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An actual unedited photo taken early on Christmas morning inside a New Zealand newsroom
An actual unedited photo taken early on Christmas morning inside a New Zealand newsroom

MediaDecember 25, 2018

Bad news: The journalists who have to work on Christmas day

An actual unedited photo taken early on Christmas morning inside a New Zealand newsroom
An actual unedited photo taken early on Christmas morning inside a New Zealand newsroom

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, unless you’re a journalist, in which case Christmas is just another day. So what’s the vibe like in newsrooms on Christmas day? And why can’t journalists just take the day off? 

A state highway is blocked after a car crash. There’s been a drowning at a West Coast beach. The Queen is about to deliver her annual address. Scientists in Antarctica are celebrating.

Such is the standard fare of news bulletins on Christmas Day. For many, it wouldn’t sound like a particularly exciting lineup of stories. For those on live news desks around the country, it’s just another day where six minutes of radio copy is needed at the top of every hour, good pictures are needed for the six o’clock news, and a paper still needs to be prepared.

It’s often said of people working in news that they can never really switch off and fully relax. And it’s true, like it is with many other round-the-clock jobs. There’s not really such thing as a normal lifestyle in news media at the best of times. The nature of the product is that people are most likely to want it when it suits them – not when it suits the journalists. That’s why, for example, the biggest time of the day for radio listening is at breakfast, when people are commuting to work. Anyone working on a breakfast show, therefore, needs to be up and about a couple of hours before the show goes to air.

That’s true of public holidays as well – even that most sacred of days when most the rest of the country is carving out time for their families. Most newsrooms go down to a skeleton level of staff for Christmas, and some parts of the job become much more difficult. As Radio NZ journalist Nita Blake-Persen puts it, “nobody answers their phone.”

Katie Townshend, Stuff’s Wellington news director, says the nature of how newspapers are produced matters a lot. “We do have a paper on Boxing Day, which traditionally for us is one of the biggest ones to fill because there’s so much advertising for the Boxing Day sales. So that means an extra big paper – and because the size of a paper is determined by the amount of advertising, it means more copy too.” There’s also the not insignificant matter of keeping the country’s biggest website ticking over on Christmas Day itself.

Don’t journalists, who some allege are also human, want to spend time with their families too? “Oh, you know, who doesn’t want to be in the office on Christmas Day?” asked Townshend with the slightly manic giggle that people who spend too much time meeting impossible deadlines start to pick up.

Of course, journalists aren’t entirely altruistic folk, and working Christmas Day comes with some significant benefits. There’s extra money and a day in lieu to be gained. It’s a great day to work if you like seeing very serious colleagues wearing Santa hats. Plus, it’s a tradition observed across most, if not all newsrooms, that there will be some sort of shared lunch on Christmas Day – perhaps even with some bubbles. The drinking culture in journalism might have changed a bit in recent years, but you’ve got to be reasonable about these things. On the other hand, widespread breath testing on Christmas Day means anyone with a chance of being sent out of the office can’t go too large.

And like with emergency service jobs, the nature of Christmas Day means that bad news that needs to be reported with dignity gets more likely the later it gets. Horror stories are told by journalists about Christmases when spates of drownings have taken place. It’s also the first day of the holiday road toll, the start of a grim series of milestones which every year tends to get updated daily.

Trying to balance the news diet on Christmas Day is something that long-serving Newstalk ZB newsreader Bruce Russell has a lot of experience in. By his count, this year will be his 18th consecutive newsroom Christmas. “The listeners might not want the news to be too heavy, or too tragic, but if it turns out to be tragic, it has to go out.” But it’s not all grim. “You can balance it up with a lot of the lighter stories, like last year when the US church decided to cut the prickles off the holly in case someone punctures themselves and sues them.” Russell says it’s probably the only day of the year when you can get away with leading a bulletin with a lighter story.

The hardy annuals can start to take on a bit of life of their own as well. While the messages from the Queen and the Pope tend to be fairly standard each year, there’s a lot of room for things to go wrong in some of the other regulars. One of those is the first ‘Christmas baby’. Katie Townshend said a colleague had a particularly unfortunate trip down to the hospital one year. “They got there, and they had been called too early. They could hear all the screams because it was still being born when they got to the hospital.”

Nita Blake-Persen was on one of those hardy annual jobs last year, heading down to the Auckland City Mission to report on the lunch they put on. She said it put what she was doing in context. “There are so many people who work on Christmas Day, or all of the people volunteering to make the food. So rocking up and reporting feels like quite a menial task by comparison.”

And that’s basically the rub of being in the newsroom on Christmas Day. It might be completely different in some ways, but the job, and the point of why journalists do it remains the same. It’s still about telling stories, giving people something good to read, and keeping them company with the radio.

Besides, it could be worse. You could be rostered on for New Years Day, and be stuck with a harem of hungover colleagues who are most certainly not in a festive mood. That’s the real holiday period horror shift.

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