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MIKE PURVIS: Welcome to SooToday+. Or, an optimist's guide to journalism in a pandemic

COVID-19 has forced us out of the newsroom and out of our comfort zones, but it has taught us things as well that we hope will make us better at our jobs and better people
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Clockwise from left: MIke Purvis, Mayor Christian Provenzano and Malcolm White, chief administrative officer of the city of Sault Ste. Marie

Don’t get me wrong. This pandemic stinks.

It’s really rotten. People are getting very sick, and as I'm sure you are aware, thousands of people in this province have died.

The rest of us are doing our part to minimize the spread of COVID-19, which means inconveniences, like wearing a mask when we go out, and also putting limits on human contact that can feel like an awful lot more than an inconvenience.

But by nature I’m an optimist, so my mind forces me to look for the upside. Some silver lining we can point to and say that some good is coming from this.

About a month ago, I did a couple of video calls with the mayor and CAO. The city is getting ready to set its budget for next year and because of this stinking pandemic, it’s harder than it used to be for people to get the answers they want from city hall. So we gave SooToday readers a chance to ask whatever they wanted.

A couple things stood out to me. 

Firstly, people don’t have nearly as many questions about how the city spends their tax revenue as they did about COVID-19 when we did a similar call-out early in the pandemic. That wasn’t really surprising. COVID-19 was entirely new, while budgets happen every year. It makes sense.

Secondly, it struck me that we're still managing to get on with our lives now, even though we have been doing it differently for a long time now. And maybe some of this is going to make us better at what we do in the long run, which is maybe that good thing I was looking for.

Let me give you some context.

This time last year we were just settling into our new office on Queen Street, having packed up and moved from our cramped second-floor space down the road.

We would spend several glorious months enjoying that new space. The news team now had access to meeting rooms and places to do interviews and room to move about that we just weren’t used to. The parking wasn't quite as convenient, but there was space to have lunch, and spots to brainstorm about a story idea or a new concept, or to just hang out on breaks.

That, of course, was turned on its head by COVID-19.

For almost eight months now, we have been working remotely, whether it’s at a desk at home full time (like me), or, in the case of our reporters, at home, but also out in the field (safely) doing the job we’ve always done. The internal newsroom conversations that once meant turning to a colleague at a nearby desk now most often happen in a chat room, or by phone. We used to gather in an upstairs boardroom for our newsroom meetings, and now we gather via Google Meet. 

Similarly, the best stories come from being there and talking directly to those involved, and while there will never be a satisfactory replacement for it, we have worked hard to find other ways to accomplish that.

This isn’t to say that things are better now. This is clearly less than ideal. But if I have to find a silver lining, it’s that we have found ways and new tools to stay connected.

The budget interviews with the mayor CAO are an example of that, as are the physically distanced in-person reporting our reporters have carefully undertaken.

You might wonder why I’m telling you these things now, as you look at our new SooToday+ membership section for the first time. Well, just as we had to get better at communicating with each other as a newsroom, the next frontier is getting better at communicating with you, our readers.

Over the coming days and weeks you’ll see us put that into practice with columns like these, and features from our journalists that will aim to tell you how we cover the news and, maybe more importantly, why we cover what we do.

We’ll bring you behind the scenes, showing you extended interviews that will give you a window into how we prioritize what information to highlight and how we choose to structure our stories the way we do. 

We’ll also introduce new ways for you to send us your feedback and ask us questions about the stories we write and the issues we’re covering. 

And, as always, we're open to your direct feedback, and will continue to be for all of our readers. If you have a question, or an idea you’d like to share, feel free to reach out to me by email at mike@sootoday.com.