WTTG Confronts Coronavirus With Steady Hand
“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Monty Python once joked. Local newsrooms, for all their disaster contingency plans, might now say the same of pandemics.
Yet at Fox-owned WTTG (Fox) and WDCA (MNT) in Washington, VP and GM Patrick Paolini says they weren’t entirely caught on the back foot by the coronavirus thanks to a business contingency plan (BCP) that gave them a rough framework toward taking first steps.
“We relied on that in the early stages of this as a guideline,” Paolini says. “It’s been a very fluid situation over the last several weeks, but our BCP gave us a very sound starting point on how to stay on the air, maintain facilities and operations through something — certainly not a pandemic — but a crisis that affects buildings and facilities.”
And, of course, people. Paolini says upwards of 75% of his staff are now working from home including the finance, sales, traffic and digital departments. Reporters and photographers aren’t entering the building, but rather working remotely from the field.
For those who are staying on site to work, they are spreading into sequestered areas of the building. “We might have only one director who has to be in a control room and somebody else can be somewhere else doing the technical directing, the audio or editing,” Paolini says from his own sequestered office. “I am on the second floor of the building and I’m the only one on the floor. It’s kind of eerie.”
Even many of the anchors are already working from home, though Paolini says they’re keeping a minimal anchor presence in the building should remote operating systems go down “and you have to have someone here get on to a flash cam.”
If the building itself becomes a hot spot (the station has yet to have a staffer test positive for the virus), Paolini says there’s even a contingency space in the old WDCA headquarters in nearby Bethesda, Md., standing by. “Over the last two years we have ramped up the connectivity over there,” he says. “We have full capability that could keep us on air if this facility was compromised.”
But it’s one thing to make a good plan and something else to execute it under extreme duress. The teams first vacated from the building did so with only a day and a half’s notice, and the station’s AWS and VPN systems needed to be remotely tested quickly along with making sure the vacated staff were comfortable operationally with the technology. “We tested for one day, fixed any holes we noticed and then once we felt we were good to go, they were home,” Paolini says.
He says so far there haven’t been any major problems with connectivity or latency other than “some lip sync issues” that were quickly resolved. Anchors now work from home using LiveU setups with Zoom serving as a teleprompter, one of the more novel uses to which it has been put.
“Our tech department across the entire group made a Herculean effort and I give them tremendous kudos,” Paolini says. “They got as many employees as possible up and running in a very short window.”
Out in the field, meanwhile, more boom mics were ordered to maximize distances between photographers, reporters and sources.
Paolini says the digital team has played a crucial role since the pandemic’s onset, processing a ceaseless torrent of reporting, data, press conferences and facts and managing it all through a ramped-up use of Slack channels. In addition to constantly updating the station’s digital platforms, the team is also contributing to a newly-spun up site spanning all Fox’s media properties, coronavirusnow.com, that has become a clearinghouse for information on the crisis.
WTTG hasn’t added any more newscast hours yet, but that’s only because the station went into the pandemic already producing 80 hours of content a week. “We are on seven hours straight in the mornings, we come back on at midday with a digital show, then we are on at 4 to 7:30, at 8 and 9 on WDCA and then back on at 10 to midnight on WTTG,” Paolini says, “so I think we have it covered.”
Other adjustments have had to be made. The regular five to six daily promos often now distill to two or three with none being made in the studio, for instance. And certainly viewers have had to adjust their expectations, now seeing well-known anchors and meteorologists reporting from their living rooms. There’s a whole new on-air dynamic that comes with the occasional domestic disruptions there, such as when weather anchor Sue Palka’s cat often stalks into the frame during her forecast.
“For the most part I think viewers appreciate what we’re going through,” Paolini says. “I think they’re actually embracing it.”
They’re also happy for the positive stories Paolini has mandated be woven through the torrent of “virus, virus, negative, negative” headlines that invariably bombard viewers daily, such as a running tally of restaurants and bars still open for takeaway food. Also on the positive side, the station has partnered with the Washington Teachers’ Union to broadcast lessons for students without access to computers during the pandemic.
And in a rare move of cross-market solidarity, WTTG has also partnered with its local competitors to produce a promo affirming all the local stations’ commitment to informative journalism in the crisis, promising, “No matter who you choose… we are here for you.”
A big part of Paolini’s own managerial role has shifted into constant communication with his now mostly-remote staff. “People want information,” he says. “They want to know you are trying to keep them safe, that you are doing everything you can.”
Staffers understand they’re in a fluid situation, but that uncertainty takes its toll. “It’s the unknown,” Paolini says. “Is somebody in my family going to get it? Am I going to get it? We don’t know the end here.”
Employees’ stress is exacerbated by having all their lives’ touchstones of normalcy also indefinitely swept away, giving them little release from jobs that are already highly stressful on a good, non-pandemic day.
Paolini says he’s trying to make sure they’re taking time for themselves amid it all, communicating with him when things spiral off too badly so they can get the support they need.
That support extends to the station’s advertisers, too. “You have got to let the advertisers know you are here,” Paolini says. “I have asked sales to make sure they are touching their clients, not just sending them emails, but talking to them, having conversations and trying to stay as upbeat as possible.”
As much as WTTG has been upended, however, one thing has remained intact: its prolific podcasts, even if the guests who appear on some have had to be sidelined for now. Most, including Paolini’s own The Paolini Perspective, are now taped remotely, and thanks to the relatively simple toolkit needed to produce them, they haven’t missed a beat.
When the coronavirus crisis does eventually abate, Paolini sees a news future that will be inexorably changed by the remote production possibilities that this moment has made clear.
“Ten, maybe even five years ago, this could have been a whole different situation for local news stations,” he says. “It’s interesting how quickly we have adapted and how we can still put on the amount of news that we do.”
To read more about how TV stations, station groups, news organizations and individuals are pivoting to work amid the coronavirus pandemic, click here.