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Still pumping out newscasts: How major TV networks keep the news going

Airing from home, reporting in isolation unheard of before COVID-19
By: Chelsey Gould
May 29, 2020
Cynthia Mulligan does a standup on the sidewalk outside of her home. Her cameraman drives the van over for the physically-distant arrangement (Cynthia Mulligan).

Cynthia Mulligan does a standup on the sidewalk outside of her home. Her cameraman drives the van over for the physically-distant arrangement (Cynthia Mulligan).

CP24 anchor Kelly Linehan (RSJ ’12) is a hugger and loves interacting with co-workers. But these days, she goes through a nearly empty studio to the anchor desk by herself. Tucked underneath, out of view from the camera, are disinfecting supplies, used to wipe down surfaces during the five-minute commercial break every hour as hosts switch.

The format is different too. She talks to guests who are at home on a screen, which can be a bit tricky sometimes.

“I think now I'm getting a bit better at understanding there's a bit of a delay and I don't need to jump,” said Linehan. “I just needed to let the person finish the thought, or it might have just been an issue with their video for a moment, because nothing's worse than when you talk over each other.”

Journalists are either working from makeshift workstations at home, in a lonely newsroom or outside trying to balance a mic’d boom pole to their sources. And after almost two-and-a-half months, it’s not so new anymore. 

“I think a lot of us were really skeptical to say we would be doing this for a couple months. And here we are,” said Jeyan Jeganathan (RSJ ’13), a host on TVO’s Ontario Hubs. “We're pumping out a show every day, we're recording every morning, it goes to air that night, it's pretty impressive.”

With many reporters working from home, desks have opened up throughout newsrooms, allowing people to isolate their workspaces and stick to designated floors. Sanitization is rigorous, and even control rooms such as those at CBC have plexiglass installed. At Global News Morning, studio cameras are operated remotely. 

“It was a lot of rapid changes, but the news cycle was also rapid too, so we just had to keep up with that,” said Chelsea Lecce (RSJ ’18), associate producer at Global News Morning.

Quick turnover, changing formats

Some newsrooms had a case or two of employees contracting COVID-19 early on in the pandemic.

Global News chief meteorologist Anthony Farnell and regional news director Mackay Taggart contracted COVID-19 in early March,, external link believed to be from a ski trip in Austria, external link.

On March 23 TVO ran a repeat broadcast of The Agenda after TVO producer Patricia Kozicka tested positive, external link for COVID-19, to allow sanitization of the studio and to prepare anchor Steve Paikin’s home as the new broadcast centre for the show.

In these cases, the news organizations were transparent and conducted careful contact tracing.

Other employees who returned from abroad or were immunocompromised ended up being the first to work at home for what initially seemed to be a temporary measure, but were soon followed by their coworkers. Some places, such as CBC, initially tried a rotational approach, but soon only the most necessary employees came to the studio.

Talia Ricci (RSJ ’12) ended up being the first reporter at CBC Toronto to voluntarily start working from home. She had flown back from a vacation in Morocco on March 13 when things started to turn.

“I was just dying to be at work because I'd never seen anything like this happen before… so many things shut down so quickly,” she said. 

Cristina Howorun (RSJ ’09) was doing stand-ups for CityNews at the beginning of the pandemic but ended up transferring to a documentary project earlier than anticipated because of the circumstances.

“The whole trajectory, it happened very quickly,” she said. “Within two weeks things had gone from just ‘try and keep your distance and make sure you wash your hands,’ to ‘everybody is almost virtually in a lockdown reporters are no longer coming into the station, you're assigned a camera person, and that is your camera person.’”

This left many newsrooms quickly establishing new methods of communication between workers.

“We put systems in place that historically might have taken us some time to build,” said Joel Bowey (RSJ ’04), supervising producer for multi-platform content at CTV and CP24. “We managed to build them in just a matter of days.”

How to get those shots? 

Before COVID-19, broadcasting a newscast from one’s home was seen as unusual. Now, Canadians are getting familiar with the kitchens, home offices, backyards and sidewalks of their news presenters’ and meteorologists’ homes.  

When Howorun went live, she constantly kept one corner of her kitchen “very, very clean.”

“Nothing could be in that corner ever,” she said. “Like, ‘Do not make toast. If you're making toast you move the toaster to another outlet.’ It had to be chrome and sparkling... because that's the one zone that I wanted to make sure was always ready to go in case of breaking news.”

Still, Howorun felt quite limited, since shooting from a cell phone is a far cry from the interactive CityNews style.

However, one of the key aspects of broadcast journalism is capturing motivating visuals. CityNews journalist Cynthia Mulligan is immunocompromised, so her cameraman generally films her from outside her house. But when she talked to a woman whose mother could not communicate with her from inside a long-term care home, Mulligan opted to capture the emotion by doing the interview outside of the care facility.

Jeganathan is craving to get out in the field. He’s typically out capturing footage for short documentaries and misses getting those perfect shots. Instead, he is having to “throw that to the wayside” and take whatever he can get. 

“It's just frustrating. I would like to go back to my nice camera, my nice light setups, and my co-workers...I miss those kinds of journeys and meeting all these people across the province, and I'm stuck in my bedroom,” he said.

In some cases, the interviewees are becoming journalists themselves. Ricci gave a woman coordinating food banks at Toronto Public Library a crash course on filming for her story.

“I'm like, ‘OK, turn your phone around, now pan shot,’ basically directing this woman how to shoot my B-roll for me… I never thought that some random person I'm interviewing (would) be shooting B-roll for my story, but it's somehow working out,” said Ricci.

Adapting to new interview methods

Technical glitches? Absolutely.

One difficult interview for Howorun was with a former inmate who contracted COVID-19 and was upset about bringing it home to his wife and community. They ran into issues with a poor internet connection and a loud computer fan and she had to ask him to repeat several times while he was crying before she could understand what he was saying.

“It can be quite difficult, particularly when you're dealing with very sensitive issues to ask somebody that's talking about some pretty heavy stuff to repeat themselves because of technical glitches. It’s not easy, and it's certainly not easy on the people that you're interviewing either.”

When Ricci’s home internet stopped working one day, she suddenly found herself unable to do her job.

“Even though we're not going out as much, it still feels like a little bit more work somehow… you feel very much at the mercy of hoping everything works,” she said.

Journalists are also spending time coaching subjects on tasks typically done by themselves.

Lecce had to completely stop bringing on in-person guests and instead is spending a lot of time arranging pre-taped Skype interviews and making sure that guests set up their equipment properly.

“Skype is a little tricky with people's technology and there's a lot of little glitches, so we don't want to rely on too many live interviews throughout our show, which is also a big change, because we're so used to handling the bulk of things on the day of,” she said.

Technology is a matter of learning not just for interviewees, but for journalists too.

For those out in the field, there are rarely live interviews to avoid sharing a microphone, and even physically-distant field shooting often needs the go-ahead clearance on a case-by-case basis.  

“It's been weird because I'm used to talking to people on the street and interacting with people, but now that is not my role at all,” said Linehan. “The silver lining to that is that I've become a lot closer… to the inside crew.”

Global News segment about Global News employees working at home that aired on March 18, 2020 (Chelsea Lecce/Global News).

Working the show in real-time, at home

Arielle Piat-Sauvé (RSJ ’15), producer at CBC’s The National and At Issue, communicates to the hosts’ earpieces in real-time from her phone at home. Co-hosts Andrew Chang and Adrienne Arsenault are reporting from separate locations in Toronto, while Ian Hanomansing and Rosemary Barton continue their work from the Vancouver and Ottawa studios.

“This week I took the show to air a couple times and was in my control room with my dog, which is crazy,” she said. “But it's an adjustment for everyone figuring out the right space, how many computers you need and how many screens you need.”

Arielle Piat-Sauvé’s setup while running coverage of the Nova Scotia mass shooting in April (Arielle Piat-Sauvé/Twitter).

Arielle Piat-Sauvé’s setup while running coverage of the Nova Scotia mass shooting in April (Arielle Piat-Sauvé/Twitter).

At TVO, everything is being operated from home. They had a skeleton crew during the week of March 16, and since then all hosts and reporters have been airing from their makeshift home studios. Jeganathan said that this was made possible using Stage Ten, a web-based studio software.

Many reporters are missing out on the organic experience of breaking news information coming into their newsroom, often yelled across the room or from a police scanner. Bowey is still in the newsroom attempting to fill that gap while his ten digital team members work from home. 

“When news breaks, there's a quick communications factor… I can then disseminate that information to the people who are working in a breaking news environment, but trying to do it from their individual homes.”

Mulligan is used to chasing politicians down the hallways of Queen’s Park, but now she’s spending hours watching news conferences while being put on hold for her question.

“It is a completely different pace, and yet, the energy is still so intense because it's so incredibly busy,” she said. “You're being deluged with different facts and trying to condense, you know, hours of news conferences with updates into a two- or three-minute piece to try and educate the public.”

The future of newsrooms

The pandemic has taken the traditional format of broadcast journalism and turned it on its head.

“I never thought a field reporter would be filing stories from home — I didn't even think that was possible,” said Ricci. “It's a hard time because we're all trying to learn how to do our jobs in a new way, but at a time where it's so important that we continue to get information out to the public.”

When journalists will be back in newsrooms is a question that no one really has an answer to, much like other aspects of people’s lives. How the news is run might look a little different even when that happens.

“As an industry, like every other industry, this is going to change how we do things going forward, simply because we now have these systems in place that give us a lot more flexibility,” said Bowey. “And we're dealing with an unknown virus that has caused a lot of uncertainty. We're not really sure when things might get back to normal and what that new normal might look like.”

Whatever “normal” becomes after the pandemic, it is certain that broadcasters have demonstrated their ability to keep producing news and are not stopping any time soon.