Sheldon Dutes reporting from home for WISN 12 News This Morning in Milwaukee.
I propped my iPhone on a bookshelf in front of a lamp, moved a stool to the middle of my living room, plugged an earpiece into a second phone to dial into the control room and, through the magic of television, I was on the air for WISN 12 News This Morning in Milwaukee. That was my life in self-quarantine for two weeks in March after a graduate school trip to the Czech Republic.
I never exhibited symptoms of COVID-19 and I’ve since returned to work in the studio while so many Americans experience Zoom meetings and other remote replacements for in-person interaction — if they’re lucky enough to have a job in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. My extended stay at home happened only because I had scheduled a trip at an inopportune time.
When an opportunity presented itself to spend a week overseas as part of my graduate studies in corporate communications at Marquette University, I pounced. I would spend a couple days traveling alone in Paris before meeting my classmates and instructors for presentations and meetings with university students in the Czech city of Pilsen.
Coronavirus was top of mind when I left for Paris on March 5, but my class trip was still scheduled. The sight of fellow travelers wearing latex gloves and surgical masks was unnerving, but I tried to quell my fears by reminding myself that I was a germaphobe long before the threat of a pandemic. By the time I met my classmates at the Prague airport on March 8, news about the virus was ramping up. I received a daily avalanche of push alerts about cancellations and spiking numbers of confirmed cases. My parents and my boss urged me to cut my trip short and return home before life as we knew it unraveled any further. After three and a half days in the Czech Republic, I changed my travel plans to get back to the U.S. early.
I naïvely assumed that I would return to work after my trip. Unbeknownst to me, while I was traveling home the Centers for Disease Control added France and the Czech Republic to its list of countries for recommended self-quarantine. As a result of that guideline, I would have to work remotely, filing reports from home during a two-week quarantine.
I didn’t leave my apartment once. The only times I opened my front door were to receive deliveries. So, how does a newscaster accustomed to working with co-anchors, producers, technical directors and other newsroom employees broadcast the news from home alone? Technology and virtual teamwork.
I set up my rudimentary home studio — iPhone, stool, earpiece connected to the control room. The control room is the nucleus of every newscast — where the producer and director monitor everything down to the second, drop or add stories on fly based on breaking news, ensure commercial breaks start on time. A smooth broadcast depends on that crucial earpiece communication.
I consider my career a vocation. The honor and responsibility of providing tens of thousands of viewers across the Milwaukee area with information about our community makes it somewhat easier to get out of bed, but I still need four alarms to make sure I answer my usual 2 a.m. wake-up call. On a normal day, I arrive at work shortly before 3 a.m. to research, brainstorm and collaborate with colleagues before the newscast starts at 4:30.
Working from home, I maintained my normal morning routine with a minor exception: a much kinder 3:30 a.m. alarm. I checked work e-mail, social media and various news sites for any overnight developments. I prepared a pot of coffee and dressed in a button-down shirt, blazer and nice shorts (I had to take some liberties since the camera would only show me from the waist up).
My colleagues and I usually meet for an editorial meeting around 3 a.m. to discuss the upcoming newscasts, but since I was working remotely I had to talk with the producers over the phone or via text and email. After pitching story ideas for the morning show, I wrote my assignments from the bar in my kitchen and emailed them to the newsroom. Every half hour between 5 and 7 a.m., I provided live updates on the stories I had written. I also let the viewers and my co-anchors know that I was doing well, sharing frequent updates about my symptom-free experience in quarantine.
The rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent participating in news team conference calls and putting together short taped segments for the evening newscasts. I would research and write stories related to the pandemic and also produce video diaries of my work from home routines. In addition to my professional responsibilities, I carved out time in the afternoons for reading assignments and writing papers for my grad school classes.
During my quarantine, not only did I have to get creative about how I would broadcast the news from home, I also had to grapple with being an extrovert living alone with no opportunities for outside contact for at least two weeks. Despite my initial concerns, not stepping foot outside my apartment for 14 days provided an opportunity to reflect and learn that I am not always in control.
Daily FaceTime sessions and phone calls with my parents, siblings and friends also kept me sane and connected. Of course, body weight workouts, prayer, personal reflection, cooking, cleaning, Netflix and clearing out the DVR were also sprinkled in for the sake of rejuvenating balance.
Despite the fear and uncertainty that so many of us are feeling right now, I have been comforted by the compassion of I’ve experienced personally and witnessed among strangers. I am eternally grateful for the friends who dropped off snack food and bottled water, and for others who picked up a box of groceries for me. I’m also thankful for my doorman who offered to bring me sweets. And for my co-anchors who delivered ice cream, warm cookies and a potted plant to my doorstep.
Even though I lost direct contact to the outside world during my quarantine, I vicariously experienced inspiring displays of humanity through the internet and television. It was heartwarming to read message-board posts from my neighbors offering to support each other and to see a long line of cars snaking around several blocks to pick up a Friday night Fish Fry special to benefit service industry workers who lost their jobs because of the pandemic.
Our lives changed at breakneck speed and there are still so many unknowns ahead. But I am striving to be optimistic. I’m fortunate that I was able to return to work to broadcast the news from the studio. And I can’t wait to socialize again. The adrenaline of IRL (in real life) interaction with friends and family will be exhilarating.
The forced separation from my social comforts, however, has helped me learn that I can be content in reflective solitude for an extended period of time. I learned the importance of relinquishing control.
It’s much easier said than done, especially for an extroverted Type A personality like myself, but an important revelation nonetheless. So much of my life and our world were upended and I am learning to accept that the only thing I can control is my response.
In the meantime, I look forward to the gradual return to normalcy, whatever that may look like.
Sheldon Dutes, an advisory board member for Notre Dame’s Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy, is a co-anchor of WISN 12 News This Morning in Milwaukee and an M.A. candidate in corporate communications at Marquette University.