I could see my co-worker struggling. She had been on the phone for several minutes, not knowing where the conversation was dragging her. She looked at her notes, she tried to interject, she repeated herself, but nothing was working. Time was running out. We needed to land this now.
Finally, I asked her to hand me the phone.
“Yes, hello?” I said. “We want the BBQ pork combo plate please!”
If we were going to celebrate Christmas in the newsroom, we were going to do it right.
There are a few guarantees when you start your very first news job. One – you will work in a small town somewhere. Two – you will work shifts with bad hours. And three – you will work on the holidays. Once you put in a few years on the job and accrue a little vacation time, you can get the better shifts and get time off for the holidays. Until then, you’re the low man on the totem pole. Expect to work.
It’s a big eye-opener when it happens. Our entire lives leading up to our first jobs taught us that holidays are off-days. We get holiday breaks in school and college. We see stores and businesses shut down on Thanksgiving and Christmas. But the news doesn’t stop, and before you know it, you’re assigned to fill the roles of three different people on a short-staffed holiday.
It takes some getting used to.
Sometimes, it’s annoying for a person in their 20s. Instead of kicking back with a beer and watching the fireworks on Independence Day, I was rushing to find a parking spot along Fir Street so I can jump out, shoot video of the fireworks show, and rush back to the station to edit it for the 11 p.m. show.
But sometimes it’s something different and unexpected. Instead of attending the usual Halloween parties, I took my camera and followed a family through a haunted house, capturing every scream, shriek and shout as monsters leapt out of the darkness at them. I cut a fun package that I will remember for longer than another party with drinking games and Monster Mash on the iPod.
And sometimes, it takes reshuffling. Instead of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in the afternoon, I’d arrive home to have my meals with my wife and visiting in-laws after 7 p.m., always with my work phone in my pocket in case of breaking news involving a turkey fryer fire.
Christmas is always the toughest. Christmas is supposed to be a time for waking up early, opening presents, eating cinnamon rolls, and naps by 11 a.m. Instead, I was driving 30 miles to Grants Pass in a dinky Subaru.
It was my first Christmas at work.
The hardest part was that the work made it feel like any other day. There was nothing going on that suggested to me that it was indeed Christmas. It was simply another assignment, another drive, another editing session and another newscast. For some people, that helps soften the blow of having to work on the holidays. But for me that day, it only emphasized that I wasn’t home enjoying my Christmas morning
I went to Grants Pass that morning and stopped in at the St. Vincent de Paul kitchen, which was serving a holiday meal for the less fortunate. The people there were wonderful. At that point I had always known much of Josephine County to be populated by hard, cold people, but their displays of generosity on Christmas changed my perception. For the couple hours I was at the kitchen, I allowed myself to be lost in the story, interviewing organizers, talking to people who came in for a warm meal, getting shots of people smiling as they accepted trays of food and talked with one another. But the moment I was done and I sat down in my news car, it hit me again. I was practically an outsider, watching other people take part in the holiday spirit. Sharing those stories with the community is immensely important, but in that moment, my 24-year-old self was missing the feeling of being part of that community.
A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was my producer, Erin, asking how the shoot went. Fine, I told her. She asked if I could swing by a location in Medford to grab another quick story, seeing as I was the only reporter working that day. Sure, I said, exasperated. She could hear it in my voice, and knew something wasn’t right.
“You doing OK?” she asked me.
I blurted it out. “I just want to go home and see my wife.”
I shouldn’t have said it. I should have been a good soldier, sucked it up, and kept doing the job I was being paid to do. It was selfish of me. After all, she was back at the station, away from her loved ones. There were production staff preparing for the shows who were also missing Christmas. I had no right to act as if I were being personally wronged.
But she was a pro. And she knew how to make the most out of the situation. Rather than stoop to my level, she did something about it.
I got back to the station later, and edited my stories together. After a while, I saw my producer begin carrying two-liter bottles of soda into the conference room.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“What channel plays the marathon of A Christmas Story?” she replied.
“Uh, TBS, I think. Why?” I asked.
“Finish up what you’re doing,” she said. She called out to the sports office, where our sports director was cutting highlights. “Same for you. When the show’s done, we’re having Christmas in the newsroom.”
And that’s what we did. We finished our newscast. Erin got on the phone and called a local Chinese restaurant. I took the phone from her when it became clear the scribbled orders she had taken from the newsroom were too hard to read. My wife was even invited in. And our little group sat in the conference room, eating Chinese food, watching A Christmas Story, laughing, and celebrating Christmas together.
When you get your first TV job, in a tiny market, working strange hours, and rearranging holidays, one of the dumbest things you can ever think is that you are alone. Everyone at your station is likely going through the same thing. They’re also working the odd hours. They’re also in a new city. And they’re also separated from their families.
So, your news team becomes your family.
I will never forget that Christmas in the newsroom, the way it brought all of us closer together and allowed us to celebrate. Ask people at stations around the country, and it’s likely the same story. Maybe it’s a Super Bowl party for the weekend crew. Maybe it’s a potluck Thanksgiving in the newsroom. Maybe it’s sitting on the roof of the station to see fireworks on 4th of July. No matter what it is, it’s much more special to do it together with your brothers and sisters on the news team.
The holidays are about family. And that Christmas, I celebrated with a new one.