Media Arts and Design

SMAD grads help fuel Richmond newspaper's COVID coverage


By Charlotte Matherly, staff writer

As the pandemic continues to cause havoc across the U.S. and the world, five SMAD alumni are working at The Richmond Times-Dispatch to cover COVID-19 on the local and state levels.

Feature reporter Sabrina Moreno (’19), VCU and general assignment sports reporter Wayne Epps (’16), sports designer and copy editor Dylan Garner (’14), sports columnist David Teel (’81) and general assignment reporter Abby Church (’20) are covering various sides of the pandemic as it relates to Richmond and surrounding counties.

Epps, who started at the Times-Dispatch in 2017, said because many sports have been cancelled, he’s been pitching in to cover one of the biggest global news stories in decades. And he said he’s found that covering pandemic-related news requires a similar approach to covering different kinds of sports stories.

“You just have to kind of apply [the basic skills] to other situations,” Epps said. “[There’s] a lot of big news with the pandemic, and you just never know what to expect from day to day. So, just kind of be nimble to hop on whatever may arise.”

Garner, meanwhile, has worked in various positions at the sports desk during his two years at the Times-Dispatch. As it did for Epps, the pandemic challenged Garner to improve his craft in new and creative ways.

“It was the first time where you can’t just go to a game and cover something,” Garner said. “It kind of forced us as a whole to think about, what could people want to look back on as far as history and things like that.”

Garner said the sports section has featured what athletes and coaches have been doing during the pandemic, especially with no live games. 

Covering more big news of 2020

They’ve also focused on covering social justice issues, especially with continuing protests in Richmond and several Confederate statues and monuments coming down.

“The social justice stuff that happened around Richmond … was another thing we could latch onto and say, what kind of stories can we tell there?” Garner added. “There were a lot of interesting opportunities that came with no games actually happening for a while.”

Teel, who recently joined the Times-Dispatch as a sports columnist, has had decades of journalism experience, including 36 years at The Daily Press in Newport News. He said the entire media industry has struggled during the pandemic, which includes the difficulties of conducting meaningful interviews over the phone or through a screen.

“How do we operate in a socially distant world and become familiar with Zoom and its technology and also its glitches and its limitations?” Teel said. “You can’t replicate that face-to-face interaction staring into a laptop. As much as you would like to, you just can’t.”

Teel said he’s missed interacting with his coworkers on a personal level and the “exchange of ideas” that occurs when journalists work together. Especially now, he said, journalists need to be well-rounded in their skills as well as their general knowledge.

“You have to be comfortable talking about a lot of different things,” Teel said. “We all have our specialties … but you can’t, at the risk of cliché, be a one-trick pony. You’ve got to have some versatility to you because that’s how media works. That’s how it’s consumed.”

Covering JMU … again

Church, who graduated in May and served as The Breeze’s editor-in-chief last year, has learned that lesson quickly since she started as a general assignment intern for the Times-Dispatch in late August. Church said while she hasn’t been specifically assigned to cover the pandemic, it’s been seemingly hard to escape.

“It’s not something that I’ve really focused on, but right now, the pandemic is embedded in so many different things that we do that it’s kind of hard to ignore,” said Church.

Church primarily covers news in Hanover County, just north of Richmond and Short Pump. She’s written about schools reopening, social unrest and how individuals are coping. She said while she’s glad to be out of school, working as a culture writer, editor and editor-in-chief at The Breeze prepared her to jump into the world of professional journalism.


“This time, I’m only able to focus on journalism and the work that I'm doing and working on improving myself and growing and getting better and covering issues that I think are important,” Church said. “That will really help me move on to the next step whenever this internship is over, and I have honestly really, really appreciated that.”

Church quickly found that she’d joined a fraternity of Breeze and JMU alumni. Epps was a sports editor and editor-in-chief, Garner worked as a Breeze copy editor and Teel as a sports editor. And Moreno was a culture staff editor.

And many in that group found themselves reporting on their alma mater. Moreno, Epps and Church each covered the spike in COVID-19 cases among JMU students at the start of the semester. And Church wrote a story Oct. 5 about how JMU’s Board of Visitors didn’t read public comments submitted before the meeting until after The Breeze had requested to view those comments. 

How JMU prepared them

Garner said one his biggest inspirations as a student journalist was Allison Parker, the former Breeze reporter who was fatally shot on camera while on assignment for WDBJ in Roanoke. He was friends with and had multiple classes with Parker, who he said encouraged him to join The Breeze.

He went on to a Dow Jones News Fund internship — a program that helped land another JMU student, Briana Ellison, a job at The Washington Post.

“That really was kind of the launch pad for me of getting real experience, you know, being with The Breeze and then getting that internship,” Garner said. “[Those] were probably things that I wouldn’t have thought to do and really, really set me up well.”

Teel, who attended JMU in the pre-SMAD days, graduated as a communication arts major. He said he owes JMU for his entire career. Each job he’s had before the Times-Dispatch, including The Daily Press, grew out of a relationship established at JMU.

He encouraged students and journalists to create a well-rounded version of themselves to survive in the ever-changing world of journalism. He said journalists must know “at least enough to be dangerous” in many areas, such as philosophy, economics and sociology to be able to report events in every field.

He also related the idea to social justice and said journalists need to stretch themselves, challenge their own philosophies and ideas and maybe even make themselves uncomfortable.

“One thing we often hear from readers is, you know, keep politics out of sports,” Teel said. “That’s impossible. Especially now, with … the preponderance of Black Americans who participate in sports, and they have a voice and they have a platform. They’re using it, and to ignore that would be derelict.”

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Published: Monday, October 5, 2020

Last Updated: Monday, May 23, 2022

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