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Notes on a long, surreal 2020: From the editor [column]

LNP Editorial Conference Room

The days blurred together. Work hours bled into every other waking hour. Life milestones became permanently entangled with pandemic milestones. On my son’s ninth birthday, a banner headline announced the governor’s statewide shutdown from the top of Page 1: “STAY CALM, STAY SAFE, STAY HOME.”

There are moments of clarity, though, snapshots of a year gone by from inside LNP | LancasterOnline that are poignant, inspiring and painful. The last walk through a century-old newsroom. A pre-pandemic whiteboard that, discovered months later, served as a time capsule of sorts. The growl and thrum of a new press.

I don’t keep a diary, but I do keep notes. These are some of them from 2020.

Tuesday, Dec. 29: Check-in with a co-worker who was admitted to the hospital over Christmas and is recovering, slowly, from COVID-19. He is home now, breathing with oxygen and experiencing inflammation of the lungs. Wished him and his family a happy new year.

Wednesday, Dec. 23: Call from Blaine Shahan, a veteran photographer. He’s concerned about sending a staffer to a Christmas Day party for the homeless being held indoors. Too risky to the photographer and to those he’d be photographing. We pull the plug on the assignment, but reporter Sean Sauro manages to write about the event safely for the next day’s paper. There are about a thousand small decisions like this to be made every day, I think.

LNP Newsroom at 101NQ

This is a view of the LNP | LancasterOnline newsroom at 101NQ in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Tuesday, Nov. 3: Election night. In person. In a real newsroom again. About a dozen reporters and editors are putting out the newspaper from our new office, at 101 N. Queen St., for the first time. Many of us haven’t seen each other, in real life, in nearly eight months. And we still can’t see each other’s faces through our masks. It is an awkward moment or two, getting to know your co-workers again. We stand at a distance. I pat my stomach and laugh off the weight I’ve added since spring. We’ve pushed back deadline to midnight, hoping to announce a victor in our first presidential-election edition run on the new press at Greenfield. We order five pizzas.

Thursday: Oct. 15: An important moment in carrying out our mission as a news organization tonight. A return, somewhat, to normalcy. A real, live, in-person forum between the two candidates for state Senate in the 13th District, Republican Sen. Scott Martin and Democrat Janet Diaz. To make sure everyone is safe, we’ve moved the event out of our brand-new, state-of-the art video studio and into the broader newsroom, where there’s more room and more space. We’ve installed Plexiglas dividers between the candidates and moderators. We’re wearing masks on camera. We’re still a little uncomfortable.

Political Forum with Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, and Democrat Janet Diaz

LNP Executive Editor Tom Murse, left, goes over the ground rules for the livestream with Pennsylvania State Senator Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, serving the 13th District, and Democratic challenger Lancaster City Council Woman Janet Diaz, right, in the LNP office at 101NQ in Lancaster Thursday Oct. 15, 2020.

Monday, July 27: A big night. History is made. At 11 p.m., a crew of workers at LNP Media Group’s subsidiary Susquehanna Printing, in the Greenfield corporate center in East Lampeter Township, fires up a $12 million printing press and publishes LNP for the first time. The July 28 newspaper marks the return of LNP’s printing to Lancaster County and was the result of more than a year and a half of work by a team of press installers, technicians and operators. Caroline Muraro, the president of LNP Media Group, which publishes LNP, says the occasion is significant because “it demonstrates that LNP Media Group and the Steinman Family are committed to the printed product, which is still valued by our readers and advertisers.”

FirstPressRun023.jpg

Justin Bucks, the director of process improvement, checks the paper at Susquehanna Printing for the first official LNP press run in East Lampeter Township.

Thursday, June 4: I’m a worrier. I worry every time one of my kids walks out the door, when my oldest hops in her car. I’ve come to worry about our reporters. We talk, our team, about the things our staffers should carry when covering protests. Bottled water. Milk, which helps to relieve the irritation from pepper spray. Small bottles of dish soap, ice packs, tissues, extra clothing and backup masks. We ask reporters to write their contact information on their arms.

Lancaster city protest 053020

A man yells at Lancaster city police as protesters began to surround officers on Saturday, May 30, 2020.

Sunday, May 31: Voice-to-text message from Stephanie Sadowski, a managing editor who is checking in with the reporting team covering the Black Lives Matter marches in downtown Lancaster during the afternoon. “I got pepper sprayed. I’ll call you when I get to eat (sic) West King. … I’m at eight W. King putting ice on my eyes. Abby can (sic) get me here. I can’t see so I can’t text.” I am sitting in a grocery store parking lot. She is washing her eyes with soap and water in the ladies’ room at the old, vacant newspaper office.

Saturday, May 30: Afternoon phone call with Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace. The city police chief is angry with one of our photographers, Ty Lohr, who was taking photos of the protests downtown. The chief confronted Ty and accused him of instigating the protesters, of interfering. Ty did no such thing. He was doing his job, was standing in the public right-of-way documenting an important moment in this city’s history and the fight for social justice. Tensions are high.

Tuesday, May 5: I’ve broken the news to our staff. We’re not going back to the newsroom at 8 W. King St. When we’re able to work together, we’ll head straight to the new office, at 101NQ. We’ll each have one final day to pack our belongings, take one last look around the joint and pay silent tribute to reporters, editors, photographers and page designers who worked from this very space and are long gone. The thing I’ll remember on my final day is the echoes of my footsteps.

Former LNP Newsroom at 8 W. King St.

This is how the LNP | LancasterOnline newsroom appeared after reporters and editors moved out in the summer of 2020. Their new newsroom is at 101NQ, about a block away, in downtown Lancaster.

Thursday, April 30: Celebrated photographer Dan Marschka’s retirement today. Via video call. No cake. No card passed around the room. No congratulatory slaps on the back or handshakes. No photos, no unscripted roasts or speeches in the newsroom. A video call. After more than 40 years of documenting some of the biggest stories in our region — from the meltdown at Three Mile Island to the massacre at Nickel Mines — he closed the book on a storied career from a small room in his home in Manheim Township, his wife Val popping on-screen to say hello. “It’s a tough and lonely job at times,” Dan says.

A day later, we celebrate another veteran staffer’s retirement via video happy hour. Earle Cornelius held almost every job imaginable in the newsroom, from reporter to copy editor to “zones” editor and correspondent supervisor to editorial page editor and Faith & Values editor. He signed off with a note to the staff: “I now drink to the 40-plus years I have spent at LNP. A lot has changed since that first night but our mission remains the same. I am proud to have worked for this newspaper and this company. The journalists here have made a difference.”

Thursday, April 9: Gov. Tom Wolf announces the closure of schools for the remainder of the school year.

Tuesday, April 7: Singer John Prine dies of COVID-19. He was 73. The Bitter Southerner, in a tribute to Prine’s life and music, describes the songwriter as a “grief counselor for our time.” It is still the early days of the pandemic and this is big news. A couple of days later, LNP | LancasterOnline reporter Kevin Stairiker talks to local musicians and Prine fans and shares links to some of Prine’s most beloved songs. After our morning story budget meeting, I take a few moments to listen. “All the Best.” “In Spite of Ourselves.” “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round.’ ”

Wonderful, heartbreaking songs that seem to be a soundtrack for our moment. We play Prine in my older daughter’s car as she learns to drive in the early spring, always heading south, through Conestoga and Washington Boro and Pequea and Martic Forge. I know the River Hills and she does not. We settle on “Long Monday” as a favorite for these drives. We expect schools to be closed for the rest of the year and quietly mourn the moments of a sophomore year that would not be. No softball games. No dances. Time lost.

It’s gonna be a long Monday

Sittin’ all alone on a mountain

By a river that has no end

It’s gonna be a long Monday

Stuck like the tick of a clock

That’s come unwound again

Wednesday, April 1: Hard day. The pandemic is ravaging the economy, and our news organization — like so many community newspapers and small businesses across the country — has taken a major financial hit. Advertising revenue, which supports most of the operational costs of any news organization, has evaporated as many businesses close their doors. Most live sporting, entertainment and cultural events are canceled. Small-town papers are shutting their doors, cutting the number of days they publish and laying off scores of veteran journalists. I’ve got 12 people to call. I’ve worked with many of these reporters and editors for two decades. They have become friends.

Saturday, March 28: Another moment for which we’ve been preparing: The first coronavirus death in Lancaster County. The coroner says the woman died Friday at Lancaster General Hospital. She was in her late 80s. Her name and hometown are unavailable.

Wednesday, March 18: Lancaster General Hospital says it’s treating a patient who has tested positive for COVID-19 in what is the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Lancaster County.

Sunday, March 15: It’s time. It’s no longer safe to be together in the newsroom. I talk to my fellow editors and inform most of the staff — reporters, photographers and our digital team — that we’re moving out, working remotely, and there’s no return date. “The next two weeks are critical to slowing the spread of — and potential deaths from — COVID-19 in Pennsylvania and the United States. The health and safety of our newsroom staff and their loved ones are paramount as we continue to report on every angle of this crisis and inform the public. ... I cannot stress this enough: Do not report to the newsroom for work. … There are no known cases in Lancaster County, but we must remain several steps ahead of the virus.” Our living rooms, our basements, our kitchens became our newsrooms.

Friday, March 13: Our last in-person news budget meeting at 8 W. King St. The whiteboard, untouched even months later, serves as a time capsule of sorts. Among the projects in the works: An analysis of shifting voter demographics in the county, a news feature on women in law enforcement, a profile of the county’s oldest working bus driver, a guide to the upcoming April presidential primary.

LNP Editorial Whiteboard

This is the conference room whiteboard at 8 W. King St. in Lancaster used by editors and reporters at LNP | LancasterOnline to plan online and print coverage until mid-March 2020, when COVID-19 forced most employees to work remotely.

Wednesday, Jan. 8: The news is heavy. The U.S. and Iran have stepped back from the brink of war as a standoff continues over how President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial will go down in the Senate. The Ephrata Area School District is preparing to become the first district here to begin the school day later in the morning. At the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, the Sheep-to-Shawl competition takes place. That’s always a big deal. At our afternoon news budget meeting, editors pitch these stories and photos for prominent play in the next day’s paper.

We have a three-paragraph story on a new illness. Our wire editor earmarks it for Nation & World, Page A7. The Associated Press brief reports: “A preliminary investigation into viral pneumonia illnesses sickening dozens of people in China has identified the possible cause as a new type of coronavirus, state media said Thursday. ... The novel coronavirus is different from those that have previously been identified. ...”

Tom Murse is the executive editor of LNP | LancasterOnline. You can email him at tmurse@lnpnews.com.

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Tom Murse is the executive editor of LNP | LancasterOnline. He can be reached at tmurse@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6021.