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What it’s like covering the coronavirus

It’s not in a journalist’s nature to congratulate themselves for the work they do.

But, because I’m an editor and columnist, I get to do it for them.

My team here in Alpena and journalists the world over are doing amazing work covering the global spread of the coronavirus and its impact on their communities.

This is what it’s like.

Last Tuesday, Election Day, we knew would be a long night.

We were trying something new at The News. I had reporters were in each of the four counties in our coverage area, typing results into a spreadsheet as they were released by county clerks so we could provide up-to-the-minute, precinct-by-precinct results online. That hadn’t been done before in Northeast Michigan.

Some technical issues slowed things down, and minor issues at the polls also slowed the release of results.

By about 11 p.m., I had most of the paper laid out except for a spot on the front page for the story on the still-pending results of Alpena Public Schools’ bond proposal.

Then Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the first two cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in Michigan.

I had to adjust the front page to squeeze that news above the fold and leave room for the bond story. It was after 1 a.m. when the paper finally went to press and all my reporters went home.

Then things got hectic.

Since Whitmer’s first announcement last week, hundreds of press releases related to the coronavirus — local closures, executive orders signed by Whitmer, guidance from state agencies, announcements from our representatives in Lansing and Washington, and more — have come in just to the main newsroom email account.

Each of my seven reporters received dozens more emails, social media messages, and phone calls with coronavirus news.

We posted breaking news updates to our website as soon as we could. It’s challenging, trying to keep things straight in your head while making sure no announcements are missed and you check your facts. My reporters would be in the middle of typing one thing or about to make a phone call and I’d holler at them that I was sending another press release their way. I was hours late even starting layout on each day’s paper.

In addition to all the formal announcements, rumors were flying. Each had to be vetted, because we wanted to avoid reporting any bad information but also wanted to make sure we gave readers all the news we had.

Most rumors were disproved.

Last Thursday, the Michigan Press Association announced The News had won seven awards in its Better Newspaper Contest. We spent less than five minutes at a staff meeting that day giving a round of applause, then went back to work.

All the reporters worked long hours. Even after they went home, as news continued breaking, reporters texted me, asking if there was anything they could do. They stayed up late, without being asked, watching for an announcement that a case had been confirmed in our area.

All the while, we tried to keep tabs on regular news. We covered a trial, an Alpena Municipal Council meeting, a car crash, more. Still, many, many stories we normally would have covered had to be skipped.

Such things are happening in newsrooms across Michigan, across the country, across the planet.

After Whitmer’s Monday order essentially closing everything in the state, the breaking news slowed some, but it’s still coming.

Times like these are why journalists take it so personally when folks call us “the enemy of the people.”

Newsrooms are filled with the parents of small children and the children of elderly parents. We’re just as afraid as you. We need time to shop for disappearing toilet paper, same as you.

But we consider ourselves essential services, doing all we can to sift through the noise to give you facts, keeping you up to date. If Whitmer orders everyone into their homes, we will do all we can to at least post news online.

All of that takes resources. It takes people to work the phones and write the stories and sell the ads and lay out and print the paper. And all those people need paychecks to feed their families and care for their loved ones.

After Whitmer ordered bars and restaurants closed to dine-in options, Michiganders stepped up to order delivery and takeout to keep local businesses running.

I’m glad to see that, but don’t forget your local paper is a small business, too, and needs you to thrive.

Subscribers are especially important as the shutdowns and canceled events scrap ad revenue and as many papers lift paywalls to allow anyone to read coronavirus news without a subscription.

If you’re able, buy a paper. Subscribe. Take out an ad.

At the very least, if you see a journalist, thank them.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.

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