Covering The Pope Was A ‘Grand Experiment’

Execs from three news organizations -- a network O&O, a cable news channel and a network -- explain the logistics and tactics of their coverage of September's eight days of "popemania."

Wanting to make the most one of the year’s biggest stories, TV news outlets leveraged a range of platforms — a dedicated cable channel and digital sites among them — to bolster coverage of Pope Francis’ U.S. visit in September.

“For a full eight days it was all pope, all the time,” said Steve Paulus, Time Warner Cable’s SVP of news and local programming, who took one of the most aggressive approaches to covering the story by creating a 24-hour cable network dedicated exclusively to the papal visit.

“In a nutshell, it was a grand experiment,” Paulus said. “And it worked like a charm.”

Paulus’ remarks Tuesday were part of a panel discussion about “popemania” — and what it took to cover it — at TVNewsCheck’s annual NewsTECHForum in New York. Kari Patey, assistant news director at NBC O&O WNBC New York, and Selymar Colon, Univision News’ director of digital integration, also participated.

Paulus said the idea of a 24-hour papal cable channel stemmed from the knowledge that Pope Francis’ visit was going to be of enormous interest to primarily Catholic viewers, but that other consumers were still going to want traditional content — breaking news, traffic and weather — that’s part of the regular news wheel on Time Warner’s news channels, such as New York’s News 1.

Creating a dedicated channel allowed Time Warner to cover Francis’ entire trip to Cuba and the U.S. from start to finish, without disrupting content on the cable company’s primary news channels, he said.


The channel — which reached 20 million households including Cablevision and Brighthouse Cable subscribers — ran stories related to the pope and Catholicism when there were lulls in activity. Producing it required help from Time Warner Cable news operations in upstate New York, Washington and the Carolinas.

“It was literally a 24/7 papal channel,” Paulus said. “For eight days we were we were all things Catholic to anyone who cared about the pope.”

None of which came about easily.

WNBC’s Patey said prepping for the pope’s September visit started in early May when partners in the coverage — NBC O&Os in New York, Washington and Philadelphia as well as NBC News and Telemundo stations — started having weekly calls to discuss topics ranging from navigating security to using live trucks instead of cellular transmission systems to avoid potential blackouts.

Wanting to differentiate coverage, WNBC early on forged a relationship with a family of hairdressers whose shop was across the street from the East Harlem school Pope Francis visited during his stay in New York. The station had roughly a dozen reporters or anchors reporting live at key times.

“We plotted out every given moment,” she said.

Live streaming had a particularly big role in Univision’s pope coverage, Colon said. Between having a reporter traveling with the pope, and a full team of traditional and digital reporters on the ground, Univision live streamed a total of 60 hours of Pope Francis’ journey from the minute he left Rome to the moment he left the U.S., she said. Reporters used Periscope to stream reports.

They also uploaded video to Facebook, and filed updates via Twitter. Before Pope Francis’ arrival, Univision produced a digital project focused on bigger issues related to religion itself.

“We try to balance the real-time, quick turn around with being able to produce high-quality content,” Colon said.

While panelists said they had some tough times negotiating the terms of their coverage with the New York Police Department, the Catholic Church actually helped them out a bit. Church leaders facilitated coverage of the pope’s activities, including providing pool coverage of events that broadcast journalists couldn’t do on their own.

“The Catholic Church is a pretty savvy organization,” Paulus said. “Their goal is to make our coverage as good as possible so it reflects well on the church.

To listen to a recording of this panel session, click here.

Read all of our NewsTECHForum 2015 coverage here.

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