After New Year’s, the Dutch media gradually started writing more and more about a new pulmonary virus that originated in China. Universities of applied sciences and research universities kept their finger on the pulse and sought out students who were studying in China or who had just returned from this country.
But Covid-19 started to spread like wildfire, and after a major outbreak in Northern Italy it didn’t take long before the disease hit the Netherlands. More and more infections were reported, and in mid-March, all higher education institutions decided to close their doors.
The outbreak gave huge momentum to the higher education news outlets. There were all sorts of urgent questions that needed to be answered: online education – how do you arrange that? What would happen to the BSA? How would students sit their exams? Would research be suspended? Would exchange students be returning home?
“The first three, four weeks were quite exhausting and frantic,” says Maaike Platvoet of U-Today (University of Twente). “We had to make all sorts of new arrangements, of course. Which system will we be using for conferences? What are the rules? From a journalist’s standpoint, this was an incredibly interesting period. We had all sorts of subjects to write about and were bubbling with ideas.”
“We aren’t producing a paper magazine anymore, because there’s no way to distribute it,” says Marieke Schilp of Ad Valvas (VU University Amsterdam). “And a week ago, we also decided to stop publishing our online magazine. We’re focussing our full attention on our website, and we’re working hard to put out a newsletter as soon as possible.”
The editors’ hard work yields some interesting coverage. For example, Leiden University’s Mare was quick to scrutinise ‘online proctoring’; Punt (Avans University of Applied Sciences) interviewed a student who contracted the coronavirus but nevertheless managed to graduate with a 9/10; DUB (Utrecht University) wrote about the repatriation of students stuck in Guatemala; Trajectum interviewed the signer and brand-new Dutch celebrity Irma Sluis, a former student of HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht; and an article published by the Rotterdam-based Erasmus Magazine about the discovery of an antibody for the virus was referenced by virtually every Dutch media outlet and a host of international channels.
Tired of corona
Various editors-in-chief estimate that at least 80 percent of their coverage relates to the coronavirus crisis. But with most outlets, this share is even higher – over 90 percent.
“We’ve had a few discussions about it within the team too,” says Ries Agterberg of DUB. “Aren’t people getting tired of corona? But it continues to be the number one issue right now.”
And multiple editorial teams confirm that this can also be seen in the significant increase in page views and visitor numbers. “March was our best month ever in terms of visitors,” says Annemarie Haverkamp of Vox (Radboud University). And Rob Siebelink of UKrant (University of Groningen) also reports that the most recent period saw ‘all records broken’. Erasmus Magazine’s antibody article drew over 400,000 unique visitors to its website.
And they get more than just clicks. Most editorial teams also receive more reactions and submissions from students and lecturers, be it via email or social media. Readers also compliment the editors on a job well done.
And it’s important work besides, according to the editors-in-chief, because during a crisis like this, independent media play a more important role than ever for research universities and universities of applied sciences. “Agenda-driven journalism is basically out of the window,” says Mare’s Frank Provoost. “The university is forced to completely reinvent itself and we have a front-row seat.”
The magazines don’t just serve as an important source of news. With university campuses virtually deserted, their social function is more important than ever, says Willem Andrée of Resource (Wageningen University). “We connect our readers with each other and with the university. Now more than ever, our magazine is a great way to stay up to date and find out how other people are doing.”
It is also important to maintain a critical perspective and keep asking difficult questions. Close contacts with the institution’s board are crucially important in this context. Most editorial teams have nothing to complain about. They are kept up to date on new developments, regularly have the opportunity to interview senior administrators and are able to attend the online meetings of their universities’ representative bodies.
But the crisis doesn’t necessarily make things easier. “You don’t know what to expect in terms of what lands in your inbox,” says Marc Janssen of Trajectum. “That can be annoying. In some cases, we may have picked up on that information and published it earlier on. And some HU staff members may find it annoying too. Oh well. On the other hand: when you phone spokespeople, they fall over themselves to help you. These are truly interesting times.”
At the University of Groningen, it was a ‘sorry state of affairs’ during the first few weeks, says UKrant’s Rob Siebelink. “Until I had a very heated argument with the Chair of the University Council about openness and transparency. Since then, we meet with the entire university board every week for an online interview.”
Working from home suits some editorial teams more than others. “We miss our school, the students, the coffee machine and the creative process at our office, which has proven difficult to recreate in a video conference,” says Tosca Sel of Profielen (Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences). “But we’re making do.”
There’s no shortage of virus-related news, but you miss what you’d usually hear around the water cooler, says Punt’s Arold Roestenburg. “The kind of news you can pick up by simply walking through the buildings and approaching people. We no longer have these informal contacts with students and staff members – contacts that ultimately spawn a lot of articles.”
Working from home is particularly demanding for many editors with children. “Five of our colleagues have school-age children and try to free up time for them too,” says Han Konings of Cursor (Eindhoven University of Technology). “This doesn’t always run smoothly, and particularly in the first few weeks, everyone was basically ‘on’ 24/7. We’re producing more than ever.”
And many contributors have other concerns to deal with besides: friends and family members who are sick or seriously ill, aging parents. Some editors know people who have died from the virus, or are showing symptoms themselves.
In the meantime, there are always new developments, and the pressure remains very high. In some editorial teams, the boundary between work and home life is becoming increasingly blurred. “The editorial app never stops updating,” says Ries Agterberg (DUB). When you’re working from home, this makes it more difficult to disconnect from work when you have the day off. We’ve tried to make agreements about this aspect too.”
At Vox in Nijmegen, they seem to have found an effective solution. “We set up a new app group every day, which only includes those colleagues who are working at that time,” says Annemarie Haverkamp.
Normally speaking, the editorial board of Observant (Maastricht University) would take a break over the May Holidays. This year, the editors decided to spread their holidays, to avoid the website from going on hold for two weeks. “We need to keep reporting the news, to keep our readers up to date,” says Riki Janssen. “A lot of matters have gained a new urgency due to the outbreak. Although we will be taking time off, because I have noticed we need it. People are starting to get tired.”
And there are also concerns about privacy. Like many students and lecturers, Saskia Bonger of Delta (Delft University of Technology) believes that there should be more secure online tools. “What you often see – and we’re no exception – is that convenience wins out and that we complacently opt for something like Zoom – even though we know that means our data will be traded. Even if protecting data is very important to you, it has become more or less impossible to stand your ground on this issue right now. After all, we need to go ahead with our meetings.”
part of special
With Erasmus TV we keep you up to speed with the latest developments about the corona…
How long the coronavirus crisis will be going on is anyone’s guess. At any rate, visitor numbers seem to be stabilising of late, according to the editors-in-chief. Nevertheless, it’s still busier than usual.
So the teams need to keep their shoulders to the wheel, but in many cases, this also leads to interesting ideas. “Since the start of the crisis, we’ve been broadcasting a TV magazine three times a week,” says Arjan Paans of Erasmus Magazine. “It was a long-held wish of our editors to be even more cross-media in our approach. We were originally thinking of a monthly TV broadcast. But the coronavirus crisis has worked like a pressure cooker for these plans. We hope to keep this spirit alive when we’ve left the crisis behind us.”
Where from here?
It appears as if the coronavirus will stay with us for some time to come. Still, it’s important to already start looking ahead, says Ries Agterberg, president of the Circle of Editors-in-Chief of university and university of applied sciences magazines. “Right now, the big question is: how can editorial boards transition from the current total focus on the coronavirus crisis to stories about a new reality? This is a gradual process. Little by little, you can already see articles being published about other matters – even though the outbreak seems to add a different dimension to everything that’s discussed.”
According to Agterberg, it will be interesting to see how research universities and universities of applied sciences will be developing in the years ahead. “And particularly: which lessons can they draw from what happened during the crisis? Take digital education, for example: we’ve seen huge advances in this area. Will everything go back to the way it was, or will institutions be holding on to certain innovations?”
And in the period ahead, it remains important that the different media outlets in the Dutch higher education sector continue to share their experiences, says Agterberg. “The editors-in-chief are quick to seek each other out via the Circle, with questions like ‘this is what we’ve run into, how do you guys handle that,’ etc. This way, we can help each other and it’s a source of new ideas for our different publications.”