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Day employees working remotely to bring you the news during the COVID-19 pandemic

New London — With no concerts to attend or restaurants to review, The Day’s music and arts writer Rick Koster found himself writing a sobering story last week about how local funeral homes are dealing with the coronavirus.

On Saturday, when the paper’s sports staff typically would have been covering the start of the high school spring sports season, they were instead talking to athletes at each school about possibly losing that opportunity.

And the newspaper’s copy editors, who typically sit a few feet away from one another, are now holed up in their homes, using laptops to lay out the paper and keep The Day’s website updated with the latest virus news. Instead of talking back and forth between desks, they communicate using Slack, an instant messaging app.

As has been the case for most businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed a unique set of challenges for The Day, whose newsroom remains empty as staff members work remotely. Reporters and photographers, meanwhile, have had to adjust to new ways of gathering and publishing the news while adhering to social distancing guidelines. And The Day has dropped its paywall for all virus-related stories on its website, which means those without a subscription can read them for free. It's also cut the introductory digital subscription rate by 50%.

“We’re extremely proud of the job we’ve done in getting crucial information to our readers during such a health crisis. And it’s great to get emails and phone calls from appreciative readers,” Managing Editor Tim Cotter said. “Our mission is to provide readers, in addition to the grim news, with every bit of information they need to get through this. From tips on working from home to where to get takeout. From information on distance learning to where to go on a hike. We’re in this with them, and I think they get that.”

Over the past several weeks The Day has not only published daily updates about the spread of the virus, it has published countless stories about its local impact, from the effect on food pantries, schools and small business owners to hospitals, nonprofit organizations and those who assist victims of domestic violence. There have also been uplifting local stories, such as a therapy dog's visit to a nursing home, an informal front porch concert, and health care workers going beyond the call of duty.

“We’re a trusted part of this community and people look to us to provide coverage,” said Timothy Dwyer, The Day’s publisher. “We need the support of the community and we’ll continue to support the community. It’s time for all of us to come together to get through this.”

Surviving financially

As readers see media reports about newspapers, such as USA Today and others around the country, furloughing staff and cutting salaries, they may wonder if the same fate awaits The Day.

First the good news.

Over the past three weeks, the number of visitors to The Day's website has jumped 38.2% and new users are up 46.8%. Digital subscriptions have increased 2% and traditional seven-day subscriptions are up 2% since March 1, helping reverse a decline since January.

The bad news is that with businesses closing, advertising revenue, the lifeblood of any newspaper, has decreased over the past three weeks.

"Like the company has found creative ways to cover its communities by working remotely, on the revenue side we have to be creative about getting new revenue," Dwyer said. "My goal is to come through this whole and healthy."

He said The Day is looking at how behaviors and companies have changed over the past few weeks and then will tap into that.

"We don't live on Wall Street, we live on Main Street. And there are parts of Main Street that are doing well, such as consumer products," he said.

Dwyer also said the company is trying to think ahead, because "we know we'll come out of this."

"We want to be ready for that and be ready to help our customers come out of this," he said.

Dwyer said the paper had "a decent" first quarter of the year but he is not sure how much revenue will eventually decline.

He said that among the revenue sources The Day is researching is its eligibility to obtain a forgivable loan from the federal Small Business Association. The loans are available to companies with fewer than 500 employees who pledge to retain their workforce.

"Hopefully, it will be a great tool for us and get us through this," he said.

Carlos Virgen, The Day's digital news director, said the newspaper also is seeking grants from various foundations. One, from the Local Media Association, assists family and independently owned papers, such as The Day, to set up a portal on their website so individuals and philanthropic groups can make donations to support the paper. That campaign can be found at www.theday.com/localnewsfund.

A recent note to the paper's readers summed up its position this way: "While we are providing free access to articles, they are not free to produce. The newsroom is working long hours to provide you the news and information you need during this health emergency. If you'd like to support our efforts, you can subscribe at (860) 701-4400 and www.theday.com/subscribe."

Reporting the crisis

Veteran reporter Claire Bessette, who covers Norwich and Preston, said the biggest adjustment she has had to make is not having personal contact with the people she covers.

“I still like to make the rounds the old way, going to Norwich and Preston town halls to talk to people, but I can’t do that now,” she said.

With 26 years at The Day, however, Bessette has developed a long list of people she can call for information, some of whom she had to tap for the grim job of confirming Norwich’s first coronavirus death, other positive virus tests and “to squash rumors.”

Bessette said she has found that the last few weeks of reporting on the virus have been more exhausting than normal, as she runs from one call to another and one story to another. She checks her emails even in the middle of the night.

“We’re always working now to keep up with the latest developments,” she said.

John Ruddy, The Day’s copy desk chief, said that while there had been some initial discussion about eventually having to lay out the paper from home, the first time came without warning or preparation.

That's because a copy editor's relative had to go to the hospital with flu-like symptoms and was to be tested for coronavirus on March 12. Ultimately, the relative was not tested for the virus but the copy editors were told to work remotely that night as a precaution.

“We’ve had individual people work remotely here and there but we had never done it as a group,” Ruddy said. “But suddenly we had to do it. It was scary but we got through it.”

With almost everyone but himself working from a laptop, Ruddy said the biggest challenge has been seeing the entire design of a page on the small screens. Slack, meanwhile, he said, has been a great way for instant and frequent communication, “which is what we need.”

He praised the teamwork of his copy editors, saying those who are not working on a particular day have routinely been logging in each night to help with proofreading pages so the paper makes deadline.

“It’s been interesting to see the paper come together each night. I know people are working but I’m sitting here by myself. We have a lot of teamwork on the copy desk but it’s even greater now because it has to be,” he said.

Reporter Karen Florin typically spends her days in the courtrooms and hallways of New London’s two courthouses, covering trials, arraignments and plea deals. With court business severely curtailed and trials postponed, she found herself last week at a truck stop and a gun shop working on stories about how those industries have been impacted by the virus. At each, she said, she was sure to maintain the proper distance from those she was interviewing.

The rest of the time she has been reporting stories by phone, which is helped by the fact that, after 26 years at The Day, she has developed strong relationships with judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and court officials.

Florin said that courts are only handling arraignments, protective and custody orders, with trials and civil cases postponed. If there is a major crime resulting in an arraignment, she said she will have to go to the court.

Like Bessette, Florin misses the daily personal interaction with the subjects of her stories.

“I’m a little worried they won’t be seeing our presence. But they are certainly seeing our product,” she said.

Cotter, the managing editor, said the paper’s biggest challenge has been communication.

“We have daily contact through email, text and Slack but they are inefficient means of communication. We hold a weekly staff meeting via Zoom that has been helpful in setting our weekly plan and, because we get to see everyone, in lifting our spirits. Thankfully there have been very few technological problems,” he said. 

Shooting photos, covering sports

Sean Elliot, The Day’s Director of Photography, said that not being able to come into the newspaper's photography office means he and his staff are editing and uploading photographs and videos from their cars and homes.

Just as big an adjustment for the veteran photographer is not being able to greet someone he’s shooting with a handshake.

“I’m an old-school guy when it comes to that,” he said.

“When I interact with people, I always stand relatively close. Standing 6 or 8 feet away and asking how to spell their name is weird,” he said.

Elliot said that photographers typically go places where readers can’t to tell a story.

“But now no one is letting people in their homes,” he said.

And tight restrictions at hospitals aimed at preventing the spread of the virus means there’s almost no access to illustrate what is essentially a medical story.

“There’s a lot of photographers, including myself, who are very frustrated by this. It’s contrary to what we have trained our whole lives to do. Photojournalism is about telling stories and connecting with people through photography,” he said.

Still, Elliot and his staff have produced countless virus-related images from National Guard personnel stopping New York drivers at the Rhode Island border and Mystic musicians performing “America the Beautiful,” to a nurse manning a drive-up virus testing tent at Backus Hospital and police directing a long line of cars waiting to pick up food at the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Bank in the Thomas Martin Center in New London.

When high school, college and professional sports first halted their seasons, Chuck Banning, Day sports editor, said his reporters’ first job was to get reaction from area athletes, coaches and athletic directors. At the time, he said, both Connecticut College and the Coast Guard Academy had athletes at the NCAA Division III national championships for indoor track and wrestling and were trying to get home. The Day told those stories.

Banning said they then turned their attention to the upcoming spring sports season, talking to those affected by its cancellation. One of those stories involved Central Connecticut State University track runner Megan Brawner of Ledyard, who will get to run her senior season in 2021 after the NCAA announced Division I athletes could do so. Banning, though, said that offer has not yet been extended to the many Division II and III athletes from the region, so there will be stories about those athletes, as well.

“Even though we’re not covering games, there’s still plenty of sports stories out there,” he said. “I challenged my staff to find all these human interest stories to not only engage our readers but to inform our readers."

Banning and his staff also have told the story of how four Coast Guard Academy football players have been accepted to flight school and the reaction to the postponement of the 2020 Olympics Games from 1976 Olympian Jan Merrill of Waterford, who was affected by the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Games. The sports department is in the midst of publishing its winter All-Area teams and beginning this weekend will publish stories about senior athletes from the region’s 17 high schools. There also will be essays from current college athletes facing the end of their careers.

“We want to let these kids know they are relevant to us and they have not been forgotten by us,” Banning said. “We’ll have local stories until this ends.”

j.wojtas@theday.com

Editor's Note: Director of Photography Sean Elliot's job title has been corrected.

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