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Tampa Bay Times newsroom mobilizes to cover every angle of the coronavirus outbreak

Big news happens all the time. But none of us have witnessed a story like this one.

Stories about the coronavirus pandemic are free to read as a public service at tampabay.com/coronavirus. Sign up for our DayStarter newsletter to receive updates weekday mornings. If this coverage is important to you, consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Tampa Bay Times at tampabay.com/subscribe.

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In the Tampa Bay Times newsroom right now, everyone is a coronavirus reporter.

Writers, editors, critics, columnists, photographers, video producers, audio producers, social media producers, researchers.

Everyone.

In just the past two weeks, we’ve published hundreds of stories about COVID-19.

The news is rolling out unlike anything we’ve experienced. That goes for us, and for our readers.

It’s a pandemic that couldn’t be more local in its impact, touching everyone personally and viscerally. Breaking news alerts cascade quickly, many feeling like sudden rip tides in the middle of the night.

It’s totally surreal, and there is no end in sight.

“I can’t think of any aspect of Tampa Bay that coronavirus hasn’t touched,” said Justine Griffin, our health and medicine reporter. “So covering this story has led to a lot of late nights but some really compelling stories.”

The response from the Times newsroom underscores our commitment to keeping you informed.

The strength of our coverage is drawn from our newsroom’s deep sourcing, our collective curiosity and a relentless spirit. Journalists are working around the clock to keep you apprised of confirmed illnesses and deaths throughout Florida. We’ve asked the tough questions of our leaders and lawmakers about health strategies, testing protocols and the overall response to the outbreak.

We’ve passed along clear-eyed tips from medical experts about ways to protect yourself and your loved ones. We’re watching closely the mounting economic toll. We’re keeping you tuned into the social impacts and how this is starting to change the way we interact.

Much of it is playing out at breakneck speed.

Consider just one 24-hour period starting late Thursday night. We posted 63 articles on tampabay.com. More than 50 were written by Times journalists.

It started with a story by Zachary T. Sampson that chronicled one of the most intense news cycles any of us had ever witnessed. Nearly two dozen journalists contributed to the piece, a big chunk of it stemming from news that happened after the sun had set.

Our coverage during that window included a heart-wrenching piece by Leonora LaPeter Anton, who wrote about having to tell her 93-year-old dad that she wasn’t sure when she’d see him again because of the state’s guidelines restricting visits at assisted-living facilities.

All day, the news kept coming. On Saturday, the relentless pace continued. We posted 56 more stories. Sunday felt like another firehose. It will probably feel that way again today.

Journalists have volunteered to work weekends or late nights to stay on top of developments. Our designers and copy editors are building and re-building newspapers packed with the most critical information. Online, the Times was one of the first newsrooms in America to lift its pay meter after the outbreak hit. We believe it’s important that everyone has access to reliable and accurate news in a crisis.

A few weeks ago, we converted a blank wall in the newsroom into a floor to ceiling dry erase board. Senior deputy editors Amy Hollyfield and Carolyn Fox have taken full advantage. Using a black marker, they have filled the wall with assignments and threads to pursue — ideas percolating from an energized group of reporters and editors representing all corners of our newsroom. Several times a day, journalists have gathered to add more ideas or offer progress reports.

“An astounding amount of information is flying at us, and we are working faster and faster to make sure it gets to the public quickly,” said Carolyn, who oversees our website, visuals, sports and features.

All hands-on deck stories come around from time to time. 9/11. Hurricanes. Mass shootings. Other major disasters.

Amy, who oversees the news team, describes the outbreak as bigger than anything since 9/11. But it’s also much different.

“It’s all-consuming, and it truly is 24/7,” she said. “I don’t think most people realize that the daily updates on new cases are coming after midnight each day. That is really stretching our coverage into new areas that we have to account for."

The newsroom has been finding new ways to make news accessible, including building a map that tracks cases and a searchable database of event cancellations or postponements.

“The breadth of energy, initiative, enthusiasm and nonstop dedication is something to behold,” said Amy. “We are innovating in the middle of a crisis and that is amazing to see and be part of.”

We’re going to keep grinding. Keep reporting. Keep bringing you the facts and context so that you’re better informed and can make good decisions. But we also have to take care of our journalists and employees.

Many of our journalists are running on fumes. Some have been working from home as a precaution. This week we are asking everyone to work remotely with few exceptions. We’re allowing people who don’t have the necessary equipment at home to take their work computers with them. We’re also restricting any travel that could put our staff at risk.

A small group will remain in the newsroom for now, but more of our communication will occur through instant messaging and video conferencing. In print, we’ve temporarily folded sports coverage into our main news section until teams and leagues resume play. Our staffers that cover sports? They’re coronavirus reporters, too.

At 27, Zachary T. Sampson, is still near the start of his career. He has been one of our lead reporters during the crisis. He’s covered lots of big breaking news stories, including Hurricane Michael. But nothing like this.

“This is different because there’s no fixed-point, or single occurrence that everything else radiates from. A lot is happening all the time and we don’t know when the peak will be,” he said.

The way the Times has rallied is inspiring. It’s what devoted journalists do, even in the face of pay cuts and uncertainty in our challenging business. The dedication to serve our readers is both immense and boundless.

“I’m very proud to be a part of this staff,” Zack said. “And this story has — from the start — been an example of the benefit of having a strong local newsroom that has the sources and expertise to ask big questions of the right people and to communicate information clearly.”

Contact Mark Katches at mkatches@tampabay.com or follow on Twitter at @markkatches.

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: The latest and all your questions answered.

EVENT CANCELLATIONS: Get the latest updates on events planned in the Tampa Bay area in the coming weeks.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

STOCK UP YOUR PANTRY: Foods that should always be in your kitchen, for emergencies and everyday life.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

OTHER CORONAVIRUS WEBSITES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Florida Department of Health

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.

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