Covering COVID-19: Anchoring news from home not as easy as you think (”1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)

WECT’s Frances Weller & Ashlea Kosikowski share their stories

Covering COVID-19: Anchoring news from home not as easy as you think (”1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - It’s the ritual that begins about ten minutes before the newscast. You walk through the heavy double-doors that separate the WECT newsroom from the studio filled with lights and cameras. The plug from your earpiece goes into one of the two pocket-sized devices you either carry in your pocket or strap to your leg. One allows producers and directors to speak to you, the other powers the lavalier microphone you have clipped to your shirt, blouse or tie. A quick audio check, “1,2,3,4,5…”, and you’re ready for the open to roll. Repeat the process again, hours later, two or three times.

That’s a ‘normal’ day for Frances Weller and Ashlea Kosikowski. But these are not normal days. The two veteran WECT News anchors have not worked from the station’s studio since late March. Instead, as part of the company’s social distancing precautions, they’ve anchored their newscasts from the comfort of their own homes using laptop computers, a portable microphone and stand lights.

“There are certainly some pluses to this, but there are certainly some minuses as well,” Frances said while doing this interview from the couch in her living room. “You really don’t have to worry about what shoes you have on, because nobody is going to see them. It’s nice when I need a snack, I can run to the kitchen instead of going to the snack machine or going out to get something to eat. But it’s lonely here. There’s nobody here but me and the cat. (Editor’s note: Fran’s husband Joe lives in Raleigh during the week, and they see each other on weekends.) So that part is strange. You know we’ve got a lot of people in the newsroom. You’re right next to me Jon, I can chit-chat with you about whatever. Ashlea is just feet away, I can just turn around and talk to her. So, I really miss that. I really do.”

“I love having my dog (Archie) near me, that’s awesome,” Ashlea said. “I love seeing my husband more than I’ve seen him in ages. But it’s weird not being in a newsroom, because I really feel like a newscast is a collaboration, in a way that I didn’t appreciate before this. We felt very disconnected, like on an island when we first started, but now I’m getting more used to it.”

Daily communication in this communications business has changed. Most of the WECT reporters and videographers are also working from home. Newscast producers, who usually sit next to or across from the anchor(s) involved in their broadcast, are out of the newsroom and situated in separate offices as part of the station’s social distancing measures. Discussions over stories, scripts and other important elements normally done face-to-face are now happening through text messages, emails or virtual meeting chatrooms.

“I miss people yelling across the room ‘we’ve got this breaking news!’,” Fran said. “Just that energy of being a part of news. I miss that. When I’ve got to ask a question about a story in the “B Block”, I can’t just yell it across the way to the producer who is either right in front of me or just feet away. I’ve got to send her a message on (Microsoft) Teams or I’ve got to send her an email. I miss the communication.”

That communication and sense of teamwork is also important at a time when anxiety and fear is running high in the viewing public. Emails and social media posts blame news outlets for blowing things out of proportion or causing panic. Any experienced journalist has absorbed his or her fair share of criticism. But both women agree the coronavirus has taken it to a new level.

“The criticism has been like nothing I’ve experienced in my entire professional career,” said Ashlea. “Maybe that is because of social media and people can reach you in so many ways. But the emails that we get. I mean, Fran was called a ‘liar’ last week! I just feel we’re hearing more of it and we aren’t in the newsroom, so we don’t have each other to laugh it off together. Instead, you’re in your house, trying to do the very best you can.”

There are also the technical challenges of working remotely in a time-sensitive industry. An internet or power outage can interrupt your connection to the television station, which has happened to both anchors since their work-from-home assignments began. One thing Ashlea and Fran are not removed from, however, is feeling the stress of wanting to provide essential, potentially life-saving information during this emergency. They have that experience from anchoring and reporting through numerous hurricanes that have ravaged southeastern North Carolina. The coronavirus pandemic, they say, is different.

“I remember being in the newsroom before we got sent home, and talking about the hurricane, that It felt to me, especially the night the NCAA cancelled its’ tournament, Tom Hanks was diagnosed, and I remember the president had his oval office address, all in one night,” Ashlea remembered. “We were starting to get the snowball of emails and slowly seeing cancellations, and I felt like it was hurricane prep. There was concern. There were a lot of emails. We started our ‘closings’ page (on wect.com). But it was hurricane prep for not just southeastern North Carolina, which is what we’re used to, but for the entire country.”

“We’ve had horrible hurricanes,” Fran added. “Hurricane Florence was one that we lived through and it was an experience like no other. But we had an end in sight. We knew in a few days this is all going to be over. There’s going to be the cleanup and it’s going to take a while before we get back on our feet. But there’s an end in sight. There’s really no end in sight here, and that’s what makes this so horrific.”

Our conversation covered many other issues, including their thoughts of loved ones at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, the need to absorb information on local, state and national levels, and what they miss the most since ‘Stay-at-Home’ orders went into effect (check out Fran’s answer to this one!). Both Frances and Ashlea are scheduled to work from home for the near future, and anchor their daily newscasts at 4:00p.m., 5:00p.m., 6:00p.m., 7:00p.m., 10:00p.m. and 11:00p.m. I hope you enjoy the interview with my co-anchors as much as I did.

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