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Rob Karwath: 'We may have published our last print edition'

Rob Karwath with students in Zoom meetingFrom Professor Rob Karwath’s perspective, the William Allen White School of Journalism and the Kansan has had to significantly adapt to the changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because there is a significant decrease in the number of students on campus, almost all of their news stories have moved online. However, students are still wanting campus news. Karwath says there has been an influx of news. They are not only covering COVID-19 related news, but also the Black Lives Matter movement news and coverage of the election. Because the newsroom is not meeting in person anymore, Karwath feels they have lost the camaraderie they once had. He hopes this pandemic and allowing the students to cover it will help prepare them for future crises. Although the pandemic has changed many things, it has also allowed the Kansan to reach alumni and other professionals in the industry that they couldn’t reach before. Karwath believes the School of Journalism has done one of the best jobs in adapting to the changes on campus.  


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Brenna Dillon: This is Brenna Dillon. Today is Nov. 10, 2020. I'm interviewing Professor Rob Karwath for the William Allen White School of Journalism Pandemic Oral History Project. So going back to March, what were your initial reactions when the pandemic hit and where were you when you heard the news that KU was closing?

Rob Karwath: We were just getting ready to go to San Francisco when this really began to look serious. We were -- I was taking a group of students to the College Media Business and Advertising conference, and we were all excited to go out and see everyone from around the country. And I remember being in Stauffer-Flint Hall and seeing the news come across one of the big TVs and I don't remember what news network it was, but it said “San Francisco,” you know, “issues of health warning.” And I'm like, “Great. We're all going out to San Francisco.” And at the time they were saying, “Well, it's a public health warning. We need to be careful, but they weren't stopping travel or anything.” So we went, actually went to San Francisco. This was in early March, and we had a really good conference. There was some level of concern.

I think we had five students out there total. We all came back and little did we know at the time that was it. We were not going to be back together again in campus media at the University Daily Kansan on the business side, on the news side in person for, well, we're still in that situation now, pretty much, so it's -- it was wild. You know, I often will look at the last print edition of the Kansan, which I believe appeared on March 6. And if you would have asked me, might that be the last print edition in the history of the Kansan, it might be the last print edition, and we can talk a little more about what that, you know, why that is. But it was a good edition, which is great if that's our last one. It was you know, and that's always good if we have a good print edition, no matter what, but I looked at that edition, it's yellowing in my office in Stauffer-Flint. And I think that just, that might be the last one we did. We had no idea.

Brenna Dillon: How has this semester been different comparing from the spring semester with the pandemic to the fall semester with the pandemic?

Rob Karwath: Well, I think in the fall, we, you know, we're just -- we're better at doing this. I think you can probably say that across society and, you know, business, our industry, certainly in higher education and on our campus, we're all better at doing it because we've been doing it for some time. You know, our news organization really thrived like many of them do from having an active and engaged newsroom and an advertising business staff, they fed off each other. We got that energy. We shared ideas and, you know, kicked around together and came up with better plans. And it was hard in the spring when we were not together, but we'd gotten better in the fall. And I think part of it was the learnings that we had in the spring and over the summer just got us into the habit of doing some of that, working together, kicking around, sharing ideas remotely. It's not the same. You don't just have those meetings in the hallway. “Hey, I need to talk with you about this.” “Oh, I'm glad we bumped into each other.” It has to be more intentional, but you know, we found ways around it.

Brenna Dillon: Sure. What has been the biggest challenge of adapting to the changes on campus?

Rob Karwath: Well, we thrive so much from having, you know, a campus environment where we had thousands of students every day on campus. We have printed issues twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, and those still were fairly popular with our campus audience. We were distributing anywhere between 4,000 and 6,000 print editions. We had, you know, over 1,000 papers now in Allen Fieldhouse for basketball games. And, you know, all of that kind of came to a halt. So I think it's just feeling different about how we're serving our audience. We are -- our website traffic, our social media traffic has gone through the roof. We've gone up anywhere between 20 and 50% you know, day to day, week to week when we compare with last year. So we know there's an audience out there, there's even a larger audience out there.

They're interested in what's happening at KU, what's happening with their fellow Jayhawks. Some of our students are, you know, in Lawrence, but they're not up on campus. Some of them are back home, whether that's Kansas City or around the country, around the world. And they need a source of campus news and information. So we've -- it's been rewarding to see they've continued to come to us, but they're coming to us in different ways. And it, you know, it's kind of like that meeting situation. I mentioned we don't see them picking up the paper. We don't see them on campus and, and kind of feel part of a community. We have to do that virtually and we're better at it, but I don't know that there's anything that's going to ever replace that, you know, in-person contact.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah. How has your workload changed as a result of the pandemic?

Rob Karwath: The workload for the new staff at the Kansan has gotten heavier because there just is so much that they're covering. They're covering the regular news and information of the campus, what's happening in students' lives, feature stories, arts, and entertainment, but there's this heavy crush of COVID-related news that we really saw in the spring when everything was uncertain. We had, you know, multiple reporters covering COVID as a beat. And there were multiple stories a day on new developments as the university tried to react. And then throughout the summer, the question of, well, would we reopen, how would we reopen, all of that uncertainty caused us to continue to plow ahead with COVID as like our biggest beat. It has changed a little bit this fall. We -- I think we started out in the fall with that same situation. We've kind of fallen into a groove, I think, as a campus and some of the uncertainty went away just because we were living it.

I think it'll be interesting during the break between fall and spring semester because we're going to have a little of that uncertainty still, what's this going to look like, how is this going to work? You know, the calendar is just so different academically and students are into, you know, a big part of college is that people connection and socialization and helping students sort that all out has been a part of what the Kansan folks have done. Throw in, you know, an election that has been interesting to say the least, and we just had a ton of news to cover. So yeah, it's been a newsy time.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah and with that, how has your perception of the pandemic changed over time and how have you emotionally coped with it?

Rob Karwath: Well, that's a really great question. You know, everyone says, and I strongly believe that this is going to shape the way we live moving forward. So I think it's reemphasized for me something I've always felt and known, and that is flexibility is really important. And I'd say communication is really important. So when the pandemic hit in the spring, I think a lot of our students thought, “Oh my gosh, this is it. Are we done? What does that mean? This is, can we even work this way?” And together we kind of committed to making sure that we were -- we were over-communicating. We were doing a lot of communication. We were doing news meetings at least once a day. Sometimes a couple of times a day. We were gathering together and talking about how, you know, what was happening, what we knew, what we needed to find out and how we were going to get it done.

Rob Karwath: And so, you know, I told the students don't think of this as a last semester or a, just a last period now that it's extended into a second semester and it will into the spring. Think about this as what it is like to manage through a crisis. And it's an amazing learning opportunity for our students who are working in campus media. They're going to have other crises in their lives. I hate to say that, but hopefully they won't be as severe as a global pandemic, but they're going to, to manage through crises at various times within their organizations in their own lives, you know, societally they will have other challenges.

They can look back on this time and say, I learned how to do that at KU. I learned how to do that working at the University Daily Kansan and campus media. So being flexible, over-communicating, you know, for faculty and staff, I think it's been -- it's been a super challenge because teaching is -- teaching is harder than people think. And I say that as someone who's come to the school only two years ago. I was in the profession. And I've learned how hard it is to teach. And it's really hard to teach when you're trying to juggle in-person and remote. So you know, it's caused us to learn some new skills. I’ve fallen back on some skills I used as a television reporter for years. And you know, those skills I learned at KU they've served me well in another way now as I've come back to KU.

Brenna Dillon: How do you think that the, you've mentioned previously a little bit, but how has the pandemic impacted the Kansan?

Rob Karwath: Well, we may have published our last print edition. I say that with a little sadness. I think that's always going to be the case because that was the delivery method for news and information for, you know, decades, generations over 100 years. But the pandemic has kind of pushed us in directions that we needed to go anyway. We were like many campus media organizations, like, like many newspapers out in the professional world, probably too reliant still on print editions. And we just simply could not print, you know, deliver a print edition anymore. There weren't people on campus to pick it up. Even when there have been people on campus. Now, the density level on campus is so low that it's not an effective method for distribution. So it's forced us all online. So, you know, Kansan.com and Kansan on social media are our primary platforms for sharing news and information.

And they are great platforms. It's the way our student audience really wants to receive news and information. So it's, it's pushed us in a direction we needed to go probably more so starting five, 10 years ago. And we were holding onto that print edition because there was still some value of that. Right now, we just don't have any choice. Sometimes, you know, that can be a good thing when you don't have any choice, you've got to make a decision. It's turned on the creativity of our staff, both from the news and the advertising side. So, you know, historically the Kansan has sponsored a big housing fair to help students figure out where they're going to be living next year. We couldn't do that in person at the Union, like we've done for decades and decades. So we created an online housing fair, and frankly, it's a better platform to help students figure out where they want to live.

They can breeze through at their leisure over the period of a week. And then they have a Zoom meeting with apartment complexes that they're interested in talking with. I think moving forward, our new housing fair will be entirely online. And so, you know, we're -- we're talking about creating a daily weather forecast or a couple of times a day weather forecast just for the campus using some atmospheric science students who also study in the J-School. That's amazing, you know, I mean campus-focused weather forecast that says, “Hey, if you're going up the Hill today, it'll be sunny when you're leaving. But if you're coming back in the afternoon, you're going to need that umbrella. So make sure you take your umbrella with you.” You know, that's just fun and exciting and another way that we can serve our audience that we might not have been doing, if we hadn't been forced to

Brenna Dillon: Certainly. What has it been like to cover the pandemic through the UDK and other student media organizations?

Rob Karwath: That's a really good question, too. There's just been so much uncertainty. I think for everyone, it's not like the university is hiding something or won't talk to us. So they've actually been, I think, pretty good about communicating. It's a difficult decision. Do you bring students back? That probably was the most difficult part of this -- covering the decision to bring everybody back and to, you know, try to keep folks safe. There was a lot of discussion and questioning here and on other college campuses: Is this the right thing to do? There still is -- college campuses have, you know, been hotspots for COVID across the country. Not surprisingly, it's just kind of part of our model. We bring people together to learn and we have them living in close quarters. So we -- the students editorialized right before the start of classes in the fall that the university should not bring students back, at least not right away.

And so there was a little bit of a tension between our administration and the Kansan, but the Kansan was doing what it needs to do. And that's take a stand editorially separate from the news columns. The university, I think, understood that was a perspective. They were hearing lots of perspectives pro and con, but we got a lot of national attention right before the start of classes from national media talking about, you know, on the campus of University of Kansas, the student newspaper editorialized this way. So I think it's just like any big story too, from a news perspective, you just need to constantly watch it and you need to develop sources. You need to understand the needs of your audience and talk regularly with them about things that might even seem basic. Like you know, how is that going to work in the dorms? What does it mean if I go home to my mom and dad, how's Thanksgiving break gonna work? How are finals going to work? We just needed to kind of put it down into first gear and answer some basic questions. So, and that'll continue.

Brenna Dillon: How has the media’s coverage of the university changed?

Rob Karwath: Well, universities have been in the spotlight in ways that they haven't been, and, you know, it's not like they're doing anything wrong or, you know, necessarily making bad decisions. It's just our business model. If you will bring thousands and thousands of students together, put them in classrooms together, put them in dorms together. There's a, you know, it's part of the magic of campus and, and, and what makes working in learning on a college campus so special. You have all of these people and having all of these conversations together and suddenly COVID said, “Oh, no, you don't, you can't do that. Or at least you can't do it the way you used to.” So I think it's, it's shaken universities to some degree to think that something is good and noble as our learning model is maybe part of the problem, you know, and we've had to address it in different ways.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah and so with that, how do you feel about the School of Journalism's response to the pandemic?

Rob Karwath: Well, I think, I think we've maybe done one of the better jobs on our campus. What's great about our School of Journalism is it's big enough to be big, but it's small enough to still feel like a family or like a closely connected group. Most of our classes are in Stauffer-Flint Hall. Stauffer-Flint is a more open and modern space than it used to be. And I think we were able to respond a little bit better because of the redesign in the new building that we've had. We also were able to, I think, focus on issues like technology. So we have some classrooms in Stauffer-Flint that our journalism school, overseen by the journalism school. So a couple are overseen by the university. As a professor, I like to teach in our Journalism School classes because the technology was better, the effort and the investment that we put into those classrooms gave them better technology and better safety protocols than -- our safety environments -- than the university classrooms. It's not that the university classrooms were bad.

It's just that the journalism school classrooms were that much better. And I appreciated all of the effort that the dean and her leadership team put into making it that way. I think for a lot of students and professors, though the year has become a remote teaching year, at least this semester has become a remote teaching semester. So you know, we've learned to adapt, fortunately. For us, a lot of what we do is able to be taught remotely. It's not like we're doing science labs and we have to be on site. So we have some of that with our television production. But you know, even though students are learning how to work remotely and the work that I still do in the industry, talking with television and print newsrooms every day, learning how to do that is, is going to be part of what's, you know, what work looks like as a professional moving forward.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah, a lot has changed. Specifically, how do you think that the pandemic has changed the William Allen White School of Journalism and KU as a whole?

Rob Karwath: Well, that's a really good question. Again, one of our strengths was we bring people together. We were so excited about our new building and bringing everyone together under one roof, as much as we could. And we had that for a few weeks, but you know, that went away. I think we've learned, I'll go back to what I said earlier, just about the Kansan flexibility and communication. We've learned to be flexible. We've learned how to teach and to learn and to work in campus media remotely, as well as in person, you know, and that's what, that's what the professional world is demanding of our students, too. So I think we're learning the lessons that are going to serve them well, moving forward. Communication's really important, even when we don't know the answer to something, talking with, you know, our William Allen White School community, about what we know and what we don't know.

I know some students are concerned about graduation, and they're concerned that the students last year who didn't get graduation still haven't heard anything. And so, you know, those kinds of issues where you think, well, you know, that's not anything immediate, but it's what students are thinking about. We've got to stay on top of those and make sure that we're sharing as much as we know. And if we don't know anything, not leaving, you know, big gaps, even unintentionally. So people begin to fill them in with other information or more likely just feel resentment because they don't know. And, but I think, I think our school has done a great job. Again, it's a great size for a school. It's big enough to be significant, but it's still small enough that we can kind of talk as a family.

Brenna Dillon: Hmm. How do you think that KU will be better from everything that's happened?

Rob Karwath: That's a -- you're asking good questions. I think COVID has forced us to confront some issues that were lingering in higher ed. I won't say this isn't just, you know, for the University of Kansas, the higher ed model has been the same for decades and generations, much like, you know, the way we were doing campus media. And when I came here two years ago, there was a realization we had to make some changes in campus media. There was also a realization that higher education needed to change populations and demographics and student finances were all changing. The same model that worked for me when I was a student at KU 30 years ago really was kind of in place today and with small changes, but we've had to confront the reality of those forces and those changes.

And they're not all bad. It's just different the way students need to learn. And the way that we need to teach has to change as well. So, you know, KU like many other big universities, very dependent on the in-person instruction model, and there's a ton of value to that. I hope that never goes away. It's great to be on campus and in that environment, but it's probably going to be different moving forward and it's accelerated some changes with higher education. It's forced us to confront the reality that technology needs to be a bigger part of what we do. Just like in campus media, just like in the journalism school. I think universities like KU have come to the realization that technology is part of our future in a major way. We need to embrace it and become innovative about it. So the challenge for us will be, can we do that or do we just try to, you know, go back to the way it was? This will all go away and we'll be back to the way it was, you know, it's just going to be a matter of time.

That's not going to be the case. We truly have to recognize that our world has changed forever. And a lot of that change can be really positive if we're not fighting it.

Brenna Dillon: Yeah. I think it'll do a lot for, like you said, just like some changes that needed to happen, but haven't happened and though COVID is, is not good, it has brought some positive changes for sure.

Rob Karwath: Yeah. Well, let me, I'll give you an example of that. In the spring, when we were meeting every day with news meetings on the new side of the Kansan, I brought in a number of professionals who were graduates from our school and from our programs. And I just have those connections with people who, you know, are Jayhawks out, working in significant roles around the country. And they came, they Zoomed into our news meetings and they talk about what they were doing and how they were responding at the television station, or, you know, at the website and the, you know, what we used to call newspapers. We brought a, just a number of high-level professionals into our news meetings and that wouldn't have happened had COVID not happened. They were, you know, the professionals were just so eager to connect with students and hear what they were doing and just kind of compare notes.

Rob Karwath: Well, what does it like? You know, how are you guys meeting and talking about stories? How are you getting them on the air? How are you, are you pushing them out? So I thought that was a great example of the value of both COVID has given us the opportunity to connect through technology that we wouldn't have done and the relationships that we have from being part of a big kind of in-person community university, you know, KU we're Jayhawks, and we're a community. And, and so it's not hard for me to reach out to Jana Calkins at WDAF and say, “Hey, Jana, do you want to Zoom into the news meeting?” “Oh my gosh, I'd love to do that. I was thinking about asking you about that anyways.” So, you know I'm not sure every online university has those connections, like we do as a traditional legacy university, but kind of the best of both worlds happened in learning happened and alumni connections happened and it was just fun. So I hope we can use that as a model moving forward.

Brenna Dillon: Hmm. Certainly. And last question here for you, what advice would you give someone 100 years from now who may be dealing with another pandemic?

Rob Karwath: I think the first advice I would give is hopefully they'll prepare better. Hopefully we'll learn some lessons from this. And we won't think that pandemic is something for the history books. We've all been, I just never thought I'd be using the word pandemic. It sounds like something that my grandfather said. And he did, he was, my grandfather, one of my grandfathers lived through the 1918 pandemic. So I think we need to be prepared. I hope you're prepared is what I would say. And then I will go back to what I talked about earlier. Stay flexible and communicate a lot, over communicate, especially at the beginning. And you'll be, you'll be fine. Working through it, I think we're going to be fine. We weren't prepared and we didn't understand that this could be part of our world, but it's humbling to see that the forces of nature can still keep us human beings, you know, in line. And we don't, we don't rule them. They can rule us if things like this happen. So the thing that we can do is we can adjust and I think staying flexible and communicating a lot is the best way to get through really any crisis.

Brenna Dillon: Well, great. And this is the conclusion of this oral history. Thank you, professor. It was a pleasure getting to talk to you today and everything

Rob Karwath: Thanks for asking. This has been good for me to think about things like this. So I'm glad you guys are doing this project.


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