The explosion of the coronavirus pandemic changed the television news industry in 2020. Some of the shifts have been temporary: staffers have been forced to to adjust to working from home, and will likely return to their respective offices in 2021. But some of the other changes to the industry this year will likely be permanent.
We caught up with network presidents from across the television news landscape—ABC News president James Goldston, NBC News president Noah Oppenheim, CBS News president Susan Zirinsky, Fox News Media chief executive officer Suzanne Scott, Fox News president Jay Wallace, Noticias Telemundo president Luis Fernandez, and Univision Noticias president Daniel Coronell—to learn how their respective networks are dealing with the challenges the pandemic have thrown at them in 2020, what they’ve learned about the news industry this year and how TV news will change in 2021.
What’s the most significant thing you’ve learned about the news industry since the pandemic?
Coronell: We learned that one of the most important elements of the mission of journalism is to find answers to the questions people are asking themselves. In these times of great uncertainty, journalism must seek to provide information to help people to stay healthy, survive financial challenges, cope with sadness and preserve hope.
Fernandez: During the biggest health crisis of our lifetime, we’ve seen journalists do remarkable reporting—with passion and rigor. Many faced significant challenges, and at times personal risk, to tell the story of the pandemic and its impact. Our newsrooms may have been largely empty because of COVID, but it didn’t hold journalists back from meeting the moment and keeping our audiences and readers informed.
Goldston: Its tremendous adaptability and resilience—We’ve seen across the industry the most extraordinary examples of innovation in adversity as thousands of news employees adapted to working in a pandemic, completely overhauling the ways we work. There are countless examples of really excellent journalism this year done from basements, living rooms and dining room tables that have been amazing to behold.
Oppenheim: We’ve learned we’re capable of a technological revolution in a matter of days. We experienced the most drastic logistical shift in the network’s history—moving almost our entire workforce out of offices, studios and control rooms—while simultaneously covering the biggest and most important story in a century. And I’m proud to say we did so without missing a beat for our viewers.
Still, it has to be said: nothing can replace the magic that happens when a group of people get together in the same room.
Scott: The resilience of our workforce has been what has stood out to me the most. Our team of journalists have masterfully covered the biggest stories of our lifetime while transitioning to remote workspaces all over the country and the world without missing a beat, proving just how nimble our staff is both on-air and behind the scenes. To date, we assembled over 50 remote studios while also providing the most informative, insightful and compelling coverage on television during these unprecedented times. It’s clear our team’s tireless hard work has resonated with millions of viewers around the country as we reached milestones across linear and digital we never thought possible.
Wallace: In times of crisis, we are a public service and we must always be ready to rise to the occasion. Before the attacks on 9/11, we thought the story of the time was the red hot economy and the dotcom bubble, but it all changed that morning and the news industry became something different to match the times. The same has happened this year, the plan was to have a blowout election year with travel and self-congratulations for being road-warriors chasing down candidates—but it all changed in March with the realization of a global pandemic. The good times stopped and news needed to provide a public service of what was happening in the wake of this mystery illness at our hospitals and with our neighbors and family and friends—and it did. Despite the ratings and booking wars that fill the gaps of conversation when times are good, U.S. news once again rose to the occasion to inform the public when it needed it most.
Zirinsky: Resilient. Resourceful. Relevant. CBS News journalists— and journalists everywhere—faced unimaginable challenges in covering the pandemic, a nation cracked open by the death of George Floyd, and the most important election in our time. These cataclysmic stories became our focus as they should have, because there isn’t a single person in this country that wasn’t touched in some way by these life altering events and choosing who could lead and heal the country.
Our mission in finding truth coupled with keeping our own teams safe while staying on the air tested all of us in ways we could have never imagined. Creative adaptivity is a term a colleague used and that we have embraced. The challenges have and continue to be met. Our journalism drove and still drives us to overcome any hurdle we encounter. Our responsibility in keeping the public informed, separating fact from fiction and tuning out the noise couldn’t be more important than it is right now. Being a 24/7 news operation on multiple platforms allows us to have a greater reach to people wherever they are consuming news. We see the impact of our stories; journalism is more relevant now than ever before.
What is one thing about the TV news business that you think has changed permanently as a result of the pandemic?
Coronell: Community service journalism should be the priority. We had always perceived it and had in fact always focused on doing it, particularly during natural disasters, but this lengthy pandemic showed us that community service journalism should be the norm and not the exception.
Fernandez: That nothing will be the same, and anything is possible. We’ve seen anchors deliver the news from home, sometimes for days on end. The pandemic has helped unleash more creativity and thinking out of the box in terms of how we approach covering the news. Gone are the days of, “Oh, that can’t be done.”
Goldston: We’ve always assumed to do our best work, our teams were required to be in the office, when it’s turned out that’s not true at all. We’ve learned we can be far more flexible in the future.
Oppenheim: The most obvious, of course, is that we don’t all need to be in 30 Rock or our other bureaus in order to deliver high-quality broadcasts and journalism. We can build a news organization with reporters who live and work in diverse communities around the country, not just on the coasts. Going beyond that, it’s our mindset that will be forever changed. We’ve been completely liberated from old habits not only when it comes to physical production, but the stories we chose to tell and how we tell them.
Scott: While production value is engrained in our DNA at Fox News Media, one thing I believe we will lean on more following the pandemic is the Zoom interview. Our guests can beam in from their living room, kitchen or office from anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Logistics wise, getting a major guest ‘on camera’ will be easier. It is also nice for us to realize that the people on the other side of the screen are, well, people. The Zoom interview has revealed more about our interview subjects—their taste in home décor, interests, do they have kids or pets sneaking in their live shots? That provides a context we never had in the past and will enable more robust coverage in the future.
Wallace: We are no longer hardwired to broadcast centers or bureaus. From anchors to editing to finance, the amount of bandwidth that can be done in the cloud has far exceeded what we thought would be possible. The physical look of newsrooms and where the workforce will come from has been transformed virtually overnight.
Zirinsky: We have learned that there is a solution to every challenge. There have been many significant technological developments that have emerged during the pandemic that will change how we do business from this day forward. How and where we do interviews without getting on a plane. Zoom and other socially distanced techniques allows us to reach more people—different voices—faster and still deliver a powerful and emotional interview. The ability to remotely control a broadcast from your dining room is possible, though we may still need some technical support onsite. Communication apps on your phone now allow you to talk with the entire control room and the on-air correspondents. There are apps that allow you to go live from any location. The way we do business has been altered.
What will be the biggest difference between your news division in 2021 compared to 2020?
Coronell: We must be an active bridge between our audiences and scientists. People need to learn the facts about the science behind the COVID-19 vaccines to have a real perspective on what is going on beyond the laboratory. Our main job will be to fight misinformation and answer people’s valid concerns. Fighting misinformation and serving as the bridge to the Hispanic community are two of the universal tenants of Univision News, and we do not only apply them to covering vaccines and science, but also to covering the new administration, the financial recovery and any unforeseen challenges that may arise in the future. Millions of lives depend on responsible journalism and we are committed to continuing to do our job responsibly.
Fernandez: Working remotely. We began 2020 with everyone working in the newsroom and we’re going to start 2021 with nearly all of our staff still working from home. In terms of news, health and medical news will always have an important place on our air.
Goldston: I cannot wait to see people again face to face. We’ve missed each other greatly, and it will be wonderful to be reunited again in 2021.
Oppenheim: We’re evolving across the board, with some changes accelerated by the pandemic and others that were already in the works before. One thing I know for sure is that we’ll offer even more NBC News content on even more platforms as we continue to expand our brands. NBC News Now and Today All Day will get even bigger, we’ll produce more original podcasts and we‘ll probably launch a few things we haven’t even imagined yet.
And even though the election may have passed, the news cycle in Washington won’t be slowing down anytime soon with a new administration on the horizon and a race to end this pandemic. Next year, you’ll see Meet the Press, Weekend Today, and all of our Washington programming begin broadcasting from a brand new, state of the art bureau on Capitol Hill. We’ve been waiting a long time to unveil it and are looking forward to that.
Scott: Fox News Media will continue doing what it has for the last 24 years—spotlight a diversity of voices and viewpoints across all of our platforms. While 2020 was truly transformative and an historic year, I think I can speak for everyone when I say we are looking forward to what the new year has in store for the news business.
Wallace: A new administration is coming in and with that, comes new challenges. I’d say this no matter the party, but change does bring a new curiosity and invigoration in how to cover a new leader who comes in having campaigned on so many promises and then meets the blunt force of government and the reality of the challenges to actually get things done. We will position ourselves to be out across the country to see how it all translates to everyday Americans who have been hit hard by the economic impact of the pandemic.
Zirinsky: We will have a more diverse workforce than ever before. The 8 minutes and 46 seconds of watching George Floyd die before our eyes—coupled with Breonna Taylor’s death—are just two shocking stories that shook this country to its core, giving power to a movement that will change us as a society forever. We had to turn a mirror on ourselves while covering this socially dynamic movement. We’ve launched several key initiatives dealing with race and culture issues at CBS News.
The impact touches everything: hiring, who’s at the top levels making decisions; discussion and sessions on micro aggressions; and training sessions for the jobs available within the network. We also launched a Race and Culture Unit to oversee programming and guide content across all platforms. These initiatives have begun.