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MAY 26, 2020 //     

Newsroom Continuity Planning? How Local News Stations Are Navigating a Global Pandemic

By Sierra Oshrin

If you’ve worked with a local journalist, or had one come on-site for an interview, your perception of a “glamourous” industry might have been debunked. Newsrooms have long done more with less. Broadcast journalists are no longer confined to simply interviewing and writing the story. Now, they must write, shoot and edit their video, send it back to the newsroom, secure their camera on the tripod, and broadcast a live signal using a small backpack (what’s a live truck?), providing updates from the field as a “one-man-band.”

News stations have learned to be incredibly nimble. But when COVID-19 swept across the globe, local newsrooms found themselves caught in the crossfire. The global public health crisis has highlighted the importance of local news, with viewership rising for many outlets. However, businesses impacted by COVID-19 have been forced to pull their advertising dollars from some newsrooms, resulting in publishers suspending publications and furloughing and laying off employees.

“Our viewership is actually very high right now – people are watching more TV because they don't have much to do,” said Jake, a Cincinnati producer. “However, some businesses that give us money for advertising have slowed paying us, because they have bigger expenses to take care of. It's a domino effect.”

U.S. businesses have been forced to examine their continuity plans, and the same is true for news stations. Journalists take all necessary precautions by practicing social distancing and wearing masks in public. Some stations have split anchors and producers into “A” and “B” teams and forced all reporters in the field to work remotely. In larger markets, producers have even been fitted with the proper technology to direct the show from home, while weather anchors set up graphics from their living rooms. 

“Our reporters are working from their homes,” said Ryan, a Boise news director. “We are doing most of our interviews using online video. The newsroom is very empty. No one shares cars or gear right now. At the end of the day, everyone is still focused on seeking truth and a crisis only increases the need for it. I have been impressed with our team’s relentless pursuit of truth, despite the challenges.”

As local newsrooms work tirelessly to bring forth critical information to their communities, the newsgathering process has also changed. Email inboxes have become inundated with COVID-related pitches, and there’s less time and resources to capture content in an engaging way.

“Field crews, including reporters and photographers, are not allowed back in the station whatsoever,” said Kelsey, a Las Vegas reporter. “That means it takes a lot longer to download video, it takes a lot longer to send back video, which makes our deadline a lot tighter.”

COVID-19 continues to dominate the news cycle, even as states consider lifting restrictions. And most news directors, anchors, reporters and producers across the country agree one thing matters most when choosing to cover a story: local impact.

Because of this, larger brands may face increased challenges when trying to secure local coverage during this time. Most reporters focus on providing updates from government authorities or local health officials. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives certainly help, but they must be authentic and truly impact local communities.

Brittany, an Albuquerque news anchor, echoes this sentiment.

“There has to be such a heavy focus on a local angle – like this is happening in New Mexico, or this is happening because of a person in New Mexico,” she said. “People are so anxious for everything to reopen and life to go back to normal, unless there is a legitimate cause to run a national story or promotional story, it probably won’t make it. Because what people care about is their kids, their jobs, their community and their health right now.”

But not all is lost for brands looking to gain local coverage in this climate. However, instead of focusing on what the brand does, focus instead on those impacted at the local level. For example, a donation-related announcement is likely to get swept to the side unless it’s a rather substantial amount. But if a brand can connect the journalist with someone on the receiving side of that donation, it makes the story that much more compelling and personal.

“Providing a personal angle such as, ‘studies show cases in children are rising in New Mexico, and here is a family this is happening to,’ will have a much greater chance of receiving coverage,” Brittany said. “Because if you’re just throwing studies, theories and trends at us and we don’t have anyone to talk to about that except for an expert, that’s not a very compelling story.”

Additionally, brands can increase their chance of securing coverage by sharing visuals wherever possible.

“A huge struggle for us has been a lack of video and finding appropriate video for our stories,” Kelsey notes. “So, if you have a client that has good video of whatever the topic is, we will eat that up because it’s been really difficult not being able to go on location and get the video that we need. Any visuals are really helpful.”

It’s uncertain how this work-from-home experiment will continue to impact local newsrooms after the pandemic ends. However, businesses and news stations alike have learned those who remain nimble, authentic and aligned with their purpose will continue to succeed in a post-COVID world.

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Sierra Oshrin is a former broadcast journalist now serving as a senior account executive in Allison+Partners’ Singapore office. Sierra has reported in Arizona, Washington, D.C. and Idaho as a multimedia journalist, otherwise known as a “one-man-band.”

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