Up and down the East Coast, TV crews are running nonstop to cover the massive hurricane. Wall-to-wall coverage is the order of the day with stations putting particular emphasis on feeding websites, social media and mobile apps — among the most likely sources of information accessible when the power goes out.
As we move into Day 2 of Hurricane Sandy (now reclassified as Superstorm Sandy), TV news crews from Washington to Boston are working at full force providing wall-to-wall coverage, armed with precautions including ropes to tether satellite masts, cash in case of getting stranded and out-of-market reinforcements.
Having planned for storm coverage since last week — and after ramping it up over the weekend — stations went wall to wall starting at 4 a.m. ET Monday, and as Gannett’s WUSA Washington News Director Fred D’Ambrosi puts it: “I’m assuming we are going to be on the air for the next several days and we are prepared to do it.”
“Everybody left home on Saturday prepared to be gone for five to seven days,” says Michele Butt, news director of Hearst’s NBC affiliate WBAL Baltimore. “You don’t stop covering the storm just because the sun comes out.”
Preparing for the worst and sending crews far and wide, Butt made sure reporters had cash on hand should ATM service go out; booked hotel rooms for them with generators; and gave truck operators ropes to tie down their trucks’ dishes.
The station is coordinating coverage with other Hearst stations, as well as with NBC affiliates, she says.
Throughout the day Monday, local TV news operations in Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston ran nonstop storm tracking radar images and news tickers with emergency information and weather updates. Reporters, may pulling 12-hour shifts, stood by coastlines and waterways from Ocean City, Md., to New England poised for potentially destructive surges.
Bracing for widespread power outages cutting off viewers’ access to television, stations put particular emphasis on feeding websites, social media and mobile apps — among the most likely sources of information accessible when the power goes out.
By Monday, WUSA’s special Hurricane Sandy text alert app had 11,000 subcriberss, and its website had 14-15 times more traffic than usual, according to Digital Director Manny Fantis.
In Baltimore, home of Scripps ABC affiliate WMAR, iPhone and Android users can get localized emergency alerts via the group’s Storm Shield app. The station also streams live via its mobile app. Between its mobile and website, WBAL expected to have 2 million page views by late Monday.
News directors up and down the East Coast say they are transmitting stories via satellite and microwave trucks and mobile backpacks — and are ready to rely on iPhones should all else fail.
By around 1 p.m. Monday, Hearst’s WCVB Boston already had lost power and was running on a generator. The station had enough fuel to last three days and had a fuel company on call to provide more should the power loss go on longer, says News Director Andrew Vrees.
For many stations, covering Sandy is a group effort. The NBC Owned Stations — WRC Washington, WCAU Philadelphia, WNBC New York and WVIT Hartford, Conn. — together covering one of the country’s most populated corridors, created a united front of sorts against the storm, sharing resources and content with its corporate news group, including the NBC network, the Weather Channel, MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo.
Before the storm rolled into town, about a dozen people from Scripps stations in markets including Cincinnati; Indianapolis; Cleveland; Tampa, Fla.; Tulsa, Okla.; and Phoenix arrived at sister station and ABC affiliate WMAR Baltimore to help with coverage and relieve the station’s team which is sure to work long and hard this week, says the group’s director of news strategy and operations, Jeff Brogan. A crew from Detroit was still enroute on Monday.
All of which is evidence of stations trying to differentiate themselves despite sharing the primary goal of ensuring the safety of residents and reporting teams, news managers say.
Scripps’ Washington-based Scripps-Howard News Service, for example, is expected to explore how the hurricane — and the government’s response to it — will affect politics, Brogan says.
In New York, WNBC’s storm coverage took an unexpected turn when part of a crane collapsed in midtown Manhattan. And a reporter stationed at the New York Harbor in lower Manhattan for a short time turned her attention to a jet skier making the most of storm-related, albeit dangerous, waves.
In Philadelphia, Fox-owned WTXF started the day at 4 a.m. with a special weather-related edition of Good Day Philadelphia including interviews with Mayor Michael Nutter, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett and Delaware Governor Jack Markell. That station’s team covered the area from New Jersey’s shore towns like Atlantic City and Cape May on south.
NBC’s WCAU, also in Philadelphia, preempted NBC Nightly News on Monday to stick with storm coverage, telling viewers they could watch the network newscast online. That station also started a phone bank with the Red Cross over the weekend and had received 600 calls on Sunday alone, says spokeswoman Kathleen Burke.
In Washington, WRC meteorologists are being broadcast on radio on WAMU-FM and WHUR-FM.
Station in affected markets have been planning coverage strategies for a week. Scripps put its plan into action in the middle of last week, identifying individuals to work as Baltimore reinforcements, Brogan says.
Since Friday, WCAU staff has had meetings twice a day involving not only news personnel and engineers, but financial managers, too. “The scope of this includes making sure the crews have cash in case they need food and the power is down,” Burke says. By late Monday, the station had set up cots for its staff.
Even as storm coverage continues, news operations already are preparing for the next step: covering the aftermath. WBAL for example, on Monday, already had its chopper waiting in the wings to survey hurricane damage once it’s safe to do so,
Although Baltimore has had its share of major weather events over the last few years — from last year’s Hurricane Irene to massive snow falls the year before — this one is different, Butt says: “It’s been crazy.”