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'Chicago Tribune' Reporters Face Tumultuous Times During Pandemic


Add journalists to the list of workers contracting COVID-19 on the job - not just famous ones like CNN's Chris Cuomo. NPR's David Folkenflik introduces us to others elsewhere in the news business where finances are pretty ragged and nerves pretty shot.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Let's meet - tell you what. She'll introduce herself.

JESSICA VILLAGOMEZ: Sure. My name is Jessica Villagomez. I'm 24. I'm currently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, and I live in Chicago.

FOLKENFLIK: She has a two-year position for promising younger reporters. Villagomez covered a teachers strike, an alligator on the loose of the streets of Chicago and, in mid-March, primary day.

VILLAGOMEZ: I went to maybe, like, three or four different polling places around the north side of the city and just sort of spoke to people one-on-one, trying to get some color about what Election Day looked like in spite of all the coronavirus.

FOLKENFLIK: Which is how she's pretty sure she got sick herself - Villagomez lives alone and had hardly been going out.

VILLAGOMEZ: On the 31, that day I took off because I was having a really hard time breathing. And I had an appointment that I'd scheduled with my doctor via telehealth that morning, and I was kind of freaking myself out and trying to just kind of, you know, walk off the ledge a little bit.

FOLKENFLIK: She shared medical records with NPR that reflect that her doctor suspects Villagomez has COVID. No test was available.

MEGAN CREPEAU: While the company has made a lot of progress in getting us masks, gloves, wipes, that took a while.

FOLKENFLIK: Reporter Megan Crepeau leads the union for the Tribune and two suburban papers.

CREPEAU: I give them a lot of credit for ramping it up in recent weeks, but reporters were being sent out to cover this virus - sent to crowded places without personal protective gear long after the CDC was recommending social distancing, long after we knew that this was a real danger.

FOLKENFLIK: Several journalists declined to cover a crush of people at O'Hare Airport. Other did interviews at the lakefront and bars and other popular spots.

CREPEAU: Almost inevitably, you know, I started getting sick.

FOLKENFLIK: At least four journalists in the news union Crepeau leads are believed to have COVID-19. Now, as its advertising has vanished, the newspaper's parent company is looking to cut costs, and it's likely to be taken over by an investment fund known for slashing newsrooms. Recently, top Tribune Publishing officials have paid themselves millions, despite financial woes. The company now wants employees who make more than $67,000 a year to take a pay cut - a permanent one. Employees who make less are going to have to take unpaid furloughs.

New Tribune Publishing CEO Terry Jimenez declined to be interviewed; so did Chrissy Wolfram Taylor, the Tribune's managing editor. At an online event for the Chicago Headline Club, Taylor was asked how she protected reporters' health.


CHRISSY WOLFRAM TAYLOR: Well, you know, it's tricky. And I think that, you know, we haven't always done the best.

FOLKENFLIK: Taylor said editors sought to ensure reporters have equipment and understood risks before accepting assignments.


WOLFRAM TAYLOR: Right off the bat, I think we all kind of stumbled into it. We had some PPE on hand but definitely not enough.

FOLKENFLIK: The Chicago Tribune gives junior reporters 16 days a year for all their vacation and sick leave. Those who get coronavirus have to burn up five days and then apply for short-term disability leave. The union wants the company to be more generous, especially for people who get COVID while reporting. And Villagomez - she says she feels vulnerable to the company's whim.

VILLAGOMEZ: I'm a conditional employee in some ways. I don't know if I'm going to be hired after this year. And I'm thinking to myself, you know, I got coronavirus maybe on the job. And I'm being treated in a way that just shocks me.

FOLKENFLIK: A few days ago, Villagomez walked a full block for the first time in two weeks. She said it felt like racing a mile.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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