This anniversary will be one to remember

Scott Swanson

Fifteen years ago, on what we later realized was April Fools Day of 2005, my wife Miriam and I walked into the office we now occupy as publishers of your newspaper.

Hard to believe, how fast that time has gone by. Our daughters, who were all in elementary school, are gone. Two are married and have jobs (working from home right now) and the third is finishing up her final quarter of college (also working from home).

It’s also amazing that, on our 15th anniversary at The New Era, we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of what is surely one of the biggest stories in Sweet Home’s history: the coronavirus outbreak and shutdown. Really, this is the biggest story of my 40 years in journalism, which started in 1980 as a college freshman in Grants Pass.

I’ve been involved in covering a lot of important and riveting events along the way in that journey: wildfires, a beached blue whale, the twists and turns of many political campaigns, the O.J. Simpson episode and other arresting criminal and courtroom dramas, spectacular sporting achievements, the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree experience and, of course, the unhappy story that shook modern America to its roots: the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

I hope this virus and the response to it is not as devastating as 9/11, but there’s no question it’s really up close and personal, affecting every one of us, right where we live.

Schools – at all levels – have been shut down indefinitely. Major sports events have been canceled. Churches and clubs aren’t meeting, at least not in person. Stores and businesses are closed. People are working from home.

There won’t be any Easter egg hunts this year, at least not in public. The Sweet Home Rock and Mineral Show has been canceled.

Thus far, the fall hunts are still on. And now we’re allowed to pump our own gas.

People are adjusting, which is good news. The stock price of Zoom, a company that offers subscription-based video conference software, has skyrocked as churches, schools, businesses, clubs, etc. go online to stay connected, including right here in Sweet Home.

This coronavirus outbreak is a difficult story to cover, partly because it is very personal, and because it is very complex. The volume of information, even locally, that we’ve received in the last few weeks exceeds anything I, personally, have been involved in. My email over the last few weeks has been filled with a torrent of announcements and updates letting us know that this agency’s employees are now working from home, that that event has been canceled, that we’ve got a virus case in such-and-such community.

The questions every journalist should be asking loom heavy: How reliable is what we’re being told about this coronavirus and its impacts? How much of what we’re hearing is politics (including our own)? Is that statement from Mr. Muckety-Muck, head of Such-and-Such, just self-serving spin or deserving of attention? Do the numbers we’re being given add up? Are they credible? In context?

Those are difficult questions, particularly when we’re diving into fields like healthcare and epidemiology, which most of us on the street spend very little time thinking about – until something like this happens. Then we have to rely on “experts” to learn what we need to know, and how do we determine whether we’re getting an agenda-free straight story from them?

On top of the health aspect of this thing, we have the shutdown of businesses across the nation, which will be crippling. We’ll cover the fallout from that, because it will affect us all.

Part of that story will be how the local community rallies to support businesses that are suffering: how they survive now and recover when the shutdown gets lifted.

Here at The New Era, we’ve cut back our hours, though we continue to operate as an “essential” business. I learned last week, though, that a well-regarded community newspaper in this state may be shutting its doors, which came as a nasty surprise.

It’s of paramount importance that local residents recognize how tenuous the existence of some of the enterprises they might have hitherto taken for granted are right now. Now is the time to connect with businesses and services we appreciate and support them.

Then there’s the social toll – the impact on relationships, on habits, on people’s psyches. In a nation in which we have been blessed with the freedom to do pretty much what we want, as long as we’re not negatively impacting somebody else, we suddenly can’t do that. That is a challenge.

For some, the response has been churlishness.

We’ve heard about the fights in the grocery store aisles – and they haven’t all been on the other side of the nation. An acquaintance was outright threatened in a local store – over the availability toilet paper.

Last week, someone driving down Main Street yelled out their window at one of our employees, who was walking on the sidewalk, to work: “Go Home!” It wasn’t a joke. Makes me think our society is fraying a bit, at least on the edges.

But the good news is that the response from many has been charity. We’re hearing stories of people stepping up to help others in this crisis. When the call went out for help from local people to make masks, they responded. That and other stories of local people stepping up to help out are, and will continue to be, in this newspaper issue.

As your newspaper, we feel that is a big goal right now, to facilitate that.

It will be interesting to see what long-term effects this experience has on us in Sweet Home and beyond. We have a lot of news to cover.