happening online. So yeah, Zach, what was that day like for you?
Wendling: Yeah, so March 12, to me, you know, the night before we hadn't left the office that day even until 2 a.m., me and two other news reporters who then became my co-editors in the news section over the summer, Becca Holladay and Jolie Peal. You know, we were covering the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska, ASUN, student elections. And we were waiting for the results. We were waiting for the winners of that election to be announced and who would be leading our student government. And it was 2 a.m. We had all finally finished our articles and we're going home. It took a lot longer than a lot of us thought. I woke up for my classes. I ended up not going to my first class. So I was working on breaking news and I wasn't feeling well, not because of any sickness like COVID or the flu. I just wasn't feeling well having been up all night until 2 a.m. working on stuff. So I wrote a breaking news article about the CDC and UNL was requiring students get back by Sunday because of the virus. Remember March 12 was a Thursday. So three days for students abroad to get home. And that was really where I guess it started to become real. And then that afternoon, I get an email from UNL’s public affairs director that this announcement is coming out soon. And it's me who has to write this article as I have five of my editors on there at the same time to me, four or five of them. And we are trying to get this announcement out as soon as possible. And for me, it just hit, you know, writing that announcement and having to translate the words that Chancellor Green is saying. And even for me, you know, I was a freshman at the time and thinking about how these words that Green was saying, this was my freshman year, my freshman year was impacted — the latter half. I can't even imagine the freshmen now. And you know, that night, just the day continued. I went to another class at the end of the day. And I think I went to another one later that day, unless it got canceled. I don't even remember, I think I repress a lot of memories from then. But then I went to a story at Phi Delta Theta fraternity house, and me and a photographer were working on a multimedia project about their light staircase. And you know, it was business as usual for awhile. It just, it didn't feel like the apocalyptic world was coming upon us. It was real for the announcements and the breaking news. And then it kinda just stopped being real after. I mean, there was the rush to get home. I live in Lincoln, so I didn't have to go anywhere, but I mean, there was panic. Like it felt like there was panic everywhere. I don't know how you felt that day, a very different experience than what I had.
Berman: The days leading up to that, really the main inkling I had, that there was a very good chance that we were going to go online was through my data journalism class taught by Matt Waite. Every class itt was, I don't know if this is the last time I'm going to see you guys in person. And he was kind of speculating about what he thought the university was going to do. I believe that day we did have class, and it was myself and a bunch of other DN staff members who were in that class. That session was not, we did not learn anything that class period, we were just kind of asking him what he thought and what he thought the world was going to be like in the coming months and just kind of, we all just kind of panicked together even before this announcement. Then after that, I went to the college of business to cram for, I believe it was an econ midterm. And yeah, that's when a notification came up on my phone that chancellor green had put out this announcement. I immediately called my mom and we just talked about how crazy it was and made plans for what I was going to do, whether I was going to go home. I went home I think a few days after that, on like that Sunday. And then after that, I just went into a room with a bunch of people and took my econ final. Like there wasn't really a sense of, “oh, I should, you know, get a mask immediately. I think I just like went to the bathroom and like washed my hands really thoroughly. I just took an exam kind of with this really fresh on my mind and thankfully did pretty well on it. Then, yeah, I came to the DN office because I just was like, I remember thinking I'm like, you know, I'm not going to be back here for a really long time. And so I just wanted to see people and hang out with some people and culture and yeah, it was just so odd because yeah, I think like Allen and Grace were saying, you know, we just kind of were sanitizing the surfaces and make sure we were wiping everything down, but yeah, there was no really sense of, we shouldn't all be breathing the same air right now. So yeah, it was just a really, really weird day.
Wendling: I think that, you know, you mentioned not even thinking of a mask. I think of all the interactions that I had just a couple of weeks before I kind of locked myself into my own little world, masks weren't, we didn't know the importance of a mask. I mean now, just having just a piece of cloth on your face. It's, it's just so interesting to see how far we've come in a year. And I think of the two sections that you and I are a part of what the news section versus the culture section and news, for me, you know, I wrote dozens of breaking news articles. I was one of the first to do breaking news because I had that ambition as a freshman. I wanted to get as much information and I had that curiosity but news didn't stop. And I think that's one of the things where The Daily Nebraskan really shined in the beginning is, there were a lot of announcements in the beginning. There are probably too many to count on a couple of hands right now, and we try to cover as much as we could in a short amount of time. And for news, it was, it was daunting. It was a lot, it was overwhelming, especially when you can't talk ideas out with your coworkers. I mean, we used to meet at least once a week to go through story ideas and we would assign what we're doing for the week. And all of a sudden that was on Zoom or Google Meet is what we did for the section. And it was a lot, I mean, news, like I said, doesn't stop. You have to keep writing. You have to keep finding the new stories and you have to learn about the deaths and the infections and the scary truths that are about COVID-19 and you had to learn really quickly what was out there. And I think that's, it benefited me, especially in the jobs that you and I are in now, but it was a lot. And as a freshmen, it still sticks with me that I think I still have a lot of cynicism of what the past year has meant, but I mean, I can't even think of culture and, you know, you covered the Lied Center for awhile and all of a sudden the Lied Center wasn't there. I mean, what was that like?
Berman: I think the first announcement from the Lied center that anything was canceled was on March 12, I believe, or I think it might've even just been a few days earlier, they just canceled like one concert that was coming up because that specific artist just wasn't touring anymore because they had kind of foreseen that they weren't going to be able to. And then, yeah, starting on March 12, it was just this cascade of every day, like Jerry Seinfeld's, postponing and Kelly O'Hara's postponing and very quickly just became we're shutting down completely. And so, yeah, as you said, I was on the beat for that as a culture reporter, and you know, something I loved about that position was going to see shows live and interviewing performers, and that really, it didn't stop because, the Lied Center started very quickly this series called Lied Live Online, where they had live streams of mostly local artists, to like broadcast on Facebook Live. I covered a lot of those. I still got to interview these artists and kind of cover these virtual shows. And that was really interesting. I also got to sit down with executive director, Bill Stephan, and just talk about how the Lied had been impacted by COVID-19. So yeah, definitely a very interesting way to cover COVID and its impact on campus.
Wendling: And I think over the summer, you know, things were still happening. You and I both got into larger positions, getting into assistant culture and assistant news editors. And even then we had to navigate how to take over a section when we weren't able to meet with our predecessors face-to-face. I mean, Grace, who we talked with earlier, she was my assistant news editor and I had to learn directly from her. And, you know, I had the benefit and the new section had the benefit, kind of same with culture, you guys had a continued senior editor. We got to learn directly from our predecessors in that way, but it wasn't the same to be in person. And in different states, oftentimes just different cities as it was for the new section. It was hard. Like there was a lot of just, you can't discuss ideas when you are miles away from one another it's easy when you're on campus, you can discuss ideas. You can do exactly what we're doing here now and just have a regular conversation. And something for me that kind of took hold right away is I covered the Board of Regents last year. I still cover some of it into this year and I worked a lot with administration to try to get those answers and that transparency. And one of the things you realize is just how competing sometimes administration is with students. You know, administration tries to have the best hearts of students at mind and they still have that most of the time. But as we know, as student journalists, it's our job to work with administrators who find answers for students and The Daily Nebraskan is here for students. And I think that was something that was difficult at first. So, I mean, that was something that led to ultimately the COVID team forming. But before we get to there, Dave, how was summer trying to come into a brand new position for you?
Berman: Yeah, it's weird to think back on the summer for me, I think that's the time where I remember the least, I think that's where just really early on in kind of countrywide, worldwide quarantine, that just really all kind of blurs together for me, I think. Yeah. I mean, I was just at home.I know I was, you know, starting to learn about the culture section and meeting with my editors. I know we started a podcast called the Star City Culture Committee, which is still continuing with Mark and Jenna. But yeah, we started that virtually. And yeah, I mean, besides that, I just remember days on days of just the same routine every day and waking up and hanging out with my dog and doing some stories for the DN, some stories for my internship and just kind of rinse-repeat every day and yeah, I think, yeah, that's the time for me, that is really the most. I just don't feel like I remember a ton of it.
Wendling: And I mean, I think as we got back to the school year, and I believe Grace mentioned it earlier, was we just realized how much of COVID-19 we were missing, you know, the summer, this was one of the first times we ever had regular publishing over the summer. You think about students going to their different corners of the world or internationally even sometimes. And suddenly we were all scattered for months before the summer hit. And so when we got back to campus, there were a lot of questions unanswered. And I mean, even if you think of just small little things, those were still things that we as students, we felt that with the tuition and fees that we were paying for, that we had a right to answers and we just did not have the resources of having new staffers come in and having to train them first and foremost, to ensure that we are getting accurate coverage and the best quality that we can for the DN that we form this COVID team. And as Grace talked about, why we form this team. You know, I was skeptical at first of what the COVID team was. I was, I was excited. I was excited to be part of that journalism and to bring my talents to the force and to try to find as many answers as I could. And it was challenging. I mean, there have been a lot of times where we don't get the answers that we feel that we deserve. And that's, I mean, it's frustrating when you don't get that in a class, it's frustrating when you don't get that for a job too. And sometimes that can't be helped, but you know, it's been exciting. I've gotten to go inside testing facilities and see how they run saliva tests up close. I've gotten to talk with Chancellor Green and many other administrators as one of our stories in this project documents. And, you know, it's been exciting to just sit down and I mean, it's overwhelming, but you look at everything and you start to piece together what a year of COVID really means. And it's challenging, but it's also led to a lot of growth overall.
Berman: Yeah, definitely. Thinking back to the fall, when the COVID team formed, I really was kind of blindsided by it. I remember our managing editor, Haley Elder,kind of just FaceTimed me like out of the blue one morning, and just was like, “Hey, Grace and I are thinking about putting together a COVID specific team, and what do you think about that?” And I just kind of didn't really know what to say. So I just said, “Yeah, sure. Why not? Like, yeah, I'd love to help out wherever I can.” Yeah, I think just starting off right away, I was really overwhelmed. I think first of all Zach and I barely knew each other. I think I only knew you through, like, the copy section and editing some stories there and I had seen your byline, but besides that we barely knew each other. And so I think I was, you know, concerned about working with someone I didn't know. And I'm sure you shared similar concerns. And also for me, coming from the culture section, which is all I'd never known at the DN, you know, I didn't really have that very hard news side of my journalism experience. But yeah, I'm really grateful for this team. I'm really grateful for working with you, Zach, and everything that we've done and everything that we've been able to cover. I'm really grateful that we've had this opportunity to inform the campus.
Wendling: I think even with this March 12 project, you know, it was just a dream a couple of months ago. And I think leading up to it, we knew how much March 12 stuck with us. And to know that that was the day that UNL really just flipped on its head and we had to adapt to the new environment. But one of the things that we really hope for this project is that we understand how much of a year it's been. I mean, to say the least, it's been something where I think in the beginning, I was part of the group that thought that the world was ending. I mean, not literally, it wasn't as if the world was going to stop existing overnight, but it was, it was something new. I was 19 years old, I'm now 20. And I think of how just in one year so much has happened. I mean, you look at a timeline that we have put out with this project and there was a lot going on just over time and it wasn't just one month, it was every month, there was something new and cases were multiplying. It was exponential. I mean, you look at the growth of just cases in the U S and then compare that to the rest of the world. It's mind boggling that this has happened. And I think this team has just demonstrated how much we put into The Daily Nebraskan. And, you know, I think one of the things with this team that is going to continue to the future with The Daily Nebraskan too, is we're not stopping after today, March 12, whenever people are listening to this, we're still going on. People can still reach out to The Daily Nebraskan and they can apply. They can submit Curious Cornhuskers. We're still here for students. We're not going away. The COVID team is going to be here for as long as COVID is here. And, you know, whoever leads it, if you and I step into other areas, of course, but COVID is still here and we're going to keep covering it to the best of our ability.
Wendling: But with time to reflect, [Gorenflo and Vaughan] were also able to look forward toward the future of the publication.
Gorenflo: I am not the only person to have said this. I'm not claiming this thought by any means, but I don't think “normal” will ever happen again. And I don't want it to, like, I don't want to go back to normal. Referring to what we said earlier, the cultural shift in the DN to find digital excellence was so slow. It still is relatively slow compared to giant news organizations that have more resources than we do. And don't have people graduating every few years. So I think that by no means would I wish this pandemic on the world again. I hope we never have to see this again. I'm not thankful for the pandemic, but I'm thankful for how we handled it because we moved the DN forward in ways that I don't know if I would have seen these changes in my time at The Daily Nebraskan if it weren't for our handling of the pandemic and all the steps we took and I'm kind of touching on something Allen said a minute ago, I am really proud of how we handled it because I know, you know you, Zach and Dave, you've reached out to other college publications and we have evidence that a lot of people, or a lot of college publications didn't create COVID teams. They didn't dedicate themselves to the coverage the way we did. And it's not that the pandemic was any easier on us or that we, as students were being affected less, like Allen said, there's a lot going on. We have a lot to balance, but we handled it really well. And I think a lot of these products Allen mentioned, we would have launched this year anyway, but now we know how important they are. We might not have committed to them the way we did if we didn't have to be digital this year. And now I hope that we've proven to the staff and to some subset of campus that we're trying to grow every day that these products matter. And this newsletter should be in your inbox every day. And you should be getting this text to your phone every day and you should be reading our website because we are producing news as fast as we can. You know, we're trying to get answers from the university like Allen said. We have our Curious Cornhuskers initiative, which has never seen as many questions as it did in August. And I think just our whole mindset about how we operate and what's important around here has shifted astronomically and I think for the better. So I'm hoping that that doesn't die down post pandemic. I'm hoping we don't slow down or get lazy with it. With Dave as our next editor-in-chief and Allen's love for change right next to him. I don't think we're going to get lazy with it by any means, but I just hope the staff remembers how important those things were. And even when there's not breaking news every five minutes, those things, those products and that digital excellence is still so vital to The Daily Nebraskan.
Vaughan: The Daily Nebraskan, to be fair to my predecessor Dan Shatil and all of the other editors that came before Grace, the DN has been digitally forward. Dan tells me stories about how they had email before anybody else, you know what I'm saying? So like, it has always been very tech and digitally forward, but I think with this, what's going to stick, Dave to answer your question, is kind of redefining what it means to be digital and how to be digitally excellent. But also try to have mastery of that. Right. We're still searching for that because it's so new. And it's one thing to have a newsletter and to have a text service and to have an Instagram account and to have a TikTok account, or like you just think of all of the different ways. Who knows what the next thing is this time next year, whether it's Clubhouse or whether it's something that doesn't exist or if The Daily Nebraskan’s created something on the blockchain, that won't happen, but like thinking of, you know what I mean? Like you're thinking about that, then what does it take to be really good at it? Because you don't want to just do it to do it. And I think that, you know, trying to figure out how do you have excellence at a newsletter is its own hard thing. And so it's balancing that with still doing the best journalism and reaching the students. And it's really going to redefine, I think what the newsroom's mission is — before it was like, let's come write a bunch of stories to get a bunch of clips so I can go get a job. And I think now it's, how can I go to my boss and show them how I was able to be a part of the newsletter team or the Instagram team or whatever that looks like, whatever Dave decides to do with it moving forward. It's like, this is what I did to be excellent at this. People go get jobs in the media field in just those things now, right? And so I think it's really just redefining that. On the business side, we're launching a new website that's all around housing and how students can find housing and that hopefully will be a revenue center for us, but that's a new project and maybe we'll get into other types of niche things like that. But I think it's really just trying to, how do we master, how do we understand what the idea is? And then what do we throw around it to make it really good? And I think those are the things that are gonna last.
Gorenflo: As I am approaching the end of my time as editor-in-chief, which is crazy, I just want to reiterate how proud I am of what the staff did this year on a daily basis. It can feel like we're not doing enough and it feels like we're drowning and we get tired. And sometimes we miss a story or we didn't get the interview we wanted, but I'm constantly reminded by alumni and staff at the university and just random people that we are doing really well. And they're so impressed by the newsletter or the tech service or the fact that we have a COVID team, and all these things that we're trying to do and the ways that we're moving forward. And that's really nice because it was such a crazy year and I didn't get around to doing every single thing I wanted to do, but that's okay because I think what we accomplished was bigger and better. The fact that we successfully not only survived the pandemic, but I feel like I am proud of the coverage we put out, where there was a time where we felt like we couldn't even, we didn't even have the means to produce the coverage, but we did. And not only did we produce it, but it was good. We were successful. And so I'm really proud, you know, looking back a year ago and thinking, why do I have to be this editor to be experiencing this? Why me out of hundreds of people? But I wouldn't change it for the world at this point. I think it was a great experience for me. And I'm glad to say that I led such a great staff through such a terrible time.
Vaughan: Yeah, I'm just really proud of the staff. And I say this a lot. I said this before the pandemic, but it's totally true now is that all the students who work here are so resilient and they're so smart and the ones that really want it, just make it happen. And I think that's so admirable. And I've said this about Grace, that I'm going to remember her as an editor forever because she's been so selfless. So many of the things I've asked her to do, you won't see it, but she's helping lead the change in where things need to get to. So her era will be defined by COVID, but I'll look at it as this real catalyst to try to really push things forward in a way that they needed to be. And she just helped escalate it in a way to, let's talk about metrics, let's talk about products. Let's talk about how we market them. You know, like those are not things that they're teaching you in journalism school. And just for her being able to not just tell me to get lost, I think says a lot about her character. And I just think she's done a good job and I'm excited to see what happens when we're not wearing masks or not wearing them as much as we used to.
Berman: So after hearing from Grace and Allen and Karissa and interviewing them and getting their perspective on this past year, Zach, I just want you to kind of reflect on this year and what it's meant to you and what are your hopes for the future for The Daily Nebraskan and just for the world, I guess.
Wendling: I think one of the things that as student journalists, we forget kind of the first part of that. We sometimes forget that we are students. So I think in the future, one of my biggest hopes is I'm not playing catch up as much as I have been this semester of trying to just stay on top of being a student first. I think that The Daily Nebraskan hasn't consumed my life, but I put a lot of effort into covering stories, the best of my ability as I know that you have as well. And I just I'm really hopeful that in the future first and foremost, COVID is gone, that anybody who wants to get a vaccine will be able to, I think that's something that is a lot of hope to have on the horizon right now, but I'm hopeful that in my next two years, that I'm at the university, that there is a greater force for The Daily Nebraskan and that The Daily Nebraskan does become something that students look to. Because I mean, as long as I'm here, I'm going to always focus on students first and foremost, because that is who we are here for. We have student fees for a reason, students pay for our services every year and just The Daily Nebraskan has done some great things. And this team is just one example of that, but, you know, it's a lot of hope, it was stressful, but it kind of ties a bow on a really disastrous year. But you know, enough of me talking, Dave, what about you for the past year? What is your hope for the future? And, you know, you have some big shoes to fill ahead of you.
Berman: When this team was started, I think obviously our greatest hope is that we don't have to do this team anymore. Hopefully, we will get to a point where COVID-19 is not impacting our daily lives. I think there's still a long way to go before we're not at all feeling the ramifications of this pandemic. I think even, you know, once we have it medically under control and people are vaccinated, I think we're still going to be feeling the effects of this for a very long time. But yeah, I'm looking forward, I think, like Grace said, we're never going to get back to whatever the normal was before this. It's hard to even think about how our lives operated even just a year ago, but I think there is an opportunity for the whole world and I think for The Daily Nebraskan to move forward in a positive way. I think we've learned how to be very adaptable in this, in this past year as student journalists. As we've chronicled, this publication has had to adapt on the fly in the past year to new and terrifying and completely foreign situations that we just had no idea how to cover and no idea how to respond to, but I'm just immensely proud of everybody here and of this publication. I feel so lucky to be a part of this team. I'm really excited for what we can do moving forward. I think we have a lot of opportunities to, next year, get back out into the community hopefully, reach students where they are, really expand digitally and move The Daily Nebraskan forward into a hopefully brighter future.
Wendling: Yeah. I think one of the things that, you know, Chancellor Green mentioned this in one of the articles that we have in the project and many university leaders have said this, that because of the efforts that have been done in the past year, UNL is going to be in a position of strength and a position of growth. And I think that, you know, regardless of what you believe about UNL's response efforts, that is some of the same elements that are existing for the day in Nebraska, that we have put in a lot of effort to ensure that the DN is something that is going to be better each and every day. And the COVID team is one example of that and the momentum isn't going to stop. And so I echo everything you said so eloquently and so gracefully that, you know, I'm very proud of everything we've been able to accomplish. And I'm very hopeful for the future.
Berman: Well, I think that's just about it for this episode, this very special episode of Diving in with the DN. I have been your co-host David Berman and I've been joined by my other co-host.
Wendling: Yeah Zach Wendling, here and we just want to thank all of you for tuning in. Don't forget that we have our Curious Cornhuskers initiative. Get involved with our reporting efforts yourself, submit your questions and tell us what you want to know, and also do not be afraid to join The Daily Nebraskan team. We are always looking for new talent. So please just get into the community and read The Daily Nebraskan.
Berman: And as we've mentioned, the first part of our March 12 project is currently out right now. You are listening to one of the elements of it and we have so many articles and stories that we've worked very hard on for this project. And we're really excited for you to read them. And throughout the month of March, we're kind of dedicating this month, at least in our section to looking back on this year and reflecting. So we have much more coming up in the pipeline. So definitely be on the lookout for that. So, yeah, thank you very much for listening, and stay safe out there.
Wendling: Thanks, Dave.