A morning TV news anchor who gets to see her kids in the morning. A sports reporter with zero highlights, scores or games to report on. A producer who must build a 30-minute news show without the luxury of multiple computer monitors and ability to edit his own video. These were all once foreign concepts to folks inside the local TV news biz. It’s now become reality for many being forced to work from home during the coronavirus pandemic.
3TV’s Tess Rafols starts her day earlier than anyone, on the air beginning at 4:30 a.m. That means she would never see her kids in the morning, never did breakfast or got them ready for school. That’s changed now that she can do her on-air duties from her living room and schools are closed. “It’s a nice change,” Rafols tells PHOENIX. “The biggest challenge is trying to not wake up the kids so early in the morning, because you have to project your voice.” Rafols’ makeshift TV studio in her living room works well because it’s downstairs and on the other end of the house from where her three kids are sleeping upstairs. She’s yet to wake them up too early. When the kids are awake, Rafols warns them before her live shot and she also made a sign to tell him that mommy is on air.
The other challenge is what to do with so many people in the house demanding the WiFi. Rafols’ husband is a morning show executive producer at a competing local TV station. He’s working remotely at the kitchen table. Once her kids wake up, all three are on laptops at the kitchen counter doing their school work. And Rafols herself has to have a strong signal to be on air. Her iPad has to be connected because it serves as a TelePrompter, and her live shots are all done on an iPhone, connected via Skype, Facetime or LiveU (a cellular backpack used for live transmission). “WiFi connection is huge. We upgraded to the top tier internet service because the first week, it crashed,” Rafols says. “We’re spending the money on that, but we’re also saving money on gas by not driving to the office.”
There’s no timetable for a return to normal broadcasting life. Her Good Morning Arizona co-anchors Javier Soto and Scott Pasmore still hold down the chairs at the station, meanwhile Rafols, Olivia Fierro, April Warnecke, and Yetta Gibson all work remotely from their own homes. “The big picture is who has families at home,” Rafols said. “Meredith (3TV’s parent company) has been family-friendly and family first.” Until the time comes when life returns to normal, Tess and family are passing the time by creating a new TikTok account and posting silly dance videos to it. “It feels like we’re all in reset mode,” Rafols says. “It’s a reminder to slow down and find your happiness.”
THE SPORTS REPORTER
The sports world came to a screeching halt in the middle of March because of COVID-19. NBA and NHL seasons were suspended. The NCAA tournament was cancelled. Spring training came to a stop and MLB’s season has yet to begin. So how does a sports guy like 12News’ Cameron Cox continue to do his job? “Telling more people stories,” Cox tells PHOENIX. “The focus shifts when there’s no scores or highlights to show anymore. You look for people doing good things for their community.” One of his stories featured former ASU basketball player Michelle Tom, who is now a doctor working on the front lines to combat coronavirus in Winslow, Arizona. “You’re seeing the best of humanity,” Cox said.
Working from home isn’t all its cracked up to be for some. Cox admits he hasn’t needed to wear dress pants in quite some time, which is nice, but he misses interactions with co-workers. Only producers, directors and a few anchors are still able to go to the station in Downtown Phoenix. “I enjoy normal day-to-day conversations about sports, life and family. I’m not a fan of working from home. I didn’t like online classes during college. Home is where I want to relax and chill. I don’t like my job being so close to where I fall asleep.”
The job still allows Cox to get out of the house and shoot a story in the field. “People are conscious about space, but still respectful. We stay six feet away and we don’t put a mic on them,” Cox says about interviewing people for his reports. “Conversations in person are at a distance and not as long as they used to be.”
Teamwork has been key during this work from home period. Cox says reporters help each other by sharing ideas that have worked well. “It’s cool to see how creative people are and how seamless its been,” Cox says. “When faced with adversity, people put their heads down and go to work.”
The people who work behind the scenes in TV news rarely get mentioned. Producers write the scripts, create the graphics and edit the video. Directors punch the buttons in the control room. They work together to get your favorite TV newscast on the air each day – and they don’t have the luxury of doing those jobs from home. Staff at ABC15 may be the lone exception. Evening producer Joey Hardy tells PHOENIX the crew at 15 is limited to one or two anchors, one person at the assignment desk, one director and one assistant director. “Producers work on remote desktop,” Hardy says.
His workspace has gone from two large monitors at his desk, to a small laptop with an ethernet cable at his kitchen counter. Hardy admits he took his double monitors for granted because everything on his laptop requires extra steps. He’s able to write scripts and create graphics, but watching video is slow and choppy. “I still want to edit the video to how I want it,” Hardy says. “Video has become the hardest issue to deal with.”
Hardy says the situation has been his “big shining moment” because its made him a better communicator. ABC15 producers work from an app that calls into the control room during shows to talk with the director. Anything he needs to tell his anchor has to go through the director first. The delay means a newscast isn’t as flexible for on-the-fly breaking news as it once was, so over-communicating early and often has made him better at his job.
However, there isn’t much wiggle room to change a show considering how local TV news has adapted editorially during the pandemic. “We’re more critical of how to put a show together,” Hardy says. “The content is all COVID all the time, but we’re telling more people stories during this.” He says his station is getting away from so-called commodity news such as local crime and house fires. The storytelling element is one Hardy hopes becomes a permanent change in the way local TV news operates. “Stories are going longer. We’re giving reporters more flexibility (time) to tell a good story and let it breathe. It’s less about story count and more about good storytelling.”
Matt Johnson is Director of Digital Content at PHOENIX (formerly a local TV news producer for 15 years) and he now writes about media, sports and craft beer.