COVID-19: The Story of a Lifetime

Big news stories can dominate the entire news cycle for weeks, months, even years. But very few are as earth shaking as the recent coronavirus outbreak, which is dominating the news cycle and changing the way news organizations work.

“We’ve never had to cover as large a global story as the spread of COVID-19 in our lifetimes,” noted Kimberly Godwin, executive VP of news, CBS News.

“This isn’t just a health story,” added Porter Berry, VP and editor-in-chief of Fox News Digital, which has launched new programming and content to cover the outbreak. “It is a story that impacts the economy, the health of the country. There are politics around it. It is disruptive to families. Schools are closing. It touches every piece of life in America and around the world.”

That has translated into intensive, often round the clock coverage both for broadcast and digital. “Our only focus has been covering this story from all angles,” said ABC News VP of newsgathering Wendy Fisher. She noted that in addition to greatly increased coverage on all their shows, they recently aired a 20 20 special report on the virus and that Nightline is devoting its entire show to the topic.

Viewers seem to be responding. CBS News reports that ratings for the March 16 airing of CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell grew by 64% versus a week earlier and that Face the Nation on March 15, posted its highest ratings since Jan. 22, 2017.

Digital news offerings for Fox News Digital, Newsy, CBS Digital and others were also reporting rapid growth. “Traffic is surging because people need reliable, timely information,” said Christy Tanner, executive vice president and general manager of CBS News Digital. “Providing a 24/7 live streaming news service [like CBSN] that is available on all platforms and devices…is providing a critical public service, particularly in an era when many cord cutters don’t even have a TV.”

Viral Workflows

More fundamentally, the story is also transforming the way news organizations operate.

Efforts to keep staff safe and healthy are already changing the look of newscasts, as networks implement social distancing for their on-screen talent. “You can see that on Good Morning America,” and in the fact that correspondents report remotely rather than sitting right next to the anchor, explained Fisher at ABC.

Social distancing has also become standard practice at CBS, Fox News and other networks. Fox News, for example, has implemented social distancing to reduce the risk of infection on programs like Fox & Friends, The Five and Outnumbered that have multiple anchors and has eliminated live audiences.

“We have had to find work-arounds for situations we’ve never faced before,” noted Godwin at CBS News, which had to close its broadcast center and move productions after some employees tested positive for the virus. “The team has broadcast from kitchens, the street, their home offices and more. Producers are managing live broadcasts from their living rooms. It's unprecedented and also amazing.”

Other changes could have a longer term impact on the way news is produced. Digital teams at Fox News, Newsy, CBS News and other outlets are already working from home using tools like Skype, Zoom, live streaming from smart phones and other tools to create virtual newsrooms and report stories.

“The great thing about digital is that we can work remotely,” said Berry at Fox News. “Tools [like Skype] aren’t new but we can use them more intensively than ever before.”

This also opens up a model for cross platform news production between divisions and different media that could become even more important in the future, noted executives at both CBS News Digital and Newsy.

Blake Sabatinelli, the CEO of E.W. Scripps-owned Newsy, said Newsy has been helped by its origins as a digital news service. “We had a tremendous digital infrastructure that allowed us to produce news more efficiently that we will be leveraging to expand coverage in the next few months,” he said.

That infrastructure has allowed their digital staff to work remotely while producing a live feed for the cable channel with a reduced staff, he said. “We’ve always been very tech heavy and that is really helping us now,” he added.

Newsy and CBS News Digital are also relying heavily on alliances they have with local broadcast stations owned by their parent companies. Tanner at CBS News Digital noted that the launch of local feeds of the CBSN streaming service in a number of markets has given them access to local content for their national feed that has greatly strengthened their coverage.

“The local operations are really helping national, streaming and digital,” Tanner said. “We can not only provide national coverage but local feeds of press conferences with governors and mayors that provide essential information to the public.”

Pandemic Programming

The importance of the COVID-19 story has already spawned a host of new programming and digital products, ranging from daily emails and dedicated coronavirus web pages and podcasts, to hiring new health experts, producing coronavirus specials and some programs like ABC’s Nightline, deciding to focus on the topic.

In the digital arena, CNN Digital has added a new pop-up podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs Fiction, with CNN chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta and a newsletter Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction. The podcast hit more than 3 million downloads by March 16.

CNN Digital also reports that its Go There episodes from Wuhan had more than 208 million views according to CrowdTangle.

Users from around the world have also submitted more than 50,000 questions from around the world for CNN experts like Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Sabatinelli at Newsy noted that to beef up their coverage they’ve consolidated news teams and worked to provide coverage that goes beyond the obvious stories of showing an empty Times Square in New York City.

As part of that effort, Newsy launched a new series, Virology, to help explain parts of the topic. “We’ve actually been beefing up staffing,” Sabatinelli said.

Berry at Fox News noted that they have added a daily newsletter on the virus and a live blog with experts taking audience questions and they have made it a top priority to stream press conferences from around the country. “There isn’t a section of the website that isn’t looked to for providing important and interesting news related to this topic,” he said.

Fox News has also hired additional media experts and produced specials on the subject. In addition to extensive coverage in its regular programming, it is also providing expanded coverage of the pandemic from 11 P.M. to 4 A.M. eastern time.

Fisher at ABC News stressed that in addition to expanded coverage of the virus on all their shows and special reports on the topic, they’ve also worked closely with the ABC owned stations and been providing extensive international coverage. “The local stations have been great in helping us find rays of hope, local heroes and other stories that have enhanced our coverage,” while also reducing the need for travel by the network correspondents, Fisher said.

Digital news operations at the networks also report that live streaming of press conferences and other COVID-19 events have been particularly important and popular. “Governors and mayors have been providing great life-saving information,” explained Tanner at CBS News Digital. “Being able to provide those live streams on the local and national feeds has been one of our core efforts.”

Virology for Journalists

To keep journalists and staff safe, news organizations have instituted a wide range of measures.

Like all the executives interviewed for this article, Fisher at ABC News stressed that keeping their news teams healthy and safe has been a top priority. To that end, they’ve limited travel, had staff work remotely whenever possible, instituted social distancing on sets and newsrooms and used a wide range of technologies like Skype to conduct interviews remotely.

“Any kind of shoot that might entail risk, we discuss in detail,” she said. “Where you go and whether you get into a car with someone are all things we are considering. We want people to stay safe and healthy.”

The Radio Television Digital News Association has issued a host of recommendations to their members for dealing with COVID-19 that include some fairly radical changes in the way they operate. These include “encourage all staff to avoid the newsroom whenever possible,” “hold meetings by phone or video meeting, rather than in person (Try Facebook video chat or Zoom),” “protect mics with disposable covers and don't use mics that touch interviewees,” and “pool coverage and tap into streams and satellite feeds whenever possible.”

A March 12 memo from Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott and president and executive editor of Fox News Media Jay Wallace also stressed a number of measures for reducing the risk of infection. Those included efforts to “reduce staff footprint at our headquarters” in NYC and some bureaus by having staff work from home when possible starting on March 16, “reducing studio bookings” for guests, eliminating live audiences, prohibiting non-essential business travel and cancelling the Ad sales upfront that had been scheduled for March 24.

In a memo sent on the morning of March 18, Susan Zirinsky, president and senior executive producer of CBS News, stressed the ongoing policy is that “all employees should work remotely unless specifically requested to come to work” and that “safety is crucial and that is the paramount concern.”

The news organization had shut down its broadcast center after some employees had tested positive for the virus and moved operations of some shows and its CBSN streaming service to other locations while the broadcast center was being disinfected.

Zirinsky’s memo noted that this closure would last longer than initially expected. “In an abundance of caution, ViacomCBS is temporarily moving operations out of the Broadcast Center/555 Building and diversifying locations. This applies to all CBS divisions, including Sports, WCBS TV, COE operations and, of course, CBS News.”

“Beginning tomorrow, [March 19] CBS THIS MORNING will originate from the Ed Sullivan theatre as will CBS This Morning: Saturday. We are working out some of the logistical needs today [March 18]. The Evening News will remain in Washington. 60 Minutes and Sunday Morning will have new elements for their broadcasts this week that will be edited off campus and delivered to MDC. 48 Hours is on tape. We are finalizing the plans to air the 4 A.M. half hour broadcast out of Washington and still discussing where our Overnight broadcast will originate from. Weekend Evening News will be produced and come out of KTVT in Dallas – with supervision from producers in New York -- similar to how we handled last weekend out of KCBS LA.”

“CBS News Digital continues to work remotely, collaborating with a number of O&O TV stations and CBS Local Digital group to produce CBSN. CBS News Radio will originate from multiple locations, and CBS NewsPath will work remotely. The Washington Bureau, the London Bureau and every bureau continue to support the news division in heroic ways.”

Top image: David Muir of ABC's World News Tonight.