The Newsroom: A real life tale

Having just watched the pilot episode of Aaron Sorkin’s  The Newsroom, I had an overwhelming feeling of attachment to it. As a television program it stands on its own. But it also has a clear amount of truthfulness about it to anyone who has ever worked in that environment. I’m one of those people.

Here is a real life tale of working in a newsroom…

June 25th 2009. I was working as a Vision Mixer at Sky News in London. A regular amount of headlines passed by that week. Farah Fawcett had died, Clinton Cards were closing 136 stores affecting over 750 jobs and steel maker Corus was cutting 2’000 jobs in the UK.

In the live studio gallery, the usual buzz was palpable with the ever-approaching Sky News At Ten. Different people work different hours, and on the approach to Sky News At Ten we’d all been working together as a team for four or five hours already with no changeovers. We were relaxed and working well. The Director was briefing the Graphics department with what still photos and sequences would be required alongside any animated maps that might be useful, the Directors Assistant was liaising with Transmission Control with respect to commercial break durations and when we’d need to hit them, and the Text Producer was prepping to remove old and update information on the news ticker. The Vision Mixer… me… well, I was ready to repeat another hour of near-enough the same news we’d already been doing with the added pressure of knowing a larger audience watches at 10pm. No sweat.

Somewhere through the 9pm hour rumours began to surface that Michael Jackson had been taken to hospital by ambulance, and that there was a possibility he had died. Lines started to drop on the wires. They were yellow, meaning minimal information and nothing confirmed. Information was only coming from the TMZ website which, unsurprisingly, had crashed. Whenever the Presenter (Stephen Dixon) was ‘out of vision’ (i.e., not giving the news, but during a news report) he was being given updates in his ear and writing down any snippet of information available. Back in vision and on-air it was never mentioned or broken to the public. News must be confirmed and backed-up with sources before it’s aired. Two minutes before 10pm a new Executive Producer takes over for the show they have been prepping all day. This time round it was one minute to 10pm. That might not seem like much, but it means a lot when there is breaking news on the cards and everyone needs to know what they’re doing. Confirmation still wasn’t coming. By now the TMZ website had pictures of an ambulance leaving the Jackson property. No other news channel on the planet was going with the story, I imagine partly out of fear of it being wrong. Believe it or not, stories are broken all the time of celebrity deaths. Occasionally news outlets go with it, without checking.

For us, the opening animation that starts the shows at the top of the hour was already rolling when the EP appeared. Up till now we were still going with the pre-written rundown. Everything was going smoothly and we were only seconds in to the show, literally. The top-of-the-hour headlines were being read and everything seemed fine. But on the last headline the EP made the statement we were all waiting for:

“Drop everything. We’re going with it”.

At this point, we were at the opening wide shot where the announcer says “This is Sky News. With Samantha Simmonds” and shows off the big video wall. I turned to the EP and said “are you sure we’re going with it? Do you want Breaking News in the wall?” to which he solidly answered “yes”. So on the wide shot move I slowly mixed in an animated text loop that said BREAKING NEWS. Something new was happening, there and then. And now everybody knew about it.

The wires started turning red, and dropping more regularly. The people who write and distribute that ‘wire’ information began quoting Sky News as the source of the story. Then CNN broke it. Then Fox News. Then the BBC.

Behind the scenes it was a frantic scramble to rewrite scripts and get information to the right people. With a CTRL-ALT-DEL scenario in place, nothing on the TV screen seemed out of the ordinary to the viewers. The Presenter was calm and giving the information that we knew had been circling, giving reference to the sources we were using. Off-screen, it was an absolute whirlwind.

From that moment on, everything was a blur. The rundown was out the window. The pre-planned one-hour show that had been meticulously put together throughout the day with live interviews, news packages, guests on set, etc, was no longer valid. Instead we were putting websites to air quoting officials who’d given lines to the press. We aired helicopter shots of Los Angeles with crowds gathering at various spots. We called every possible relevant guest and booked them to come on-air before other stations. It was a full-on code-red scramble.

And at this point there was still no confirmation at all that the ‘story’ was even true.

I distinctly remember a comment in the gallery directed at the Executive Producer along the lines of “If you’re wrong, it was nice knowing you”. In that sort of scenario, it was true. But he was right.

My job as Vision Mixer became rather fluid. Everything on-screen was being put there by me. I was mixing live shots into boxes alongside guests whilst taking location straps on and off, resizing websites on the fly and using them as backgrounds all whilst planning the next move. It was one thing after another, after another, after another. It was like playing 3D chess (which is why I love it).

My shift finished at 1am, and I was completely shattered. It wasn’t till I was in my own comfort zone, sat in my car, that it hit me on what we had actually just broke to the world. Every radio station I tuned in to were playing Michael Jackson songs.

And I admit, I had a little cry whilst driving home.

As I mentioned before, news must be checked before channels go with it. Other celebrity names pop up during the breaking news of a celebrity death. Tom Cruise, Kevin Bacon, Harrison Ford, Tom Hanks. Another such name was Jeff Goldblum. A new Zealand news channel went with it, saying he had fallen 60 feet off a cliff during filming and had died too. It was completely untrue. In comedy style Jeff Goldblum later paid tribute to himself on the news of his own passing on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report.

If you like Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, you need to watch Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip. It’s the story of the behind-the-scenes cast and crew who work on a comedy sketch show in Hollywood. It’s brilliantly written and acted with fantastically weaved story lines, and deserved more than one season on our screens. Not to mention it has Matthew Perry in it.

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