Bringing clarity to uncertain, confusing situations is what journalists aim to do. We run toward fires rather than away from them. We dig for information to find out what really influenced governmental proposals. We do our best to sort fact from fiction.
But let's face it: 2020 gave us all a run for our money. From March onward, it was one crisis after another.
The year began innocently enough. We were in high gear in early January preparing for California's primary election, which had been moved to early March, and conducting endorsement interviews with the seven people vying for state Sen. Jerry Hill's seat. Our candidates' debate, held in the Palo Alto Art Center Auditorium to a standing-room-only crowd, followed on Feb. 5. At the time, we didn't give a second thought to a gathering of so many — safely — to engage in the democratic process together; today, it would be a cause for celebration.
Of course, even then, the novel coronavirus — as health experts called it before the now-pervasive "COVID" took hold — was sneaking into Santa Clara County. Unknown to us on the night of the debate, the first COVID-19 death in the nation was about to occur the very next day in San Jose. Though part of a journalist's job, ideally, is to get ahead of the news, the full reality of what this pandemic would wreak was dawning on us even as it was on the rest of the community.
The shock of the March 17 shutdown threw our work at the Weekly into disarray, starting with layoffs and furloughs. For the health of our journalists, who are essential workers, the company decided to have them work from home, as much as would be possible. With reporters and editors living in cities from San Francisco to San Jose, that meant we immediately had to switch to more electronic means of newsgathering and communicating. The losses in doing so may not be apparent to the layperson, but being less present in the city and its neighborhoods and less available to meet up with sources in person made it all the more challenging to stay apprised of goings on, check out news tips and collect reliable information.
And yet, our journalists buckled down, kept on task and found new ways to do their jobs.
Chief Visual Journalist Magali Gauthier is one person who absolutely cannot do her work from home. Once the health order was enacted, she had to risk her personal safety day after day to capture in photos the tremendous shift happening in people's lives, even as she herself was making the same calculations as others to keep herself out of harm's way. With face masks and sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and gloves, and frequent testing for COVID-19, she steadily documented how the virus was impacting the Peninsula.
Since entering anyone's home or even getting close to someone was inadvisable, Magali used her creativity to document moments through windows, from distances and out of doors. Using these approaches, she went everywhere from pop-up COVID-19 testing clinics and struggling retail shops to a mortuary and a busy food bank warehouse. If you haven't seen her collection of photos, "Life under the coronavirus," shot over the past 10 months, click here.
The learning curve on our coronavirus coverage, led by reporter Sue Dremann, was steep. But it was only the first of numerous crises to land at our doorstep in 2020, each bringing its own brand of uncertainty. The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 led to the eruption of pent-up anger nationally and locally over racial injustice and police brutality. Magali, reporter Lloyd Lee and others on staff hit the streets to capture this unprecedented outpouring of passion and activism. With an eye toward covering not just headline-making protests but actual change, we've followed efforts to dramatically improve policing practices in Palo Alto and Santa Clara County and will continue to do so into the new year.
The community had barely gotten its footing after that when a natural disaster struck in August: Lightning sparked wildfires in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We reported on the mass evacuations of tens of thousands of residents from their mountain homes — made harder for everyone against the backdrop of the pandemic. For the better part of a month, we sought to find as much certainty as we could, looking for indications of whether Palo Alto residents living in the hills would need to evacuate, and whether the fire crews — or the wildfires — were getting the upper hand.
In tandem with the public health menace, the greatest ongoing confusion this year revolved around the education of our kids: from the school district's attempt to keep campuses open before the March shutdown to its sudden about-face under order of the county, from the initial snafus and failures of distance learning to intense emotional debates over reopening.
Even when the district made concrete plans to reopen schools gradually, its inability to bring both teachers and parents along in lockstep made reopening a major issue in the Board of Education election in the fall. Strong feelings on many sides pitted public health risk against declining student well-being. As a community newspaper, we heard all sides of the upset and turmoil among parents, students, teachers, staff and district leaders. Sorting out the knowns from the unknowns and the rumors from the communication breakdowns took hard work on the part of education reporter Elena Kadvany, and the issues are ongoing.
In a normal election year, we would pull out all stops to cover the various races, issues and candidates. This year was no different, but complicating matters were a relatively new all-mail ballot system, swirling concerns about election fraud and a nationally divisive political atmosphere that prompted us to provide far more explanatory journalism about the voting process than in any prior year.
And what a contrast the fall campaign season was from the March primary. Instead of the crowded state Senate debate at the Art Center, our two debates with the candidates for City Council and Board of Education migrated to Zoom. And instead of endorsement interviews in the publisher's office, we met in our office's garage, where the candidates sat 12 feet away from the nearest masked reporter. Nonetheless, Elena and reporter Gennady Sheyner this election season provided the same in-depth coverage of the candidates and issues on which readers have come to rely.
So it's been a year. As much as all of us want to be past the pandemic, it's worthwhile to pause and reflect on the end of 2020. It represents a milestone, a point at which we can acknowledge that we're still here, perhaps worse for wear but together in spirit, and with mass vaccinations on the horizon.
In 2021, we hope to be able to return to addressing the larger issues of normal Silicon Valley life, from a continuing housing crisis to the changing business climate to the challenge of restoring civil discourse and tolerance for diverse opinions.
On behalf of all the journalists at the Weekly, I'd like to thank you, our readers, for your ongoing support. It has meant a lot this year. We look forward to coming out from underneath the cloud of the pandemic and working together with you, in person, toward a better community.
If you'd like to support the Weekly and local journalism, please visit PaloAltoOnline.com/join.
Read more of our year-in-review coverage: