Chanel Stitt (‘19 BA) had journalism on her career radar from an early age. As she remembers it, her top two dreams were newspaper and broadcast reporter. The truth-north goal was a gig as a reporter for CNN, and if all went well, eventually a talk show with her name on it. For sure, during her years in the UM-Dearborn journalism and screen studies program, she was racking up the kinds of experiences that could put her on that path. On campus, she worked as a copy editor and, later, editor-in-chief for the student newspaper, the Michigan Journal. And she did an internship tour through newsrooms at the Ann Arbor News, the Detroit Free Press, and Local 4 — Detroit’s NBC affiliate. At least for the first part of that run, she got to live the journalist’ life she’d seen in the movies: chasing down stories, pitching ideas in lively team meetings, learning from veteran editors and writers. The times she got to tag along with former Detroit TV reporter Koco McAboy as she did breaking news from crime scenes, recorded voice overs and produced spots in time for the evening newscast were particularly memorable.
Then, in early March 2020, while she was in the middle of her Ann Arbor News internship, that busy rhythm came to a sudden end. “March 11, I’ll never forget that day. I think I wrote eight stories about all the closings and cancellations,” Stitt told us. “I remember getting a tip about toilet paper being out at the stores, so I traveled out to Mejier and Sam’s Club and Walmart to cover all the panic buying that was going on. I even did a little bit of that myself — the necessities — nacho chips and Reese’s cups. And then they sent us home, and we watched the world shut down. Before, there was so much collaboration. It was a pretty small newsroom, but it was a big open coworking space, and we were constantly bouncing ideas off each other. Once we went home, everything became a big chat room.”
The pandemic has colored every part of her work life since. The remainder of that internship was remote, as was her subsequent one at the Detroit Free Press. When she landed her first post-graduation job at the Freep as a small business reporter, that was remote too. Her first boss on the breaking news team — she still hasn't met in person. The noisy newsroom vibe is gone, and taking its place is a combination of Microsoft Teams, Zoom, phone calls and group chats that at least keep the news flowing. But Stitt says it’s definitely been a struggle at times. During the pandemic, she experienced writer’s block for the first time. And the distractions of working from home scrambled her schedule, especially early on. Interviews and writing happened in between doing the dishes and cooking meals, leaving her with a feeling that you were “never really logged off.”
She’s found some ways of coping. Change of venue has become a go-to strategy, and mixing in hours at libraries, favorite coffee shops, and occasionally, the office, provides a distraction-free work setting when she needs it. And she created a group chat for all the young people who started at the Freep around the same time she did, which was especially helpful for those coming in from out of state. Last summer, when COVID numbers were down and outdoor dining was up, people from the group occasionally got together at local bars to hang out. “The people on the team who’d been there for years were a pretty tight-knit group, so I think it helped us new folks feel like we weren’t all alone.”
Not that it’s all been a struggle. Stitt says she and a lot of her colleagues love the flexibility of not always having to be in the office — and skipping the commute, which now feels like wasted time. And she likes that people seem to be more emotionally tuned into each other. “Before the pandemic, how common was it for someone to ask you how you were doing and really mean it? Now we’re doing that all the time, and I like that people seem to be more empathetic about what might be going on in someone’s life beyond work.” In addition, her beat — small business — has been a rich topic during the pandemic. She’s enjoyed covering all the creative ways business owners have found to keep their doors open, and how the community seems to have developed a new understanding of the importance of small business. When owners give her a ring to tell her how her stories have brought in new customers, it’s always pretty gratifying.
Having now glimpsed the traditional newsroom experience and logged two years of remote work, she’s curious to see what comes back from the old days and what new tricks will stick around. “There’s a lot about working remotely that I like, but I can’t wait until I can walk into the office and see everyone there,” Stitt says. “I think the way that we can collaborate and be social can help us grow as a team. Over Zoom or Teams, we’re working with profile pictures and just typing to each other, and I’m a really hands-on person.” The day that she and a co-worker can gather around the same piece of paper, with a red pen, marking up a draft together is going to be one to remember.
Story by Lou Blouin. For more in our series, check out "My first (pandemic) job: Software engineer Farzana Fariha."