Leading Newsroom and Community Through Darkness

In a single 96-hour period last June, Orlando, Fla., was rocked by a succession of major, and exceedingly heart-rending, news, with two tragic, high-profile deaths flanking the Pulse nightclub shooting—the country’s deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11.

The spree began when an obsessed fan shot and killed Christina Grimmie, a young singer on the rise, after a concert. From the moment that first story broke, Kirsten Wolff, news director at the market’s Hearst-owned NBC affiliate, WESH, orchestrated coverage with instinctual journalistic and shrewd managerial skill.

Just 26 hours later, shortly after 2 a.m. on Sunday, June 12, the intensity and gravity of Wolff’s challenge rose exponentially. She got her second late-night call of the weekend from WESH’s overnight executive producer, this time to let her know about the attack on Pulse, a gay nightclub, which would leave 49 people dead. Although details were still scarce in that overnight period, traditionally quiet in any newsroom, Wolff and her team could see shooting-related posts and photographs already lighting up social media. “I could hear something in [the EP’s] voice. I knew something was bad,” Wolff recalled.

WESH was on-air covering the story live and nonstop for the next 20 hours, during which news crews grappled with the horrific details of the attack that besieged their community. Although the national press descended on the city, WESH reporters covered the story from the inside, working sources from police to members of the gay community they had cultivated over the years.

Crews were exhausted, beleaguered by grief, by the following Tuesday night, when news broke that an alligator had snatched a toddler splashing around a Disney World resort lagoon and pulled him into the water. Reporters on the Pulse story were redeployed. WESH’s chopper covered rescue efforts from above.

“It’s probably the heaviest lift journalistically speaking I’ve had in 27 years,” said Wolff, adding, however, that she “didn’t work harder than anyone else.” She credits her staff with “doing the heavy lifting” involved in covering Orlando’s biggest, and darkest, stories with precision and sensitively while coming to grips with the events as local residents themselves. Her efforts on that dark trio of stories and countless others through a news-heavy 2016 have earned her the title of B&C’s News Director of the Year.

Yet beyond her professional prowess, Wolff, particularly in those first few days after the Pulse shooting, is credited for the way she handled WESH’s coverage of the attack. This wasn’t just hard-news coverage; it involved the station’s interactions with devastated viewers, including victims’ families, and internal newsroom activity with an uncanny finesse that isn’t taught in journalism school, colleagues say.

Fielding calls in the 12 to 24 hours after the Pulse shooting from people looking for loved ones who had contacted them during the attack but hadn’t been heard from since was among the most agonizing tasks, Wolff said. Protocol called for referring those callers to authorities and area hospitals, although by that time hope for more survivors was dim. “We pretty much knew if you haven’t heard back from someone, they were dead,”

Wolff said. Wolff also remained keenly aware of the impact the Pulse shooting had on her team—from the potential devastating effect of losing loved ones themselves to the mental and physical fatigue associated with covering the tragedy.

“Kirsten understood immediately that this was not just another Orlando news story. This would impact her team personally, as well as professionally,” said Barbara Maushard, Hearst VP of news. “Kirsten is the kind of leader people want to work for.”

Wolff made sure her staffers were never without food and water and brought in a chair massage therapist to help reporters relax. Counseling services were provided, which some staffers continue to use today. At the end of the week, Wolff arranged for therapy puppies to visit the newsroom, bringing some much-needed levity. “They were little things, but just to let people know that it’s OK and you were thinking about supporting them,” Wolff said.

In time, and in keeping with the course of such tragedies, the pall over Orlando, as well as the WESH newsroom, eventually lifted. When it came to hard work and diligence, however, there was little reprieve for WESH staffers during the months that followed, during which Florida was the epicenter of presidential politics; the home of Olympians; and in the path of Hurricane Matthew, which spurred 40 hours of nonstop coverage, killed four Orlando-area residents and left lingering destruction.

Yet Wolff says the consecutive tragedies of June have forever changed the WESH newsroom—in many ways for the better. The Pulse shooting in particular elevated ideas like tolerance to the next level. One photographer, who isn’t gay, got a tattoo honoring the victims. “As a newsroom, it made us closer,” Wolff said. “How do you go through that and not appreciate each other?”

The events also reaffirmed the importance local broadcasters play in disasters, acting as both a source of information and conduit between the community seeking answers and the officials who may have them. In the days following the Pulse attack, viewers sent flowers and food to the newsroom to help staffers get through. “They took ownership of us, and saw local journalists as human beings—too often, they don’t see us that way. When the universe is at its worst, it is up to us to be our best. I think we rose to the occasion.”