TVN Executive Session | Hearst’s Maushard: ‘We Will Continue To Adapt’
News organizations finally had a handle on the technical challenges and news velocity 2020 had hurled at them when a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on George Floyd’s throat and choked the life out of him.
Suddenly months of adapting to remote working conditions and complex coronavirus safety protocols collided with a U.S. population at its boiling point. America took to the streets en masse to demand the end of U.S. racial injustice, and journalists needed to upshift once more to meet them there.
As SVP of news at Hearst Television, Barb Maushard is leading the group’s coverage through uncharted, heavily churning waters. Having worked to protect her stations first from the invisible threat of the coronavirus, now she sees her protest-covering journalists in the crosshairs of danger from local police, rioters and a president whose agitating against the media continues apace.
In an interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp, Maushard says ensuring those journalists’ safety is her top priority. She’s glad groups like NAB and RTDNA have had their back as assaults on the press continue to ratchet up. She says she’s working more closely with local news directors than ever, constantly improving the quality of remote-working conditions and evolving newsrooms’ election coverage playbook as complexities keep emerging.
“There is no manual or handbook for this,” she says, “but together we will continue to adapt and serve the audiences.”
An edited transcript.
Your reporters are suddenly facing danger on a whole new front covering the protests that have erupted across the country. What are your directives to them to keep them as safe as possible reporting on these events?
It is a balance of being in a position to tell these important stories and to be safe. We went from COVID-19 [and now] there’s been flying bottles, rocks or even rubber bullets, so it has been a new challenge. We reinforce that their safety is the most important thing. That is everything from providing extra personnel when they go to an event that could turn out to be volatile or dangerous, to providing elevated spaces where they can be away from the crowds.
Obviously, we still need to witness and be as close as we can be to see what is happening, but we do not have to be right in the middle of it. We use our choppers as much as possible to stay at a distance when we can and also provide the appropriate context and perspective, which is a very important part of covering these news stories. We have hired security in these markets to be with our crews that in those more vulnerable locations.
How does that security work? What’s the protocol?
We bring people there to just be with our crews and to be an extra set of eyes and ears and to help keep people away and to help usher us out if we are in a dangerous situation. Our journalists are incredibly brave and committed. They come back after a night of feeling the effects of tear gas or seeing bottles come at them or guns being brandished around, and they go back out because they know that they are helping to inform the community, raising the issues and exposing what is wrong.
They keep going out, and that is why we keep making sure that we are looking for all these various steps we can take. They all know that if they are in a situation where they are uncomfortable and they need to get out, their first order of business is get out, move or tell us. We are not going to put somebody where they don’t feel like they can be as safe as possible.
Have any of your journalists been injured?
We have had a couple of people who have been mildly hurt — bumped around, knocked down, that type of thing.
This is an extraordinary moment seeing journalists literally under attack, targeted in different instances both by police and some protesters. What do you have to say to that dynamic?
It is extremely troubling. Our journalists have to be free and safe in order to keep our communities free and safe. I am greatly appreciative of the efforts of the RTDNA, the NAB and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press fighting for the rights of our journalists because they are needed now more than ever. It is wrong that our folks are going to be targeted, but they are brave, committed [and] they are going to go out there and expose what is happening with the support of these organizations.
Is the issue underlying this — U.S. racial injustice — going to take a new role in your coverage? How may it impact the way you frame and engage the subject of race in your reporting?
We launched our effort Project CommUNITY a year and a half ago, and the entire purpose of that was for our stations to focus on how we can bridge the divide in our communities. Racial injustice was on the list of things that each of these communities would consider. Each [of the stations] went out and started holding town hall meetings and very targeted coverage on different topics trying to facilitate these crucial, often very difficult conversations. Our point was to continue to bring people together and work towards some solutions.
We recently pivoted a bit from those original intentions because of what COVID was doing to our communities economically. We went out and raised a significant amount of money — nearly $24 million — to help those communities.
We will be doubling down on that original effort and our focus will largely be on what we are watching unfold in front of us with inequality and injustice. It is never easy to talk about these issues, but with the freedoms that we are given as by the First Amendment comes that responsibility to address [them].
The pandemic may rightly be called the story of the century. As the senior news executive at Hearst, what has been your goal in shaping how stations are covering this?
Our goals are to provide the most critical information in an environment that is changing constantly. You start with a premise that let’s just make sure that we can continue to operate and be present for our audiences.
I am incredibly proud of the engineers and the technical folks and their ability to keep us not only operational but expanding coverage in many places in order to make sure we were providing that critical information. It is really to help our communities navigate what is happening right now. We are constantly updating that information. Our communities have never needed it more than they do today.
How have you had to change the way that you and your news directors communicate, collaborate and form strategies?
We are doing it more than ever. We originally were speaking seven days a week. Now, we have the regularly scheduled call at minimum twice a week. We do it by a video conference and I see and talk to them more than ever. That collaboration has never been better. The ability for us to collaborate face-to-face has been a positive byproduct of this terrible situation.
Just a few months ago nobody would have expected such an enormous volume of remote production. How are journalists reacting to all this? Do they have recommendations for the way that their work ought to change out of this?
The journalists have been incredible in terms of their contributions and their ideas on how to make things happen. They have been flexible with finding creative ways to get through it. They are adapting. They are all finding it in some ways rewarding.
I miss having people in a newsroom where you can collaborate because you expect that that is where the best collaboration is going to happen. I still believe that if you can get people face to face and have them collaborate on ideas and editorial content, that is always preferred. But the ability to find ways to make things happen remotely — to cover stories, to find ways to engage experts — has been incredible.
How has Hearst been evolving and improving the way that anchors and reporters are working remotely since this began in March? Are you getting better?
We are getting much better at it. We were able to do it technically and folks got quickly on the air from remote locations, but it doesn’t always look as appealing as you would want it to look. The backgrounds are not always well lit or technical things. We have figured out how to address a lot of those needs.
Everybody has been incredibly receptive to how to work through that. We have seen the value we get from the authenticity we see from our anchors when they are in this type of environment. It’s helpful to our audience to connect. They know us, they trust us, but for them to see us in these sometimes vulnerable positions makes people real and relatable. That helps us to think about how we can continue to bring that authenticity forward.
Viewers appear to like the casualness of reporting and anchoring from home. Do you think this will change the way that talent communicates on air when they are back on the set or reporting from the field once the lockdowns have phased out?
We have people who have been incredible communicators. It doesn’t matter where they are. Some folks will probably come back into a studio environment more at ease than they were before because they found a different style. It will help some people communicate more comfortably.
Are you holding the line against furloughs and salary cuts in newsrooms? Can you say there will not be any in the foreseeable future?
That really isn’t within my purview. It hasn’t happened. What I have always loved about this company and its leadership is how thoughtful they are in how we handle our employees. We are a company that really takes a long view as to what is happening right now.
Politics have infused almost every element of the pandemic now. How do you navigate those divisions, which essentially have become unavoidable to at least acknowledge?
We are focusing all of our efforts on the facts, getting our audience the information they need as it changes and making sure that we are doing our best to stay out of any political piece. It really isn’t where our focus is unless you are talking about the election.
That is the political piece we are focused on and finding creative new ways to do that. We recently conducted a couple of debates via Zoom, one for the Baltimore city mayor, another for a congressional race in Albuquerque. In terms of politics, our focus is on how we can help our audiences know what they need to know before they make those critical choices.
But the election has become inextricable from the pandemic in some ways. There are episodes that happen almost every day where there is something inherently political. Surely you have to wrangle politics in some way.
We are covering it from the perspective of what is happening and the facts and the information, and not taking a political stance. We are digging in to find out the facts. But we are doing our best to avoid the political nature of it. You are right: You can’t avoid the fact that so much of the coverage has a political element. But we are doing our best to avoid any sort of political position being taken in any of the coverage.
Hearst has always had a pretty aggressive playbook for covering elections. How is the pandemic changing that playbook?
We have been trying to figure out how to maintain offering up the debates, forums and discussions that we would typically do. We have done dozens of them in every cycle, so we have to figure out how to do that through the video conferencing tools that we have. We have had discussions about how to cover conventions if there are conventions.
We are looking at a project that we launched last year called “These 50 States,” where it was our intention to travel to every one of the states and produce issue-focused pieces and where the candidates would land on those issues. We got to nine of those before the pandemic hit, so now we are looking at how to do that with a combination of boots on the ground and through these new technologies. We are going to continue to be rewriting that playbook along the way.
We knew going into 2020 it was going to be a pivotal news year, but now with the pandemic, the economic crisis, the election and the likelihood of severe weather upon us again this summer, this stretches any news organization thinly. How can Hearst manage with both the volume of news and the complexities of delivering it now?
We manage with the incredible people we have. It is as simple as that. We have smart, dedicated, hardworking people who are going to continue to adapt to make happen what needs to happen. None of this is easy for anybody.
We are a strong company with strong values and people. There is no manual or handbook for this, but together we will continue to adapt and serve the audiences. We will do it. We will get it done because that is who we are and that is what we do.