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UNC Student Journalists Share What It's Like To Cover Campus Reopening


College journalists have had a front-row seat to the coronavirus on campus, covering the parties and the outbreaks as they try to hold their schools accountable. Editors at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill's student paper were thrust into the spotlight after using an expletive to describe what was happening on their campus. NPR's Elissa Nadworny stopped by the offices of The Daily Tar Heel to see what it's like to live and cover college reopenings.



STANDLEY: How are you all?

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: The newsroom is tucked behind Franklin Street, the main drag in Chapel Hill.

STANDLEY: We've got our university staff that usually works right along here.

NADWORNY: Brandon Standley, the managing editor of the student-run independent newspaper, gives us a tour of the newsroom. His teal mask matches his shirt. He points out the old editions of the paper, which has been around since 1893, tacked up on the walls.

STANDLEY: We've got old editions. We've got editions from the early '90s that are laminated just across the wall.

NADWORNY: Headlines from basketball championships, investigative reporting on sexual assault on campus and, already, headlines from this semester's nonstop news of the reopening.

POGARCIC: It's been a rough week. I'm not sure if you've seen the headlines coming out of here.

NADWORNY: Anna Pogarcic, a senior from Charlotte, is the editor-in-chief. And she's not exaggerating. The Daily Tar Heel broke the news of the first clusters of coronavirus cases on campus. A source had given the paper a heads-up before the campus alert went out.

POGARCIC: We have a duty to students that if we know something like this, we have to tell them.

NADWORNY: That was on Friday, the end of the first week of in-person classes.

POGARCIC: And so our immediate question for the university was, well, what's a cluster? Like, how many cases is that?

STANDLEY: I was sitting in a parking lot, and I was just, like, typing away. It was insane.

NADWORNY: Over the weekend, the university announced more outbreaks in dorms and at a fraternity.

POGARCIC: And every time it happened, like, I was like, oh, God. Is this going to be the one?

NADWORNY: No one knew how many cases they'd have to see before the university sent students home. But each time news broke, The Daily Tar Heel staff was on it, writing stories, sending tweets, informing readers. By the end of that weekend, opinions editor Paige Masten had scrapped the editorial she'd planned for Monday morning and rewritten one all about the botched reopening. For the headline, she asked Pogarcic, who gets the final say, if she could run a pun with an expletive. Her suggestion - UNC has a cluster expletive on its hands. Pogarcic says it was an easy answer.

POGARCIC: Yeah, it's a pun because of the clusters. And it is a mess (laughter), so it's accurate.

NADWORNY: But that Monday paper with the blockbuster editorial...

STANDLEY: We almost did not print.

NADWORNY: Just as they were about to send it to the printer, the power went out. They scrambled to redesign the front pages they'd lost. And at 2:30 a.m., they sent the edition to the printer. In their haste, there were some mistakes.

POGARCIC: This is my fault. I misspelled digital - ditigal (ph).

NADWORNY: But the errors didn't matter. The editorial with that now-famous headline went viral.

POGARCIC: I mean, I was like, OK. I'm sure, like, we would get a call from the media relations team or something, but I certainly didn't expect to get a call from CNN.


JOHN BERMAN: ...Morning, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill is moving to remote learning only after a spike in coronavirus infections. This is how the school newspaper describes...

NADWORNY: That was followed by more clusters in dorms and off-campus apartments. Then students were told they had to move off campus by the end of the month. Maydha Devarajan, a junior at UNC, says she wasn't surprised, and the university shouldn't have been either. She'd worked all summer editing the paper.

MAYDHA DEVARAJAN: Every week, I would edit a story that was, like, campus workers or students or staff saying the same thing. Like, why are we doing this? What are you going to do when students test positive?

NADWORNY: Meanwhile, earlier this month, thousands of students including Maydha made their way to campus.

DEVARAJAN: There's no way I could have stopped this university from opening. But I, like, hope that I did as best of a job I could trying to put as much information out there and show that there was a large amount of backlash to this plan before it even took off, really.

NADWORNY: As the national headlines about UNC recede, the journalists at The Tar Heel still have a big story to cover.

POGARCIC: U desk, do you all want to kick it off?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sure. So Praveena wrote a story on UNC testing, why students aren't or are getting tested at campus health.

NADWORNY: Their goal - to keep the university accountable. And they still have a ton of questions. How are students doing at home? Did they take coronavirus back to their families? Will the university ever apologize for the reopening? And a big one...

POGARCIC: Is it going to happen again in the spring?

NADWORNY: As we're packing up to leave the newsroom, a message comes in.

STANDLEY: This is not good.

NADWORNY: They've gotten a heads-up. The university is about to announce another cluster in a dorm building.

POGARCIC: Is that one every day this week?

STANDLEY: Well, we're at - this is cluster 9, I think.

NADWORNY: This dorm, Craige - it's got an extra meaning for Standley.

STANDLEY: Craige is where I live, so that's really not exciting to know.

NADWORNY: But there's not time to focus on his personal concerns. He's got news to break.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Chapel Hill, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAC'S "CUTSCENE 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.