Monthly Archives: July 2008

Rocket science

TV reporters will be among the first to admit they aren’t rocket scientists. With their Journalism degrees and their slightly-above-average IQs, they succeed because they are just smart enough to look under rocks, grasp the obvious, write clean copy and produce ninety seconds of television. The good ones are quick studies, with a broad smattering of knowledge. They may know politics, the courts, or government. But most would admit they are rarely experts at much of anything except TV news.

With that background, it may have made perfect sense for Adam Murphy to produce a story on WGCL about a system that purports to use water to enhance the gasoline mileage of automobiles. The piece ran several weeks ago. Murphy’s bio says he’s a journalism major from UGA. He’s not a scientist.

Murphy’s story showed a couple of Mason jars connected with a rubber tube. There was a motor of some sort attached. And he interviewed a guy who claimed that it works. Turns out, it was the same guy who sold the contraption.

(Since our first draft of this post, Murphy’s piece has disappeared from WGCL’s website.)

Murphy’s story drew the attention of David Dagon, a Georgia Tech researcher and doctoral student. Dagon writes to LAF:

Let’s not mince words: Mr. Murphy (a consumer reporter) was duped by a popular “water for hybrid” scam…. This particular variation of the scam claims that hydrogen, oxygen, and “charged molecules”, are added to the engine– all due to the miracle of “engine vacuum pressure”. (Other versions of the scam claim that steam added to the engine will increase pressure and improve engine horse power.) This of course is complete nonsense.

Murphy has plenty of company. KRIV in Houston also did a story about a local guy producing fuel from water. Were they scammed?

Murphy made an effort to get “the other side” of this story. He visited a mechanic at a Precision Tune. The mechanic’s note of caution: Attaching this gizmo to your engine may void the car’s warranty. Dagon makes this point:

The CBS 46 offices are just a few blocks from Georgia Tech (a world-renowned engineering university). There, he would find Nobel winning researchers and distinguished professors, eager to describe what happens when you add water to an internal combustion engine.

(The auto industry), which is writing down billions of dollars in inventory, has evidently overlooked a way to improve mileage by 50% in its SUV line. If we are to believe Mr. Murphy, he is sitting on the story of the century: a technology that would likely end all of our foreign oil imports, using just tap water.

Meantime, Dagon notes, the companies that are producing these gizmos are showcasing these local TV stories on their websites and in their press releases, adding an air of legitimacy to the stuff that they’re selling.

If Murphy got scammed, he wouldn’t be the first. In 27 years of TV news, there are a few stories I wish I could take back. One of them was a cute feature I produced on a dog kennel. A year later, WAGA’s I-team produced a piece showing the owner abusing animals. Go ahead, call me a dumbass.

So I have some empathy for Murphy, a TV reporter trying to produce a deadline story on which he has no personal expertise. Perhaps this entire concept should have raised a red flag, the one that says “if it’s too good to be true, then it probably is.” Perhaps he should have efforted a comment from Tech (and maybe he did).

Murphy concluded his piece by telling viewers that the vendor of this contraption would be available the following day, making sales at a hotel parking lot. Wonder how their gas mileage is now.

WXIA’s new news director

The Buffalo News reports today that WXIA has hired Ellen Crooke as its new news director. Crooke has been VP of news at WGRZ Buffalo. The News describes Crooke as “the architect of the revival” of WGRZ’s news. Crooke won’t show up at WXIA until September.

WXIA reporter Julie Wolfe previously worked with Crooke at WGRZ. Crooke has been there six years. Both stations are owned by Gannett.

From the Buffalo News article:

“Her leadership, creativity and execution have been key to WGRZ’s growth over the last several years,” said Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner. “We have been on an upward curve in ratings, content and quality ever since she walked in the door. We will miss her greatly.”

H/T to RF.

Out of the shadow, into the darkness

“It’ll all be better in the new building” is a funny-only-once line doubtless uttered countless times around WXIA of late. Last weekend, it seems WXIA actually made the transition away from 1611 Peachtree to “the Hill,” the spot occupied by WATL off Monroe Drive. No doubt, staffers are comforted by the fact that both locations have excellent views of scenic I-85. And they may also take comfort in the fact that WXIA is finally moving, geographically, out of the shadow of its humongous (LAF still isn’t a fan of “ginormous”) next-door neighbor, WSB.

Sunday, WXIA threw the proverbial switch, broadcasting its first newscasts from the new building. Based on what we saw Sunday, it appears the station decided to move first and rehearse later.

Sunday at 11, weekend anchor Valerie Hoff appeared solo, in a fixed one-shot that dared not move. Reporter Duffie Dixon appeared on set to toss to a package. The camera angles seemed oddly stilted, with various portions of the two women appearing awkwardly during the transition. Hoff never interacted with the weather and sports guys.

The weather guy, Paul Ossmann, had the roughest spell. He struggled mightily to get his graphic gizmo to display the forecast, repeatedly admonishing his “clicker” on air. He punched the buttons, then disappeared off camera for a few seconds. Then a series of lovely, very slow-moving graphics appeared. When the forecast finally came up, Ossmann wore a look of blessed relief. He blamed “the transition.”

WXIA’s move to the WATL site made sense. Gannett bought WATL in 2006. In the 1990s, Fox owned WATL. The station had planned to launch its own 10pm newscast, which would have competed with WGNX’s (now WGCL) “news at ten.” WATL built a brand-new building on Monroe Place to accommodate a news studio and a news department. It hired ex-AJC columnist Dick Williams to be news director. Then in 1994 Fox stunned the world by buying WAGA and a bunch of other big-three network affiliates across America. Fox sold WATL and its plans for news were scrapped.  And WATL suddenly had a new, too-large building.

Gannett built a new wing onto the Monroe Pl. building in recent months. Web producer Josh Roseman has posted a bunch of photos on WXIA’s web site.

Too bad WXIA couldn’t use the dough to tamp down its current streak of cheapskatedness: Forcing reporters to shoot their own stories, denying photogs (starting in October) the privilege of taking their news cars home.

We know, we know— different budgets. Sorry to be so negative. We’re sure the new building is lovely.

AJC 2.0

As traumatic as it’s been for the AJC in the last 18 months— including a sizable, ongoing round of staff reductions and layoffs— it seems there’s more to come. The AJC has been targeting February 2009 as the launch of what it calls AJC 2.0. The date coincides with the use of a new printing press.

AJC 2.0 will include a major redesign of the “dead tree” version of the newspaper, as well as the AJC’s web site. It may also involve elimination or radical redesigns of some sections. The Sunday editorial section known as “@Issue” seems especially endangered, according to editor Julia Wallace as interviewed by Ken Edelstein of Creative Loafing.

“Basically what we heard is people want us to be a newspaper. They want it very newsy. They have a high expectation on watchdog news. They want us to be local. They want that national and international mix, so they can go to one place and be efficient about it but they depend on us for local news and expect that… They want good pacing. They want short. They want long. But they want to make sure that if it’s long, it’s worth it. They want differing forms. They want Q & As and pros and cons. … It’s a redesign that we’ve worked with a designer out of Montreal on that is very focused on making it easy to navigate and find what you want, and it’s gotten rave reviews.”

Wallace’s semi-incoherence shows how dangerous it is for news managers to try to make sense of audience research.

In the interview, Wallace suggests that the AJC will fixate on its Sunday newspaper, with promotion of the weekday papers de-emphasized. She also claims that ajc.com is metro Atlanta’s most-visited website. The question will continue to be: How to make it a moneymaker.

We’re already irritated with the AJC’s reorganization and belt-tightening. We’re irritated with its per-issue price increase for a product that’s in steady decline. In the interview with Edelstein, Wallace implies that the AJC may devote fewer resources to long-term investigative projects. That would be unwelcome.

We’re also irritated to read that the AJC is sending Jennifer Brett, “the social butterfly,” to Beijing to cover Atlanta residents (including, we suspect, a few of the publisher’s rich friends) attending the Olympics. “I am purely going for the partying, not the sports!” sputters a lawyer quoted in Brett’s column this morning. This, from a newspaper that couldn’t trouble itself to cover the presidential primaries outside of Georgia.

We’d like to see the February redesign be more than window dressing. We’re not optimistic that will happen.

“Hero”

Let’s say you’re in the US Army. Let’s say you’re back from a tour of duty in Iraq. Maybe it’s your second or third. You settle in for a little TV news. You switch on WXIA at 11pm Thursday.

You see a report by Julie Wolfe about an injured soldier. Within the story, the reporter uses the word “hero” to describe the injured soldier. Then she uses it again. “Hero.”

She attributes the characterization to the soldier’s crying mother. The emotion is real. The mother’s house is festooned with paint and ribbon honoring the injured soldier, who’s home as she rehabilitates her injury.

But then the details sink in: The soldier joined the Army only a few weeks ago. She is in basic training, meaning she hasn’t seen combat or even active duty. The injury to her leg— a stress fracture— occurred in boot camp. When she’s done with her rehab, she returns to boot camp to finish basic training, at which point her eight year commitment to the Army begins.

“Hero” is a word that the media loves to overuse. Wolfe’s story is a classic example. The word is almost always attributable to somebody else– though frequently, it’s done at the prompting of the reporter: Do you consider (blank) a hero? Yes, says the tearful respondent.

Wolfe made it clear that the young woman joined the Army to help support her mother. The mom considers her a family hero, not a war hero.

Meantime, you’re an Iraq veteran who finished boot camp years earlier. You wear a combat patch on your uniform. Maybe you’ve lost some buddies or had some close calls yourself. You watch WXIA’s 11pm news Thursday. You see this teenager, still in boot camp, called a “hero” on TV. Twice.

Not that we’re counting, but…

Drawn, for some unknown reason, to WGCL’s 4pm news Wednesday, we can draw one conclusion: We had to wait 35 minutes to see the best story in the show. Other observations, by the numbers:

  • Four. The number of trees shown toppled in a mercifully quick anchor v/o recapping Tuesday’s storms.
  • 4:03pm. The first appearance by Dagmar Midcap. She teases an upcoming weather segment.
  • Two. The number of times we heard the dreaded word “closure” during an otherwise solid Mike Moore report on a cold-case murder.
  • 4:20pm. Midcap conducts a live talk-back with reporter Elizabeth Manresa, covering Hurricane Dolly. Manresa is a CNN Newssource reporter, apparently.
  • 20. The number of seconds Manresa’s live shot lasts before going to black unexpectedly.
  • 4:21pm. Following a traffic update, Midcap returns with Manresa. The second talk-back is successful.
  • Two. The number of times Manresa’s photog used a cloth to wipe the camera lens on-air during the pouring-rain live shot. It didn’t seem to help.
  • 4:35pm. Renee Starzyk delivers a report detailing the extraordinarily slow response of Gwinnett firefighters to a house fire a half mile from a fire station. The house burned to the ground. Starzyk’s story is easily the most interesting one in the broadcast.
  • 4:37pm. Midcap appears on camera, mute, in a bump voiced by anchor Stefany Fisher: Dagmar is tracking Dolly! The weathercaster is looking downward, ostensibly studying her weather gizmos. It’s sheer voyeurism, and an awkward moment for those of us not wishing to objectify Midcap. Thankfully, her pose is neutral and her shirt is rumpled.
  • 4:41pm. Wendy Saltzman appears with an exclusive about Gwinnett taxpayers grossly overpaying for a piece of swampland. A grand jury is investigating. We lean forward. Damn! It’s a tease for 11! We shake our fist at the set and utter an oath.
  • 4:48pm. Fisher does a live interview with a lab-coat wearing doctor about prostate cancer. The doc mentions a new treatment “where you’re actually operated on by a robot.” Do what, now? Fisher doesn’t follow up.
  • Two. The number of times WGCL teased its web site during its coverage of DeKalb’s contaminated tap water. WGCL could have used the time to convey info about the geographic location of the advisory. Instead, it told viewers to find the info on its web site. A pet peeve of many viewers, we hear.
  • Two. The number of times WGCL promoted its “best newscast” Emmy.
  • Eight. The total number of appearances by Midcap during the hour-long show, including two promos.
  • Zero. The number of times WGCL claimed to be covering “breaking news.”