Newsroom Notes: A unique view at a unique time

How do you run a newsroom through these unusual times? We’re providing a first-hand view from an industry veteran who agreed to lead the KOMU newsroom during a faculty search process—just as the COVID-19 crisis began unfolding.

It is Sunday morning in Columbia, Missouri, and it’s snowing! Traffic on The Road to OTT is light and we think we will make it there soon, but the events of the past two weeks give me a new writing perch. I am guessing most of my fellow news directors have precious little time to read this, but I am still encouraging all of you to continue sharing your innovations, best practices and any other good ideas.

First, a message from our sponsor. Actually, a message from me about the students here in Columbia: In my years recruiting, the University of Missouri faculty always told me about the Missouri Method. It’s true! With campus virtually closed and classes online, I am blown away by the number of students staying here because they want to work at KOMU. For readers who don’t realize this, KOMU is the NBC affiliate in central Missouri and depends upon student reporters, producers and some anchors. The seniors are particularly anxious because they realize news directors are busy now. If you already interviewed an MU senior and have permission to hire, you won’t be disappointed.

We are doing many of the same things as other television newsrooms—fine-tuning our remote contribution systems to keep reporters in the field, quickly learning new technology like using our mobile phones as live backpacks and implementing this thing called social distancing. Every keyboard, mouse and phone gets wiped down at least twice a shift. One thing that the current situation does not change is the need to make good decisions.

One of our first confirmed cases of COVID-19 was a college student who returned from study-abroad. It created an ethical dilemma. The student felt strongly that she wanted to tell her story—several days before the national publicity about young people partying on spring-break beaches. She was passionate about sharing the seriousness of her illness despite symptoms being relatively minor. She told us the story of flying home, her sister driving from the airport, immediately going into self-quarantine and the rest of her family doing the same. They asked that we conceal her identity in the Zoom-interview. The newsroom leadership team talked through the implications including viewers who would wonder if they had been around the person and how many others beyond the family could be affected. Our university leadership wanted us to make clear the student had not been on campus—all reasonable concerns that we addressed in the broadcast story and in an editor’s note to the digital story. We can always do a better job of making ethical decisions in front of everyone. This was not a particularly hard decision, but we can always do a better job of letting everyone on the staff (and the audience) see how we make decisions like this.

The snow stopped in the time it took me to tell our story. Our meteorologists say we’ll be close to 70 degrees by the end of the week. Winter is passing and so will this crisis. If you are just a bit spiritual, join me in reading from Ecclesiastes chapter 3: “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Let me hear from you: and please don’t forget our graduating seniors.


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