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Inside the newsroom: The earthquake hit, and that’s when the action really started on a week unlike any other

Israel Garcia is forced to exit his mobile home from a window after it was damaged in a 5.7 magnitude earthquake centered in Magna on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.
Israel Garcia is forced to exit his mobile home from a window after it was damaged in a 5.7 magnitude earthquake centered in Magna on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Saturday morning in Salt Lake City the streets weren’t just quiet. They were empty, save a few souls carefully keeping their distance from one another. On Main Street there were no cars. Four homeless men guarded the corners of the block. Whether intended or otherwise, they were a good 50 feet apart.

I ventured outside to walk to the corner pharmacy to pick up a prescription, one of the approved outings in this time of isolation. Also acceptable are quick shopping trips for groceries and a walk for fresh air, as long as we all honor the no-closer-than-six-feet rule. Social distancing is king, and if you don’t abide by its rule you’ll likely be greeted with a justifiable glare.

Saturday was the end of a remarkable week for the nation, made more remarkable for Utahns startled by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake on Wednesday morning. It was a violent shaking in the town of Magna — with a direct line through downtown Salt Lake City — that brought down bricks, broke windows and further unnerved an already nervous populace.

Much of our news staff had already been working remotely last week. They were immediately dispatched from their homes to trouble spots and to work the phones. Initial information was posted to our website from Herb Scribner, working a quick-hit trending desk posting immediate information on the magnitude of the quake and where it was located.

Pat Reavy working on breaking news also immediately engaged for those first crucial minutes. Both were under the direction of Content Director Aaron Shill and News Director Brian West. Our photo chief and Managing Editor of Cross Platform News Chuck Wing dispatched the photo staff downtown, out to Magna, and wherever else the news took us.

That was the start of the day and the reporting began as soon as the shaking stopped with news reporters contributing paragraph by paragraph. Other nonbreaking news teams joined in, checking hospitals, schools and the infrastructure of the state. Lois Collins from our in-depth team began working on a piece about wide-felt anxiety from such a troubling week. And throughout the day our news teams and the combined effort of the Deseret News and KSL newsroom reported record traffic to our websites, deseret.com and KSL.com.

KSL NewsRadio became an immediate source of information, despite the initial loss of power to our newsroom. We ran on auxiliary power until restoration about 5 p.m. that day. KSL-TV reporters went live for hours, initially broadcasting from a parking lot as they too overcame power issues.

In an earthquake and during the pandemic of COVID-19, it’s all-hands-on-deck to cover the news. And the nation is hungry for information. As the New York Times reported Saturday:

“The number of minutes spent by readers at news sites increased 46 percent from the same period ending a few days ago last year, and overall visits rose 57 percent, according to a study of more than a dozen general news websites by comScore, a media measurement company.”

The difficulty with such a news week is that we know this is only the beginning. Social distancing and the necessity of work-from-home will tax the entire country. The next stories will be about job losses and the rise in COVID-19 cases locally.

Alternative weekly newspapers are already casualties of the virus. Under the headline “Total Annihilation”, Nieman Lab, which chronicles journalism and the media industry noted: “This has, without a doubt, been the single worst week in the history of America’s alternative press. They’re facing a double blow: Not only have their main advertising sources dried up, so have their main points of distribution.”

This is straining alternative weekly newspapers like Salt Lake City Weekly and Monterey County Weekly, and has brought dozens of layoffs already across the country to journalists working at weeklies in Seattle, California and elsewhere that are out of business due to the loss of advertising from restaurant, club and entertainment venues shuttered by the coronavirus.

And it’s not just the press that is facing such dramatic changes in how jobs are accomplished.

Thursday morning, economist Natalie Gochnour, head of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and a columnist for the Deseret News, was readying for an appearance on The Hinckley Report with Jason Perry. That’s unusual for a show normally taped Friday mornings. But this week the show’s three guests who would usually sit together on a panel were taped one at a time in separate segments for the half-hour show.

“We wanted to make sure we were following the guidance of the CDC and emulating the behavior everyone is doing,” Perry told me last week. “We’re just trying to model the social distancing habits.”

That’s happening on morning TV shows like NBC’s “Today” show and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and it’s happening with the White House press corps, which is screened for good health before entering the briefing room and sitting at distance.

In the Deseret News newsroom and throughout the office we’re observing best practices. Our meetings are done via Zoom or Google Hangouts. We’re glad to be able to do our jobs this way, but it heightens the need for exact communication. We also are more aware of how we are gathering news. Do you send someone to the middle of the airport to interview travelers coming into town? Can we accomplish it from 6 feet away, or be effective reporting by phone?

These are questions we’re asking each day as things change in Utah and the country. Just how do we effectively communicate with each other?

One last thing. Gov. Gary Herbert called for communication of another sort when he invited Utahns to embark on a weekend of prayer and service, noting that even if one isn’t a churchgoer it will bring a measure of peace.

Following the quake and the rise of COVID-19 cases, more than one person inside the newsroom joked, “What’s next, locusts?” Sadly, locusts are ravaging Africa, with the United Nations describing the swarms in the Horn of Africa as a crisis. Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are most at risk. Swarms are also in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and India, and it is threatening the food supply of millions of people.

If you’re kneeling down to pray this weekend for Utah, don’t forget to include everyone else.

Hospital employees work at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing facility tent outside University of Utah Health’s South Jordan Health Center on Monday, March 16, 2020.
Hospital employees work at a drive-thru COVID-19 testing facility tent outside University of Utah Health’s South Jordan Health Center on Monday, March 16, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News