Prep all you want, the big stories are still a challenge.
For the last week, my newsroom has been operating at full speed, covering the big story. No, not the birth of some British baby, but the demise of a once French city: Detroit.
Even if you’re ready, the story will catch you off-guard
It was no surprise that Detroit filed for bankruptcy. The writing had been on the wall of every vacant downtown building for months. But still we were caught a little flat-footed. Our sources and other media indicated the bankruptcy filing would take place on Friday. So Thursday afternoon at 4:00 p.m., we had a planning meeting with the news director, Detroit reporters, and the website and show producers. We were about to map out how we would handle the coverage on Friday if the filing took place, when the AP alert rang on my phone.
With a touch of cinematic flair I tossed the phone on the table and said, “They just filed. It’s happening now.”
At least all the people I needed to call together were already assembled. But we were in the middle of afternoon drive-time, with a fill-in anchor on the air, a number of reporters off for the day, no expert guests pre-interviewed or booked for live two-ways, and NPR and the BBC on the phone wanting coverage right away.
We immediately went into “all hands on deck” mode. Our regular anchor took over the show, the producer of our daily news magazine started calling for interviews, reporters were dispatched to hastily called press conferences in Detroit and Lansing, a distant bureau reporter monitored other media, our investigative reporter was pulled from his desk to pull cuts from streaming press conferences, an arts reporter was sent to get pizza, everybody jumped in to help.
People always step up at the start of a big story, because they want to be a part of the action, and we rocked it Thursday night. We fed produced stories to networks, we covered up our own network as we locally produced two A-segments for the 5:00 and 6:00 hours of All Things Considered, and we stayed late to get features, interviews and newscasts spots ready for the following morning.
When I drove home late Thursday night, I could not have been more proud of our team.
If you spend it all in the first round, the second round will be tough
My program director and I have a theory – it goes something like this: Everyone steps up on the first day of a crisis, but many step back on the second day.
I don’t say that to criticize anyone, it’s just impossible to keep up the level of intensity a newsroom generates when a big story breaks for a long period of time. As a manager, it’s not really fair to ask it of everyone. People will only put their regular duties and lives on hold for a big story for so long. For some of your staffers that will be a week, for others, it will be a day. The trick for the news director is to continue to get the story covered after the initial excitement wears down.
The strangest and most unexpected things will put speed bumps in your coverage
Even though we have crisis plans in place, and ad-hoc meetings and quickly created Google-documents to assist in communicating information to everyone, and experienced staff who know how to do their jobs well – as a manager you will be blindsided by stuff that just normally doesn’t happen, but somehow does during big stories.
In this one week, while trying to stay on top of this Detroit story, I had:
- A reporter that raced too quickly to a press conference and forgot the recording equipment.
- A web editor that left for a long scheduled family vacation.
- A reporter that lost their DS card somewhere in their car.
- A program director that was out of town at a conference.
- A reporter that got a flat tire.
- Foreign producers who kept scheduling interviews with our reporters and forgetting that Detroit is in the Eastern Time Zone, not Central.
- A text from a reporter en route to the emergency room for stitches and wouldn’t be filing.
If you can imagine it happening, it will most likely happen during the big story weeks, not those slow times when you’re resorting to water safety stories to fill the air time.
In addition to news director, you may also become a booking agent
While you are trying to get your reporters to hit the streets and find good stories, many networks and out of town stations will ask you to keep your reporters locked in a studio so they can do interviews for audiences that aren’t even in your market.
In the days after the bankruptcy had been filed, Michigan Radio reporters spoke on the air numerous times with NPR, the BBC, the CBC, Marketplace (produced in California), Here and Now (produced in Boston), and individual stations as far away as CKNW in Vancouver. Not only was I news director and editor for our station, I had become a booking agent fielding the many requests to speak with “anyone” who could talk about the story, while I was trying to free up the schedules of my reporters so they could actually cover the story. One reporter who got caught in traffic driving back to the station made it to the studio for a live interview on another network with 90 seconds to spare. (I would have been rattled, but she was fantastic.)
Be prepared, but be flexible
To paraphrase what I’m told is a Yiddish Proverb: “News Directors plan and the news gods laugh.”
Whether your big story is admittedly bigger than ours (terrorist attacks and natural disasters), or whether your big story has, like ours, all the glamour and complications of a municipal bankruptcy, you can have a plan in place but circumstances will quickly conspire to throw those plans out the window.
The best planning for covering the big story has more to do with the day to day operation of your newsroom than any crisis plan you can prepare.
- Hire people with personalities that indicate they are more likely to step up than step back when things are difficult.
- Give your staff permission to make decisions on their own, and most of them will be able to solve their own problems.
- Train your staff how to do it right on the small stories, and they’ll do it right on the big stories out of habit.
- Don’t waste energy being angry at people for problems out of their control. People don’t typically injure themselves to get out of work.
Oh, and pizza….pizza is always good.