While reporting on a story in the hill country, Gabriel Perez pulled the phone out of his pocket and read a push notification alert.
Breaking news: South by Southwest had been canceled.
“That really took it to the next level,” said Perez, who graduated from Moody College in 2014 with an MA in journalism.
Perez is a multimedia producer for KUT News, Texas Standard and music station KUTX 98.9, and his news instincts proved correct. Just a couple weeks after the cancellation of the global interactive conference, and the eventual spread of coronavirus hit the local community, Perez and his reporting, producing and broadcasting colleagues packed up their workspaces.
The KUT/KUTX newsroom and recording studios inside the Belo Center for New Media at the Moody College of Communication have completely transitioned to remote working. Staff retreated to their homes, and now hold meetings on video conferences and communicate story assignments through text messages and virtual visual boards.
“We have had to adapt to the new times and be creative,” said executive editor Teresa Frontado. “On the radio side, we are currently operating with a very reduced staff, manning the board from the station with usually one person per shift, and reporters, producers and hosts streaming from their homes.”
Perez says he misses crouching over computers with his coworkers, analyzing photos and crafting headlines.
“There’s a lot of curious characters and personalities that work at the station,” Perez said. “So, not being able to interact with them on a daily basis, you realize how much you value it and miss it once it’s gone.”
As a photographer, most of Perez’s work is in the field, and his current beat is covering the communal impact of coronavirus. Gloves, masks and a bottle of hand sanitizer have become essential components of his gear bag. Plus, he has to rethink photograph angles and understand stories while also observing respectful social distance.
He’s learning how to take portraits of subjects in their front yards from his car.
“It’s not the same (photographing) someone with a long lens in their front yard versus if I get to spend some time with them, interact with them, you know?” Perez said.
After many weeks of social distancing, Perez realized how much he enjoys the interaction with his subjects.
“Found out how much… how much I missed that,” Perez said.
However, even with the precautions, Perez said he’s happy he’s still able to work during COVID-19.
“It keeps me sane,” Perez said. “Going out there and (taking photos), although it’s challenging and different, it does satisfy my need to explore and to create and share.”
Perez said after he gets home from working his news beat, he unloads his gear while talking to his fiance, who is also a photographer. He talks through his frustrations of having to take portraits with a long lens and says these talks help keep him in a positive headspace.
“It’s really special to spend quality time at home and make sure I’m doing okay,” Perez said. “But also have a way to get through the cabin fever moments and the sort of cooped up feeling.”
Perez said he feels a sense of responsibility to the community during these strange times. And the fact that he’s helping the community is what keeps his gears turning.
“The audience here in Austin is listening and is engaging with us even if it’s not in person,” Perez said. “That community of folks that I work with and work for is a big part of what keeps my head on straight. And what keeps me excited and fulfilled and challenges me to keep going out.”