Telling stories in a pandemic

The past four months have been: exhausting, exhilarating, challenging, frustrating, frightening, disorienting, illuminating and rewarding. They’ve also been frantic, difficult in many ways, actually easier in others. There have been days fuelled by adrenaline, others bogged by drudgery.

I guess that’s what it’s like to cover the biggest story of our lifetime, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Initially, it seemed so remote as our newsroom localized stories of the respiratory virus sweeping through faraway cruise ships by chasing down family members of some of those trapped in seagoing quarantines.

Then, suddenly, it was upon us and we were being advised to prepare to begin working from home.

Those initial days were a blur of feeding constant updates to our website of postponements, then outright cancellations and closures. Like waves, they kept coming. We were telling the story of the dismantling of virtually aspect of our lives that we’ve come to take for granted. Every five minutes the news just seemed to get worse.

Along the way, we lost colleagues — our longtime editor and most senior reporter — as the pandemic also became an economic catastrophe. None of us were in the newsroom to say goodbye.

When we were first dispatched to our ad hoc home offices, most of us thought it would be for no more than a month, maybe six weeks. We cobbled together new systems for copy flow, dug out earbuds from desk drawers to be able to conduct all of our interviews by phone as well as hear each other during virtual editorial meetings. I tried to limit my own excursions out into the community shoot photos to an afternoon or morning a week.
Freebie stock photos became our visual tool of necessity, as much as that pained me as a photojournalist who’s felt the sting of our profession’s devaluation over the last decade.

0409-Blossoms 1ww
MARIO BARTEL/THE TRI-CITY NEWS The blossoms are in full bloom at Coquitlam’s Town Centre park, bringing the hopefullness of spring amidst the anxiety of the public health and economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Once everything had been cancelled or closed, we shifted our coverage to tell the stories of coping: businesses finding new ways to serve their customers; educators and students navigating the unfamiliar world of remote learning; gyms going virtual; breweries doing deliveries; artists and musicians stretching their creative inclinations in unexpected directions; people figuring out ways to stay connected in a world of self-isolation.

The innovation, determination and resilience we encountered in the community every day was invigorating, a balm that countered the daily dose of bad news about infection rates, deaths and a grim prognosis for the future.

Now, as the smothering blanket of the public health emergency begins to slowly, carefully lift, we are telling the stories of what the new normal is going to look like for the next while: what it’s like to get a haircut; go out for a meal; participate in civic affairs; get a library book; visit a park. Every aspect of the communities we cover, the routines of daily life must now be viewed through the prism of the pandemic, which makes pretty much everything newsworthy.

It’s simultaneously daunting and energizing.

It’s introducing us to people and corners of our communities that we might not otherwise have ever known about. It’s challenging us to tell stories in new ways. It’s opening our minds to possibilities. It might even be wiping some of the jaundice from eyes that have seen so much over the years they’d become numb.

Over the next little while, I’ll be reprising some of my favourite stories of the past several months, a moment in our time, and my career, unlike any other.

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