“Man plans, but God laughs.” I can’t think of a more suitable expression for 2020.
At the end of last year, I applied for the California 2020 scholarship with the following tentative title: My original plan was to follow a select group of senior citizens in Oakland who were aging on the streets and investigate how homelessness can literally accelerate the aging process. As I mentioned in my original offer, right in the San Francisco Bay Area, wealthy tech executives were paying thousands of dollars to slow down their aging processes. There is an aging gap in the Bay Area that needs to be addressed, I declared.
Then came the pandemic, which forced me to drastically change my story and find ways to do basic street reporting without the street.
During my first month of reporting on the project, I focused on what I could do from my home. I submitted public records requests, interviewed researchers, and made efforts to establish relationships with new sources. But it became clear that the coronavirus would change the scope of my story, as I planned to report on a population — homeless seniors — that had become unexpectedly more vulnerable during the pandemic. When we were given orders on the spot, many wondered (myself included) how the homeless were supposed to find shelter in their place.
In April, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a statewide initiative, Project Roomkey, that will open up 15,000 hotel rooms to the state’s homeless population. The initiative provided $150 million to local California governments to buy trailers and rent rooms in motels, hotels and other facilities, with priority given to areas with large homeless populations, such as the Bay Area.
As I reported in one of my stories, it was the first initiative of its kind in the nation and was hailed as a “winner” because it prioritized homeless people in the following categories: health conditions, homeless people who have been exposed to COVID-19, and those who are COVID-19 positive but have not required hospitalization.
Naturally, my story changed because this group was prioritized for temporary housing during the pandemic.
At first I felt overwhelmed and like I was starting from scratch. I also felt very limited because I still didn’t feel comfortable reporting in the field, but I did my best to stay optimistic. I approached the report in small steps, which led to a series of stories looking at the plight of older homeless people in the Bay Area and their health (the stories can all be found here on the Flipboard page).
Here are some lessons I learned along the way.
1. Break your investigation into smaller parts.
Because my story kept changing as events unfolded, I found it helpful to narrow the focus of each piece while keeping in mind that it touched on the larger issue I was writing about. For example, it helped to visualize my story as a Venn diagram where aging, homelessness, and epidemic intersect. For example, when fires broke out in Northern California and poor air quality made it difficult for me to report on the streets, I wrote about how wildfires “rise in crisis in crisis” for homeless people.
2. Check your sources often.
Since meeting sources in real life was not feasible during the pandemic, it became even more important for me to maintain contact with them. I’ve made it a point to send weekly emails or phone calls to my sources to check in, say hello, and even just ask how they’re doing during this chaotic time.
3. Document your progress daily.
When it came time to submit my monthly status report on the project, life was definitely made easier when I kept a daily record of my progress using Google Sheets. Each day I would record any small progress I made (even if it was just reading a short article or report). Get organized with your project and you’ll be happier and more productive. This prompt was inspired by one of the presentations given during the fellowship training.
4. Don’t give up on finding a personal story.
As you can imagine, finding people living on the streets, spending time with them, and conducting safe interviews during COVID-19 was difficult. And when Project Roomkey began, journalists were not allowed into the facilities. It took a lot of discussion, planning, and I tracked down the main source, eventually touring an RV park in San Francisco’s Mission Bay that led to one of my best stories. I’m really glad I didn’t give up.
5. Connect audio and video if possible.
I ended up working with Salon’s multimedia team to put together video and audio of my time at the RV park. I think using this additional medium to share Jerome Howard’s story was very effective and contributed to the success of the piece. I was very fortunate to have spent time with Howard, who was willing to take photos and post audio excerpts of our interview.
6. What goes right is just as important as what goes wrong.
As journalists, we often focus on covering injustices. And I certainly encountered some of them when I was reporting on the slow pace of Project Roomkey and how bureaucratic policies were getting in the way of housing vulnerable people during the pandemic. However, the story I encountered at Mission Bay’s RV park was positive, and it gave readers and the Bay Area community a story of hope in an otherwise hopeless time. Focusing on how the pandemic has given housing to people who wouldn’t have had it in non-pandemic times reminded me how important these stories of hope are, too.
Find Nicole Karlis on Twitter @NicoleKarlis or email@example.com.