Working the Holidays in Local News
It’s that time of year. Deck the halls and jingle bells and holiday schedules and the news goes on and who had to work and who gets the day off. On top of the “Extinction Alert” and “The Great Resignation”, we have burnout, stress, and mental health issues on top of a busy news schedule where the sting of being away from family will be stronger than perhaps ever before. Here’s some humor, reality, and help to cope with this emotional and busy time.
LAS VEGAS, CHRISTMAS DAY, EARLY 00’s:
“You can’t lead with a threat of a terror attack on Las Vegas on Christmas Day!?!?!!”, the colleague said to me as I reviewed the holiday 10 pm rundown.
“Why not?”, I asked without really looking up from my computer. The long silence made me break my concentration and pop my head up. “Seriously, tell me why you think that.”, I said with a crinkled brow long before Botox was a thing.
The person stuttered “Because… it’s… CHRISTMAS!”.
“Ok. So why don’t people on Christmas deserve to know about a real terror threat in their community? I realize it’s a bit hard to swallow. But it’s what the top story is right now, Christmas or not. And for some people in our community of different faiths, it’s just another day’, I argued back.
“I can’t believe you are leading with this on Christmas.”, the person said, arms flailing, and walking toward the break room.
I sat and thought, and then followed the person into the break room. They were on the phone telling a family member about the threat and reading part of the FBI warning.
As they hung up, I said “Your opinion matters to me.”
“Well, I guess I just negated my point by calling family members to tell them they should probably stay home instead of going to The Strip,” the humbly said. “You know, just in case.”
LAS VEGAS, MEMORIAL DAY (or Labor Day) LATE 00’s:
The silence of the newsroom on a summer holiday (can’t really be sure if it was Memorial Day or Labor Day, just remember it was 500 degrees *feels like temp outside) was broken by a call on the scanners involving the city of Pahrump and exotic birds.
I held my hand up in a “stop” sign, as I am known to do when I hear something interesting on the scanners. I approached the assignment desk like a lion stalking their prey, slow and controlled movements.
“Did they just say Pahrump and exotic birds?”, I asked.
“Uhhhhhh…”, the new assignment editor forced to work the holiday said to me.
“Heidi Fleiss lives in Pahrump and has exotic birds”, I said matter-of-factly. (For those who don’t know, Heidi Fleiss is the former ‘Hollywood Madame’.)
It was barely 10 am, and a slow news day was quickly pushing the gas pedal.
We rushed the one reporter we had that day shift “over the hump” to Pahrump.
Big story that “slow” holiday.
HUNTSVILLE, CHRISTMAS DAY, MID 2010’s:
I was off on Christmas Day, a rare treat for anyone in news. I had loaded up the car and the dogs at 5 am in the rain as it poured on Huntsville. Yes, it would be a rainy day, but a clear weekend. I got as far as Paducah when the alerts started coming from my phone.
I was headed to family in St. Louis, and I debated if I needed to turn around. There was a Flash Flood Warning across much of the metro Huntsville area. But that happens a lot when it rains, right? I kept going north with my news gut pulling my mind south to HSV.
By the time I got to the final stretch into “The Lou”, I started seeing pictures of major flooding in many intersections. This was a BIG weather event. I knew ABC, with its triple-header of some kind of sports, meant we didn’t have early news. Just 10 pm. It was barely 10 am – and news was happening.
I called my family “Look, I’ve got to go right to work. Get the kids off the computer and keep the WIFI strong, I need to get immediately to work upon arrival. My city is flooding.”
I barely stopped the car before I put it into park, half hugged some kids, and ran to the computer. My fingers flew as fast as Santa’s sleigh as I updated story after story, got picture after picture, and struggled to remember one of 800 passwords to log into a computer void of my bookmarks. I never left home without my laptop after that day.
Several hours later, I was like “Ok, Christmas can begin!”, and I handed the baton to the nightside producer virtually and went on to family celebrations, always keeping a close eye on our app.
It was a good thing I didn’t turn back, my dad ended up in the hospital that Christmas night after turning blue shortly after arriving for dinner. We weren’t sure what was wrong, and he lived to fight another health battle, but I would rather be there with him than anywhere else.
News doesn’t stop on holidays, just like cancer cells don’t know it’s Christmas Eve and stop multiplying. Crime keeps going and family gatherings can trigger real emotions that can quickly splatter the figgy pudding. Kids get hit by cars on Halloween.
One of my favorite soundbites of all time was from a Christmas in Las Vegas when a PIO for a law enforcement agency said, “Just because it’s the holidays doesn’t mean you have to gather with people you don’t like, even if they are family.” This was related to a story, if memory serves, where grandma was accused of shooting her grandson’s girlfriend. Or maybe grandma was shot. I just know it was Thanksgiving, there was a grandma, and a girlfriend, and a gun that went off.
It used to be, you knew you were working the holidays unless you were one of the “lucky ones”, either high on the totem pole or with decades of service. You accepted Christmas was going to happen around December 21 or 28th, depending on when you could get time off. You planned to rush from the end of the 10 pm or 11 pm newscast to ring in the New Year wherever possible.
Unless you work in a city like Las Vegas or New York. New Year’s Eve is a big event there and local news needs to be not only staffed but overstaffed with special coverage going well into the next year.
I believe it was New Year’s Eve 2004 when we were working in the FOX5 newsroom with full coverage of the celebrations, from crews nestled into the middle of The Strip chaos, to the top of The Palms at what was once then called “Ghost Bar” to a list of special graphics and cut-ins throughout the night. We wrapped up our coverage around 12:30 am. High-fives around and a sip of some champagne and we all went on our way. The fireworks smoke was long gone before I headed home. I was driving along Sunset Road right next to McCarran Airport, which offered a beautiful view of The Strip from afar.
I always loved looking at my city, whether it was the beautiful mountains or the neon of Sin City, and it always took my breath away. Suddenly my breath was taken away a second time and I struggled for air just before I was about to hit The 215. The Strip was dark. I mean DARK DARK. No neon, barely able to see the outline of massive casinos in the moonglow. I grabbed my phone and tried to dial but it was already ringing.
“The Strip just went dark”, a breathless assignment manager said to me.
“No shit. I’m looking at it. What the hell?’, I demanded as I flipped the car around in the median and broke a few traffic laws to head the other way back to work on Sunset.
As it turns out, a mylar balloon had hit a power transformer, and this must have been the most important transformer in the history of Las Vegas, and it just knocked everything out. (Those things are still a real danger, apparently.)
Our crews were trapped at the top of The Palms but weren’t allowed to stay there (despite this bossy producer demanding they do so), and had to walk down 47 flights of stairs, gear and all, to get back. Our crews in the middle of The Strip didn’t have all the information we did at the station and trying to get information to them long before texting was a thing wasn’t easy as the circuits that did exist were overwhelmed.
I think I got home as the sun came up that New Year’s Day. Stone-cold sober too. Happy New Year, indeed.
IF YOU HAVE TO WORK
Back in the early days of my career, you knew not to complain about working a holiday, and you were thankful for whatever you go. Times have changed, and people demand “I started 6 months ago and haven’t had a single holiday off” to the blank stares of managers who didn’t get a holiday off for their first 5 years of work.
Neither is right or wrong. In fact, to say a generation wants to have a personal life balance and spend holidays with loved ones seems a little more on target than the one who says “Whatever. Just send gifts.”
Add into the crisis in local news of contract disputes, low pay, people exiting the business faster than Santa on Christmas morning, then pile on some additional depression and anxiety from the holidays to match the anxiety and depression some already have – and we need to take care of each other this year.
But what I want to say is this – working holidays *can be fun. You have to have the right attitude about it. Or you have to make a good deal with your boss. Or you have to find a job that doesn’t require holiday work.
In my past three stations, I’ve argued to not do a morning newscast on Christmas Morning. All three times I was denied. I get both sides, but as a Vegas girl at heart, I like to play the odds – and the odds say big news won’t happen on Christmas Morning and if it does nobody is watching the news.
But then Christmas 2020 slapped me in the face. 2020 was a hard year for me. I lost a job I loved and was stuck in Florida as a COVID-cautious person in a COVID Laissez-Faire state. I moved to Nebraska for a job with so much potential. In October my dad died suddenly. He didn’t die from COVID, but the decision made after his demise was much rooted in COVID issues and concerns and I wasn’t able to attend the funeral. I was surrounded by all new people and in an environment much unlike the one I was in when my mom died. I had a hefty workload and was in a new place I couldn’t explore without fear of COVID, and I was not going to risk getting sick. If I need to do anything in life, it’s taking care of me, my dogs, and my job. Those are all top priorities and getting COVID poised a risk I wasn’t willing to take. And my old dog was getting older, and signs of his age were becoming painfully clear.
Thanksgiving came quickly, and of course, I had nowhere to go and nothing to do, which was fine. My Thanksgiving tradition was shopping, a thing my mother and I loved doing together, and I’ve been in a state of depression hidden well some days (others not at all) since she passed, and I find I bring her spirit to life when I do things she loved.
But I couldn’t shop this year. Stores were closed this year on Thanksgiving and Black Friday was mostly done online.
Christmas came and I was happy to work. I needed to distract my mind from my home which held my family dining table from childhood and was filled with my family trinkets of Christmas-gone-by. My emotional roller coaster rendered me unable to look at it that morning. I came to work early to organize my office and get caught up on paperwork.
Twitter started hinting at something going on in Nashville. I pulled up the CNN and ABC Live Channels, jumped on Slack to say, “What’s going on?” and began a web article ready to push it out as something was confirmed. I spent the day writing articles and updates on it.
My thoughts immediately went to two people I adored. My COO at the time had a house in Nashville, and I didn’t know where it was in relation to the explosion. Now in most companies texting the COO might be a big “No-No”, but this man was someone I cared about and one of my favorite people I’ve ever met, so how could I NOT check on him? If I got in trouble for caring I was okay with that. Another colleague at the time I had recently gotten close to I knew lived in the Downtown Nashville area. I paused for a split second to think “Should I bother them on Christmas?”. But my heart already guided my fingers to the phone to text “I’m sure you’ve heard by now but just want to make sure you are okay?”
I dove into the coverage of that and immediately wished Santa had brought me two more TVs into my office so I could watch 10 things at once.
Throughout the day, the few co-workers who were there that day kept telling me to “Go home”. I know their intentions were good. I know they knew I was a workaholic. It’s a badge I wear proudly. But there’s something they didn’t know.
I had nowhere else to go. And every “Go Home” punctuated that I had nowhere else to go. I finally left around noon, beelined to work at home and watch “A Christmas Story” for the 500th time.
IT’S ALL IN HOW YOU CELEBRATE
As the years of my career went on, spending holidays with co-workers became spending holidays with the extended family we find in news.
There was generally an embarrassment of food from higher-ups who weren’t going to work but wanted us to get fed and just ordered more than would be needed.
Last year I was off on Thanksgiving, and my back had gone out two days before, but I was in charge of bringing in the food. I didn’t know what to do – I could hardly walk but needed to get to the store. I sucked it up and brought it in, revealing a rare moment of weakness to the staff when I said, “I can’t lift anything or stand up well so just grab it out of the trunk.”
You’ll find you get to know your co-workers better on those slow parts of the holidays. You’ll laugh and have conversations the regular news flow won’t allow. You’ll have impromptu photoshoots of the newsroom on the holiday.
You’ll have arguments like if it’s “Hark, hear the bells” or “Come, hear the bells”, and I’d always tell my favorite Christmas story of my mom, a very Christian non-cursing woman, thought the song went “Later we’ll have some fu**ing pie and we’ll do some caroling”, and was always amazed that word made it into a Christmas song.
You might work at stations where you can do fun things like “Turkey Bowling” on Thanksgiving, even with the calls that complain we were wasting a good turkey.
We found that by adding celebrities to the bowling pins we had much more fun.
You’ll try to show how to “wrongly” fry a turkey and might fail epically as I did. I swear I could have doused that turkey in gasoline and lit it on fire and it still wouldn’t have fired up on live TV.
When I worked holidays as a manager I also called them “Pajama” days. Wear your PJs and comfy clothes to work if you are behind the scenes. When you do what you live it isn’t really work.
I also liked working holidays, because, despite my stories of “big news” happening, there were those painfully slow days. I knew I was getting a free “busy” day off in exchange for this “slow” day.
**TBH, I’m also an Empath so I’m a slave to guilt and would rather suck up working than know I was off and crapping on someone else’s important plans.
BUT WHAT ABOUT WHEN YOU ARE REALLY SAD?
Yep, some of you are rolling your eyes and thinking how hard it is to be away from home for holidays for the first time. I can’t deny you that. It IS hard. There will be tears. There will be family members that make you feel bad for not being there. There are phone calls and passing of the phone that make you wish you were there with them.
On my first holidays away from home, I was very sad, albeit determined to work my turkey tail off on those days. You get adopted into local colleague’s families and get to know them. It’s not the same, but it’s a different kind of appreciation. You’ll go to the bar with your co-workers after the show and toast a random Christmas Drink like “Rudolph Red-Nosed Martini”. You make it as good as you can for what you have and not what you don’t have.
My first Christmas away from home I was dating a guy who was very nice, but it was very new. As the night came to a close he tried to get into my car. I said “You can’t come over tonight. I can’t explain why, but it feels wrong since it’s Christmas Eve.” He looked at me baffled and walked away. Needless to say, that relationship didn’t work out. But I think somewhere in the back of my mind I thought I’d fall asleep in Reno and wake up in St. Louis with presents under the tree and the smell of my mom’s coffee brewing.
Here are some simple tips for getting through “away from home” holiday working:
– Let a trusted family member know how hard this is going to be on you. Let them know you know it’s going to be hard on them but gauge your emotions ahead of time for the holiday. Something like “Hey sis, you know it’s going to be hard for me to not be there, so can you please make sure the family knows to not make me feel guilty for not being there on the holiday? I don’t need to hear how this could be Grandma’s last Christmas.” It could help the tone of the calls you take, and you might get a “We know you are doing important community work today, and while we miss you we are so proud of you!” instead of an “It’s just not the same without you and Uncle Eddie said he won’t eat the pie until you get here.”
– Ask your family members to send homemade holiday treats and to make them in mass. This helps an anxious mom missing her “baby” feel useful, and also allows your colleagues to share in a holiday treat that reflects a slice of your life. I didn’t know that “Gooey Butter Cake” wasn’t a world-renowned treat until I brought some in and someone had no idea was “this slick of crack cake” was. Gooey Butter Cake recipe here.
– If you do have family in town, invite a co-worker to celebrate with you. I don’t care if you like them a lot or know them well. Extend the offer. I would never know the deliciousness of Enchiladas on Christmas Morning or just how many family members you can fit into a 1500 square foot house if I hadn’t had Latina friends who invited me over. I wouldn’t know that those “Christmas Crackers” I always saw in stores but wondered “What the hell are those and who actually uses them?” until I spent a few holidays with someone who had it as much of a tradition as my tree was to me. I wouldn’t know that, in fact, my grandma DID NOT make the best fried chicken in the world if I hadn’t tasted the chicken of Demetria’s (a producer I supervised) mom.
– Don’t force happiness on people who are unhappy. Ask them if they need space or cheering up. Act accordingly.
Here’s what I can tell you. Seize what you can. If it’s 4th of July and your station sponsors a 4th of July event and you have to work, ask to be part of the event. Doing this I ended up meeting Eddie Money, live on stage in a concert, as I “field produced” for the reporter.
I was in a newsroom as the Millennium turned, having brilliantly yet stupidly suggested we do a live newscast during the 2 am “re-run” of the 10 pm news to see if the world had shut down. Co-workers were not happy I ruined their New Year’s Plans, but dammit this was history in the making and I knew if the world did shut down and we were at the bar, we’d be MADDER we weren’t on the sidelines of the show.
If you are bringing a sour attitude to the workplace on a holiday, it’s going to make a bad day worse for colleagues, so just make the best of it. Barbecue on 4th of July, take turns going to Old Navy on Black Friday (I think one Thanksgiving I went 5 times during my shift, a personal record!), try something new like anchoring if you are a reporter or producing a little something special if you are on the line. When a manager has the trust the team can handle it without them, it gives them a better chance to unplug on the holiday. It gives you a chance to do some desk organization or create a “to do” list you can never get to in busy times. You can review your old stories as a reporter and see what’s worth following up on. Producers can FINALLY update their templates. Web teams can look into some ways to jazz up web stories when they never have time in the rush of the day-to-day news.
HOLIDAYS THAT ARE NOT HOLIDAYS
I’ve always been one to take my birthday week off in September. It’s one week I give to myself and unplug completely (well, as much as I unplug) and I celebrate the week and take naps and watch movies and go to the spa.
Until I lived in Hurricane territory.
Now, I had a hurricane on my “news bucket list” for years, as a lover of severe weather coverage and not yet finding a storm that scares me to the point I can’t work.
When you live in a Hurricane area, you are essentially “on alert” from June through October. Most places will have an “all hands on deck” clause of any contract or offer letter for hurricane coverage.
Living on the Suncoast of Florida, we were in perfect Hurricane Country.
“But what are the odds it will happen during my birthday?”, I said to myself looking at the LARGE span between June 1 and November 1.
Turns out, VERY good.
Hermine ruined my chances of getting to my niece’s wedding in 2016, and Irma took out my birthday in 2017.
I had planned a weekend in Miami on Key Biscayne, got a great rate at the Ritz Carlton and was going to “spa” my way through South Beach. I even bragged about it, apparently daring Irma to form.
(God bless the co-workers who took me out the next week for some post-birthday beach bar Daquiris).
I learned to not plan anything for my birthday other than having electricity and running water, God willing.
When you are thinking of moving to a new market, as what their “Holidays” are – the real ones and the big station events that might as well be one. A station in Providence part of my former company had a huge 4th of July parade they did. A station I worked at in Sarasota had a 4th of July event with speedboats that was a big deal and required extra work.
There might be a holiday parade the week before Christmas all people have to attend, or a hurricane form you need to fill out agreeing to cancel everything when it happens. We had mandatory parades on the weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas as well. You know, all the times you were doing your own celebrating.
There might be tornado season in your area and what are the rules when it comes to a big storm like that if you have travel plans?
Nevada Day was an actual holiday in the state and had a BIG parade in Carson City.
Ask. Ask all these questions.
Make it known which holidays are precious to you. It doesn’t mean you’ll get them, but it means the message is out there. Many managers think “Everyone knows they work holidays so they’ll be happy when they get it”, but to you, Martin Luther King Day might be a critical day of service for you. I always liked to send a list to the person who did schedules to let them know.
HACK: Doing schedules is the MOST thankless job in the newsroom. Everyone wants THEIR time off, doesn’t care about others, wants an answer now, and then wants to have free reign to change that as they wish or as airfares change, thus messing up other parts of the schedules. If you want to get in good with the person who does schedules, THANK THEM when they give you time off. Don’t host a parade or anything, but just “Hey, I know a lot of people wanted that Friday off and I really appreciate you making it happen for me”, goes a long way in the scheduling world.
So, as we go into another 3-day weekend for the “normal world”, don’t say “WELL IT IS NOT A THREE-DAY WEEKEND FOR EVERYONE!”. Just say “I am working, but I’ve got a lot of great stuff planned so I hope you have a chance to watch the news.”
Take that energy and maybe plan a newsroom potluck for the holiday?
When a holiday is coming up, ask your boss “Will there be food newsroom food on the holiday”? Now I don’t care if it’s the anniversary of Christ’s birth or Easter Sunday which isn’t *really a holiday in corporate America or Labor Day. You are gonna be hard-pressed to find a boss who says, “No way.” We know food keeps you happy and with technology today we can order and deliver it on Friday for Sunday. Just ask. We might even come in and surprise you!
MAKE YOUR OWN HOLIDAY ON THOSE DAYS YOU “HAVE TO” WORK
Now, this is going to seem cheesy to some of you, but that’s okay. Some people will love it and you can always opt to not take part.
When a Big (happy) News Event is happening, like for example, The Royal Wedding, at FOX5 we had a British Potluck and all the girls (and any willing guys, of which there was none) were asked to wear tiaras. It made the time zone jump over the pond easier to stomach. Never mind that my “bangers and mash” weren’t good food at 4am. I tried. Oh, and don’t try to make beignets for Mardi Gras, trust me. It’s hard. Just get someone to send you a King Cake and call it a day and buy some beads.
For Super Bowl, have a dip contest. Someone like me couldn’t care less about the Super Bowl but I always hard to work when it was on FOX. So I kept myself busy by hosting a Dip Contest (I won, BTW.)
For Valentine’s Day, put up some decorations. Be sensitive to people who don’t love the day or have plans. Always avoid “What are your plans today?” if you aren’t 100% sure that person is in a happy relationship.
Get involved in any station-sponsored holiday event. It makes the workplace more fun and gets you a chance to meet with people from other departments in a non-stressful situation. For the journalists, those events are always full of potential “sources” so talk to people in the crowds. Get story ideas. You’ve got a slew of people with news to tell. Just do it for that.
Take a chance to train with some staff members for the station-sponsored 5k. Take part in station or company initiatives. Win them.
Have fun with “Back to School” time, whether on-air or behind the scenes, get people to send their school photos. One year I created a series of Facebook Cover Photos and Back to School wasn’t going to get missed.
In 2012, I had a little fun with the alleged “Apocalypse” coming courtesy of the Mayans’ prediction. We had an “Apocalyptic Potluck” with “End of the World Trivia”.
See what local traditions there are if you are in a new city. I found “Pedro the Christmas Burrow” in Reno, and we invited him in. Not his owners only – he came in the newsroom as well.
Get behind any station holiday contest and GO NUTS WITH IT. Take in all that “I miss my family” frustration and channel it into the tree or door decorating contest.
And finally, you are going to have “older” staff members on Thanksgiving who made the joke “God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!” and they will laugh hard. To help you understand (and get some “youngster” bonus points with them), it’s from a first-season episode of the amazing show WKRP in Cincinnati. You have to watch to fully understand, but it’s a staple for anyone in a newsroom to know if they want to have a Happy Thanksgiving.