A Perspective on the News Business During this Pandemic

Frank Cipolla

We are all understandably concerned about the coronavirus. As a broadcast journalist, media coach, and PR consultant, I often wonder how this will change the news business once the outbreak subsides. Almost every news station in the world is broadcasting remotely. Most producers, technicians, reporters, and anchors are working from home. I spoke recently with a former fellow employee of a station I worked for in Fort Myers, and he confirmed what all of us have been hearing. Instead of a newsroom buzzing with activity, and a tech crew on site to go live at any moment, the building, which used to see as many as 50 employees come and go every day, is now virtually empty.

Broadcast companies that run stations in small- to medium-sized markets, and larger stations free of union interference, are testing out this model. Sure, the on-air quality may not look as good — but it will. And from a dollars-and-cents standpoint, it makes perfect sense.

The FCC recently ruled that radio and TV stations no longer require a physical presence in the city in which they serve. If you have listened to the radio over the past decade or so, you have probably been listening to a DJ or talk show host doing their show from far away. I predict this will soon happen in TV news.

That doesn’t mean I agree with it. On the contrary, I believe the intermingling of reporter, producer, management, and salesperson is what makes a station excel. It’s the exchange of ideas. The face-to-face connection. It’s the conversations in the hallway where ideas are born.

But if I am a station owner or a shareholder of a broadcast company, I think a remotely produced broadcast works.

That huge building with all those studios costs money. Maintenance, rent, overhead. How about those news cars burning gas every day? Why can’t a reporter use his or her car to shoot out to a story? Or how about this? If I can put a green screen in the anchor’s basement, and another one at the weather person’s house, why do I need a studio to begin with? The teleconference service Zoom already allows you to create your own background. Why not the one you currently see when you watch your favorite news station? Best of all, without employees on site, there is less chance of an injury-related lawsuit or a sexual-harassment case.

On the upside, this model allows reporters to be more mobile than they have ever been. They’ll be more like radio reporters. Going from story to story, voice tracking, editing, and producing stories in their cars. And with the help of new technology, some of which is already here, they will be able to go live in an instant.

I worked years ago at the Wall Street Journal Radio Network. I had never done business news before, but in the six years I was there, I learned one very important thing: in business, money rules. The shareholder comes first. And with smaller and smaller margins, and content fragmentation, broadcasters will continue to look for the most inexpensive, best-looking product they can find. And that may mean it will come not from a studio but from your favorite anchor’s basement.

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