How do you cover the seat of United States government, the White House, the Pentagon, the Supreme Court, co-operate with competitors, discover exclusives, keep staff safe, and deliver to multiple platforms?
In this episode we explore these subjects in-depth with one network bureau boss.
Listen to Hear:
- The future ways in which high-quality news will be gathered and distributed
- The day-to-day ways in which news is gathered in Washington D.C.
- The balance between delivering to multiple platforms
Our Guest This Episode
Andrea Owen has been director, D.C. Bureau operations at ABC News since April, 2015. In that role, she oversees all newsgathering operations from Washington for both in the field and the bureau’s studios and control room operations. Owen leads a large team of managers, crews, engineers, studio crews, and editors covering the White House, Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court, and all aspects of Washington D.C. coverage for ABC News, as well as large-scale live productions.
As a 30-year veteran of ABC News, Owen has always kept a hand in the editorial side and another in the operational side. She began her career as an intern in the ABC News London Bureau. Since then she worked as an assignment editor, both an editorial and graphics producer for World News Tonight, operations producer for This Week and World News Tonight, anchor producer, special events producer, and managed training, digital operations, and new workflows.
Owen has transformed every aspect of the Washington operations team, while also serving as the backbone of many D.C. special events, such as the inauguration of President Biden, the January 6th riot on Capitol Hill, Senate Impeachment hearings of President Trump, Overall US Network Pool Producer for the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Black Lives Matter protests in D.C., the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, including US Network Pool coverage of the ceremony and lying in state at the Capitol, four State of the Union Addresses with a full, new set builds each year, 130+ special reports in one year for mostly President Trump’s first year in office, the state funeral for President George H.W. Bush, the National Service for Sen. John McCain, the Inauguration of President Trump, Pope Francis's visit to Washington, and a Town Hall with President Barack Obama, pulled together in 78 hours with live studio audience.
Owen is a graduate of York University in Toronto and the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s Broadcast Journalism program.
The key to it always being nimble, balancing that out with folks and balancing out between the different needs of collecting the content and turning the content around, whatever the platform is.” – Andrea Owen, ABC News
Mentioned in This Episode
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Craig Wilson: Hi, and welcome to the latest episode of the Making the Media podcast. Thank you so much for joining us, my name is Craig Wilson.
Washington D.C. is probably one of the busiest journalistic beats to cover on the planet. The heart of U.S. government, the home of the president, the very epicenter on many days of world events.
So how do you cover such a city? How do you ensure you are chasing all the angles and delivering to the myriad of platforms which constantly need to be serviced? My guest on this edition of the podcast is ideally placed to tell us.
Andrea Owen is the director of D.C. bureau operations at the U.S. network, ABC News. She has been in that post for almost seven years and leads a large team of managers, crews, engineers, studio crews, and editors covering all aspects of Washington, D.C. coverage.
But rather than me talk about it, let’s hear from Andrea, firstly explaining her career path to get to Washington.
Andrea Owen: I've been with ABC for 30 years, so I've had the good fortune of growing up at ABC. I started as an intern in the London bureau and went over to London from Canada as I finished a journalism program. I went to London thinking I was going to say six weeks and I stayed six years. So I have the very lucky fortune of saying that I got to spend my 20s in London. And I started over there on a show helping producers and then eventually moved to the desk, and then eventually stayed on the desk and did a lot of travel.
Fast forward to today. Where I am now, I am in Washington D.C. for ABC, and I'm director of operations for the bureau and the coverage area outside in Washington D.C. And so this bureau that we have here is one of the largest bureaus in Washington, but also one of the largest bureaus around among the five networks. Just in general, although some other networks have some really big bureaus than ours, but ours is pretty big. And what's unique about our coverage area is that we do everything in our backyard, but that backyard is the White House. It's Capitol Hill. It's the Pentagon. It's the State Department. And it's all the federal agencies, and everything—a lot of stories that we cover, even if they're not from Washington, have some sort of tie-in or peg in Washington.
So during the course of my career I kind of zig-zagged. I went on the editorial side, and then went into operations, and then went back to the editorial side, and then went back to operations, editorial, and then back to operations. So I have kind of perspectives on both sides when it comes to newsgathering, show production, all that stuff that we do. So it's been great and I feel very lucky. It's been… it's a great business and we are incredibly busy here in Washington. As you can imagine.
CW: I can certainly imagine. I can certainly imagine! And Andrea, I'm really interested in that perspective that you have, that you have both sides of the house, if you like. The editorial side and the operational side. What difference do you think that gives you in terms of understanding basically the stresses that both sides are under when they're trying to deliver for ABC?
AO: That's great how you say there's both dresses on both sides, and that's a key thing. And so it's interesting, Craig, I tried to actually bring a lot of editorial into operations to help drive decisions and where we're going, and really a lot of it, I use to anticipate. So I anticipate what the needs are going to be. The shows, as you know, and like anyone in journalism knows, there's the unrelenting deadlines, and you know, you can't miss a deadline. And on top of that, it's just the absolute imperative importance of accuracy. So the pressure is just baked in no matter what. And then you have a new story, any day at any moment, that comes up that you have to cover. And cover it well.
So what I try to do is I really understand the shows, and the personalities of the shows and really it's so much of it comes down to how people work and understanding how people work and then taking that on sort of a higher level perspective and trying to put it through in a very fast way to execute the end result and getting people what they need so they can do their jobs well, and understanding the pressures that they're under, and then helping along the way as best as you can for everyone to do a job really well, so they're not getting held back, or coming up to a roadblock on just some basic things, it's really trying to keep all the structures in, you know, great working order so people can really do their job and be fast and be accurate.
CW: I really like your description as you're covering the news in your backyard, but it's a very interesting backyard that you have. For people who haven't perhaps worked in Washington, can you perhaps explain a little bit of some of the mechanics of how you work with the other bureaus and the other networks that are there to provide the kind of coverage that you need?
AO: Yeah, thanks for asking that 'cause it's so unique and it's such this sort of interesting ecosystem here in Washington. And because it's so much of what we're covering is government, and because there's really a lot of high security clearance that is required to a lot of places, the five networks a long time ago—and that's ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox—got together and we pull material because we can't all show up at the same press conference. We can't all show up in these small briefing rooms or we can't all show up in different places where there's a heavy police presence, or there's just restrictions on the amount of people that can be in the pack of journalism that it comes with covering a place like Washington D.C.
So the five networks, actually, there's this complex yet simple structure of where we share the material, but we have many different types of pools, so the world of pools among these five networks is very much part of our daily daily life and how we cover Washington.
So we'll have one network always cover a VIP, someone high up in the government and one person will always cover a briefing room in one of, like, whether it's the State Department or Pentagon. And then we have different pools for when there is domestic travel from a very high VIP, or if there's a foreign trip. And then, you know, there's things like, you know, primetime addresses from the White House that is also part of the pool system, so there's this alphabetical rotation among the five networks that go from a very macro level on big events, and also down to a very micro level on the day-to-day.
And we at ABC, as well as the other networks, even have one person dedicated on our desk that coordinates these pools. So every day, those five people are on the phone, all the time, coordinating coverage and stakeouts, and what's coming up the next day, and so it's this constant pace that is actually very fast of just covering everything. And it's not only just having a camera at a location, it's also the transmission. So, in Washington, a lot of our stuff is wired. We have a lot of drops around town that we've done on ABC's behalf, but also in partnership with the other networks as well. And so we also, you know, we can kind of go live almost anywhere with our drops. And then we also have the technology that we use like TVU and so we can blanket coverage the city pretty fast. There's always challenges, but there's a lot of infrastructure here that we've built, and we've built also in partnership with the networks. That is really quite this world, that is, it's very impressive, actually, it's very, very impressive. And you don't really sort of truly understand it until you get here and you see really how it works.
'Cause like even just covering Capitol Hill for our crews and our teams up there. Basically, you know you can easily clock just by walking 12 kilometres a day, just covering that beat. It's that big. So, and then you have the White House where it's a little bit more close quarters, so it sort of plays out like that every day.
CW: But I guess it's a really interesting dynamic where, in a lot of occasions, you're cooperating together. But of course you're still in competition with each other, as well, so I guess that also poses the challenges that you want to get the best stories. Yeah, there's a fine line. I mean, it's definitely very professional, but they are competitors at the same time, so it works well. It's actually, it's very professional. But it's, uh, yeah, sometimes, you know, all networks have their own shows to put on in their own demands and their own deadlines. And so I'll just say this: there's a constant demand. It's a constant demand. Even how, when a decision comes down on what has to be covered, there's five votes, so you know, majority rules and so five networks have to vote on what needs to be covered. And two, if they don't like the decision, that's too bad, they have to go along with it. That's how it works.
AO: One thing that you spoke a little bit about there was coordination, and one element that I wanted to talk a little bit about of course, is over the course of the last couple of years, remote working has become, you know, a very big thing—the consequence of the pandemic and people working in other locations. So, I'm interested in knowing how, you know, the bureau handled that and is continuing to handle that particular around the area of, you know, communicating with staff and making sure that everyone is still well informed, even if they're not physically together in the newsroom.
AO: Yeah, that was… I mean, for all of us. COVID and even like the last two years. I think for a lot of people it's hard to believe it's two years. It forced us into a lot of different workflows we never thought were possible. And then… which moved us so much farther than we ever thought we could do in such a short period of time. The other side of that, though, was really so important of people's wellness and just, you know, for people making sure that, you know, that they have that balance between home and work because you're doing everything in your home and it's, you know, it's great you can work from home, but at the same time that's also really challenging over a long period of time. And when you don't have much control over that timeline or that decision of when you can come back to the office and have that flexibility.
So we, in conjunction with ABC New York, put in a lot of workflows that really allowed people to work from home. And this is, you know, a lot of credit goes to vendors like our friends at Avid, and others that help us do this. Not only was it just people who, you know, working on their laptops, but it was also people editing from home on their laptops tunnelling into our systems. You know our servers being able to work with content, turn the content around and send it back to a place where we were able to play it out for air. Get it to the platforms that needed it.
So it was incredibly hard work, but we’re no different from any other news organization. And there hasn't been time to really stop and pause and say, “Wow, that's really amazing what a mountain we just climbed.” And I hope one day that comes for a lot of people because so many people deserve credit for that, in our company and other companies as well—and many people you've probably talked to over these last couple of years. So, when it comes to the other side of your question about the coordination and the communication, you know, Zoom, like we're talking right now, was really this new platform in this new form where, you know, Zoom became part of our lives pretty fast. And it actually made us communicate almost more so because it wasn't just, you know, gone were the bumping someone into in the hallway and talking to them or having, you know, everyone around a conference table and talking ideas out or going through things that need to get done. It was on Zoom, and so Zoom became this formal place to communicate, and it also became this casual place to check in on people.
And like all these things, there's flipsides. It's really great to be able to see people and talk to people. But then you get Zoom fatigue, so you have to manage that. But you know, Craig, so much of our business—and you know this well, and many people in the business know this well—that the communication and the coordination is such a key element to it all. And the challenges with during COVID was just sort of balancing it, so it's not too much, it's just right. I don't know. One day we'll think about it and think, OK, maybe we got some things right and we probably got some things wrong. But you know, hopefully most importantly those lessons we take carry on us to the days ahead and good decisions ahead.
CW: Yeah, I think I think a lot of people still haven't had, as you say, that chance to pause and actually reflect on what's happened, and, you know, have the opportunity to reflect on what worked well and what didn't.
But I guess one of the things which, you know, speaking to a lot of people in the podcast is that they have really seen an increase in the speed of innovation. Some of it prompted, obviously, by the circumstances of the of the pandemic, and somewhat acceleration of things that were already ongoing. Is that something that you've also seen as well?
AO: Yeah, and for me, I always come back to this thing... So, as you know, ABC is part of this the Walt Disney Company, and the Walt Disney Company was founded on innovation. You know, the founder, Walt Disney, himself, said “As soon as we stop innovating, we're not going to grow” and I keep that in my mind for some reason so much because it's such a great thing to embrace and what we have seen and you've seen this and you've talked to many people about this is just like know the speed of the innovation in the last couple of years is just—it's accelerated so fast. And in a lot of ways… and maybe it's just something about people in this business, like it kind of upped our game in a lot of ways, and so we accomplish things very, very quickly during that time.
And I mentioned this to you before, but like, we built a huge studio in our bureau that, we're incredibly proud of and that we've used many times now where, it's a studio that's going to take us to the next least 5-10 years. And we did that during COVID with all the COVID restrictions and making sure first and foremost, there was safety and how people work together to do basically, you know, put a construction site into a beautiful state of the art studio. And we anchored all our State of the Union coverage recently from our bureau, which is really awesome.
So, the innovation—there's that piece. And then there was also just the innovation that people can do remotely, especially with the editing. Especially with turning content around. The news gathering out in the field kind of stayed the same for the most part, but for people just working in a bureau or in, you know, headquarters, or in their house, having that ability to work across multiple different locations really no matter what your location is, was really something that is fantastic and that's going to be something that hopefully going forward we can continue that and there's not really this pressure, you know, that we can have that balance. We can parlay that into work life balance, we can parlay that into people's lives and help people, you know, just have something more as their work experience that is better for just overall wellness. You know, that remains to be seen, but that's something we want to definitely keep in mind moving forward.
So that's going to be interesting to see and we want to just make sure people are happy where they are and proud of the work they do.
CW: Another element that, you know, journalists have to cope with these days as well, of course, isn't just the simple—simple I say—but the deadline for the on-air show. There are so many platforms now that you're having to deliver to, whether it's online, whether it's linear television, whether it's social, and I'm interested in how that sort of balance is struck with your editorial teams of having to deliver to all of these different platforms. ‘Cause clearly they are an opportunity for a wider audience, perhaps a different audience in different ways. And of course from a revenue perspective, I guess that's another potential stream. So I'm interested in how you balance that out of the constant demands as you say that you always have now coming with these additional platforms.
AO: Yeah, this is a constant work in progress because, you know, the deadlines don't change and the deadlines… they change if there's more opportunity that comes up of more content getting out to places, and so the key to it is always being nimble. Balancing that out with folks and balancing out between the different needs of just, you know, collecting the content and turning the content around whatever the platform is, whether it's a short piece or it's a long, you know, an hour special. That's the exciting part of the business. A lot of people, I think, really love that. But it's also… you have to balance it so it's not too much all the time for folks.
So that is, that is something that is, you know, that's a lot to discuss every day to make sure we're getting it right. And at the same time, you know, there has to be a high standard or content, and we always strive for that. So it’s, you know, without getting into too much detail, just internally, but like that's a challenge and very much a high importance of the balance. But also putting out, you know, top quality work. And so for managers, that's something that you can't take your eye off the ball.
CW: I think the other thing that I was going to say about it is that I think it's an exciting time to be in journalism because there are so many outlets now, there are so many platforms that are different—and I think the other thing as well is there's also different ways of telling the story. And I think that's another challenge that I think is an exciting one for the industry. I'm interested in your views on that.
AO: It is, you know, it is an exciting time. And I have to say, I don't know when there hasn't been an exciting time in this business. It's always been exciting. And in the sense of just what we get to do, it's really… and so much of it, Craig, has to do with being a public servant. Like, it's so much, the responsibility is a huge responsibility. That is not lost, and I'll say this, I speak for myself, it's not lost on me for a second. It's a huge responsibility. It's a driver of why I got in the business—a main driver of why I got in the business. And the technology is making it more interesting and challenging and the landscape is always changing. So that's exciting too. And that's just something that has to be embraced.
Look, we're going through some tough times now with some of the news stories. It's really important we bring that story to our audiences. We have incredible journalists at ABC, doing brave, courageous work. And it’s exciting, yeah, it's a huge responsibility, and we're here to do that.
CW: Do you think there's no greater appreciation actually, between the editorial and the technical side of the challenges that they face because of what's happened and because of how people have responded to these kind of events?
AO: I hope so. I, you know, look, you need both locking arms going step by step. Sometimes you know when something goes wrong you hear about it, but that's OK. It's live television, and there's a lot of things that have to happen to come together in order to work well. It's like an orchestra. It all has to come together beautifully—every detail. And so yeah, it's… I like being a cheerleader for the operations and the technical side and the engineering side. There's a lot of incredibly smart, talented, multi-skilled people that, you know, are behind the camera, but gosh, we're lucky to have them.
CW: Yeah, I always think that, you know, people think television is easy until you see television done badly. And then you realize how complicated and difficult.
AO: True! Yeah, that’s so true. Even something like just lighting, or just with audio, or the set, you know, you're gonna see it, so yeah, there's a lot that goes into it, that's for sure. And highly multilayer, too.
CW: So Andrea, we spent quite a lot of time, really fascinating talk about obviously what's happened. I wonder if we look a little bit forward now, and I'm interested in your views of you know, what would be the kind of things that you see, you know, perhaps innovation that's come in that you see being kind of future developed? Is it around communication? Is it about, you know, remote working? Is it the cloud? You know, what's your view on where the next level of innovation is coming from?
AO: I think it's all of that. I think it's definitely going to be IP transmission—moving to higher standards of like 4K or even higher and putting that into, you know, a higher broadcast quality, a higher... It's, you know, a production experience for the viewer without compromising any journalistic values. It's testing. It's testing and testing. And then it's also just that challenge of in this landscape, in this media landscape, you know, getting our great work and our storytelling and the importance of journalism and getting those stories of people out everywhere, anywhere, no matter, you know, whenever, wherever. So you know that delivery of it and getting it out quickly and having it be a good user experience.
But without question Craig, it's the journalist integrity to all of it. That is not to be compromised, it's just… that's the core. And then it's using the technology like IP transmissions where we're probably going to go, and you know, more wireless, more cloud… remote work is probably with us forever. You know, at least for a long time, we'll see things changed as they do. So it's all of it. It's actually all of it. And it's just figuring out what the next step is, and then we'll wait, and where we go.
CW: I guess that's the challenge for the networks. It's also the challenge for the vendors, in terms of figuring these kind of things out as well.
AO: Yeah, and the vendors, look, I mean they you know, sometimes they lead us and sometimes we lead them because they're building some things for us that, you know, and everything we need is far as we needed five minutes ago, as you know. We want it 5 minutes ago. So yeah, and that's exciting for them, it's exciting for everybody of sort of what's possible, you know. I am a true believer that really anything is possible. I think we really… there's a lot of smart people in this business. And it's really, you know, the core of it is getting stories out objectively to the public and with a high standard.
CW: Really, really interesting, Andrea. And as you know, there is one final question that I ask everyone on the podcast, so I'm going to ask you, it's what is it, if anything, that keeps you awake at night?
AO: Without question Craig, it's the safety of our employees who are out covering the story. Our incredible teams that are in the Ukraine and Poland and Russia right now in that region. And the safety during the last two years of keeping people safe during coronavirus, and all the things that were around that. So, the safety. First and foremost. It’s safety of our employees.
CW: I think we would all echo those sentiments, too. Thanks to Andrea for going into such detail about her role, the challenges, and the future direction of news gathering.
If you want to find out more about some of the topics we covered, why not check out the show notes. There you can find links to a new e-book, looking at the evolving role of the newsroom, and also links to a webinar on story collaboration. Please do take a look.
What do you think of what Andrea had to say? Let us know. You can email us, we are MakingtheMedia@Avid.com, or on social, my username is @CraigAW1969 on both twitter and Instagram. Or you can, of course, follow any of the Avid social channels, too. We are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and TikTok.
All good things must come to an end, so that is all for this edition of the podcast. Don’t forget to subscribe on your podcast platform of choice to get notified when the next episode is released and please leave a review and share the podcast with your friends and colleagues.
Thanks as always to our producer Matt Diggs, a shout out this week also to Owen Lynch for his help behind the scenes too. Most of all thanks to you for listening. My name is Craig Wilson, join me next time for another behind the scenes chat about Making the Media.