Among the “essential workers” we couldn’t do without during the coronavirus crisis are the journalists covering government, public health and the healthcare industry in our nation and our communities. Rarely has there been a time when accurate information and purposeful reporting were more important to our communities.
The Staten Island Advance, with its 24/7 website SILive.com, is the newspaper that serves Wagner College’s home community. The Advance has always had very close ties to the college. Top editors Les Trautmann ’40 (1965-92), Brian Laline MS’72 (1992-current) and former associate managing editor Claire Regan ’80 are all alumni, as are numerous members of the paper’s newsroom staff.
One of those frontline Advance journalists is Mark Stein ’10, who agreed to write for us about his experience of covering the coronavirus crisis on Staten Island — and how his Grymes Hill education prepared him for that task.
As of this writing, we’re eight weeks into the new, non-stop world of coronavirus. Each day feels like Phil Connors’ repetitious experience in the movie “Groundhog Day.” Every morning, my alarm goes off, I rise from my slumber, stare at the ceiling, fetch my phone, absorb the updated rise in cases and other news, and get busy. There’s no end in sight.
I’ve served the nearly 500,000-person population of Staten Island for almost a dozen years as a journalist for the Staten Island Advance, this community’s daily newspaper, and SILive.com, the Advance internet platform.
In the spring of 2007, as a sophomore at Wagner College, Professor Claire Regan’s “Introduction to Journalism” class revealed to me the fundamental responsibilities and key points of accurately portraying a story. A year later, in Professor Peter Sharpe’s “Reviewing” class, my ability to present information, entertain, analyze and (better properly) punctuate graduated to a higher level. Moments from both classes still remain deeply close to me, and my two summer internships at the Advance gave me practical experience that led directly to my full-time job. Those lessons also remain essential in this challenging period.
I’m born and raised on Staten Island, attended school here my entire life, and have been employed at one place full-time: on the editorial team of the Staten Island Advance/SILive.com. My roles have changed — juggling social media policy, creating videos and podcasts, writing and editing, taking photos, planning coverage with editors, and so forth — but my long-standing principle has remained the same: Get the people the information they deserve.
THE BIGGEST STORY OF OUR LIVES
In 2012, after Hurricane Sandy claimed nearly two dozen Staten Islanders’ lives and caused enormous wreckage, I reported on facets of this rare but devastating natural disaster. We saw it come, and we saw it go. It ended. We quickly learned from the horrible moment.
But in this era of coronavirus, the finish line seems very distant.
Since March, I’ve played co-host with fellow Advance staffer and columnist Tom Wrobleski on a show called “Hot Zone” presented on the Advance’s Facebook Live platform, where we’ve delivered daily updates, twice each day, for hundreds of viewers. This method of dispensing information is commonplace in 2020, especially as viewers’ comments are rapidly fired and available for the audience to see. We have approximately 150,000 subscribers on that social media platform alone.
The community my newspaper represents is technically part of New York City but often feels isolated, despite being one of the city’s five boroughs. Historically, it’s always felt distant from the rest of NYC. For more than five decades, until 2001, this island was home to one of the largest landfills in America, receiving all of New York City’s garbage. We have just one MTA train line. The best way to get to Manhattan (besides driving over the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge and paying a $19 toll) is by a ship, the Staten Island Ferry. South Shore residents’ commutes to Manhattan take upwards of 90 minutes. Distant, to say the least.
In this screwy, uncertain coronavirus hell we’re living in, those previous factors still matter, especially as residents of the rest of the city and state ponder the questions that have surfaced on a daily basis over the past two months about the present and future of the virus, our economic status, and other potentially affected portions of our lives: What’s the ZIP code case update? When will it end? How will it end? Is it safe to go out? What’s the testing like? What about antibodies? Can I get coronavirus twice? Why can’t I get unemployment payments? Are flu and pneumonia deaths being counted? Can these unemployment levels rise? Will these businesses never return? Can you give those ZIP code numbers again?
Those are just some of the scores of questions the Advance staff receives every day.
When a reporter covers a story, the subject matter isn’t supposed to directly impact him or her.
But this is different.
It’s much more personal. It has us anxious for our own futures, our families, friends and loved ones, our careers.
Folks I used to attend school with are now cops, firefighters, nurses, teachers and doctors. They’ve reached out with tips and shared experiences, and they’ve assured me they are safe. Strangers who recognize me from my work have extended a hand to offer information. Hospitals celebrate incoming nurses and doctors on new shifts. In so many ways, this borough feels like a close-knit, small town, despite its half-million population.
Throughout these eight weeks, I’ve lost track of the “good news” stories because we’ve had so very many: restaurants donating hundreds of dollars’ worth of food per night to first responders, immigrants making masks for folks on the frontlines, teachers driving to students’ homes to give them gifts and boost morale, and volunteer medical workers from Colorado or Pennsylvania driving to New York City to assist. These stories matter. They’re meaningful, uplifting and, most importantly, human.
HOW DOES THIS END?
A mystery awaits us. Businesses, including the very newspaper employing me, are struggling financially. New York City and state governments, along with the United States government, are facing dire economic conditions. Two months in to this crisis, we’re antsy, looking for an endgame, a break in the action or something concrete.
Frankly, I have no idea when this concludes. A vaccine appears far off. For now, my professional and personal instincts are to keep rolling in a cliché fashion: One day at a time. Maintain patience, keep cool, stay vigilant and absorb as much valid information as possible.
“This is like painting a moving train,” says my colleague, Tom, in terms of grasping the complete scope of this virus and the residual wreckage it’s caused.
In the movie “Groundhog Day,” Connors learned to play the piano, sculpt ice, flick cards into a hat, and speak a new language. Despite living an awful day over and over again, Bill Murray’s weatherman character rolled with the highs and sank with the lows. When his personal hell ended, he was in a better state, with a greater understanding of the better parts of life.
Be safe, all.