A newsroom is a busy place.
Walk in any time between the hours of 3 and 5 p.m. and you’ll be met by a scene of what can only be described as “focused tension.” Reporters are hunched over their computer screens, eyes darting back and forth from their scripts to the clock on the wall. Producers are frantically typing and clicking, moving their show into place as the time winds down. Directors are going up and down stairs, back and forth from the production control room to the newsroom computers, making sure every video and graphic are in the system. The police scanner continues to SQUAWK every few seconds with the voice of a police dispatcher.
“Shots fired! Do we have that confirmed?” an anchor shouts to no one in particular.
A producer barks over her shoulder “I need a full screen!”
“A map of the area … I don’t have time to look it up!”
“What do you want it to say?”
“Shooting, something, whatever, I just need it for the cold open!”
SQUAWK! UNIT 357, 358, 359 CALLER IS REPORTING FROM THE CORNER OF…
The anchor shouts again. “Did anyone confirm that information on the location of the shooting?”
“Yes!” Three people shout back. Keyboards continue to rattle.
A reporter jumps up from his seat and scrambles to a printer to grab his script.
“How are you doing on your 6 o’ clock stuff?” A producer asks him.
The reporter doesn’t stop moving toward the door. “I’ll have to do it when I get back, I’ve got to get to my liveshot.”
“Are you going to have time?”
“I don’t have time right now to get out the door! I’ll have to swing back between live shots.”
The phone rings. “Hello, News 8? … yes, Jeopardy airs at 7 o’ clock.”
“Can you call PD on your way? Can we set up a live interview at 5:15 at the scene?”
“I’ll try. First I’ve got to get out of the door.”
“Where’s my fullscreen?” another producer yells out.
SQUAWK! SET UP A ROAD BLOCK AT WEST MAIN
Computer mice furiously click. Anchors pick up phones and try to get in touch with officials themselves. The news director walks out of her office, surveys the scene, nods, and walks back in.
“I’ve got to go, I can’t wait any longer!” the reporter says.
As he leaves, the sports reporter walks in for his evening shift. “Hey, did anyone hear about this shooting?”
“WE ALREADY KNOW!”
… from 3 to 5, especially during big breaking news (and sometimes even without it) the scene of focused tension is your life as a TV news employee. Get on it, and get the news.
But my first taste of TV news began in a much less chaotic world – the weekend shift.
There is a lot of activity always going on in a newsroom on a given day. But the weekends are exactly the opposite.
For the first year and a half of my journalism career, I would get up early on Saturday morning, get dressed, drive to the station, park in an empty lot, and walk in through the loading entrance.
The lights were always off, and I had to walk across a cavernous garage bay, my footsteps echoing. I would go up a set of stairs, turn to my right, and walk into the newsroom.
I was always hit by how still everything seemed. The newsroom was always empty. In those days, we didn’t have a weekend morning show, so when the evening crew left after the 11 p.m. show on Fridays, the newsroom would be vacant until I came in for my shift nine hours later. Aside from a photojournalist who was already out in the field, I was the only person in the newsroom.
Desks were empty, with the occasional paper script scattered about as evidence that anyone had been there at all. The offices for the news director, sports director and production manager were shut and locked. TV monitors mounted to the walls showed the four major broadcast networks on mute – silent broadcasts of college football, Power Rangers, or infomercials.
Computer monitors were dark. The phones were quiet. Newsroom cameras and lights were long powered down.
“SQUAWK” …we still had that, or course. The police scanner was always on. But everything else had ground to a halt.
I would sometimes walk downstairs to bring in the newspapers left on the front step. The sales area was also empty. The row of anchor portraits on the wall, normally lit by individual lamps, were smiling silently in the shadows.
I was alone from the news team. The only other person in the building was the master control operator, tucked away in his dungeon monitoring the programming feed. It always seemed like such a lonely job. I should have said hello to him more often.
The weekend shift was an exercise in solitude. And you know what? It made me a better reporter because of it. It taught me how to get along on my own.
Being the only person in the newsroom for much of the day meant I didn’t have the pressure of being watched by my bosses, and I didn’t have the safety net of having them around, either. I was my own assignment editor. I made the calls producers would make during breaking news. If something went wrong, it was on me. And if a story broke, I needed to step up and be a leader. The shift taught me how to find stories on slow days. How to contact officials on their days off. How to get crucial information without a producer or anchor backing me up. It taught me how to be a one-man storyteller.
Without an assignment editor, I needed to work with my producer ahead of time to set up my stories. And when things fell apart, I needed to buckle down and use all my resources just to find something to lead the 5 p.m. show. One slow Saturday, with nothing in the assignment board and the police scanner surprisingly quiet, I began calling all the contacts I had been making in law enforcement and public safety, looking to see if anything at all was going on. After an hour of desperate cold-calling, a firefighter contact told me they were holding a simulated fire training near the airport. I packed my gear, drove out there, and ended up with a really cool inside look at their fire training that led our show.
But the weekends were never a great source for hard news stories. Simply put, there was never much going on in the way of scandals or crime. So feature stories became my bread and butter. If there was a community event, a fundraiser, a performance, or an activity, I was all over it. My first weekend story was following around a semi-sober group of elk hunters at 6 a.m. In the weeks that followed, my stories were about trunk-or-treat events, high school service projects, fishing, and haunted houses. And I was grateful for every second of it, because it taught me how to have fun.
So many reporters aim to be a serious news man or woman – they want the lead stories, the corruption, the murders – that they feel like fun features are beneath them. But I have a ton of respect for reporters who can turn high-quality fun features because it shows that they can let their guard down and be human, and share other people’s emotions, too. If you can make an entertaining package out of a weekend event, you have the talent to do anything.
So I embraced it – for a high school fundraiser, I followed a family into a haunted house and captured every scream, shriek, and shudder. Sure, the story wasn’t going to be picked up by CNN, but I captured the moment, I had fun, and I think our Saturday night viewers did, too.
And that fun extended to the newsroom. We were always focused on our jobs, and we never did anything out of line, but we knew we could get away with a little more. We could play HORSE with the garbage cans, watch Cops in the conference room during dinner, creatively tease our upcoming programming (“the clock’s up next!”) or prank each other on occasion. One weekend, I once walked in, looking haggard and acting like Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman.” I’M IN A GLASS CASE OF EMOTION!
We were always so serious all of the time, so it was nice to be able to let our guard down a little bit.
But I think the biggest benefit to starting on the weekend shift is that it taught me to be self-reliant. The news director wasn’t walking through that door. The executive producer wasn’t walking through that door. Your fellow reporters were enjoying their weekend off. And your 6 p.m. producer wasn’t going to walk in the building for five hours. When something happens, it’s YOUR responsibility. You can shirk from it, or you can fly.
On one quiet Sunday morning, I got into work, checked my email and made my beat calls to local police and firefighters. Typically, those calls were 10 seconds long, and stuck to the same script:
“Anything major happening today or overnight?”
“Nope. It’s all quiet.”
Six different phone calls. Same response. Saturday, Sunday, every week. And this Sunday was no exception. I called and got nothing, or I left a voicemail for police officers. So I looked in the assignment board, gathered my gear and traveled 30 miles north to cover a holiday art exhibit opening (sigh, weekend news…).
Just as I pulled into the parking lot in Grants Pass, my cell phone rang.
“Hi Steven, this is Lt. Hansen returning your phone message. Yeah, we’re on scene of a stabbing here on 6th street.”
Thank God I had left that voicemail that morning. Otherwise I would never have known what was going on.
My mind immediately went into overdrive. There weren’t any other reporters to send to the scene, or web editors to tweet out information. It was all on me. I quickly got as much information as I could over the phone, then tweeted out what I knew so far. I leaped back into my news car and drove the 30 miles back to Medford. On the way, I called my producer, who wasn’t set to come in for another few hours, to give her the update. I was making the call: I was dropping my other two stories and focusing entirely on this stabbing. I told her we would also need to divert our photojournalist to the scene to tag-team it. She offered something better – she was closer to the scene and could head out there while I was on my way.
25 minutes later I arrived at the scene. I touched base with my producer, who shared what she had found in the meantime. I told her I would get interviews with police and witnesses, and my plan was to shoot a package and cold open for the 6 p.m. show.
A few hours later, our newscast was on the air, covering the entire story from beginning to end. With only three employees on our shift that day, we delivered thorough content, dramatic video, and compelling interviews to shed light on the tragic story. It was a whirlwind, and it was tough, but when you are on the weekend shift, you have to step up when the time comes. Plans can change, roles can be altered, but the news goes on.
Years later, our station put more resources into the weekend team, adding morning newscasts and more people to the day’s shift. If I had begun my broadcast journalism career in those circumstances, I don’t know if I would have turned out to be the same reporter. My weekend shift was lonely at times, isolating, and frustratingly difficult at others, but above all, it toughened me, and taught me what it takes to make it as a reporter on my own. I welcomed the moment when I finally moved to weekdays and got my Saturdays and Sundays back, but I don’t regret for a single second my time on the weekend shift.