The most surprising thing about this newspaper, for someone outside it, is probably how we pick what to write. The process shocked me when I first saw it, and I continue to appreciate it more every week.
First, we have coffee and fresh bread, and then we just talk about what’s interesting. The faint edges of hierarchy slip away. It’s fun — we laugh — it’s surprisingly human and normal. We show our feelings, admit our frustrations. There’s not an oppressive weight of What Has to Be Written. We’re totally comfortable not writing a story, if that story’s a waste. Instead, we focus on where we can add something.
We’re not a daily; we file stories on Monday that you can’t read until Thursday, and might not see until Sunday. So what can we add that will still be interesting a week later?
It’s what makes a weekly paper so much fun to write for. We get to take the time to find things that weren’t in the Facebook version of events, to bring you something that you haven’t already seen.
An example: There was a well-sourced story in last Saturday’s Boston Globe that I admired — but it repeated an assertion that doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, that Provincetown’s large gay population makes it uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus. It’s in the lede and the headline: “Provincetown, the country’s unofficial LGBTQ summer playground, faces a unique challenge this year.” They’re easy dots to connect: HIV, immune system, massive global pandemic.
A month ago, we kicked around the same questions ourselves, in the Zoom version of our editorial meeting. Our conversation homed in on the word “immunosuppressed,” and we wound up building a story just around that word — who does it mean, and who does it not mean?
I took it, and it was a difficult story to write. The entire medical community was a little preoccupied with lifesaving acts of heroism.
In the end, I spoke with an HIV specialist at NYU, a cancer surgeon on Provincetown’s board of health, and an epidemiologist at Columbia (who wasn’t quoted in my piece). We were able to publish a story that explains who the immunosuppressed are — it turns out, it’s people undergoing cancer treatments, people with organ transplants, people with a variety of medical conditions, including full-blown AIDS — but it very specifically doesn’t mean people with managed and treated HIV. There is no evidence to date that people living with HIV, who overwhelmingly have CD4 counts between 500 and 1600, are in more danger of getting coronavirus, or have worse outcomes during or after Covid-19.
It was a privilege to be able to write that story. Focusing on specifics, hearing experts unpack and unfold them, and then writing a story that’s responsive, but still feels different — that’s a really great day at work.