A day in the life of a local TV newsroom covering coronavirus

April 6, 2020 11:00

This post first appeared April 1, 2020, on CBS4 and is republished here with permission.

It’s 9 a.m. and the buzz is starting to build in the morning editorial meeting. It’s the typical stuff: reporter Michael Abeyta says, “Good morning everyone,” managing editor Laura Phillips works out logistics for an early story shoot, “Shawn can’t do that, he already has something set up for today.” Assistant News Director Kristine Strain is trying to track down a new laptop editor for a crew working in the field. The usual. But this is definitely not a usual day.

(credit: CBS)

On a normal day, we’re all gathered in a conference room — sipping coffee while pitching and debating story ideas. On this day, there are about 40 of us gathered on a Zoom call. All of our reporters and photojournalists are now working remotely. The digital team works from home. Also, the entire sports department, some assignment editors, managers, IT, video editors and producers.

This morning, there are just six of us on the Zoom from our desks in the newsroom. A little chime sounds as each person joins from home. The call is filled with the sounds of dogs barking, babies crying, children looking for something to do, somebody’s spouse asks, “Have you seen the remote?” These are the sounds of our homes, now part of the soundtrack of our morning editorial meeting.

Reporter Shawn Chitnis makes a story pitch during a CBS4 editorial meeting. (credit: CBS)

A video conference can be difficult with just a few participants – so imagine a video conference with a few dozen journalists all eager to pitch ideas and discuss the big stories of the day. Laura is doing her best to bring order to this group, “Alright everyone, let’s try to get started.” The meeting goes surprisingly smooth – we now have a set agenda and each person knows when it’s their turn to speak. Of course, there are still plenty of the usual conference call moments like, “Sorry, you go ahead,” and “Hey Rick, you’re on mute.” Then there moments we call “mute shaming” like, “Michael, your dogs are barking again” and “Who’s listening to smooth jazz?” (that was me; but in my defense it was Miles Davis, not “smooth jazz”). But, we’re all keeping our sense of humor, being patient, and making it work.

Over the last few weeks, many of our reporters have gravitated toward certain “beats” related to the coronavirus outbreak. The story is overwhelming, so breaking it down into beats allows them to develop stronger sources and stories. Investigative reporter Brian Maass pitches stories about PPE shortages among our health care workers, Joel Hillan tracks companies that are hiring, Kati Weis is monitoring the latest information coming from political leaders and our state health department, Kathy Walsh follows stories from the front lines of the medical community, Tori Mason and Karen Morfitt are tracking how e-learning is going in homes across Colorado, Shawn Chitnis is following our arts and cultural institutions and restaurants, Conor McCue is sharing stories of Colorado businesses stepping up to help fight the spread of coronavirus. And those are just some of the examples – all of our reporters, every day, are following the many ways that coronavirus is affecting our lives in Colorado.

Senior assignment desk editor Ben Warwick on the open Zoom call with an empty newsroom. (credit: CBS)

It’s 9:40 a.m. and we’ve heard all the pitches. There are 50+ stories on the idea board and today we’re picking 12 to follow for our 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts. As we go down the list, settling on assignments, reporters drop off the call and get to work. Throughout the day, they’ll stay in touch with newsroom managers and producers via email, text, calls, FaceTime, Zoom, Twitter DMs, Facebook Messenger, topline messages on our newsroom computer system, and more. A Zoom conference stays open all day on a computer at the front of the newsroom, so those working remotely can “drop in” to provide updates. By midday, just one of our stories is not working out: some grocery workers had contacted us wanting to speak out about conditions inside stores but decided not to interview, fearing they might lose their jobs.

PHOTO GALLERY: CBS4 Anchors, Reporters Work From Home During Coronavirus Pandemic

1:30 p.m. arrives and it’s another Zoom. Our afternoon editorial meeting. Sounds from home fill the call, and this afternoon we get to meet sons, daughters, dogs and cats. Jamie Leary joins the Zoom while enjoying the sun in her backyard. Working remotely isn’t all bad. Finally, it’s time to get down to business. Laura provides an update on our reporter stories for the 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts, then 10 p.m. executive producer Tom Merolla leads a discussion of story ideas for our late news. Today, all of our 10 p.m. reporters have developed strong, enterprise stories. There’s some debate over whether we need to be covering financial trouble at the U.S. Post Office or new guidelines for masks but we ultimately settle on our reporter’s original ideas plus a new story pitched by Dago Cordova from our CBSN Denver team. And then we break, like an NFL offense leaving the huddle, except with a bunch of nerdy journalists awkwardly dropping off a Zoom call.

Another busy afternoon commences. Stories are being shot, written, edited then fed back for air – entirely from the field. Equipment and logistics are being constantly managed. CBSN Denver executive producer Robin Clutters and her team are tracking every news conference so we can carry them live on our streaming channel. Web Manager Jesse Sarles and his team are writing and producing exclusive stories for CBSDenver.com. The Zoom computer cackles to life periodically with journalists jumping on with non sequiturs like, “Does Casa Bonita serve take out?” and “Can someone please leave some hand sanitizer downstairs?” and “Does Whole Foods have a union?” and “Has anyone in the newsroom received a speeding ticket this week?” Overhead announcements from CBS News let us know when the next Special Report is planned.

Amid all this, there are the personal conversations. We talk about how we’re managing all this change at work, the long days, a new workflow. We talk about the personal stress too — family and friends who have lost jobs; and, more recently, family and friends who are sick. Many of us now know someone who has died from complications of coronavirus. We’ve never covered a story like this one. Never experienced the intensity, exhaustion and emotion that a story of this magnitude — and this duration — places on a newsroom. During an emergency staff meeting back on Thursday, March 12 I talked about how this would be “a marathon, not a sprint” but I had no idea at the time how true that would be and, like a marathon, the toll it would take on all of us. I love to say, “Let’s root for each other,” and we’ve never needed it more. I spend every moment I can rooting for our amazing team — trying to show them how much I appreciate their work and their work ethic: how they’re persevering and even excelling in such a challenging time. I hope they’re hearing that message from me, but I’m also witnessing the most powerful support is the support they give each other. There are moments when it just gets to be too much. I see the tears. And then I hear the encouraging words, messages of empathy, and love. Let’s root for each other.


It’s 5:15 p.m. and time for our last (scheduled) Zoom editorial meeting of the day. I’m going with a meerkat virtual background tonight. I now do so many Zoom meetings that virtual backgrounds have become my creative outlet. Our 10 p.m. producer, Lauren Sklba, walks us through the rundown for our late news. As always, Kelly Werthmann leads our newscast from the CBSN Denver studio with the biggest headlines of the day. There’s so much happening on this story, so quickly, that we now lead every newscast from our CBSN studio with the latest important information on the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado. Also tonight, Jamie Leary got a tour of a hospital preparing for a surge of patients, Jeff Todd spoke with a young mom recovering from coronavirus who has a powerful message for others, Karen Morfitt has a story about how colleges are adopting a new grading scale to accommodate for e-learning, and Dominic Garcia is talking with landlords and tenants on edge as rent is coming due. Creative Services Director Drew Sidener and promotions producer Michael Choy then lead a discussion of our promotion strategy for the night.



A barking dog interrupts a serious discussion about the financial crisis, which leads to a conversation about who plans to send pictures of their pets to CBS as part of a fun team-building project. All of us try, very seriously, to convince executive producer Tom Merolla (who didn’t read the memo) that he is supposed to email his dog pictures to Peter Dunn, the President of CBS Television Stations. I think he almost bought it until I broke down laughing. That was followed by more laughing, as we imagined the President of CBS Television receiving Tom’s dog pictures in his email. Thankfully, there is still laughter in our day. These may be among the worst of times, but every day I’m seeing the very best from the journalists in the CBS4 newsroom. They do it because it’s their job; but more importantly, they do it because these times call for them to be at their best. The journalists at CBS4 take that responsibility very seriously, and find inspiration in this important service.
Karen Leigh anchors from home.

Karen Leigh anchors from home. (credit: CBS)

It’s now 10:40 p.m., and we’ve just completed the late news with Jim Benemann anchoring from the studio, Karen Leigh anchoring from home and Michael Spencer doing sports from his living room. The four of us are texting, with Karen admitting, “It’s a little weird.” Michael adds, “Great team effort by everyone.” Indeed.

I’ve never been so proud to be part of this team.

Michael Spencer reports on sports news during a CBS4 newscast.

Michael Spencer reports on sports news during a CBS4 newscast. (credit: CBS)