A Tampa GM Weighs Priorities In A Historic Year
As a station GM, people have referred to me as a puppeteer; I am sure it was not meant as a compliment.
When the guiding hand is in concert with the puppet, there is very little tension on the string, so I have embraced the term. But guiding without tension has been tricky in 2020.
The pandemic called for a quick pivot to removing 80% of our station’s staff to remote and reverse engineering workflows. In the process, we saw a renewed importance of cybersecurity.
Then lulls in the virus prompted questions of how people would re-enter the workplace and when. By spring, we were preparing for the start of a busy hurricane season. Along the way, Black Lives Matter protests directed us to look at unconscious bias in our workplace.
Other concerns were also constant: keeping crews safe in the field and making sure our employees could manage their new remote work lives with their pandemic-stressed family lives.
At WTVT, our workflows changed dramatically. We moved to an AWS workflow for sales and finance, then news and production quickly followed. Sometimes this transition was relatively easy, such as our WideOrbit functions. Other workflows like remote coding for directors, especially those involving audio, proved more challenging.
Our entire Tampa DMA was deeply impacted, especially our crucial service sector. Early on, beaches closed, and local restaurants suffered. Small protests erupted across the region challenging the lockdown. Protests over George Floyd’s death followed.
As they did, covering these events in the COVID era required a major rethink over how we would send crews, use helicopters and our array of social tools to best cover the story while safely social distancing.
The market has had some ups. Florida was one of the first states to reopen after the nationwide shutdown. Our daily statewide COVID rates stabilized, and the economy showed signs of a recovery. Tourism, too, saw something of a resurgence, though COVID has shown us that things can change quickly.
Nationally, Tampa entered the spotlight with the success of our professional sports teams. The Buccaneer’s addition of Tom Brady and recent wins have created renewed interest, with ratings up 60% over 2019. The Lightning’s Stanley Cup championship and the Rays’ trip to the World Series all point to a region on the rise with world-class sports franchises.
Having winning teams creates a louder voice for people to get behind, creating more opportunities to engage with the local market. That local excitement gave our newsroom and the marketplace something to rally around — good news for a change.
Politically, Florida once again finds itself as a battleground state. The I-4 corridor (Tampa to Orlando) is key for a Florida win, and the lack of a Senate race has focused the voters on the presidential and a handful of House races. The marketplace has seen hyper-focused spending on the presidential race with spending levels exceeding 2016, even though U.S. House races remained flat from 2018 levels, as many districts are set in their political affiliation.
Covering the candidates became more challenging in this environment. There certainly is passion in the market on both sides. From drive-in rallies to car and boat parades weekly, people in Tampa felt more personally invested in their candidates this cycle.
Meanwhile, the campaigns were wildly different in their handling of rallies and get-out-the-vote messaging. In that environment, we made conscious efforts to keep our crews safe that forced no small amount of creativity and cooperation. It meant greater usage of Zoom and Skype interviews, pooling video among local stations in COVID-risky situations and veering away from man on-the-street interviews to which we were so accustomed.
Along the way, our news department has redoubled its connection with the audience. This period has reenforced that storytelling is key, as is long-established talent. We have been working hard to develop and hold trust with our viewers by presenting the full story on vital issues.
We have also sharpened our focus on ways we can add value to our community. We’ve learned strengthening relationships with long-time partners is key, as they have had to reimagine their businesses. We have also been fortunate to have strong ties with Metropolitan Ministries, the American Cancer Society, the Children’s Gasparilla Parade and the Tampa Bay Black History Festival, among others. All of those partnerships have helped us have a meaningful impact in the communities we serve.
These last months have forced us all to make lasting, impactful decisions. We’ve had to face the prospect of staff reduction and realigning job responsibilities. There are the challenges of managing most employees remotely while trying to identify who among them is struggling most in the transition. Fortunately, our employee assistance program has been a crucial tool this year to help them through it.
At our station, we’ve gotten through all this by focusing on at least one thing we can fix every day like better lighting or audio on a story or a better solution for LiveU transfers. On a larger scale, we’ve worked harder to hear all the voices in the community, highlighting good, uplifting stories when we find them and focusing on the strength of our storytelling generally.
More than ever before, we realize how our words matter as do the stories we choose to tell.
John Hoffman, our VP of news, has long said, “Stop doing news for other newsrooms. Do it for your audience and make the connection.” That has never been truer than today.At WTVT, Fox’s Tampa, Fla., O&O, SVP and GM Jeff Maloney has been navigating through an unprecedented time. His market has been an epicenter of news while facing dramatic challenges. Click To Tweet
COVID has pointed us to a long road ahead. Cases are again on the rise in Florida. Individuals’ vigilance against the virus continues to vary widely. The onus is on us every day to promote safe, everyday practices for our viewers, doing what we can to suppress the numbers.
As a crucial news source in Tampa, we will continue to do our part by focusing on narrowing the divides in our community with stories and promotions identifying common ground and common good. COVID will continue to run its course, with peaks and valleys. We will come out on the other side of this election. And as we do, our focus will be on continuing to make our coverage credible, accessible and hopeful.
Jeff Maloney is SVP and GM of WTVT Tampa, Fla.