The Red & Black's summer training taught staff how to cover events safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo/Rebecca Burns)

Last year, our staff was out in the Classic City covering music festivals and the dog days of summer while working on a back-to-school issue from The Red & Black office. Now we’re juggling a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, protests for racial justice and the University of Georgia’s unpredictable reopening plans — and working from locked down apartments or our high school bedrooms back home.

It’s no secret that the summer of 2020 has been unlike any other. I’ve heard the words “unprecedented” and “uncertain” so often in the past four months that I can’t imagine going back to what life was like before COVID-19. Despite this, The Red & Black began this summer in uncharted territory and dove headfirst into history’s newest chapter.

We were forced to work remotely, scrapping any plans we had to gather and get to know one another. We trained a new editorial staff by video conference and Slack messages and quickly adapted to online-only content.

The editorial staff and contributors are reporting from all over the state, from Savannah and Johns Creek to Valdosta and Athens. As the office remained closed while receiving a deep-clean and fresh coat of paint, we virtually met three times a week to discuss our content and our expectations for the summer, which revolved around covering COVID-19 and its impact on campus and the city.

What expectations we had left quickly shifted when a video of George Floyd’s death surfaced at the end of May. The nationwide protests over Floyd’s death and the systemic racial injustices that it exemplified made their way to Athens, and our dedicated photographers and reporters were there for it all. Throughout the next few weeks, our coverage spanned all desks and earned the most pageviews in recent years.

Our photographers wore bulletproof vests in the afternoon Georgia heat and experienced firsthand how tear gas feels when it enters your eyes. They also went behind-the-scenes to cover livestream readings and concerts. They’re currently capturing the reopening of Athens businesses.

The sports desk completely shifted focus during a summer of no sports, focusing on Georgia’s 1990 College World Series team, yoga and the rise of esports leagues. They were able to talk with prominent players and coaches for Q&A pieces. Right now, they’re waiting with the rest of the South for the final decision about fall football.

The culture desk normally thrives on summer festivals and concerts, but they adjusted to their new situation to produce pieces about intersectionality during Pride Month, ways to support Black Lives Matter and UGA alumni in action.

Our special publications took a hit, but they were reimagined to serve the community. The Eat & Drink restaurant guide became a must-use digital resource for Athens foodies wanting to pick up a curbside meal or cocktail. The UGA 101 guide for incoming freshmen was delivered by mail to hundreds of homes across the country instead of being handed out at summer orientation, and we recently launched an online version.

The news desk has been there every step of the way. We were fortunate to have a robust group of contributors available to cover the mayor and commission, Clarke County school board and UGA. We reported on the racist building names at UGA, city and USG mask mandates, preparations for the return to campus, and how to get a COVID-19 test in Athens.

Our entire newsroom adjusted to include more diverse voices, but none as much as our opinion desk. We compiled stories from students directly affected by racism, those advocating to be more inclusive during Pride Month and graduate students who were scared to return to campus in the fall. We heard from a man who stopped receiving unemployment payments and a former UGA employee who admitted the “I Am Grady” slogan was a mistake. We started a weekly coronavirus column that tracks case numbers in the city and state and what it means for the future.

These protests and outcries for racial justice helped us do some soul-searching. The Red & Black is not a diverse newsroom, and we’ve stayed silent for too long about our own lack of diversity and what that means for our news coverage. We’re a media organization with a twofold mission: to train young journalists and act as a reliable news source for Athenians and the UGA community. Transparency should be at the forefront of all that we do, especially when it comes to our own shortcomings.

We are evolving, albeit slowly. This change can’t happen overnight, and our urgency to expand newsroom diversity must stay consistent despite a rotating editorial staff. We have the ability to create a new legacy at The Red & Black. We’re willing to have tough conversations because we realize we need to do better. While COVID-19 casts an unpredictable shadow on our plans for the future, we’re reenergized in our goals to improve our recruitment outreach and diversity initiatives.

As the newsroom of record for UGA, we strive to chronicle the evolution of life on campus and in the city. This edition of The Red & Black serves to document another chapter of the community’s rich and varied history.

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