Local Journalist Heroes: Texas Observer Staff
This Q&A is part of Local Heroes: Journalists Covering COVID-19, PEN America’s series spotlighting local journalists across the country in celebration of World Press Freedom Day 2020, elevating the importance of a free, vibrant, and inclusive press.
Name: Abby Johnston, answering collaboratively with her colleagues Gus Bova, Megan Kimble, Chris Collins, Sophie Novack, Michael Barajas, Justin Miller, DaLyah Jones, Lise Olsen, Acacia Coronado, and Sunny Sone
Outlet: The Texas Observer
City: Austin, TX
What do you want your readers to know about what goes into the coverage they’re relying on?
Newsrooms across the nation have produced incredible, vital work as this pandemic has unfolded. There are breaking news desks that are working on overdrive right now to bring the public the most up-to-date information. The Observer’s role in a swiftly moving news cycle, however, is not breaking news. We have given ourselves the space to step back and consider the broader picture, to highlight what might have been missed in the initial reporting. We are constantly looking for stories that have been overshadowed or communities that are under-covered—and unfortunately, those are often among the most vulnerable.
Luckily, our reporters have spent time building relationships with people in their beats; not to mention, deep knowledge of their own. This allows us to continue our focus on the people we believe will be overlooked as COVID-19 continues. The Observer has always looked beyond the big headline of the day, but that becomes much harder when breaking news is happening every minute.
“COVID-19 has obviously impacted us from a reporting standpoint. So much of what we do relies on narrative and description, which you get by being with people and/or spending time in a place. Both of those things are hard, if not impossible, to do at present.”
How have the advent of the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing requirements changed your reporting and the way your newsroom operates more broadly?
Like many (maybe most?) newsrooms, we are all working from home. The Zoom calls can feel a little bit like the title sequence of The Brady Bunch, but we’ve enjoyed getting to know everyone’s pets a little bit better.
COVID-19 has obviously impacted us from a reporting standpoint. So much of what we do relies on narrative and description, which you get by being with people and/or spending time in a place. Both of those things are hard, if not impossible, to do at present.
However, there are still ways to incorporate good narrative. Gus Bova recently observed construction sites from a safe distance to provide descriptive details to a story. But another way to do that is let people tell their own stories, and have them put you in their shoes. This, of course, isn’t new for the Observer. But in the absence of being able to see things for ourselves, there has been a greater reliance on interviews and allowing someone to set the scene for us.
What can your readers do to support their local journalists, besides subscribing?
Tips! Reach out to us and let us know what you’re seeing and hearing. There are so many stories that have come to us through readers. We have a specific coronavirus tip line, in addition to our general guidelines on how to securely contact us.
About The Texas Observer
The Texas Observer is an Austin-based nonprofit news organization known for fearless investigative reporting, narrative storytelling, and sophisticated cultural criticism about all things Texan. Since its founding in 1954, the Observer has covered issues that are often ignored or underreported by other media. They strive to expose injustice and to produce the kind of impact journalism that changes people’s lives for the better, and their thoughtful arts and culture coverage recognizes the diversity and talent of Texas’ creative community.
Their COVID-19 coverage is a collaborative effort among all staff writers: Gus Bova, border and immigration reporter; Megan Kimble, senior editor; Chris Collins, rural reporter; Sophie Novack, public health reporter; Michael Barajas, civil rights reporter; Justin Miller, politics reporter; DaLyah Jones, environment reporter; Sunny Sone, engagement editor; Acacia Coronado, editorial fellow; Lise Olsen, senior editor and reporter; and Abby Johnston, executive editor.
Examples of Coverage
- The COVID-19 Disaster Has Made a Mess of Texas’ Open Government Rules, by Chris Collins
- From Jail to the Streets: One Texan’s Story During COVID-19, by Gus Bova
- ‘I Think I’m Gonna Die’: Coronavirus Compounds Risk for Dialysis Patients in the Rio Grande Valley, by Sophie Novack
- COVID-19 Could Be a ‘Double Whammy’ for Those in Pollution Hotspots, by DaLyah Jones