COVID-19: Amid Virtual School Year, Student Newspaper Moves Online

The Columbian staff meeting over Zoom. (Courtesy The Columbian)

Every school year, Columbia High School teachers Cindy Malhotra and Joshua Enyeart get to create new memories in room D109, the meeting place for student newspaper, The Columbian, where Malhotra and Enyeart serve as advisers

During a regular school year, students would meet everyday in D109 as part of the Production Journalism class Malhotra teaches, where they would spend time working on the paper. Malhotra oversees and teaches the production of the paper and Enyeart oversees editorial content that goes in the paper as an extracurricular advisor.  

Malhotra has been teaching at CHS for 15 years and over that time, D109 has always been her room. It’s also always been the meeting room for The Columbian, where stacks of newspapers going back to the 1960s sit in crates, and present and future staff members look to add their names to a long list of past editors, reporters, and designers. 

But this year, Malhotra, Enyeart, and the staff of The Columbian have not been able to step foot in D109, instead hosting newspaper staff meetings over Zoom through “virtual D109.”

“There was that pause, and then we had to give some time for that initial shock,” Malhotra said about the implications of COVID and the transition online. “Then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh wait, we need to create a newspaper. We need to do this, and how is this going to work?’ My classroom, D109, means everything to me. All of a sudden I had to create this virtual D109.”

Malhotra usually meets with staff during the school day but whenever the newspaper staff meets after school, Enyeart and Malhotra are both available. 

This year, Malhotra has had to adjust to CHS’ new schedule, meeting with the staff every other day over Zoom for 45 minutes. During the virtual sessions, student editors focused mainly on story generation during class while Malhotra works in breakout rooms with the students responsible for design. It’s in these meetings where they’ve mainly discussed making the switch from a print-only publication to an online-only one, the first move to digital in the publication’s 60-year history. 

“The idea to have a blog version was always there,” Matt McBride, a senior and the design editor of The Columbian, said. “It’s been there since I started as a designer, but it was never put into action.” 

The process of switching to an online-only publication began last March when COVID forced the school to shut down.

“So suddenly March rolls around and everyone’s at home and in lockdown, we’re trying to do virtual classes,” McBride said. “We realized that we needed to get that set up quickly, like almost right away. And I mean, we did, but it wasn’t exactly what we had in mind.”

The processes and workflows that Malhotra, Enyeart, and the staff had established for the print edition were thrown out and a new plan had to be created. 

McBride described that process as “chaotic,” but easier to handle because everyone was in the same room and able to communicate about what needed to be done for a certain article. Overcoming technical issues and getting used to platform limits have taken up most of the staff’s time. 

“There’s simple restrictions with the design you can do,” McBride said. “Not everyone has the same software or internet connection. Some people are able to edit quicker than others.” 

The production and design workflow has required more patience than in the past, McBride said.

“We don’t have a lot of options,” he said. “You either have to focus on the one thing you can do, or you wait forever to be able to actually get there.”

For Enyeart, the switch was difficult because he had to trust himself and the students more.  

“I don’t think it was difficult because we went from print to digital,” Enyeart said. “But it was difficult for a lot of other reasons.” 

Between COVID and this year’s elections, these young journalists had to navigate their own feelings and experiences as well as practicing journalistic principles. Enyeart’s responsibilities include overseeing content, and he is responsible for everything that appears in the final product. 

“When we print, it gets to a good amount of students in the building and from there it trickles to homes and businesses,” he said. “But when it’s online, there’s no way I could know who’s seeing it and it’s much more viewable. If things went wrong, it was going to come back on me. But I also know that it was the right move and a smart move.”

Even with the new editorial workflow, Enyeart feels the system is much more effective.

“I genuinely believe the editing process was easier for the kids in the digital world,” Enyeart said. “It was more difficult for me to oversee the editing and to check where things were going wrong in the digital sphere. But from my perspective, it seemed like that was a natural transition for them and it was not difficult at all.”

When in print, The Columbian was published every other month. In between issues, editors would create story lists and conduct interviews for those stories but didn’t have an outlet to publish shorter stories. 

When asked if The Columbian would put out more stories or more issues now that they’re online, Enyeart said, “We’ll probably end up splitting the difference there.”

Due to the changes they’ve had to make this year, Enyeart believes they’ll stay with an online-only publication for good and scrap the physical newspaper. 

“At this point, I don’t think we’re going to go back to print,” Enyeart said. “It’s just not the most efficient model anymore. If we did go back to print, and Malhotra and I have talked about it, the only way that we could justify it is if we did a once or twice a semester special edition that’s more in-depth with heavy art and graphic pieces.” 

The cover story of The Columbian’s first issue this year, which ran on Oct. 31, 2020. (Courtesy The Columbian)

McBride would like to keep the physical paper as the main component of The Columbian and would rather use the website as a space to distribute the digital version of the paper so it can be accessed either way. 

For students, publication day is kind of an event, McBride said. When a new issue is published, the editorial and design staff go to Enyeart’s classroom early in the morning to organize issues for distribution prior to the school day beginning. Enyeart brings in doughnuts and coffee for the students while they organize. Once they’re done, they go to various locations throughout the school to sell the paper for 50 cents and will keep selling copies throughout the day in classes. 

Those experiences are one of the main reasons why McBride wants to keep the physical copy going, even though the pivot online has been successful 

“I think it worked because we got a lot more people to read the online version,” McBride said. “But there’s something about being able to stand outside and hand out the paper.” 

Physical copies of the paper also gave designers like McBride opportunities to stretch their skills and to produce visuals they could be proud of.

“There was just so much more we can do with the design of the entire paper as a whole,” he said. “For me, it’s not an option of whether we do one or the other. I’d like to see a middle ground where we make the paper and then take the PDF of that and put it online.”

Some of the students have been on staff before and experienced working with each other. Others haven’t ever spoken to each other in person before and met for the first time over Zoom. 

Just from seeing the students work together in class, Malhotra has been inspired by their individual resilience. 

“The students getting to know each other, all the Zoom sessions and creating a strong team, that’s been difficult,” Malhotra said. “But the one thing that they have actually developed is a respect for each other.” 

As an advisor, Malhotra wants students to not only put out a regular newspaper but also learn from the experience. Over the years, she’s learned just how much students value connections they make while producing the paper.

“I incorporated more student reflections this year and I’ll continue to do so,” she said. “I was really happy to see they were very honest about their desire to get to know each other better and the respect they’re developing for each other.” 

Malhotra, Enyeart, McBride, and the rest of the staff will keep working diligently on their second issue, set to come out in December.

“Everyone is working towards making it better in every aspect,” McBride said. “So it’s not like we’re separated because we’re very cohesive as a unit.”

For the teachers, watching the students become a digitally-connected team has been most surprising, especially as students continue to develop connections and produce work they are proud of. 

“I think it’s amazing and shows the resilience of the human spirit in some way,” Malhotra said. “That we all need and want to communicate with each other, and by George, we’re going to do it. Even if it’s virtually.” 

For now, students and staff look forward to returning to D109 and connecting in person to produce The Columbian, regardless if the paper’s future is print, online, or a combination of both.

Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.

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