West Side Story staffers meet on Zoom for “exporting night,” which is when they finish the print product.

Informing Community in Crisis | The Helpers Next Door

May 20, 2020  | 112

by Emily Blobaum


Many high school students didn’t know that the last time they would sit next to their classmates would be in the middle of March.

But Natalie Dunlap, Iowa City West senior and online editor-in-chief of the West Side Story, had a feeling that her 50-person staff wouldn’t be returning to the newsroom after spring break. She knew the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic was looming. She had recently reported that the University of Iowa, just five miles away, had made plans to move all classes online.

Sure enough, the first Sunday of spring break, March 15, Gov. Kim Reynolds recommended that all schools in the state close for four weeks to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Suddenly, the immediate future of what high school would look like was up in the air.

Seniors didn’t know if they would get to walk across the stage to receive their diploma, or be able to dress up for prom. Track, soccer, golf and tennis athletes didn’t know if they would have a season. No one knew if and how they were going to be able to finish classes.

As a senior herself, Dunlap was disappointed. Having to miss out on the rest of the senior experience that she had watched other people go through was unexpected. But she refused to complain.

“Even though it’s not an ideal situation, I’m way luckier than most people. My family is healthy. I’m still able to get an education...I don’t think we should make ourselves the star of the pandemic because it’s definitely worse for other people,” she said.

Instead, she focused her energy on continuing to do what an editor-in-chief does: she got her staff together — virtually, of course — and organized coverage of the pandemic and its effects on their peers and community.

West Side Story online editor in chief Natalie Dunlap at her home office.

Classes that fall under the journalism umbrella, like newspaper, broadcast and yearbook, are typically an elective.

As school districts have made the move toward mandatory continuous online learning, students have the option of electing to take a pass on their journalism classes.

But Alex Carlon, the West Side Story’s online managing/news editor and incoming online editor-in-chief, estimates that 95% of their usual staff have still been requesting assignments.

“People have used it as a chance to show their ambition,” Dunlap added. “There have been some rock stars that are on it all the time.”

But without the convenience of everyone being in the same room, Carlon said communication has been a challenge.

Meetings are now held through Zoom, GroupMe and other forms of group chats.

Similarly, most interviews are no longer being conducted in person in accordance with social distancing guidelines. Instead, they’re done over the phone, on social media platforms or through email.

“It’s definitely been hard communicating with sources. It’s not always ideal over email or over the phone. I prefer in-person interviews because you really get to meet them and get to know them better,” West Side Story reporter Hanah Kitamoto said.

West Side Story sophomore reporter Hanah Kitamoto works on an article from home.

Kitamoto has written stories about how COVID-19 transformed spring sports and the end of senior traditions. She is currently working on a story about how the pandemic has affected teens’ mental health.

West Side Story sophomore photographer Maddy Smith says she’s technically considered to be high risk for the coronavirus, so she hasn’t been outside much at all. Instead, she has focused on compiling lighthearted stories about how students can occupy their time in quarantine and help others.

She has also been helping with keeping tabs on the paper’s Instagram account, which has turned into a crucial reporting tool. Smith will occasionally put a call out for stories through the platform’s poll and question stickers.

“Every student is on Insta, if you want to reach the widest berth of students, that’s where you turn to.”

Halfway across the state at Johnston High School, Black & White copy editor Marandah Mangra-Dutcher has worked on more than a dozen stories since spring break and has taken the lead on updating the Black and White’s social media platforms.

Mangra-Dutcher is one of 36 students that are on the newspaper staff. Much like other school districts, newspaper isn’t considered to be a mandatory class, so many staffers haven’t opted to continue reporting.

While she doesn’t know if she wants to go into the journalism field after graduation, Mangra-Dutcher says she does enjoy reporting. Stories she has reported on include news briefs with updates on school closures, a photo gallery of a teacher parade, columns about the toilet paper shortage and activities to do while in quarantine.

“Journalism is a really important part of democracy. It’s a super important part of the society we live in… We don’t do journalism for the grade,” she said.

West Side Story sophomore Maddy Smith delivers copies of the latest West Side Story.Instead, like many others, she does it for the community.

“Journalism changes the world. As of right now, the student body is only getting what the school is sending out via email and a lot of kids aren’t watching the governor’s press conferences,” Mangra-Dutcher said. “I think our website is a good way to keep our student body updated and understand what’s happening and why it’s happening.”

Iowa High School Press Association Executive Director Paul Jensen argues that students are the ones that know best about what their peers are interested in.

“They’re telling their own stories,” he said.

“It’s so important as a student to be a mouthpiece for the students right now. I think as students, our lives and our educations are being affected immensely by the coronavirus,” Carlon said. There aren’t a lot of people better suited to tell these stories and to write this history… I’m close to it. I have that viewpoint so going into interviews, I can relate to students and do a good job at telling their stories.”

Smith agrees.

“People are starting to feel extremely isolated and looking to a student-run publication, they can say ‘these are my fellow students, these are my people. They’re here to support me,’” she said.