How WGAL TV kept the newsroom running when the roof collapsed

WGAL-TV (Lancaster, Pa.) News Director Dan O’Donnell was on the other side of the building from the newsroom at 3:20 Friday afternoon when he said he heard “what sounded like a truck backing into the building. Others said it sounded like thunder. Then ceiling tiles came down. The newsroom roof was collapsing.”

Engineers discovered a concrete support beam and slab had shifted and dropped. Luckily, no one was injured.

Snow packed WGAL-TV’s rooftop. A beam shifted forcing the station to evacuate. (Photo from WGAL used with permission)
Lancaster has been buried in snow for the last couple of weeks. “It was snow related,” O’Donnell said, “We covered three or four roof collapses before we had our problems. We had a foot of snow this week, 8 inches fell the week before. So there was a lot of snow up there.”

The WGAL team moved out of the newsroom to a downstairs studio. But when police and fire officials arrived, they ordered everyone out of the building. Everyone.

WGAL staffers stand in the parking lot of their own station to begin work covering the story about themselves. (Photo from WGAL used with permission)

“We went out on the front lawn and set up a newsroom there,” O’Donnell told me. “But with nobody in the station, we could not get a live signal on the air. There was nobody to receive the signal and punch it up on the air.” So the station had to find another way to report not only on itself, but on the storm that had blanketed the community.

“There is no doubt  that we, the television station, were the lead story in our market. But the newsroom knew that we have got to report on more than ourselves. We are a news organization and there is a storm coming through.”

O’Donnell was standing on the snow-covered station lawn when he said something out loud about needing to move the newsroom somewhere else quickly. An assistant fire chief heard him and suggested the station try the nearby city government building.

WGAL plans news coverage from its temporary newsroom inside a city municipal building. (Photo from WGAL used with permission)

Within an hour, newscast producers moved tables in the government office building to construct a make-shift newsroom. But there was still a big problem. No matter what, there still was no way to broadcast the news. “We used our website and Facebook to report,” O’Donnell said.

Once the newsroom was running, the WGAL team started producing streaming content for their website. But it took a lot of innovation. Reporters wanted to file stories, but there was no way to play the stories on the web stream. So they held up their iPads with whatever video they had captured and narrated and showed it on the tablet screen. A photojournalist focused on a screen while a meteorologist narrated information from the radar track.

WGAL news team hustles to set up a temporary newsroom in a city building, then starts live streaming coverage of a winter storm that hit the area. (Photo from WGAL used with permission)

Then there was the issue of the Olympics. WGAL is an NBC station and without an operation control room, the station had to scramble to find a way to get the network signal on air. Working with WBAL in Baltimore and WCAU in Philadelphia, the station was able to snag the NBC signal and keep the Olympics on the air.

The station also had the help of it’s parent company, Hearst.

Hearst Vice President for News, Candy Altman, told me, “After Hurricane Katrina, we as a company adjusted our broadcast interruption plans and in the WGAL situation, our corporate engineering team led by Marty Faubell jumped in to try and get them up and running as quickly as possible.  In the meantime, our digital content editor Ernie Mourelo got their livestream up on an alternate platform  via yo space so they were livestreaming news by 6pm and their website was being updated by their own web editor and our digital hub. Many stations were either getting ready or were immediately on the way. Our sales and traffic teams worked to adjust logs and our senior management team led by Mike Hayes, legal and programming teams worked with the cable operators.”

Hearst Vice President for News, Barb Maushard added, “The corporate team coordinated  help as we do for any station in an emergency.  We jumped on conference calls to figure out how to best address the unique challenges of the situation.  And then we started calling in stations like WBAL who sent engineers and equipment immediately.  WTAE who took in a satellite signal and routed  it for live streaming so the news could go on. We had five other stations preparing to send people with equipment to help support a remote location and several others volunteering to help.   There is never a shortage of people willing to help and quick to respond to the call.

O’Donnell says he’s already learned a lot of lessons. “What we did was employ our breaking news plan. I have never practiced the what-if-the-roof-collapses drill. The first thing that happened is there is a sense of disbelief that news is happening to you. For a few moments, it was hard to get people going. There was a moment of ‘we really are abandoning ship, we gotta go. We gotta go now.”‘

Cranes arrive Saturday to help inspectors survey damage at WGAL TV in Lancaster, Pa. (Photo permission WGAL)

Saturday morning, a crane arrived. Crews surveyed the wreckage, went inside and installed a steel beam to reinforce the damaged area. Barely 24 hours after the station was ordered evacuated, it was back on the air Saturday evening after inspectors said WGAL staffers could go back inside.

Inspectors allow the news staff to return to its newsroom in time for a 6 p.m. Saturday newscast. (Photo from WGAL used with permission)

The WGAL experience is a strong reminder to journalists of all media to have a plan for what you would do if you had to leave your office right away.

  • How would you continue reporting to your community? In the end that was Dan O’Donnell’s biggest concern. He said he felt WGAL had a duty to continue reporting on the winter weather and not get bogged down covering itself.
  • What will “corporate” folks need to know and how does your relationship with other stations in your group work when you need support for news and engineering?
  • The sales department will be affected by lost ads. Is there new ad opportunity online with increased content being generated for the online site in the short term?
  • Could you build a partnership with a radio stationto carry your online newscasts? 
  • Where could you go to set up an office that has Internet connections and enough space to work?
  • If you had to evacuate your newsroom in the next hour, what kinds of gear would you take with you? What will you leave behind and how would you quickly protect what you leave from damage?
  • What computer backups do you need to have in place if your on-site servers were damaged by something like a roof collapse, fire or flood? Can you access your online servers from off-site?
  • Do you know how to contact your cable carriers quickly?  Could you use the cable company’s facilities?
  • Is your office inventory up to date if you had to make an insurance claim? Where is that inventory list kept? Do you have serial numbers and the photos you would need to make claims?.
  • What does your company’s business interruption insurance cover? Would it help pay for a relocation?
  • Do you have a “go-pack” ready that includes emergency contact information for staff, enough cash to keep things running?
  • Have you considered any kinds of agreements with competitors, contractors or freelancers that could kick in during an emergency? What facilities might a university have that would house a newspaper, TV or radio staff, for example? Who else in your community might have a fully functional studio or a working environment similar to a newspaper office?
  • Could you contact your main equipment and software providers to help replace anything you lost in a disaster? Could those vendors and suppliers help you with loaned or rented gear during your emergency relocation?
  • Have you practiced a “bug out” to see if you could actually pull it off? A couple of years ago when a tropical storm passed through St. Pete, we “bugged out” of Poynter more or less to practice our response in moving a seminar off-site quickly. I learned a lot and have no doubt I could do it quickly if needed now. I highly recommend routine practice runs and hope you will never have to use the knowledge for real.

Al Tompkins helps lead Poynter’s Producer Project, March 21-April 29. Learn to expand your expertise as a TV producer with new writing, storytelling, coaching and ethical decision-making skills taught online and in person.

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