It was a night shift like most night shifts in TV news.
Get in at 2:30 p.m., be asked to turn a quick story for 5 p.m., find time to make calls and set up interviews before sources went home at the end of the work day. Dinner in the news car, frantic editing, followed by the inevitable breaking news at 9 p.m. After rushing to cover a grass fire 25 miles away, there was more frantic editing, followed by another 50 mile round trip to and from the live shot. Back to the studio. Make sure you post your story to the web! Transcribe, write, edit, post. Oh, and could you re-edit your package for the morning show? More editing, more rewriting, more posting. Got an ear on the police scanner, praying that the squawk box would stay quiet.
By the time it was all over, it was 1 a.m. Or, as we are commonly pressured to list on our timesheets, 11:30 p.m. Wink Wink. All in a night’s (or day’s?) work, right?
At the end of the night, like most nights on the late shift, all I wanted to do was go home and kiss my wife.
I finally escaped the building, walking alone into the darkness of our poorly lit parking lot. I pulled out as the morning show producers were pulling in, just starting their day. Sometimes I’d wave. Most times I just didn’t have the energy. Took the same drive home I did every night, past the empty Food-4-Less parking lot, past the rows of homeless shopping carts near the freeway entrance, past the brightly lit airport where all the planes were already tucked into their hangars. Of course, I seemed to hit every red light on the drive home, making my night even longer and putting further time between me and my wife.
Mercifully, I finally rounded the corner in my neighborhood. Home sweet home.
As I pulled up, I could see the lights inside were off.
I knew the dance steps from there. Had lots of practice at it. Got out of the car. Quietly fumbled for my keys and unlocked the door. Slipped off my shoes. Walked in through the darkness into my bedroom.
There, asleep and breathing softly, was my wife. Just as she should be at 1:15 a.m. The dance continued. I quietly undressed in the dark, crawled into bed, tugged some spare covers from my wife, and eventually fell asleep. I didn’t say anything to her, because she didn’t need me disturbing her sleep – she would be getting up for work in a couple hours, when she would perform her part of the dance. She’d get up quietly, prepare for work in another room, and give me a quick peck before she left.
It was the extent of our interactions during my weeks on the night shift.
We were experts at the choreography – two partners, both dancing on their own. We performed five nights a week.
And I hated it.
Love the work, hate the job. It’s a phrase I’ve heard echoed by TV news people. We love being able to tell stories, travel to new places and meet new people. But we hate the sacrifices we have to make to do it.
The hours are one of the major factors. News never sleeps, so it means there needs to be a constant, vigilant watch from journalists at all hours of the day and night. It might mean you work on the morning show, adjusting your schedule so you wake up at 2 a.m. to begin your day. It might mean you work a “day” shift until 7 p.m., unable to be there when your kids come home from school. It might mean you work the night shift, finally ending your day when everyone you know is already fast asleep. No job in any field ever gives you the perfect set of hours, but TV news schedules things at just the right times to keep you in a permanent long-distance relationship with your own life.
After several years of it, I couldn’t handle it any longer. Frankly, the hours were one of the reasons I decided to get out. Over my time working the night shift, I found out that I personally didn’t like the thought of never being able to see my wife in the daylight during a whole week. I didn’t like only being able to hear her voice over the phone. I didn’t like both of us having to eat dinner alone, yearning for each other’s company. I needed my wife, and the night shift hours stole me away from her.
I never figured out a way to handle it that worked for me. Some people have no problem with the hours, and others find ways to handle the stress on their bodies, their mental health, and their relationships. If that’s the case, then go for it, by all means. Whatever works for you to help balance the demands of the job with the demands of your life is very important, and something you need to hang on to in this business. (I also encourage you to share your stories in the comments section).
But as I’ve seen journalists grow older, meet people they love, and start families, I’ve seen how important those precious hours become.
Recently, Dallas news anchor Karen Borta announced she was moving from the evening shows to the morning shows. In an emotional speech to her co-workers, Borta said the move was a chance to make sure she never missed another moment with her family.
“My kids are getting older, and I’m missing so many things,” she said.
I’ve never heard the struggle of balancing life and a TV news job summed up so perfectly. Life is short. And we need to find ways to cherish the moments with the people we love. More importantly, we need to find ways to be present for them. The news business is a demanding job, and you need to balance your priorities to handle the pull of the job with the pull of your family. It can be done. It’s hard, and emotionally taxing, but it can be done. But if you ever come to an epiphany regarding your job and your life, you need to take steps to correct it. Borta saw that, and made the switch from evenings to mornings.
““I’m going to love, love, love, being able to go home at 11:30 and to be that mom who can pick up kids, and go to games, and have dinner with my family,” she said. “I’m going to suck up every minute that I can with my family while I have those years left.”
Borta speaks for any TV news employee who has ever missed a soccer game, or missed nightly dinners, or canceled holiday plans, or missed playtime with their kids.
Or spent weeks never seeing their wife’s smile in the sunshine.