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US journalists seek to help colleagues affected by virus

OKLAHOMA CITY – Journalists from around the U.S. are finding ways to help their colleagues simply pay rent or buy groceries as they face lost or reduced paychecks because of layoffs and furloughs caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Writers in Oklahoma can be paid stipends to continue chronicling the effects of COVID-19 on the state and their jobs when they take unpaid time off. Virginia journalists have collected money to donate to others working in their field. And a group of current and former reporters and editors from New York to California are providing interest-free microloans to help others in their field make ends meet.

In Oklahoma, a partnership to support journalists has resulted in The Coronavirus Storytelling Project. The private Inasmuch Foundation pledged $50,000 and is working with Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame and nonprofit news outlet Oklahoma Watch to provide five $500 grants each week for the next four months to laid-off or furloughed journalists to provide essays, podcasts, photos or videos of the challenges they face.

This gives journalists a creative outlet during forced downtime, said Joe Hight, the director of the Journalism Hall of Fame.

“I just thought there had to be a way to help these journalists to tell their story," he said.

Sports columnist Berry Tramel, who has worked for The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City since 1991, provided the first dispatch for the storytelling project.

A reporter's worst nightmare is for a source to make headlines when they're off. Colorful and often outspoken football coach Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State University did just that the week Tramel was on furlough.

That meant Tramel wasn't allowed to do interviews, send emails or write for The Oklahoman when Gundy said during a media conference call that he hoped to have his team return to its facilities by May 1, in defiance of federal timetables and social-distancing guidelines. The university quickly shot down the idea.

“Most journalists don’t have an off switch,” Tramel wrote. And he admitted that he tuned into the call anyway as Gundy went on a rambling tirade about the U.S. being in better shape than it appeared in the media.

So Tramel let his creative juices flow and he wrote. He told The Associated Press that he quickly came up with a new nickname for Gundy, “Mike Exotic,” to write about the coach's “cuckoo” behavior and as a nod to now infamous former Oklahoma zookeeper Joseph Maldonado-Passage, better known as “Joe Exotic.” Like Joe Exotic, Gundy often sports a mullet.

“I was dying to write ... it was an outlet to write,” Tramel said, adding that he declined the stipend. “If Gundy hadn’t popped off, the furlough would have gone great for me."

Sisi Wei, a former editor at investigative nonprofit outlet ProPublica, joined four other reporters from around the country to create Microloans for Journalists to offer interest-free loans of $500 from funds donated by other journalists.

“We thought if we could help five people that would be great, within the first week we had gotten about $100,000 in pledges,” said Wei, who lives in New York City. Now they have enough money to provide 240 loans.

Borrowers are asked to repay the loans within a year, although lenders can designate their money as gifts.

Before the onset of the coronavirus sent U.S. unemployment claims to Great Depression-era levels, the journalism industry — and newspapers in particular — was in trouble. Advertising revenue has been steadily declining as readers increasingly got their news online, where ad rates are a small fraction of what they are on the printed page. In the past 15 years, at least 2,100 cities and towns have lost a paper, most of them weeklies. Newsroom employment has shrunk by half since 2004.

With many nonessential businesses forced to close or scale down during the pandemic, advertising revenues have cratered even further, putting even more pressure on beleaguered local news publications and forcing many to cut jobs, hours and pay, drop their print editions or even shut down entirely.

In a sad irony, readers are more desperate than ever during the pandemic for reliable local news. They want to know about cases in their area, where they can get tested and how the disease is affecting the local economy. That's something Henri Gendreau, a reporter at The Roanoke Times, hopes rings true for people in Virginia.

He and colleagues at other papers in the state started Virginia Is For Journalists, a gofundme account that has provided grants of $150 to $300 to their struggling colleagues. Some who have been furloughed themselves are still giving money, Gendreau said.

“A crisis like this has made people realize how important local journalism is," he said.

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