It came in the form of an alert on my phone on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. As I pushed my little electric mower in an uphill attempt to tame some of our five acres just south of Mustang, the brightness of the day was dimmed with the news — The Edmond Sun was closing its doors.
The novel coronavirus had claimed yet another victim. This time it was the state’s oldest continuously operating newspaper. Founded in 1889, The Sun had survived the Great Depression and oil booms and busts; it had stayed strong during two World Wars and during the social upheaval of the 1960s.
The loss of The Sun struck a chord with community journalists across the state, who took to social media to console each other over its loss. When a paper fails, often there are some warning signs — and perhaps internally that was the case — but for many of us, this was a surprising blow, in great part because it was The Sun. How could this happen?
For me, the demise of the newspaper represented a personal loss. I had freelanced for The Sun a few times over the years; Edmond shares many similarities to Mustang, where I live and work; and my son is a music education major at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond. I’ve spent countless hours on the sidelines of football fields and in gymnasiums photographing members of the Edmond marching band and color guard, interviewing band directors and speaking with band parents. Even when I wasn’t working directly for The Sun, I felt an affinity for the paper and the community it served.
A coronavirus is the reason The Sun would not celebrate its 131st anniversary, and a sense of loss remained despite the continued operation of its parent company’s other 14 community newspapers in Oklahoma. CNHI group publisher Mark Millsap told readers in a news release that The Sun’s sister paper, The Norman Transcript, would expand its coverage to Edmond, but it’s hard to believe that will fill the gap.
Who would have guessed when Oklahoma City Thunder players walked off the court moments before tipoff March 11 that COVID-19 would have such far-reaching consequences?
Families fearfully stocked up on anything they might need; businesses implemented new procedures to keep customers and staff safe, and governmental agencies transitioned to remote operations, using some creative ways to fulfill their responsibilities to the public.
Some employers could not withstand lost revenues even a week into a partial statewide shelter, laying off bewildered employees or reducing their hours. The Oklahoma Employment Security Commission historically processes 1,500 unemployment claims a week; between March 15 and April 8, 135,000 individuals filed for benefits, according to the commission.
With the pandemic spreading, I interviewed more than 30 people — business owners, employees, city officials, school board members, commissioners, members of law enforcement, local judges and independent contractors. Every week the heartbreak, fear and uncertainty grew more palpable and heartbreaking.
Then, for a moment, it seemed to be getting better. Gov. Kevin Stitt announced on April 22 his “Open Up and Recover Safely” plan as a way to restart businesses and the economy. Unfortunately, it was too late for The Sun, assuming the paper had any chance of surviving.
Community newspapers more vital than ever
The irony of The Sun’s demise now was the fact that COVID-19, which caused the paper’s downfall, at the same time created a perfect storm of information overload, lightning-fast changes, fear and panic that illustrated just how important community publications really are.
These newspapers and those who work for them stand on the front lines, providing stories and details to readers that are simply not possible for larger media outlets to cover. The Mustang Times covers Mustang and the surrounding area. Like other weekly newspapers, we don’t just cover a community — we are a part of it. We know the people who make places like Edmond, Mustang, Tuttle, Norman, Muskogee, Enid and so many others unique.
It’s important to us to shine a light on the happenings of our community. That’s why we focus on everything, from practical matters like city budgets and school bond issues to local gatherings and events like those of the high school marching band, community garden and Kiwanis.
Doing more with less
The coronavirus posed challenges for newsroom staff members beyond financial uncertainty and the specter of a job loss. As a community reporter, I depend greatly on the relationships I’ve been lucky to forge with people and organizations. Whether it’s the county commissioners, city council members, a school superintendent or pastors, social distancing has translated at times into disassociation.
You don’t realize how important personal interaction is until you don’t have it.
A new era and a new way of doing things
Although I’m a community newspaper writer, and the only news reporter dedicated to Mustang, I am actually a freelancer who covers pretty much everything except sports (and sometimes that too), and I generate most of my own story ideas. I’ve also worked for a few other publications that allowed me to function in the same way — something I’m not sure would have happened when I began working for Canadian County newspapers back in 2007.
With the isolation and social distancing that came with COVID-19, I suspect this might be changing. Cutting costs can be done by employees working from home, and communication is easily achievable on a regular basis online.
COVID-19’s explosive nature proved that point, while it also illustrated more intensely than ever the importance of online communication with our readers, providing information on a more expansive schedule than the days a physical newspaper was available.
Coronavirus updates and releases flew into my inbox so fast that a story I wrote Monday morning could be out of date by the time it was heading to the press. Some of that has subsided, but I believe our reliance on social media and the internet to remain connected won’t change. That means community reporters’ duty to help readers sift the facts from fiction will become more important than ever.
This unprecedented virus changed many of us. But for those charged with shining a light on our communities, COVID-19 also offers a challenge that can make us better journalists and better citizens. How we respond to that challenge is up to us.
Traci Chapman has worked for community newspapers in Canadian County for 13 years. A freelancer, she covers news and features as a writer and photographer for the Mustang Times. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @TraciFreelancer. Visit her websites at www.tracichapman.net and www.fallingsparrowmedia.net.
The Coronavirus Storytelling Project is a collaboration between the Oklahoma-based Inasmuch Foundation, the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and Oklahoma Watch to help state journalists who have been furloughed or displaced as well as those in struggling community news organizations. The Inasmuch Foundation has pledged $50,000 to launch the project and provide five $500 grants to those accepted into the project each week for the next four months. Apply here. Stories and photos are available for republication with appropriate credits. To republish, contact Mike Sherman at firstname.lastname@example.org.