MARCH 22, 2021

Making the Media S1E06: Barreling Towards Burnout

Bob Ellis on the Making the Media podcast

News is not a forgiving field. Long hours, tight deadlines, intense subject matter—all are par for the course. Add the stress and isolation of a pandemic, and you’ve got one heck of a pressure cooker.

In this episode, we ask: What can news organizations do to protect their teams’ mental health? Can we learn from our collective experience amidst the pandemic to enable a better work-life balance?

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Listen to Hear:

  • The impact of the global pandemic on local TV news stations
  • How the community of the newsroom does—and does not—translate in a remote-first environment
  • How news leaders can support their team's wellbeing during an exceptionally stressful period

Our Guest This Episode

Bob Ellis is the Vice President and General Manager of WJXT and WCWJ in Jacksonville, Florida. Under Ellis’ leadership, WJXT has widened the gap as the most-watched television station in Jacksonville and sharply focused its efforts to leverage their News4JAX brand on its digital platforms, for which they earned the national Edward R. Murrow award as he best local television website in the United States in 2014. In 2013, Ellis was named General Manager of the Year for markets 25-50 by Broadcasting and Cable Magazine.

It's hard not to internalize some of what you cover. Look, it's tough, some of the stories we've had to cover this year...and the support systems that exist within a newsroom environment, when a story hits an individual a certain way and they need a figurative arm put around them to get them through it, that's part of it. 

Bob Ellis, Vice President and General Manager, WJXT and WCWJ

Mentioned in This Episode

two anchors seated at news desk in studio
The Newsroom of the Future: Leading TV News Voices Discuss What's to Come for Local Broadcasters

An Avid and TVTechnology white paper on the pandemic's acceleration of certain trends in local TV news.
Read more

broadcast journalist edits video footage remotely
The Challenges and Opportunities Ahead for Hybrid Broadcast Newsrooms

The "new normal" has broadcast newsrooms seeking ways to keep their employees connected—both to one another and to their media.
Read more

Bobby Hain on the Making the Media podcast
Making the Media S1E05: Our Virtual Reality

Bobby Hain of STV joins the Making the Media podcast to discuss his team's transition to remote news production and the lessons learned for the future.

Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Hi, welcome to the latest episode of the Making the Media podcast. I'm Craig Wilson and thanks so much for joining me.

If one word could sum up the news agenda for the past year, I think it would be relentless. While the pandemic has dominated news globally, it hasn't been the only major story. Whether it was protests around social justice, weather emergencies, the US presidential election results, or Brexit, there's been no let up. Now journalists have a reputation for being tough and able to cope with difficult situations and times, but through a period where face-to-face interaction has been limited and teams have been unable to get together and share their experiences, how have they coped and what measures have been put in place to make sure they get the support they need?

To discuss this and much more, I spoke to Bob Ellis, the Vice President and General Manager of the stations WJXT and WCWJ in Jacksonville in Florida in the United States. And I began by asking him about the key stories they've covered over the past year.

Bob Ellis: The pandemic is first and foremost at the beginning of the year. When that hit, it caused every—I'm certainly not unique—it caused every newsroom and every television station to think differently. That has been ongoing, obviously, in terms of it's important information, but also the way we've attacked it in safety measures in the station has been ongoing. That of course has been the dominant situation, and I think the nuance of that story has been significant. So obviously how it's handled at a local level has varied by community, right? Or by state, and even beyond state, local. And so there's been a lot of work and effort to tell that story and to really, honestly, in that one, keep the facts and weed out the misinformation, which has been very difficult.

Layer on top of that the social injustice situation, the George Floyd killing, which was a tragic, tragic event. When you think about the fact that the Ahmaud Arbery story happened here in this market as well, coupled with the social injustice situation, that's been an entire story that's been very, very important and critical that we tell and keep things going. And then we've had a lot of local things that have happened along the way, but it's been—relentless, I think, is a great word. And I think that when you when you look at all the things that have happened, we packed a decade into a year in some ways.

CW: So talking specifically about the measures that you've taken through the pandemic, what did you have to do in terms of staff working in the office, staff working from home, staff working remotely? What have you had to do around those kind of areas?

BE: So we sent our people home as quickly as we could. So all business and sales folks, the administrative people, have all been home since really, we'll call it April 1st—I can't remember the date exactly. It was right around there, I think, or a few days prior, but for all intents and purposes, April 1st. So that was a huge undertaking for engineering staff. Thankfully, that group of folks in my building anyway were fairly mobile with laptops and docking stations, and that's the nature of that business. So we got them out of the building and into their home offices very quickly. That was easy.

The more challenging piece was having anchors anchor from home. Having weather folks do weather from home. Having producers produce from home. And trying to keep people separated.

And so we did a lot of things. We had photographers and reporters, we put them in two-person teams and had them work together as often as possible, which in the beginning was literally every day. We never had them cross. So you and I'd work together, and we’d work together every day for a few weeks or a month or couple of months, so that we would limit exposure to other people while we were understanding and learning, as we all were, the contagious nature: how did it really spread, and what really occurred?

So you know we did that, and then the idea of making sure that the folks who did have to be here, like our control room staff, you know—what could we do in our control room to try to make sure that they were safe and protected? And so we rigged plexi from the ceiling and basically made, in essence, booths with clear plexiglass around folks, so that they could still visually communicate. And you can still hear—it’s muffled a bit, but...

Because while we did devise a plan to be able to direct or execute a newscast outside the building, obviously that's a lot different than doing it in the control room that's built for that. And so we did whatever we could to preserve that ability. And thankfully—I'm going to knock on wood here—but thankfully, we haven't had to enact our plans to direct or execute a newscast outside the building.

I think the biggest thing that I have to give credit to my staff for, it's just personal decision making. You know, I've said to them frequently along the way, “Look, we can put up plexiglass, and we can make sure you wear masks, and we can give you things to do interviews safely in the field and all that, but nothing is ever going to replace sound personal decision making.” So I think where I have to credit the staff at the station is they've done that, and so I think the efforts we made initially to give our people the flexibility to work outside the building, coupled with what we did inside the building, and then a heavy, hearty dose of sound personal decision making, it's given us a chance to innovate and it's given us a chance to be creative.

It's been a very inspiring year for me as I've watched our people just really rally and do things that—you know, if you just said to me on February 15th, “Yeah, you're going to have both your anchors be in their houses, and your weather person is going to paint a wall in his backroom green and he's going to do chroma key from his house by the 15th of March, and that's how you're going to do a newscast,” I would have said there's no chance of that happening. And yet, guess what happened?

CW: How do you think people have adapted to that? Because I've spoken to a number of people about this, and one of the things that this situation, because it's applied to everybody on a global scale, it has forced everyone to adopt different things that they wouldn't have considered beforehand. Just exactly as you said there: February 15th, if you'd said that by a month later, this is what you're going to do. Do you think in that sense it's actually opened people up to being more willing to adopt different ways of doing it because they have been forced into it to an extent?

BE: No question. I think that we've learned things this year that I think will be standard operating procedure five years from today, whether we get everything back to what we would consider pre-COVID normal. I'll give you two specific examples of that.

So one is, we do a long morning show, 4:30 AM till 10:00 AM. And part of what we try to do is we try to interview as many newsworthy people as we can based on the topical events of the day or week or local issues. And so the ability for us to use a technology like you and I are using today—whether it's Zoom, whether it's Teams, whether it's Go To Meeting, or all the different ones that exist—the ability to use that technology and then innovate and engineer it into our production workflow,  we're able to interview a lot of people who now never have to leave the house. They used to come to the television station, and we did a great job at this station of planning and getting people to come here. Now, it's allowed us to interview people and do things that we've never been able to do before. And so we get a lot more yeses, because if I said to you, Craig, hey, I need you, would you be willing to do this because of the subject matter expert that you are in something, and you said yes—I mean you're on a different continent! And now we can do it where we couldn't have done that before. So that's one thing I think, the virtual or the video conference-type interview I think will be here forever.

And then the second thing I would say is, because we've done editorial meetings for example in newsrooms virtually, because we've done a lot of this this way—you know, the thing about working in news—and my background is in news—the thing about working in news, and everyone who gets into it knows this going in, is it’s a lot of work. It's long day, it's a lifestyle, it's a commitment.

Well, it used to be that we’d have people drive in rush hour, come to the station, and do a morning editorial meeting. We'd do the assignments, and then folks would be on their way. And that would end at let's just call it 10:00 o'clock in the morning. Well, if we can maybe bump up that editorial meeting a bit, so instead of that editorial meeting being at 9:00 o'clock, maybe we say it's at 8:30 or it's even 8:15, but we do it with people in their homes, and then say you don't have to be here till 10, we're giving people a couple hours of their life back. And I think, from a person who's been in news for longer than I care to think about, that's a pretty great thing.

And so if we're able to use this technology in these—these forced workflows, I guess is how we've described it here—and apply some of this learning to the future, I think that we may end up with better, happier, more productive employees because we're just a little more flexible. It really, if you think about it, doesn't change very much what we're doing, but to a person who gets an extra hour five days a week inside their house before they have to come to work—and by the way, they don't have to drive in rush hour—boy, that's a lot, and over time that adds up. And so I'm excited about that kind of stuff because I think it could have real positive impacts for our staff and our industry moving forward.

CW: So you talked there earlier on, Bob, about producers working from home and anchors working from home. So that's fine, and this kind of technology enables us to be in touch and to keep in touch with people, but it's not the same as human interaction. It's not the same as that team environment that you're so familiar with in newsrooms. So how do you think that has impacted people, that kind of lack, if you like, of human connection, and how have you tried to address that?

BE: I couldn't agree with you more. This works, and you can be 85, 90 percent—whatever percentage you personally put on it—productive, but I think the organic interaction that exists when the groups of people in newsrooms in particular are together is hard to replicate.

We did it through—we use Microsoft Teams here—we did it through Teams to the best of our ability. Our news director and assistant news director, they had this constant sort of chat, and they would start a new one each day. But it's not the same as if I'm writing a tease, and I look over to the person that's to my left to say, “Hey, what do you think about this? Does this communicate this story effectively?” You lose that, and that's a big part of what we do.  If you're trying to be conversational and you're trying to write stories and produce content so that it's for the normal person, so you sound professional, but we also want to sound like a regular person, we want to be approachable, we want to be all those things. I think you lose that.

I think the chemistry that exists between a really great news team is part of what gets your day started right. Because the stories are the stories. Sometimes what we report on is not happy. It's not. It doesn't mean you have to create a newscast of all good news as a lot of stations have tried over the course of time, but the opportunities that the anchors have to have those moments that help me start my day right, I think is there, but it's not there compared to when they're all together in one studio in one setting. And so the organic things that happen in great broadcasts just can't happen as much. It's hard. We've tried it, believe me, we've tried it, but the delays in the—you know, when this person's Wi-Fi is a little better than that person's Wi-Fi, so they hear it first, and now they're talking over each other—we've tried. It's just not quite the same, and so that's one thing that I think is missing right now, and I'm anxious and eager to see a day where that returns.

CW: You also spoke about the station as really being part of the community and having a sense of community. But I guess in the newsroom there is also a sense of community in the newsroom, as well as that newsroom entity delivering the news to the local community. Given everything that's going on this year—and we talked earlier on about the relentless nature of that news—that's just really tough, really tough to deal with as an individual, never mind as part of a team that's then covering these kind of stories as well. So how do you think that's impacted people, and have you been able to put measures in place to basically make sure that people are OK?

BE: Yeah, that's a really great important question. It's hard, to your point, it's hard not to internalize some of what you cover. Look, it's tough, some of the stories we've had to cover this year, all of us—the sad situations where because of COVID you have families that are separated and you have a loved one pass away and you can't be there with them—it's just been awful. So yes, that is difficult. And the support systems, to your very point, that exist within a newsroom environment, when a story hits an individual a certain way and they need a figurative arm put around them to get them through it, that's harder.

What we've tried to do is we’ve tried to make sure that we have some conversations with people. My staff has had these kinds of calls in small groups throughout this whole process. So we may have a call with just reporters or just photographers or just the support staff in our sales department. You know, small groups where it feels a little more intimate—it's not the newsroom or the station; it's a small number where we just kind of try to encourage people to tell us what they're seeing, what they're feeling, what things are in place. And I think that’s helped some, certainly. Look, it's hard when you can't be together as a group to support each other.

Then the other thing that I've tried to do is I've tried to do as many one-on-one calls with employees as I possibly can. Just, how you doing? What's going on? How's your family, you know, is everything OK? And things will bubble up to me, thankfully, with my staff, and so if I know of a person who's had a situation at home that's been difficult, I try to reach out and just let them know that, look, we're here, we want to be supportive of you, we want to do what we can to make sure that you're taken care of the best of our ability. My philosophy, and kind of what I try to preach to our staff, is if you communicate with people and you coach people and you make people realize you care, a lot can be accomplished.

The other thing, Craig, that we're fortunate in here is that we have a team that's been together a while. So that's one thing about the pandemic, I think that if I were brand new with this job and I had three new department heads or my news director was brand new and she had a new anchor team, this would be difficult. This group of people, thankfully, luckily, has been together for quite a number of years, and so I think that's made it a little easier for us because we know one another. We have worked together for a while. We know a lot about our personal lives. And so you're able to have that connective tissue that has existed in the past. I think it’d be tough to start that from scratch.

CW: Just to pick up on that, Bob, the question I was going to ask is that—you spoke very eloquently of things that you've done to help your staff. Management can be a pretty lonely position. How have you coped with this? Because it's tough.

BE: That's a good question. You know, I'm kind of a glass-half-full kind of person. I try to be even tempered. I try not to let the difficulties get me down. Now if you were interviewing ten people from my staff, they may say no, he's not even tempered, he's not all those things. I hope they wouldn't say that, but they might. We all have our moments, right? I have a great family at home that's very supportive of me, and I think that I work for an incredible company that's been very supportive of what we've needed and needed to do. I try to stay focused on the stuff that matters. I've tried to stay focused on that. And it's been good.

It doesn't mean that—there've been a couple of days about 4:00 o'clock where I want to shut my computer off and say, OK, let's go do whatever, but...

The people here in this building are really inspiring to me, and they make it a joy, frankly, to be a part of what goes on you. I get a front row seat to see some amazing things every single day, which is really cool.

CW: I've got one final question, Bob, and this is actually something I'm asking all of the guests who are taking part in the podcast this season. What is it, if anything, that keeps you up at night?

BE: What keeps me up at night? You know, I think it's the safety of the employees that worries me. There's been way too many stories, certainly here in this market and in others, where journalists have been treated very poorly by the public, attacked in some cases. We've got a couple of people here, we had a person covering a political rally, and there was a person waving a flag and they hit our photographer with the flag pole. We had a reporter here covering a different separate political rally where a person came up to them with a bullhorn and screamed in their ear.

That worries me. I think what we do is so critically important, and to think that there's people out there that have been emboldened to berate and attack, whether it's verbally or, God forbid, physically, our staff for doing their jobs and telling stories is just, it's very disheartening to me, and it's bothered me a lot this year.

So that, and then our industry is going through a transformation in terms of the business model. And I worry that business, whether it's on a local level, certainly financially worried businesses are drawn to the shiny new object, which typically speaking in the business part of our industry is a digital product. I'm constantly reminding people—by the way, those products are terrific, I'm not suggesting that they're not— that the best advertising, if you read, if you study, if you pay attention, if you look, is a holistic approach, a multi-platform approach.

Those probably are the two things, honestly, that I think about the most: on the business side, how to remind people that television not only is still viable, but it's still the best way to get your message across, and then the second is just, are our folks going to be OK today? Is there somebody out there that's going to do something that is not OK, that's going to compromise the safety of an employee and that that, above all, is really what keeps me up at night.

CW: Definitely lots to think about there. I'd like to thank Bob for taking the time to talk to us and discuss some really important topics for everyone in the news business to consider.

Well, we may not be able to travel right now, but that doesn't stop the podcast crossing the Atlantic once more for our next episode, where I make a return to get some European views. Next time I'm joined by Ilkka Ahtiainen, Editor-in-Chief of News at the Finnish broadcaster MTV3. Let's hear a little bit of what he had to say.

Ilkka Ahtiainen: Normally here in the newsroom, people talk to each other, they change opinions, they give ideas, and so we have lost part of that. But we launched a new conference just for giving ideas, so it's free to come up there and tell what you think. And in that sense, we have tried to preserve something from this social and creative part of our work.

CW: Another great perspective to come from Ilkka.

If you want to find out more information about some of what we discussed in this episode, take a look at the show notes, where you’ll find a white paper Avid has produced in collaboration with TVTech about the specific ways local newsrooms have adapted during COVID-19 and an article about collaboration in a hybrid on-prem/remote newsroom. I’d also encourage you to listen to the previous episode if you haven’t yet. Our last guest, Bobby Hain from STV in Scotland, had some insightful comments about supporting his team during truly difficult times.

I’m Craig Wilson, thanks as always to our producer Rachel Haberman, and thanks to you for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe and share the Making the Media podcast with your friends and colleagues, and leave a review.

Please feel free to get in touch. I’m on Twitter and Instagram. My username is @craigaw1969. Or you can email us. Our address is [email protected].

For the moment, goodbye, and I hope you can join me next time for another behind-the-scenes look at what goes into making the media.

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