Commentary: Reporting Practices Adapt in 2020 to ‘New Reality’

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – In the film “The Way of the Gun,” Mr. Parker, played by Ryan Phillippe says, “I think a plan is just a list of things that don’t happen.”

Though that statement might seem cynical in a typical year, it’s rather apt for 2020. As the coronavirus became very real imposed its presence in February and March, it upended the plans of businesses, schools and manufacturers.

Downtown Youngstown became desolate. And from mid-March to June, I found myself working at my dining room table.

2020 was the first full year of  our Brain Gain editorial initiative. To build off the momentum from October 2019, we were planning to convene a public conversation at Stambaugh Auditorium in May. It would have been the public version of the roundtables I had been leading with students since January. In those few, short months, I spoke with more than 120 middle and high school students, gaining candid insights into their interests and aspirations. 

For the Stambaugh event, we had lined up smaller panel discussions with leaders in workforce development and a featured roundtable with some of the students I had spoken to, moderated by U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan.

But as schools closed, our plans for the event and additional roundtables with college students and young professionals were postponed.

While we had no intention of stopping Brain Gain, the pandemic changed the conversation. Nearly all interviews with school administrators – held via Zoom or on the phone – focused on how to make workforce education work during the pandemic. I am thankful to those who made time during unprecedented uncertainty to discuss their plans. I’ve continued to rely on many of these contacts as I’ve pursued Brain Gain stories.

And the pandemic didn’t stop organizations like the Mahoning Valley Manufacturers Coalition and Junior Achievement of Mahoning Valley from bringing career exploration opportunities to students.

In November, Junior Achievement’s JA Inspire event saw some 7,000 Mahoning and Trumbull County students register to attend. I spent most of the morning and early afternoon exploring the virtual lobby and listening to the speakers deliver 30-minute presentations in the “auditorium.”

While informative, getting student reaction was more challenging than at live events. That day, I spoke with Beaver Local High School seniors Colton Dugan and Payne Allen via Zoom. Dugan and Allen enjoyed the program. Their guidance counselor, Bethanne Rettos, said that without JA Inspire, the seniors wouldn’t have much else by way of career exploration.

“This is one of the very first things that we’ve been able to do because most things we haven’t figured out how to do remotely yet,” Rettos said.

Adopting to new technology has become routine in journalism these days. But 2020 provided an education beyond technology.

Covering Gov. Mike DeWine’s directives to stem the spread of COVID-19 expanded my regional perspective and gave me a crash course in public health. Keeping up with health orders and trends, understanding the difference between PCR and antigen tests and getting familiar with everything happening to “flatten the curve” was key to keeping readers up-to-date.

That experience informed the stories as I identified how local businesses adapted. While some on social media were critical of our attention to the pandemic – and of the press in general – I believe the stories written over the last year served a purpose.

Reports on the struggles of area businesses hardest hit by the pandemic were among the hardest to write. After so many years reporting on these businesses, you come to know the owners as neighbors and, in some cases, friends.

Relating their frustrations and fears over potentially losing their livelihoods made the work challenging on a personal level. But it was also an opportunity to inform readers on how to support local businesses.

Covering the pandemic provided the public with important information and shone a light on the critical role public health plays on our economy.

That prompted our first public health roundtable, held in December. Moderating the conversation was another new challenge. But as I continue to connect public health and education, our local economy and the workforce, I’m eager to keep the conversation going.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.