On most workdays, McKenna Oxenden tries to get to bed by 1 a.m. to get a decent chunk of sleep. By 6 a.m., she’s headed to a barn in Damascus, Maryland, for chores that help offset the high costs of being a competitive horseback rider.
Oxenden then usually rides, runs errands, works out and tries to squeeze in a nap. And that’s all before she begins her shift as a night reporter for The Baltimore Sun, where she has worked since May 2019. Oxenden said she switched to the night shift just before the pandemic began in March of last year (she describes herself on Twitter as a “resident night owl”).
“It was very weird because as I was starting my day, everyone else was finishing theirs,” she said. “But I do keep joking that, of the time to be the night reporter, I feel I have it the best because if I’m not out on an assignment, I’m wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt and sitting on my couch half the time working, which is nice.”
A huge surprise, the young reporter noted, came in the lack of interaction she had with other colleagues on this new schedule. I understood that to an extent because I previously worked as a night reporter at a daily newspaper. I wanted to explore what that shift is like for those in this position during the pandemic. Oxenden and other journalists on the night or overnight shift spoke about their experiences, which include adjusting their social lives and learning to become more resourceful and self-reliant.
Working night side is naturally more isolating, Oxenden said, but at least she was able to come into the office in the afternoons to grab coffee with a coworker and chat with editors. “But then, all of a sudden, when everyone’s virtual, you don’t have that,” she said. “And everyone else is already on the swing of their day.”
Oxenden doesn’t have a designated beat but covers a lot of breaking news. On any given day, she’s expected to know what’s going on in politics, crime, the coronavirus, and more. “Every day I make sure I’m reading almost every single thing that we’ve published because I don’t know when something might happen, and I need to be aware and up-to-date on,” she said.
Oxenden said she’s learned that, to do the job, you must trust yourself and your instincts and believe that you can handle it all. When she spoke to Poynter, Oxenden said she had been trying to work on a story about teens getting vaccinated for several weeks but had been unable to make progress on it because of more pressing stories, including crazy weather, a barricade situation, a statue removal, and a string of carjackings.
“I think a lot of the job is, you might not feel like you’re pulling your weight or making a big difference in the newsroom, but you are still a valuable member of the team,” she said.
A social life can be scarce
In Vermont, Stephanie Chukwuma starts her shift at 10 p.m., when most people are headed to bed. The producer of NBC5’s 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. morning shows arrives at her South Burlington newsroom to a skeleton crew of maybe one or two colleagues who stick around for a few more hours before wrapping up their days.
“As soon as they leave, it’s pretty much just me by myself for a couple of hours by the computer, cranking out stories and putting together the show,” Chukwuma said. “Until about 2 a.m., when my anchors come in and start reading over their scripts.”
Chukwuma, who has been in this role for less than a year, said getting enough sleep is important. Before the pandemic, she was working from home and was surprised by how hard it was on her. “I prefer being in the office, for sure,” she said. “I find that my energy level is higher when I’m working in the office compared to when I’m working at home.”
To prepare for the TV station’s morning shows, Chukwuma first studies the last show that ran and makes sure the most important stories are included for viewers who are early risers. But she also makes sure there’s new content for the morning show. The station covers New Hampshire, Vermont and New York, so she said she tries to make sure each state is represented.
If something happens overnight that didn’t make it into the previous show, it’s Chukwuma’s responsibility to oversee a morning reporter to be at the scene for the story. Recently, for example, a church in Williamstown, Vermont, was heavily damaged by a late-night fire. “We had to make sure that our reporter got on it for the morning, which is just a lot of texting and email communication,” she said.
Chukwuma said that her job can be very isolating. A social life can be a little scarce, she said. Because of the nature of the industry, Chukwuma said her coworkers are her friends. But there’s a plus.
“It really shows you how to depend on yourself and how to be a good multitasker. That’s something that’s very important because you’re constantly checking your email, you’re constantly calling fire stations, police stations to get the facts about what happened,” she said. “You learn to be your own point person and get the information that you need.”
‘You need a thick skin to do this job’
Aaron Curtis, with whom I worked with at The Sun in Lowell, Massachusetts, has been the daily newspaper’s crime/breaking news reporter since April 2017. His shift usually begins at 3:30 p.m.
“I can’t sleep at night, and that’s one of the reasons why I was really drawn to this job because I have always been a night owl,” he said. “I cannot work a 9-to-5.”
Throughout his journalism career, Curtis has observed what many other reporters echoed: You need thick skin to do this job. He also noted that “more tragedy seems to occur at night.” As a night reporter, Curtis said you have to adjust to being isolated.
“You’re getting going when everyone else is starting to shut down,” he said. “Most of the time, especially now with the pandemic, I’m alone in the office constantly.”
Curtis said he has to keep himself motivated and busy, which can sometimes be difficult because fewer people are available to comment on stories in the evening. That’s when source-building comes in handy, which is something he’s developed over time. Curtis is glued to his cellphone which he keeps tuned onto the radio frequency from the Lowell Police Department. At his desk, his work computer is tuned into another scanner that taps into agencies from surrounding towns.
On Twitter, Curtis posts tidbits of information he hears in real time from local police stations and firefighters. His tweets, which cover everything from motor vehicle crashes to reports of a woman calling police because a group of wild turkeys were fighting on her porch, have developed a following among locals.
One of Curtis’ most memorable stories to date was also among the most tragic, and occurred only months after he began working at The Sun. A 16-year-old girl was involved in a jet ski crash and several local agencies launched into an extensive search to find her body.
Curtis recalled being at the scene for hours until it grew dark and the search party was called off for the night. He remained there as the girl’s parents continued to look for her.
“It was pretty painful. The parents were heartbroken. And that’s the thing with these types of stories: You have to have thick skin. You try not to get too emotionally invested because you have to be sharp and be able to get the facts,” he said. “It was very difficult and it was something I was very committed to. I wanted to be there. I wanted to see it through and see what happened.”
Be a sponge
As an a.m. executive producer for FOX 5 Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada, Monica Schmidt typically begins her “day” at around 1 a.m. She oversees the station’s six-hour morning show (4 a.m.-10 a.m.) and produces the 4 a.m. hour for at least half the week. Schmidt said she’s usually always on call.
“I think that the way I have it set up, to where I can wake up and have dinner with my husband works out well for me. Obviously, the pandemic changed lifestyles, but being here in Vegas, it’s beneficial to be a night owl,” she said. “Some weekends I’m able to stay awake, and other weekends I can’t make it past 8 p.m., but I’ve learned to not develop what I coined my own term as ‘sleep guilt,’ which is being guilty for feeling sleepy.”
Schmidt said she enjoys her job and described her morning team as “very small and tight-knit.” “I love being on this shift,” she said. “We have a lot of personality in the morning that we don’t get to dive into on the night shift.”
She has some advice for those aspiring to enter her field, and a shift like this: Be a sponge.
“I think if you’re passionate about journalism, as all of us are, then every shift is a dream shift and that positions and shows shouldn’t be turned down based on what your perception of a show might be,” Schmidt said. “Take everything that’s offered, because it’s all going to be a stepping stone.”