PROVIDENCE – At the top of the 11 p.m. news on WJAR Channel 10 one night last week, anchors Patrice Wood and Dan Jaehnig led the show by acknowledging the obvious.
“You may have noticed the news looks different tonight; we’re not both at the desk,” Wood, positioned on the left-hand side of a split screen, told viewers. “We’re listening to the advice of health professionals who say we should all be taking steps to distance ourselves from one another.”
The decision to separate television anchors may seem like a logical one considering that the coronavirus has been spreading in Rhode Island, but it marked a significant moment for a business whose viewers favor familiarity over all else, and who aren’t afraid to call out even subtle changes.
Indeed, as the highly contagious disease has disrupted everyday life for most Americans, the news business has not been spared. Now news directors and editors for various media outlets are finding creative ways to balance the safety of their employees while still trying to bring viewers, readers, and listeners the most important news each day.
“I’ve learned a lot about best practices for shooting Facetime/Skype interviews,” WJAR news director Scott Isaacs wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.
Because it’s a visual medium, television news has likely been forced to make the most significant changes.
All three of Rhode Island’s local television stations appear to have abandoned the traditional two-anchor desk format for the time being. At WPRI Channel 12, anchors Mike Montecalvo and Caroline Goggin were in the same studio during one 5 p.m. newscast last week, but they standing the length of a widescreen television apart from one another. During WLNE Channel 6’s show last Thursday, John DeLuca stood by a TV screen while Brooke Taylor sat behind a desk.
Each station has also experimented with interviewing sources remotely, using iPads or webcams. Some reporters at each station have recorded stories from their apartments. The Rhode Show, a lifestyle program that airs each morning on WPRI, has cut cooking segments during the coronavirus scare.
At WJAR, Isaacs said his field crews are working remotely and the Cranston-based company is “taking steps to limit the number of people in our building at any given time.” In addition to practicing “social distancing” with the on-air talent, he said regular cleanings have been scheduled in the building.
“This is obviously unprecedented, and we’re doing the best we can to stay ahead of it while still providing urgent information to our viewers,” Isaacs said.
The local stations are not unique. All of the national outlets and the cable news channels have taken steps to protect their reporters from potential infections. But in a state as small as Rhode Island, where it’s not uncommon to see a neighbor or a friend from high school getting interviewed on the local news, the changes have been dramatic.
Other kinds of news organizations are also adapting to a new world created by the coronavirus.
The majority of the Globe’s staff in Boston, Rhode Island, and throughout the country have been instructed to work from home. The Providence Journal’s executive editor announced that most of the paper’s staff is working remotely. The Public’s Radio, an NPR affiliate, called off a fund drive “because what we need to be talking about on air is this story,” Sally Eisele, the station’s chief content officer, wrote in a newsletter this week.
At some hyperlocal outlets, the coronavirus has caused a different problem: a lack of news.
The Warwick Beacon, a vital source of news in Rhode Island’s third-largest city, announced this week it will move from publishing twice a week to only on Thursdays.
“In view that so much of the community is affected from the shutdown of schools, libraries, nonprofits, entertainment venues and sports events that makeup so much of the Beacon coverage, we are suspending publication of the Tuesday paper for the foreseeable future,” an editorial stated.
John Howell, the paper’s publisher, said the Beacon will continue to publish stories about the coronavirus online, but he acknowledged the decision to restore the Tuesday edition will depend on demand from both readers and advertisers.
Providence Business News has also temporarily suspended its print edition during the coronavirus crisis, according to publisher Roger Bergenheim. He said the decision was made primarily because the paper is often sent to businesses, many of which have ordered employees to stay home during the outbreak.
Despite the changes, local outlets remain one of the most trusted forms of news. And the coronavirus is a once-in-a-generation story to cover, according to Betty-Jo Cugini, a former news director at WJAR who now works as the supervisor of new media at the University of Rhode Island and teaches at Emerson College.
In some ways, Cugini said, the virus is comparable to the 2003 Station Nightclub fire in that there are new developments in the story each day. The fire killed 100 people; so far, none of the state’s coronavirus victims have died.
She praised the creativity of various news outlets – particularly on television – as they find different angles for the same story. She said the technology being used to cover the virus remotely is likely to “become the norm” for reporters going forward.
“This is one of the first stories in a long time that everyone needs and wants to know something about it,” Cugini said.