What is it like to work from home during the Covid-19 pandemic?

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted how we live and how we work, particularly for Guild members in the newsroom of The Buffalo News. Mike McAndrew, the News’ watchdog team editor and a member of the Guild’s Executive Committee, and Sean Kirst, news-side columnist, share their perspectives on how the working landscape has individually and collectively changed because of the pandemic.

Mike McAndrew

I’ve been working from home for three weeks as I write this.

Reporters and photographers at The Buffalo News have been working at home even longer.

Each morning, I’m amazed that The News’ staff is able to produce a newspaper while working in their basements, attics or at their kitchen tables. What is even more incredible is that the staff is producing a paper that is even better than what we typically created before Covid-19 began killing people.

And buffalonews.com, our website, is hopping like never before with updates published so frequently that it is hard to keep up.

That is the result of Guild reporters, photographers, editors working harder than ever and with a greater determination to let nothing stand in the way.

And there have been plenty of obstacles.

There are the small but annoying problems: For the first time in my life, my back aches because I don’t have a comfortable desk and chair to work at.

There are the larger problems, too.

Editing a story that a reporter has poured their soul into is much easier when I am next to them, looking in their eyes, as I explain why some changes are necessary.

And when I need a reporter to file their breaking news story instantly or to call the widow of someone who died of Covid-19, I prefer to have those conversations face-to-face.

A misunderstanding is more likely when I am sitting at my dining room table communicating via Microsoft Teams with a reporter who is 30 miles away and whom I haven’t seen in three weeks.

The job is also hard when, at any given moment, a half-dozen reporters or photographers and a handful of editors might be calling, texting, emailing or sending me a Teams message on several different channels.

Then you add in the Covid-19 anxieties that most of us are feeling. That damn virus is out there.

Maybe a co-worker’s child is home and needs help with their algebra at the same time I want to talk about a story. Maybe their spouse has been laid off or they have an aging parent they’re afraid to visit.

There are a lot of extra stresses in our lives.

But the news doesn’t care.

In mid-April, as the number of people dead from Covid-19 mounted in Western New York, I was also responsible for getting published a series of stories about the 25th anniversary of Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing.

The project had been conceived months before, when Covid-19 was something happening far away in China.

Lou Michel and Dan Herbeck wrote 10 fabulous stories that reflected upon the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, and Sharon Cantillon’s photos were unforgettable.

But the project’s timing couldn’t have been worse.

After several weeks of juggling Covid-19 and Oklahoma City bombing stories, I was so tired that I was relieved when I went on furlough.

A week with no paycheck was less stressful than work.

Sean Kirst

There was a moment in early March, an eternity ago, when the fast-moving journalistic scope of what was changing amid a pandemic came home to me. A month and a half later, the lesson seems naïve and obvious, but at the time it arrived as a revelation.

I was at the Clarence rest area on the Thruway, where I had interviewed a woman handling the cleaning there, a woman whose toil is finally earning the honor it deserves. I settled in at a booth – already carefully partitioned for “social distancing” – to plan ahead for the next few days.

To the best of my knowledge, it was just about the last public space in which to work. The newsroom was all but closed off. Libraries were locked up. Coffee shops and restaurants offering WiFi had no sit-down business. As I bent over the keyboard, the same person I interviewed – a roll of yellow tape in her hand – walked up and said, with some wistfulness:

“The order just came down. We’ve got to block off the dining area.”

From that point on, there were no options. Ninety percent of my work has been from home.

What happened over those days involved a kind of counterintuitive acceptance. From the time we entered this business, our instinct as journalists has always been hurrying toward the core of a story, the faster the better.

Yet Covid-19, and the widespread suffering it represents, created a situation unlike anything we had experienced: To expose ourselves to the virus could put our own families and a cascading chain of people beyond them at risk – and also meant potentially hurting our own colleagues and, by extension, the paper itself.

Working from home was not a choice, but an imperative. I have done a few in-person interviews, but the vast majority of my work since the middle of March has been by call, text, email or other forms of digital messaging, often – in a way familiar to so many of us – after rolling from bed and going straight to my laptop.

Again, it runs against both gut and preference. There is nothing to compare with observing a scene or speaking with someone directly, even across six feet. Still, it has been astounding and reaffirming to watch colleagues at The News – driven by a palpable ethic and energy – accept the reality of those limitations while answering with work that keeps rising to the moment.

Our Guild photographers deserve special thanks. They have been our vanguard in the community, masked and present amid overwhelmingly difficult conditions. Their images have brought flesh and immediacy to much of what I’ve written, and I know it is the same for anyone who reports, edits or writes.

I am equally grateful to the legion of colleagues who create the paper and bring it from the press to thousands of front doors, at a time when that process is in no way routine.

All of this also happens amid uncertainty – the sale of The News, the arrival of furloughs and the unknowns that fall beyond. I love the newsroom and the whole precious, threatened, wisecracking feel of the place, and while I deeply miss seeing colleagues who typically surround me, this is the measure of consolation every morning:

I feel their presence in their work, more than ever.