UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, New York Times join forces for COVID-19 coverage

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The New York Times announced its partnership with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, or J-School, Monday to collaborate on coverage of COVID-19’s, or the novel coronavirus’s, impact on all 58 California counties.

The idea came about shortly after the Bay Area enacted a shelter-in-place order, according to David Barstow, Investigative Reporting Program, or IRP, head at the J-School. Barstow and Geeta Anand, IRP director, helped put the collaboration in motion. It took about a week to gather a team of more than 80 students and 20 staff members to create the COVID-19 reporting team.

“It was becoming so obvious that this pandemic was an enormous story, maybe the largest story we would ever live to see,” Barstow said. “It had the feeling of one of those moments — sort of like a 9/11 moment — where you realize everything has changed. A number of us felt that very viscerally, and we felt like this was a moment when we should actually try to respond to the crisis with the thing we know and love which is journalism.”

For many of the reporters involved, this partnership is about giving a voice to communities that may be overlooked.

With reporters aiming to produce California-specific content that The New York Times usually would not be able to focus on, Barstow said they hope to uncover stories on communities that government responses are leaving behind or are not working well in.

“The most exciting part of the collaboration is the ability to share stories that are region specific to parts of California not often highlighted on a national scale,” said campus graduate student and Riverside County correspondent Nick Roberts in an email. “There are 58 counties here, and they’re all being affected by the COVID crisis differently.”

Reporting remotely has been a challenge, according to campus graduate student Annette Choi, who is covering Mendocino County. Choi added that while many reporters have been using FaceTime, joining Facebook groups or utilizing Google Maps to make connections with sources and visualize the communities they are reporting on, it can be frustrating.

The partnership is not only an opportunity for students’ professional growth but is also being accepted as some students’ theses, according to Choi. Many students relied on travel plans during spring break for their theses, however, COVID-19 made it difficult to travel and complete them, according to Choi. Instead, Choi and Roberts said their instructors have allowed their work for The New York Times to be a substitution for their original theses.

J-School dean Edward Wasserman said the school has encouraged instructors to be flexible and allow students to switch to COVID-19-related reporting if it meets course standards.

While the partnership is set to end in mid-May, Choi said reporting could be extended into the summer.

“It’s a great opportunity for students to take this kind of awful moment,” Barstow said. “If they look back at this moment they’ll realize it was one of the peak moments of their journalism education because they were actually part of.”

Contact Julie Madsen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Julie_Madsen_.