College students around Wisconsin have scattered across the country, heading home as their campuses shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re adjusting to the new reality of online classes, they’re re-entering life at home with parents and seniors are dealing with the emotional fallout of having their college lives abruptly cut short as they enter a crashing job market.
Students who work and report for their campus newspapers are dealing with all of these changes as they continue to report on their campus communities — no matter where in the country they are now.
At schools public and private, big and small across Wisconsin, student reporters are putting their heads down and covering a global story’s impact on their small part of the world because they believe it’s important.
“Right now, even though a lot of crazy things are happening, I think everyone is recognizing that people are relying more heavily on journalists for credible information,” says Sydney Czyzon, a senior at Marquette and the executive director of the Marquette Wire. “This has reinvigorated our feelings about how important journalism is … we’re writing stories essential to Marquette and niche stories that apply to Marquette students directly.”
From reporters at a Catholic school in Milwaukee, such as Marquette, to a massive public school such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison and every type of college in between, the message is the same.
Student newspapers are the paper of record for the campuses they cover. That record can’t stop just because in-person classes have, says Abby Doeden, a junior and editor-in-chief of the Badger Herald.
“I think it’s important because students are still in school,” Doeden says. “Even though they’re not on campus it’s important to provide a general sense of the school year. It’s really important to get the information out to students with more of a UW view.”
Those same things are true for Madeline Fuerstenberg, editor-in-chief of The Spectator at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and Fran Knaggs, the editor-in-chief of the Round Table at Beloit College.
“I’m holding onto the fact that there’s still work to do,” Fuerstenberg says. “We’re out there and covering what we can.”
From her parent’s house in Austin, Texas, Knaggs echoed many other student reporters.
“So much of the news is national, being able to talk about just what students at our small liberal arts college are doing is really grounding, it’s helpful to not just think about this on a global and national scale but how it’s affecting our peers,” Knaggs says.
As the staffs of all these student papers do the important work of informing their communities, there’s still room for the lighthearted fun of a college outlet. The Badger Herald covered quarantining with your dog, the Marquette Tribune covered the Bachelorette and the Round Table covered songs to sing while washing your hands.
But hanging over all of this, especially for the seniors, is the sense that they’ve lost an essential part of their college experiences — the camaraderie and fun of writing for your college newspaper.
Peyton David, the chair of the Badger Herald’s board of directors, said she’s upset she’ll miss the annual softball game against the Daily Cardinal.
“I’m really upset, I’ve made some of my closest friends at the Herald,” David says.
But beyond the end-of-year traditions at each paper — welcoming in the next staff, sending off the graduating seniors with parties and superlatives — the student editors all said they’d miss their college newsrooms and the people who filled them with laughs, arguments and hard work.
“I know, my favorite part of working in student media is the faces of everyone I work with,” Czyzon says. “It’s hard not to be in the same space as them, to not have that shared excitement when something is breaking. It can be difficult to just be in your home space.”
For these students, their newsrooms have become hangout spots on campus, a quiet study space, a place to nap or watch TV, to write inside jokes on whiteboards. Knaggs said she still has the key to her paper’s office and she’s not sure she’ll ever send it back.
“That’s been really hard for me, it’s one of my favorite places, it was a place I always knew I could go,” Knaggs says. “We’d go in there and be there together, write inside jokes on the whiteboard, it was a good place for camaraderie.”
For the students set to graduate, the last few weeks have been a whirlwind. Looking backwards reminds them of the college send-off they never got and looking forwards reminds them of the record-breaking unemployment and hiring freezes they’re about to run into as they enter the job market for the first time.
David, who said she’s not looking for a career in journalism, finally had her first interview a couple of weeks ago and had been asked back for a second round, but then after the pandemic got worse, she got an email saying the company was freezing all hiring.
Seniors such as Knaggs, Czyzon and Fuerstenberg who planned on chasing a career in journalism, have watched as outlets around the country have shut down as advertisers are forced to close.
Czyzon had a summer internship at the Chicago Tribune lined up that she isn’t sure will happen anymore as companies around the country cancel programs. Knaggs and Fuerstenberg were sending applications to magazines and newspapers across the country.
But the current crisis hasn’t deterred them. They all said the call to journalism is an idealistic one and a pandemic only highlights the need for more reporters.
“I don’t think anyone pursues journalism thinking it’s a stable field to begin with, I don’t think this changes that passion for me,” Czyzon says.
The world has changed due to the coronavirus, but many student reporters are committed to covering that change for their campus newspapers, even as they mourn the loss of their own experiences.
“I really enjoyed my time as a student journalist,” David says. “It’s a very unique environment. To have that all disappear within two weeks is heartbreaking.”