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March 11, 2020, 12:10 p.m.

One NICAR attendee’s positive test has sent a disruptive ripple through news orgs’ response to coronavirus

There are thousands of journalists either working from home or in full self-quarantine this week as news outlets try to limit COVID-19’s reach within their organizations.

“Being from Louisiana” and “running Nieman Lab” are two elements of my life that rarely overlap. So it was surprising to see them mashed up in a push notification last night from The Times-Picayune:

Person who attended NICAR journalism conference in New Orleans tests presumptively positive for coronavirus.

NICAR is, of course, the preeminent annual gathering of data journalists and others inclined toward the use of computational technology in reporting and investigation, and it was held at the New Orleans Marriott last week. Here’s the announcement from IRE director Doug Haddix:

A person who attended the NICAR20 conference in New Orleans last week tested presumptively positive today with COVID-19. This attendee has mild symptoms and is expected to make a full recovery. They are self-quarantining at home for 14 days, as recommended by health professionals.

The test has been sent to the Centers for Disease Control for confirmation. Until the test result is confirmed by the CDC, which can take up to a week, it is considered a presumptive positive. IRE is notifying conference attendees now so that individuals can make their own decisions on how best to proceed.

The attendee traveled from within the United States to the conference in New Orleans and was present from Thursday (March 5) until Saturday afternoon (March 7). Based on the onset of the limited symptoms, they could have contracted the virus either before, during or after the conference. Symptoms can appear within two to 14 days of exposure, and in some cases do not appear at all.

One thing that the early spread of COVID-19 in the United States has made clear is the role a single gathering can play as a viral accelerator. Here in Massachusetts, of the 92 cases identified so far, a whopping 70 are connected to a single strategy meeting of executives at the biotech company Biogen. (That’s not even counting additional cases in at least three other states tied to the meeting in late February.) “There’s a lot of handshaking, there’s a lot of being in close quarters, and that puts you at risk,” one health care executive told The Wall Street Journal about the Biogen cluster. “You eat something. You rub your eyes. You touch your face.”

That sounds an awful lot like a NICAR or other journalism conference, so the concern about further spread is obvious. (Though it’s worth noting that concerns about COVID-19 were well known before NICAR, unlike the Biogen meeting, and that preventative measures and practices were in place.) The fact that more than 1,000 reporters1 from nearly all major U.S. news organizations (and plenty from around the world) were at NICAR makes this a bigger story than a single presumptive positive normally would.

News organizations are reacting quickly. The New York Times is having all of its NICAR-attending staffers self-quarantine for two weeks.

The Houston Chronicle is doing the same for its four NICAR attendees and encouraging other newsroom staffers to work from home while offices are cleaned.

McClatchy is acting chain-wide — including, apparently, asking people who didn’t attend NICAR but have had contact with attendees to self-quarantine too.

The second-order effects are also happening at Gannett and elsewhere:

NICAR also attracts a lot of academics, so a lot of journalism professors and students back on campus face another source of anxiety (on top of the ones already facing universities this week):

Others are taking individual action:

While it’s hard to tally up the impact precisely, there are likely more than a thousand journalists working from home today because of this one positive test at NICAR, with hundreds of them having to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Combine that with all the other, non-NICAR-related actions being taken by news organizations — The Washington Post announcing a “soft quarantine” for all staff, Condé Nast, Vox Media, and Business Insider sending everyone home through the end of the month, the L.A. Times asking everyone who’s flown anywhere recently to self-quarantine for two weeks, and hundreds of other decisions across the country and the world — and you have a structural shift like this industry has never seen. Yesterday, I wrote about the huge (and negative) potential impacts the spread of coronavirus could have on the news business, but the impacts on our editorial products are also very real.

This kind of move is obviously a lot easier to pull off in an age of iPhones, ubiquitous wifi, decent mobile data, and Zoom than it would have been 10, 20, or 30 years ago. But it’s also a jarring natural experiment: How does the news change when reporters have to keep their distance from events, sources, and one another? I hope some academic is tracking how news organizations’ output gets altered when the newsroom’s physical center does not hold. (Assuming said academic isn’t too busy arranging childcare after their kid’s school gets canceled, figuring out how to teach remotely for the first time, or anxiously overthinking every household cough.)

There are obvious reasons why a centralized newsroom with a physical home is important for local news. But with the digital-native news world becoming increasingly centered on a few expensive coastal cities, this disruption could be an opportunity for some NYC/DC/SF/LA publishers to embrace a less place-centered approach.

And for some, 14 days of isolation was a small price to pay for what they got out of the conference.

In any event, a fair number of tweets sent out last week — before or during NICAR — now read just a little bit differently.

Illustration of the “ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses” by Alissa Eckert/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  1. I should note that while “more than 1,000” attendees seems to be the number everyone is reporting, a lot of people registered for the conference ended up canceling at the last minute over coronavirus fears — or having their employers make the decision for them, as at The Washington Post. So I can’t quite vouch for “more than 1,000” being the number of people who actually showed up. It’s a big number, whatever it was.

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POSTED     March 11, 2020, 12:10 p.m.
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