COVID-19 Coverage: They Won’t Remember Late. They Will Remember Bad.

As you plan your institution’s COVID-19 coverage, here are some of the things we’re telling schools to think about for their upcoming issues.

1. You might miss your deadline. That’s okay.

This is painful for me to say, because I am an anxious deadline meet-er. But let’s just be clear about the situation we’re in: unprecedented. Unprecedented. UN.PRE.CE.DEN.TED.

That’s just the reality.

And yes: missing deadlines is disappointing. It can mess up the rest of your schedule. But I really, really believe this:

Your readers won’t remember late. They will remember bad.

There is no reader — beyond a few internal ones — carefully tracking your quarterly, bi- or tri-annual magazine publication schedule.

It’s okay to rip up your editorial roadmap and do more for your next issue. It’s okay to deliver two weeks late or four weeks late if it allows you to do a better job rethinking your magazine’s story lineup.

For example, years ago, I was part of an editorial team that delivered our “Fall” magazine on December 15.

(TECHNICALLY, we told ourselves, STILL FALL.)

It was ridiculously late! But it was a great magazine. Exactly zero readers complained about that delivery date, and I worked for a college in which every alum seemed to have an opinion about everything (and wanted to express it complainingly).

If you know that you could do better work if you just had a couple more weeks, do it. Make the case to your higher-ups. Make the case to yourself. Do the best possible work you can.

2. It’s better to over-report.

Over the years, I’ve learned to be systematic in my reporting. If I know I likely need eight interviews for a story, I’ll come up with my list of eight sources and two or three backups. I’ll start with the eight, then move to the backups only when my efforts to get the first eight are fully exhausted.

Let’s be honest: It’s political!

For alumni magazines, it’s tricky territory to ask for an interview and later rescind the offer because the source missed a deadline. I’ll do just about anything to make sure that everyone I interview gets a quote or at least a mention.

For COVID-19 reporting?

Different rules apply.

I’ve been contacting far more people than I can use for these stories. Who knows if the doctors or therapists or scientists I contact are too busy or exhausted to get back in touch? It’s certainly fine for them to respond on their own timelines or not at all.

I also know that I can’t guarantee that everyone’s going to have a good story!

I try to be as honest as I can with sources: I let them know that we’re still figuring out our plan for coverage. I tell them that I intend to use conversations we have, but if we can’t fit it all in, I’ll definitely compile the information and send it to the school’s archives or library, or consider it for a web story.

This is important material, even if it doesn’t ultimately make the print magazine.

I can’t exactly map out this story. No one can! So I try to do a lot of reporting and sift through the material to find the stories worth telling.

3. Nobody’s going to like everything.

In my first COVID-19 newsletter, I mentioned how proud I was of the work Carleton’s alumni magazine did in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

After basking in the glow of that good work, I decided to see how readers responded to what I saw as a thoughtful and human story.

They haaaaaaaated it.

The letters to the editor page confirmed it: lots were upset about the perceived political slant, about our lack of foresight, about our very existence. Many loved it, but the ones who didn’t? Well, they didn’t hold back.

There’s a lesson in there that I hope you’ll try to internalize before you experience it: no matter what you do, people are going to be angry. Almost all of us are stressed, scared, and uncertain about what’s ahead.

And some people will take that out on your publication.

That can be an upsetting experience, especially if you’ve mostly flown under the radar. If you’re used to getting a small handful of “Keep up the great work!” emails, people who are truly angry about what you’ve done — even if it’s genuinely good work — can knock you sideways.

Capstone is doing some consulting for a school that has already received an angry letter about COVID-19, and the issue covering the coronavirus hasn’t even come out yet!

Do your best work. Be okay with the occasional mad reader.

4. It’s time to build a plan — even if you never use it.

As the toll of COVID-19 grows higher, it’s likely that someone from your community will succumb to the virus.

It’s time to create your plan now to determine how you’ll handle it.

For example, after September 11, Carleton did extended obituaries on the two alumni that we learned had died in the attacks. We included quotes from fellow alumni and a handful of family members. You can see that approach here.

At the time, we debated exactly how to handle the situation before we made a decision. We had real concerns no matter what we chose! Was it disrespectful to others who had passed away to give extended coverage to alumni who had died in the attacks? Were we setting a precedent that we didn’t actually want to set?

In the end, we decided the extra coverage was merited. We were prepared if we got unpleasant feedback, although I don’t recall getting any.

COVID-19 is different, of course.

Depending on your school, you may have far more than a small handful of cases in your school’s community, and that may dictate what kind of coverage you can do.

Have a plan. Be willing to adapt as circumstances change.

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