The Overnight Shift: It’s Not All Grave News
Working overnights, it’s not for the faint of heart. Few people say “I want to work overnight while the rest of the world is sleeping!” Yet, the Bureau of Labor Statics shows that millions of people actually do it.
My first job out of college was editing video overnight for the morning show at KRNV in Reno. I started at 11:30 pm and worked straight through to 7:30 am. Coming off a college lifestyle that had me sleeping until 10 am and going to bed around 2 am (no coincidence that was just after bar closing time in Missouri), it was quite an adjustment.
First day I got by on pure adrenaline, and second day I overslept. I got a 1 am wake-up call asking if I had quit, and I rushed into work with more apologies than I’d given in my whole life. I never overslept again and had several alarms set in various distances from my bed so I had to actually stand up to make all the noise stop.
I developed a ritual. Stopped by the gas station on the way into work, got two Dr. Pepper’s, and a snack, and worked my tail off all night. The first few weeks I would sleep all day, waking up every now and again wondering “Is that the sun rising or the sun setting.” I didn’t know how to do weekends and Fridays ended up being a loooooong day of half awake, half asleep, confused about what my body was supposed to do.
I was lucky I was in a 24-hour town. There was nothing odd about going out “after work” when it was 8 am and having a drink or getting food. I could grocery shop at 3 am on Sundays.
It’s almost inevitable that at some point in your journalism career you will work an overnight shift. Before you say “Nope, not me!”, let’s talk about what you might not know about the terribly named graveyard shift.
HAS IT REALLY BEEN 8 HOURS?
The part I then, and even now, like best is how fast it goes by. For some reason, 8 hours overnight seems to go by in minutes, whereas a 9-5 can sometimes drag on. You are so busy and have few resources, and everyone depends on everyone else doing their job, so there is no room for lazy. Your shift feels over almost before it begins. The 2, 3, or 4 hours of a morning newscast seem to fly by.
IT IS SO QUIET
Especially for overnight producers, much of the shift is spent in blissed quiet, minus the humming of scanners (which are a treat in their own right, while people do some crazy crime stuff after midnight!) and the occasional call from a viewer, sometimes in various states of intoxication, to tell you they saw an alien, or they want to talk to the President, or they swear they just heard gunshots in their neighborhood and you have to remind them it’s July 5th and people are just setting off fireworks. Around 3-4 am when you are starting to hit a wall, more people come in and lively up the room. They give you a boost (and sometimes even bring you a caffeinated beverage or doughnuts to kick you into high gear).
Look how empty it is when you are there overnight (and you sneak your dog in)!
KLKN Morning Producer Lauren Ewinger says, ” Have patience and trust your team. As a solo producer having constant communication with my reporter is important since she doesn’t come in until 6 hours into my shift. 3 am is early it’s important to be the leader and get your talent alert and up to speed, overnights can be tough starting out but once you get through the two-hour show successfully it’s worth it!”
YOUR OWN ENTOURAGE
The best morning news teams become a special entourage within a newsroom. You have sleep issues, life challenges, and goals that are generally different from other shifts. You are all never fully awake, and yet you have your own rare energy. You don’t have a News Director walking around, or a General Manager calling staff meetings, and you don’t have to share anything with other newscasts. It’s all yours. Most morning newscasts also have their own element of “fun” that can’t be replicated elsewhere.
YOU FEEL LIKE YOU ARE GETTING AWAY WITH SOMETHING
I don’t know about you, but isn’t there something great about leaving work at 8 am or 12 pm, knowing you’ve put in a hard days’ work while others are just getting going? I’ve known people who chose the morning show because they wanted to go skiing in the afternoon when the slopes weren’t as busy on a random Wednesday. When I worked the shift in Las Vegas, I’d be at the pool sipping a drink of choice at noon while others were slamming a lunch down in the office. It felt wrong. I actually had to tell myself “But they are sleeping while you are doing your best work.”
You can focus on the drawbacks or look at the benefits. Nathan Greve, morning anchor/reporter at KLKN says “I didn’t anticipate the benefit of visiting home being much easier. It’s a 6-hour drive home. If I was on normal days, I wouldn’t get there until midnight, and that’s if I hustled. I’d get a late start on Saturday and have to leave pretty early on Sunday. With mornings, I still leave pretty early on Sunday to come back to work, but I get all of Saturday, and a good chunk of Friday. And that’s if I don’t have the luxury of a 3-day weekend.”
ERRANDS ARE A BREEZE
You don’t have to schedule a workday around going to the dentist and don’t have to go back to the office with a numb mouth, explaining to everyone why your lip is sagging. You can grocery shop during the slow hours of the day. You can see a movie in the afternoon and have much of the theater to yourself.
KLKN Meteorologist Brittany Foster says it best, “ I enjoy getting off at noon because I get the rest of the day to get stuff done. Shopping is extremely easy because the stores are always empty since everyone is at work. Stores are always empty once I get off and this makes shopping a lot faster. I also enjoy taking my dog to the park because it’s always empty! The fact that everyone else is still at work just makes life so much easier and less hectic.“
Her anchor colleague, Katrina Sperl, echoes that: “Setting up appointments is so much easier since I am off at noon, you don’t see as many people going to the doctor in the middle of the day.. I also love having a gym that’s hardly packed full with people.”
OH, THOSE SUNRISES
No matter what market you are in, there’s a great feeling of watching the sun come up. It’s almost like your hard work willed the sun to rise yet again and it’s shining down it’s own “Good work! Here’s your reward!”
IT IS SUCH A GREAT RESPONSIBILITY
From a station and company perspective, the morning show is longer than others, and has more commercials, meaning doing in ratings and digital well brings in more money for the station. There are some morning newscasts that literally pay the bills at a station. It’s the first point of contact for the day, and you are setting the pace for the rest of the station to live up to that standard of performance.
From a viewer’s perspective, you are waking up with people. When they are at their most vulnerable, ugliest, smelliest, they are letting YOU into their hectic life. I don’t know a single person I’d want to have in my home during the first part of my day, yet I choose to bring a morning newscast of strangers (who become an extension of my family) into our life. It’s a vital role. You are getting them ready for the day, especially in a COVID world, they are waking up with anxiety and stress. You are helping them through the maze. Giving them something to talk about at the watercooler or the social watering hole. The meteorologist is literally helping them get dressed for the day and know what to pack for the kiddos in the afternoon. You are like a life coach following them through the morning routine saying “we got this!”.
This fact alone motivates me to get up when I need to for the morning shift because it’s humbling the space we get into that other newscasts can’t.
Digital Content Producer Emily Larson says, “I get to be the first to know about everything going on before most of the country even wakes up!”
“STOP GLOSSING OVER THE FACT THAT THE SHIFT SUCKS, JENNIFER!”, I hear you saying now. Yep. It CAN. Here is some advice one the downsides and how to adjust.
YOU DO NOT KNOW UNTIL YOU TRY
Before you write off the shift altogether, I’m going to weave in some feedback from people who do the shift.
It starts with trying. Try the shift. Not for a week and determine you hate it. Takes three weeks to form a habit, so give it a month AT MINIMUM before you decide. I would strongly suggest six months. Don’t fight the day. You can’t live normal hours on an overnight shift and if you try you will fail.
I believe there are genuine people who just can’t do it, and that’s totally fine. No judgment. But I also think many people write it off before they know just what their body can do.
“The schedule can be a bit to get used to. I’m certain I get less sleep now than I did before. Weekends can definitely be a bit rough, since it’s hard to stay awake long enough to feel like you’re getting everything out of your off days, and the transition back into Monday is never an easy one,” says Nathan Greve, morning anchor/reporter at KLKN.
THE SLEEP SCHEDULE
Oh, the biggest singlehanded challenge of the overnight shift. When to sleep. You want to sleep, your body doesn’t. You’ll get burned by this fact time and time again until you find what works for you. What works for you won’t work for everyone. Find your own rhythm and own it.
I’ll let the experts weigh in here:
Emily Larson: ” Typically, I try to be asleep by 6/6:30 p.m., but that doesn’t always happen. In the mornings, I need a while to wake up before I’m ready to go to work so I like to set a few alarms. I set an alarm for 1:30 a.m., get up turn on a few lamps and get my espresso machine warmed up. Then I crawl back into bed for 15 minutes more of rest until 1:45 a.m. when I start, slowly, getting ready to leave for work at 2:45 a.m.
Nathan Greve: Some people do split sleeping schedules. I can’t wrap my head around that. My goal is to be in bed around 6, if not actually asleep by then. I wake up at midnight to give my dogs their breakfast, and we all take an hour nap until it’s time to wake up for the day.
Brittany Foster: I try to go to bed at 5:30 PM M-F, but if I’m being honest sometimes I don’t get to bed until 8 PM. I wake up at 1:30 AM and then get to work at 3 AM.
Lauren Ewinger: I usually sleep from 9am- 4pm then I will probably take a nap from 8-10 pm.
Jennifer Hardy (me): I had to keep the same sleep schedule all week long to be my best me. That meant my Friday night social life wasn’t great because I would sleep until 11pm Friday. When I lived in Las Vegas, this worked out well, because I could just go meet my friends who had been out and about for hours, but few cities have this luxury. I just made Saturdays my big social day. I was also able to find out about hobbies I didn’t knew I liked. I went hiking, biked around the lake, learned to love weekend brunch. Adapting to this made Mondays a lot easier. If I HAD to not sleep on Fridays, I would suck it up, but then Sunday was lost to a nap-a-thon.
Also, invest in Blackout Blinds. It can be night anytime you want! I also recommend a noise machine to drown out the real world while you snooze.
YOU’LL PAY FOR THAT DINNER IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE
If you try to do an evening dinner with friends, you’re either going to have to nap all day, or suck up being exhausted during your shift. You (hopefully) won’t have drinks with dinner as you go to work in a few hours.
Not being able to do dinner, movies, and dates during the week is hard on social life. You can substitute lunches or very early dinners, maybe even a matinee, but it’s just not the same. However, it’s also going to be that way if you work the late news shift, so there’s really a lot of people in TV News who can’t go to traditional dinner and night outings. Plus, think of all that money you are saving!
YOU WILL NEVER THINK YOU HAVE ENOUGH RESOURCES
“You want me to do three hours with one reporter?” the producer will moan while the anchors say “My mouth hurts after reading that much” and the editor won’t say anything because they are too busy editing the monster show on 3 hours of sleep this week.
You’ll wonder what your bosses think of your work and wonder how many other colleagues actually see your newscast. Sometimes you could go weeks without seeing the News Director, and just have emails to go by on how you did.
YOU WILL GET BETTER, FASTER
Aside from the few people who LOVE the overnight shift, most people don’t want to spend their career there.
Lauren Ewinger, producer at KLKN, brings up a great point: ”Doing the longer show has made me grow as a producer, I get to be more creative and make it more my own style of show, overall it’s benefited me a lot, I’m writing better I think how to tie things together better as it is a longer show.”
As a reporter on a morning shift, you are doing 4x or more as many live shots. Anchors are anchoring longer. Directors are on the board for hours at a time. You just get faster and better because you have to.
Morning Anchor at KLKN, Katrina Sperl says, “I anchored weekends before moving to mornings and I felt like I missed out on a lot with family and friends because everything happens on the weekends.. I also love anchoring so I jumped at the opportunity doing it full time and having my weekends back.”
YOUR BOSS KNOWS YOUR STRUGGLE
We’ve all at some point had to work an overnight shift, even if it’s just a long election night or a monster storm, or if we spend a few years there ourselves. Nobody will understand better than your boss. Be honest about the challenges you are having and how you could get help. Schedule a monthly lunch or ask them to come in once a month for a breakfast early at the station.
There’s a certain amount of pride to have in working a shift your boss can actually sleep through and not have to worry if the news is going to make the air. We KNOW if everyone else shows up on time, the fact that we trust you to do it when we can’t see it makes you even more of a valued employee.
YOU’LL NEED TO FIGURE OUT WHEN TO EAT AND WHAT TO EAT THEN
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner come at odd times, but it’s up to you to determine what you eat when. You might have breakfast for lunch and dinner at breakfast time. I worked at a station that had great chefs on in the morning news, and I’d come in and see them eating steak and potatoes and my stomach would turn. They would say “It’s our lunchtime!’.
When I did the shift I ate a small meal of breakfast variety when I woke up, had a HUGE lunch in the mid-morning, and then ate a small dinner before bed. On the tough days, I ate whatever I could to keep me going no matter what time of day. Food was my fuel!
You just figure out what works best for you. My first time on the morning shift I lost 20 pounds. Other times I gained 20 pounds. But it was all within my control by choosing meals that work on my schedule.
THERE ARE REAL HEALTH CONCERNS
Looking it up on Google, you’ll see all the reasons to avoid shift work. It is hard on your body, it takes a toll in some ways, can impact mental health, and then looks of “Oh I’m so sorry you work that shift” are endless. I’m not trying to talk you into something that is unhealthy. I’m just trying to show all sides of the shift, and encourage you to not write off an entire daypart just out of fear or anxiety.
JUST GET A FOOT IN THE DOOR
Sometimes you just need someone to give you a chance. You just want to get in the door, and the morning newscast might be the place to do it. Before you get too much experience it’s hard to demand certain hours and days of the week. Heck, it’s hard sometimes when you have experience. If it’s between a morning shift and no shift, do you really want to miss that chance? I would never have wished for a morning shift, but I took what was handed to me and got my foot in the door, and never looked back.
There are now days I see the morning team leave at noon and I’m envious. Sometimes. Not all the time, but sometimes.
I hope this shines a little bit of light on a tough shift and some of the ways to acclimate before you make any decision.