Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: How A Rural TV Station Is Covering Its Coronavirus Cluster: “The Stories Are More Personal”

Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email [email protected]

The southwest Georgia city of Albany, population around 75,000, is one of the hotspots of the Coronavirus in the state. According to some calculations, it’s among the top five worst hit cities in the country on a per capita basis.

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WALB-TV, a dual NBC/ABC affiliate in Albany owned by Gray Television, is among many smaller outlets that has covered the pandemic with limited resources — a task that may be even more daunting given the huge loss of revenue stations across the country are facing given the dramatic drop in advertising during the lockdown. Albany already has gotten national attention as a rural area with disproportionate number of cases — a cluster of which were reported among attendees at a funeral in late February.

Deadline spoke to the station’s news director, Nichole Cyprian, last week about the challenges the station has faced in covering the crisis.

DEADLINE: First off, what is the situation like now? 

NICHOLE CYPRIAN: We’ve been through some big disasters before in Dougherty County. There were the storms in 2017, the tornado and straight line winds that really devastated the community. We had Hurricane Michael. I think some of those situations really prepared the government here, and really prepared first responders to deal with something like this. No one could anticipate of course what it would be.

The hospitals here, they’re dealing with a lot, but they are doing the very best that they can. The hospitals all around South Georgia are really doing the best that they can. They’re keeping us informed as much as possible…Of course we’re asking some questions, and for the most part they’re being honest about the fact that they don’t know. And they’re figuring it out as they go, and I can understand them on that because I feel like that’s the situation that a lot of newsrooms are in right now too. No matter how senior your management staff is, this is something new for everybody. And I feel like we’re all kind of in that position of…trying to figure it out as we go and make the best decisions for the health of our newsrooms for our teams. But this is a new one for us, and I think everybody’s doing the best that they can.

DEADLINE: When did you realize that this was this was a story like no other?

CYPRIAN: I would say I realized it was going to be a big story probably mid-February. It was in every single newscast, like every day we had a coronavirus story. And in my mind at that time I said, ‘You know what, this is probably going to end up coming to the U.S. and it’s going to be a big deal,’ but I had no clue that it was going to be what it was. I don’t feel myself personally that I planned ahead to think that it would impact our station the way it did. I knew big markets would be impacted. And I even knew some mid-sized markets would have an impact, but I didn’t think that Albany, Georgia, would be the in the situation that we’re in right now with as many cases and that the story would hit our front door the way that it did.

DEADLINE: Now I know a lot of  print media has focused on the funeral as a potential reason for why there seems to be this disproportionate outbreak in Albany, Georgia. Is that fair?

CYPRIAN: I would say yes and no. Keep in mind that no one had any clue as to how this would spread, and I don’t think it’s fair to point the blame or to point the finger at any one thing. There were funerals, yes, but then there was also a big [running] race. There was also a court case. People were still out in grocery stores. We were sending our crews to cover things. I don’t think anyone knew it was going to get to where it is. And so I don’t necessarily think it’s fair to point the blame at one thing. But I also think if we’re trying to trace things back, and that’s where it’s being traced back to, I think that’s just what the facts are. But to point blame, especially at this time and in this particular situation, I think the focus needs to be on making sure that everybody is doing the right social distancing, that we’re keeping ourselves, our families, our employees, everyone you know safe and keeping them informed.

DEADLINE: Have you had any cases at the station? 

CYPRIAN: We haven’t any cases. We have had some scares, though. I will tell you that, like I mentioned earlier, there was a big court case, a big murder trial that happened around the first week of March. We had employees that were in that trial. And there was someone who was there who was deemed positive, so we had several employees that were in social isolation. Fortunately they were not sick, and at that time we had already moved into having our crews work remotely. So it didn’t necessarily impact our operation. But it was certainly scary.

DEADLINE: What sort of measures have you taken?

CYPRIAN: About 50%, I would say 60% of our staff right now are either totally working remotely or partly working remotely, so they’re in the station for a small period of time and then they work the rest of the time out of the station. But all of our reporters, all of our digital producers are remote, and most of our anchor team. All of our anchors are doing solo newscasts, because we’re trying to limit as many people in the studio as possible. And that includes even our studio crew. We have 36 employees in our newsroom total, and so that includes the managers, and everyone is cross trained. And that goes from our digital team to our producers to our anchors to our production technicians. So they have been working on digital and content. Instead of being in the studio, we’ve locked down cameras. We’ve had solo shots. Does it make for the fanciest newscast? No, but it does make for newscasts that are informative and that are keeping our crew safe and that’s what’s most important to me. We’ve moved our producers out of the newsroom. So they are in another part of the building. We did try having some of them work from home, but limitations with internet in rural Georgia kind of caused some issues with that, so we have had them so social distancing. And that’s been working really well.

In terms of our reporters, actually, at home, my biggest thing that I told them, is do phoners, do Skype interviews, do FaceTime interviews, limit to them as much as possible how much face-to-face interaction that you’re having to do in your story. They’re still turning really great stories, they’re still turning great content, but most of what they’re doing are phone interviews. We just don’t want to take the chance of them getting sick. And because this is spread so quickly in such a small community as we have here in Albany, it’s a  higher chance than in a lot of other places.

DEADLINE: I noticed you had a story about a woman who had just recovered. It looked like she was just returning from the hospital. Was that maybe something that a family member took and gave you the footage? 

CYPRIAN: Yes. That family called us the day before it aired and basically said, ‘You know, we have really good news. Our love one is getting out the hospital. She had coronavirus. She is gonna be okay.’ We called her immediately. I had a reporter call her immediately. And we were able to set up that story and they had a small celebration for her that they took the video. They got the pictures. They sent it to our reporter who did the interview. But it was all done remotely, and that’s what a lot of our content has been. We don’t go to news conferences anymore. In fact, we’ve worked with Dougherty County —  they actually are shooting the news conferences they do daily and airing them on Facebook Live. And then we are using Facebook Live to share it to all of our platforms, and to put it on broadcast every day, because we just can’t we just can’t take the risk, not only for them but them for our crew safety as well.

DEADLINE: How has it been covering Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, which has been at the center of care for coronavirus patients in the area?

CYPRIAN: We cover them as we would cover anyone else. We ask them tough questions, but you know it’s also one of those things where you also want to be very respectful. These are healthcare workers. These are people who are on the front line. In terms of trying to talk to the CEO, they’ve been very accessible, talking with us sitting down with us, doing interviews with us, very accessible. For the most part, they’ve been very upfront. I know that there are things they can’t talk to us about, and we still try to push them on those things. But they have been pretty upfront with us. They give us numbers every day. Probably most challenging thing that we’ve had in all of this is having the numbers line up, and there’s no one’s fault really because everything is happening so quickly, but everyone has different numbers from the Department of Health to Phoebe to the coroner, and they’ve been honest about that. I don’t think there’s a way that you can fix that.

DEADLINE: Have you sent crews out to the hospital, or is that too much of a risk? 

CYPRIAN: In the early stages we did. Since the numbers really started going up, we haven’t, because of the risk. Now we have been in touch with people who’ve worked in health care at Phoebe and other places, who have wanted to talk with us. We’ve been in touch with the public information folks at Phoebe, the CEO, and we’ve been in contact with them, but as far as just man on the street [interviews], we just can’t take the risk, especially right here we’re such a small community.

DEADLINE: I think it’s something that people don’t realize that you know because it’s a smaller community, the risks are perhaps higher.

CYPRIAN: This virus is scary because you just don’t know. You don’t know who has it, and you don’t know the spread of it. You can be asymptomatic and spread it. Because it is a smaller community, there’s a lot of things that go into effect. You know, the people who are sick here, the people who are dying here I mean these aren’t strangers to us. We have a lot of employees who have known someone who has gotten sick, or known someone who has died from this. These stories hit really personal here. It’s tough to tell journalists, especially really professional journalists, that you can tell a really great story, but you’re gonna have to find a really different way to tell it. It may not be the story that you really wanted to put on camera because you have to stay safe. … In our market we have a lot of a lot of either folks who this is their first job, or it’s their first job doing what they want to do so maybe they were a production assistant, and now have the opportunity to be a reporter for the first time. So in the midst of all of this, we’re still training, and it amplifies what we do, because we’re not only providing coaching on how to do the job, also guidance on how to develop mental toughness in a situation like this, how to deal with it emotionally, especially if you’re doing a story about someone that you knew, or you may have known of. So there’s a lot of levels to it.  I’m sure every market deals with this, but it is amplified in my mind on a smaller market scale because the stories are more personal.

strong>DEADLINE: How has the financial hit that stations are taking now had an impact on your work?

CYPRIAN: You know it has been an issue for everyone. I don’t think it is any secret that there are going to be stations with revenue issues and revenue down, but that’s really not my first thought. My general manager has been so supportive of our newsroom. You know he has a lot on his shoulders right now. And I appreciate him for, you know, still being available to me. We’re an Olympic station. There was a big election that was coming up. The Masters. It was a lot of things that were in place. Our biggest focus right now is really just helping to guide our community through this, and helping our employees be able to get through this. And then to come out on the other side and figure out the new normal.

DEADLINE: Is there a story that you are looking back with back to in the last couple of weeks that you’re especially proud of?

CYPRIAN: The stories that have really moved me I would say have been the ones from our first responders. You know, we’ve done two stories with emergency room nurse and the doctor about you know how it’s just impacted them. Those kind of stories, knowing that these people have families at home, knowing that they’re away from their families, knowing that they may have to be in isolation when they get home and they can’t see their kids, they can’t see their moms and dads and wives and husbands. That’s a lot. And being able to tell their stories mean a lot to us because they are our community. But I would say that just the nature of people. Folks in South Georgia are very hospitable as you can imagine. Building relationships is really is really big here. And so I’m not surprised by the overwhelming amount of just generosity, but it still does your heart good to know that there are good people out there who really just want to help other people.

DEADLINE: Do you have any sense of how the community will change after this is all over?

CYPRIAN: I think people are going to be a lot more cognizant of other people. I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing. I think that’s one thing that everybody is trying to figure out now is, ‘How is this going to change us as a society? How is it going to change our community? How is this going to change what we do from day to day?’ I think people are going to be a lot more cognizant of being six feet away from us. I hope that the new normal — that is what everyone’s been calling it — I hope that it will be for the better. I hope that we will stop seeing a lot of the animosity, and a lot of the just meanness that you see online, and that you see towards different people. I hope people just be a lot nicer. And I think if that’s all we can hope for right now is just this gives everybody a new perspective on what’s most important in life, and that people are just trying to live and try to do their jobs and trying to raise their families and really just function in society, and that everybody has more respect for each other in that regard. That’s my hope. But I do think that it’s going to change the way that we live and what we do. I just don’t know how yet.

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