How a local News Director is running his newsroom in a new 'normal'
February 5, 2021
While Fox 5 DC News Director, Paul McGonagle’s 30 years in the news industry afforded him the experience to cover notable events such as the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and the Boston Marathon, nothing could have prepared him for such a tumultuous year.
McGonagle remembers March 15, 2020 as the day he had to shift his newsroom to zoom while continuing to deliver 80 hours of news a week to the community. As he reflects over the last year, McGonagle discusses handling crises, the team he is proud of, the future of the newsroom, and his hope for the next generation of journalism.
You know how good your team is when the crisis hits—Paul McGonagle, News Director at Fox 5 DC
Q: You have directed news in one of the heaviest times we have seen in the United States. As a news director, how did you prepare for this transition?
A: There was no manual to grab off the shelf like ‘okay, here's what to do in a pandemic’. There's nothing. As a company, Fox invested a lot of technology. For example, we have a live view. It’s an ability to go live without a satellite truck. Some of our crews have a small backpack and the app as well.
We also spoke with other Fox Stations and asked, “Okay, look, what's working for you, what isn't?” We ended up putting the teleprompter in laptops, reversing the feed. People would have their cell phone appear, and read off of their laptop, and we'd roll a teleprompter from the television station. But, you know, I look back at it and what I'm so proud of is that you know you have a good team, when the crisis hits. We didn't have the luxury of saying, ‘we'll do this again, in six months, let's figure this out’. We had to be on-air at the next newscast. It was also so rewarding, because everyone knew we didn't have all the answers, but we knew we had to get on TV and keep people informed.
Q: What does managing a team socially distant look like? And how are you recruiting and training new talent?
A: That's been an incredible learning curve. We have some people here who we've never seen and have never been in the building. To give you a sense of what things used to be like in a newsroom, a newsroom is all about the energy. When you're on TV, you can feel the energy in breaking news. Now we are in a position where you can't see anyone. So we set up a 24/7 zoom. I have to say, it's actually improved our communication because people are always available to ask questions. Whether there are changes in the show or changes in assignments, you can just tell the people on zoom, and everyone immediately is on the same page. You don't have to make 13 different phone calls, which has been a huge help.
It has also encouraged more people to generate ideas. Post pandemic, I think we'll go back to a conference room at the station, but I do like the zoom aspect of it. There can be one common story like COVID, but the way Prince George’s County Schools are handled things can be totally different than Fairfax. Our staff members can speak toward what is happening in their own communities. It's good to have people internally who can help further explain what everyone is going through.
Q: With the vulnerability of the media today, how are you ensuring the safety of your team in crises?
A: Given the unrest that took place over the summer with the protest, with the election, and the riots in the capital, we removed our Fox 5 logo off our equipment. We send out security, sometimes two and with armed guards. Our people have told stories, while literally having guards ripping people off of them. We had a reporter at the Capitol, who was spit on by people. I mean, just degrading and dehumanizing. That was tough.
But we've also made decisions to cover events from a far. I'm not sending my reporters into harm's way for people to cause a problem and then turn on the media.
Q: Because the media is targeted and your team is reporting 80 hours of news a week, how are you checking in on the mental health of your employees and yourself?
A: I have had conversations with staff members I’ve never had before. Some people are really struggling. It hasn't been easy at all. I wouldn't lie to you. I mean, I have a family too. I haven't seen my parents in a year. I have three boys and a wife… You're dealing with your own issues, and your own matters. And then you have to deal with 100-120 people who have issues, and you still try to put on the news.
I like to consider myself a positive person. I'll try to find anything that'll just make me laugh. I just need that escape for even if it's just 15 minutes. This beast of the new cycle has been relentless. But I've learned a lot. I've learned a lot about people through this whole process. I think we're on a great track to reach out more to employees and check on their mental health. In the news business, that's sometimes a challenge, because you're on to the next newscast. But we have to find time to pause even though the product doesn't stop.
Q:The death of George Floyd wrecked our nation and brought to life challenges with race and inequality this country has faced for years. How has the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion changed your newsroom?
A: This is the most diverse local newsroom in the country, if not, very close. When George Floyd died, the diversity in the newsroom on an editorial basis was one of the most powerful tools we had. The employees of color spoke up on our zoom calls saying, “you don't understand this. There is a lifetime of George Floyd's.” I think having that diverse background in our newsroom has really helped us to tap into people in the community, and getting their perspective on things other communities do not understand. It has helped us understand that everything isn't as simple as it seems and everything is not from one person's perspective. It’s important for people to see other people that look like them deliver the news. Someone on TV may look like you, but the person writing the script looks like you too. I think that's why people love this television station. It’s the history and legacy of it. I think this station has always done a really good job of giving voice to people of all neighborhoods, and all sections of this marketplace.
Q: If you had to give a 30 second elevator pitch on why local journalism is still relevant. What would you say?
A: It’s a global pandemic. But the story is all local. People need to know what is happening in their communities. Take for example, Washington, DC. It’s the world’s power city. It’s the nation’s capital. But when it comes down to it, government workers, all these powerful leaders who live among us, they have the same questions.
The story of schools has proven that local news is so important. Some kids have been back since September. Our kids are not going back to schools and they are all going to go back at different times. So that's why I think local news can never go away, because you want to know what's happening in your community.
Q: What is your hope for the next generation of journalism?
A: I think people are going to get out of local news, but I hope that people don't forget how important journalism is. I think journalism is important now more than ever, especially in a time where the approval rating and the trust in the media is so low. We need another generation to come up who wants to fight the good fight and provide the facts. So we need people asking those tough questions and holding people accountable.