Help! Everyone is on vacation but we still have newscasts to produce!
By Tim Wolff
Vice President of TV and Digital Publishing Innovation, Futuri
If you're like most TV stations, you just had a jam-packed November, fully staffed and with your best foot forward for sweeps.
And you'll spend the next 6 weeks with half your staff on vacation. So how do you still maintain high-quality newscasts with a skeleton crew? In my 20+ years leading in local newsrooms, I've found there are a few things you need to do.
Is it OK for your newscast standards to drop when you’re working with a skeleton crew? As much as we'd like to believe we can never lower our standards, it just isn't possible to expect the same level of quality from half the staff. At the same time, we can't allow viewers to perceive a big drop in quality; their expectations don't change just because we are short-staffed.
In specific instances, it might mean allowing your local news team to run a few more national packages; it could mean adding more time to weather or sports. You could also add more in-studio interviews or add other ways of filling time. Just be clear with the team on what steps they can take; otherwise you may end up with newscasts that don't meet your standards.
The most common way to lose viewers when you're short-staffed is by repeating stories over and over again. You must fight this repetition.
When producers are asked to produce more shows while having fewer producers and photographers to do it, the fastest solution (and sometimes only option) is to just copy and paste stories and teases from earlier newscasts. Before you know it, your morning news viewers are seeing the same verbatim stories at noon, 5, 6, and 11 ... and pretty soon they decide your news isn't worth watching as often.
When news teams are in a hurry, they look for the easy stories; car crashes, fires and news releases. I once saw a station air a non-injury single-car crash at noon on Friday; it aired in every newscast through the following Monday’s noon because producers just kept copying and pasting when they were in a hurry.
Producers need to be trained on finding a wider variety of stories. Health, science, and economy stories are wanted by viewers but can take time for untrained producers to find, understand, and properly write. It’s important to give producers training and tools to avoid recycling day-of minor news stories through every newscast.
A great solution is Futuri's TopicPulse, where producers can find hundreds (even thousands) of story ideas that are trending with your target local audience.
Revisit big stories from earlier in the year
I know I just advised you to avoid repetition, but that doesn't apply to your greatest hits, especially toward the end of the year when people are reflecting on 2022. Some of your sweeps pieces, big investigations, or best feature pieces could be worth running again. Or you can do live interviews with newsmakers from those stories to provide updates to big news, while easily filling a few minutes of news time.
If you plan ahead, you could even have a year-ending "Top Stories of 2022" pre-produced to run in one or more of your newscast times. If your station hasn't done that before, what you do is assign someone to capture big stories as the year goes along. Then you can easily compile them all into one special. If you didn’t plan, check with the digital and social teams for metrics throughout the year. They can quickly find the stories that drove the most page views on your sites and social media.
Charity and good works are also top of mind for viewers during the holiday season. If you've got a regular feature on people doing good things in the community, compile those into a special at the end of the year. When I was at WHIO-TV, James Brown's Making a Difference series became an excellent year-end special, and managed to draw higher ratings than most holiday newscasts.
Run alternate programming when you can
On Christmas morning, replacing your newscasts with Christmas-themed shows gives viewers a timely reason to tune in — while providing a nice boost to staff who'd like to spend that time with their families, too. As you go through the holiday season, look for those opportunities to run holiday or sports programs that can give your overworked staff a break. It can give them the space and time they need to focus on your biggest newscasts.
Lookout for the burnout trap
When a sizable portion of your staff is on vacation, the staff who are working are doing double the work, constantly pushing just to get newscasts on the air each day. And for all that work, there's a good chance many of their bosses are on vacation, not even noticing the hard work they are doing. This is a great time to take a moment and send personalized notes commending the producers, photographers, assignment editors, reporters, anchors and everyone who takes on double-duty during vacation time. Recognizing your team members’ hard work, especially in an individualized and personal way, can go a long way toward blunting burnout.
Watch out for scheduling issues
Just because you've managed to get bodies to fill all the newscasts, don't assume there aren't long-term repercussions. Resentment can grow quickly for those who sacrifice the chance to spend the holidays with family — especially if they feel like no one cares about the hard work they’re putting in.
Your staff likely understands that someone has to work holidays, and they are generally forgiving if they see logic and fairness in how schedules are done. Just make sure the schedules you make are logical, fair, and well-communicated to staff.
Also, make sure the manager schedules are clear and your staff knows who they need to contact in case of any problems. Believe me, no one wants to get a 2 am call that a photographer has the flu; but what's even worse is being in the newsroom and not knowing which manager to call at 2 am. Spend some time in your schedules allocating manager assignments — and communicate those assignments well — so that the managers who are on vacation can actually be on vacation during their time off.
Learn from every year
Lastly, when everyone is back in the office, take some time to look back over the last six weeks of the year. What went well? What didn't? Did we lower our staffing or standards so much that it hurt our ratings? Are there other things we can do to plan ahead next year that will fix the problems we had this year?
Spending that time when you're back to full staff can have a significant impact in the future.
I hope you, your loved ones, and your newsrooms have a wonderful holiday season.
Tim Wolff is Vice President of TV and Digital Publishing Innovation at Futuri. He has 20+ years of experience as a digital and broadcasting leader who's led top-performing teams across the country at companies including Gannett, Belo, and Cox Media Group Ohio, which includes three daily newspapers, three radio stations, WHIO-TV, and more. Wolff, who holds a Master's in Journalism from the University of Missouri, also makes a mean green chile stew.