In March of 2020, Lehigh University announced that they would be going remote for the remainder of the semester in response to COVID-19. The student publication, which has reported since 1894 continued to publish remotely without missing a beat.
Jake Epstein felt the freshness and renewal of a ski day in The Rocky Mountains as he lifted his ski mask and felt the crisp air. He was enjoying the final days of a well-deserved spring break alongside friends after a hectic semester as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. As he looked down at the photo he captured of the mountain view, the notification flashed across his iPhone’s screen.
“Lehigh University will be transitioning to remote learning for at least two weeks in response to COVID-19. Campus safety is and always will be a priority of our institution. Updates to come.”
“At that moment, I didn’t care about classes or jobs or anything else,” Epstein says. “I knew that I had to get right to work to make sure that the newspaper staff was ready to face this challenge. My reaction set the tone. I had to be the face of calmness and motivation.”
The Brown and White is Lehigh University’s student newspaper. They meet twice a week in Coppee Hall to produce an eight-page paper. The staff has not missed an edition since the first publication in 1894.
Jisu Choi sat in her living room in Long Island, New York City, binge watching a new show to pass the time. Her trip to visit her friend in Spain had been canceled by the virus. She was excited to get back to some sense of normalcy with her job as multimedia editor for The Brown and White when the notification also flashed across her screen.
“Hey guys, Jake here. Looks like Lehigh will likely be remote for the rest of the semester. This is something our paper has never faced in our 125-year history. We have an opportunity to be a valuable voice to readers across the country. Meeting tonight at 7 p.m. to discuss how our workflow will work from here on out. And remember: All the Lehigh News First.”
“At that moment, I had no idea how my position would work from my childhood bedroom in New York,” Choi says. “I knew that the work we would be producing would hold more value than ever. Our staff truly looked to Jake for guidance as we navigated our next steps.”
Just three months prior, Epstein was selected by the staff to be editor-in-chief: A leader defined by his relaxed, yet galvanizing nature, he was an obvious pick.
He sat by his computer in Boston, which he thankfully brought home for spring break. How would he gather a staff of over 150 students, some underclassmen who had just started their role on staff? He knew he had to mesh his strengths, sending out words of encouragement without alluding to any sense of emergency.
“In simple terms, each message I sent and each interaction I had, said ‘We’ve got this, guys,” Epstein says.
The Brown and White’s advisor, Matt Veto, has seen over 30 staffs in the newsroom. While scrambling to work with editors to create the best plan possible, Veto had no doubt that this was the staff that could do this.
They met to discuss potential reactions. Would they shorten their publication? Publish less? Online only?
“We definitely discussed potential responses that would have skimmed the work our publication has done in the past, but our editors did not entertain those ideas for long,” Veto says. “As I ran through the options, one of our editors looked up and said, ‘Guys, do we really want to be the first group of editors to stop our 126 years of publishing?”
And with that, it was back to business as usual. If anything, back to an amped up business as usual. This staff was determined to get it done.
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The Brown and White’s headlines overflowed as readership and subscriptions rose. With so much uncertainty in the world, one thing was for sure: In times of crisis, journalism thrives.
“As a student publication, I truly think that this experience shows how important their jobs are as journalists,” Veto explains. “The public relies on us to seek the truth. In our field, a time like this is when we keep going, not when we stop.”
Epstein spent three years on staff prior to being named editor-in-chief. Nights in the newsroom of Coppee Hall. Printers buzzed as the editorial staff laid out the pages on Sunday and Wednesday nights. Lined with past publications and student awards, Coppee Hall is a place for editors to seek inspiration from each other. Without that common ground, the staff had to get creative in maintaining that sense of inspiration.
“Our success was a result of the buy-in that we ended up getting, top down,” Epstein says. “People wanted to be a part of this historic few weeks, and people wanted to help the paper thrive. The staff was strong with communication, which was a critical part of our success. Without communication, we were in the dark while remote. Staying in touch and informed, knowing where every story was at any given moment, all that was absolutely crucial for our success.”
As an aspiring media journalist, Choi was both inspired and aware throughout this unique and unprecedented time. While The Brown and White had more stories to produce than ever, the effects of COVID-19 on local journalism raise questions as to how we can support journalists in their jobs.
According to the LA Times, COVID-19 has hastened the fall of local journalism. Local newspapers, such as Sacramento News & Review, have come to tough decisions to cease publication due to lack of funding. Funding sources that newspapers depend on, such as restaurants, museums and venues are unable to provide economically. Before COVID-19, 1,800 newspapers across the U.S. had closed, leaving more people to rely on national news and less local coverage.
“Because The Brown and White appeals to a more local readership, it was eye-opening to see other local publications struggle during this time,” Choi explains. “We are lucky enough to have loyal sponsors, but it is very important that everyone supports their local news also. We rely on it more than ever before, but seem to support it less and less each year.”
Upon graduation, Epstein hopes to pursue international reporting. With COVID-19’s impact on air travel, his plans are uncertain. Regardless, his time spent as editor-in-chief during the pandemic motivates him to continue to seek out challenging roles.
“I do feel more inspired as a journalist, and more inclined to go into the industry than ever before. Seeing themes of the pandemic like disinformation, government censorship, life-or-death information being reported, it makes me want to be a part of the profession,” Epstein says. “During the pandemic, the news wasn’t just something people watched in passing, because they now carried information that was critical to people’s health and well-being. The news kept people informed and safe, holding governments accountable when what the public needed most was transparency.
In reporting during this crisis, The Brown and White’s newsroom of 150 student journalists redefined what it means to be a student journalist and their role as citizens. “I never realized the impact of our work, especially the potential that we have to cover nationwide stories,” Choi says. “I’m not sure of where I will be in ten years, but I hope that I still carry the motivation and dedication to our community that The Brown and White committed to so well.”
Upon Fall 2020, the staff hopes to dust off Coppee Hall, get back in their regular seats and get back to work. Moving forward, they will carry this same success and motivation to tell stories that matter with them for years to come. This is the group that did it,” Veto says. “What I feel most is that I’m amazed, but not surprised at how well and quickly they were able to adjust. Jake’s ability to galvanize the group was amazing. This is a big challenge that they can talk about in the future. Any amount of adversity can’t knock you off your feet and stop your process.” •