Monthly Archives: September 2008

Tough questions

In the months since Steve Schwaid became news director at WGCL, the station’s news department has shed a couple of embarrassing habits.  It no longer obsessively leads its newscasts with “only on CBS-46″ exclusives, saving those moments for times when a) they seem to make sense and b) there aren’t other Big Stories that obviously deserve the lead slot.  That’s good news for viewers with a hair-trigger gag reflex, and good for advancing the cause of making WGCL competitive.

WGCL is doing some other interesting things.  We’ve seen some multi-hit stories, with the first hit serving as an extended tease for the subsequent one.  Teases are typically formulaic, “coming up next!” quickies.  These are more informative and longer.  The approach is interesting, and it doesn’t appear WGCL is overusing it.  But honestly, we don’t watch enough to really know.

And WGCL has begun using a “we ask the tough questions” promo that we kinda like.  One of the frustrations of reporting is that slick interviewees are often able to successfully dissemble and obfuscate and divert in the face of hard questions.  Too often in a minute-thirty TV story, the slick answer shows up on TV without the context of the question.  Frequently, the question is better than the answer.  It highlights the issue.  The downside is that it can cut into the reporter’s obligation to present the interviewee’s viewpoint in a “balanced” story.

Viewers want to know that the hard question– the obvious question, maybe, in their minds– is being asked by the guy / gal slinging that microphone.  Even when the answer is poor, it’s worthwhile to show the reporter asking the questions.  Investigative reporters, like Richard Belcher at WSB and the I-Team folks at WAGA, do it consistently.  It makes their stories better.

WGCL is doing the “tough questions” campaign as stand-alone promos.  But the station is also using it within the newscast sometimes as a lead-in, when the producer knows that a reporter has, in fact, cranked out a story with a hard question in it.  It’s a compelling way to keep the viewer from clicking elsewhere.

There’s a whole ‘nother angle to that “tough questions” thing.  It can tempt a reporter to grandstand.  And at WGCL, there’s the weird business of the tough questions asked in this perennial LAF favorite.  We’ll rant again about this WGCL embarrassment — and how it’s changed — in another post.  Meantime, let’s give WGCL and its new leadership some credit for giving that station a shot at some respectability.

Too few “massage services” ads…?

The AJC reports that Creative Loafing has filed for bankruptcy.   “CEO Ben Eason said the filing would help the chain improve its online business while it reorganizes its operations,” writes the AJC.

Fresh Loaf has been linking to other blogs that predict trouble for other prominent free weeklies, including layoffs at the Village Voice.  But staff in Atlanta has no worries, or so says the CEO:

“The bankruptcy petition was filed in Tampa, where the company’s based, and was timed to preclude an interest payment that was owed lenders on Wednesday.

The company will ask federal bankruptcy Judge Caryl Delano to stay any attempt by creditors to liquidate the assets or take control of the company.

“We’re doing the right things,” Eason said. “This will give us a fresh start. It is a reorganization, not a liquidation. Everybody gets paid.”

The debt load was substantially increased last year when Creative Loafing purchased the Chicago Reader and the Washington City Paper. Since then, advertising revenues for the print editions of the papers has deteriorated, as they have for newspapers nationwide. Over the same period last year, revenues were down between 10 and 15 percent.

The Loaf’s creditors include the Georgia Department of Revenue and the company that prints its papers.

Ablaze: WAGA’s news judgment

Sweet apartment fire.  “You’re like candy to me.  But candy’s no good.” On Friday

  • the Wall St. bailout talks lost and regained traction
  • more local gas stations went dry
  • the presidential candidates met for their first debate
  • an aide to Rowland Barnes testified at the Nichols murder trial;

… and WAGA devoted seven minutes of its evening news to an apartment fire.

The Calibre Springs apartments in Sandy Springs had the peculiar timing to go up in flames in the middle of the 5pm newscast.

WSB appeared to arrive on-scene first.  Its helicopter had the better angle.  WSB also used better judgment, taking two quick sixty-second hits from its chopper guy Jason Durden at 5.  WAGA got on the air about a minute after WSB did, and overcompensated for its so-slight tardiness:

  • WAGA did three live hits of coverage during the 5pm news, lasting three minutes, 2:45 and forty seconds.  There was one more :40 taped anchor v/o at six.
  • We heard the word “flames” thirteen times.
  • We heard the word “smoke” ten times.
  • We heard the word “water” nine times.
  • We heard the phrase “as you can see” or variations thereof fifteen times.

WAGA, and to a lesser extent WSB, couldn’t resist the candy.  Neither could we:

There were no injuries reported.  It appeared neither station deigned the story important enough for nightside coverage.

Is it news when an apartment bursts into flames?  Yes, but not seven-plus minutes worth.  Truth is, it’s kinda fun to watch a building burn to the ground.  Those running the newsroom know that eyeballs are not likely  to stray to the kitchen (or another station) when it’s showing flames and a “live” super.  It plays to the cheap seats, occupied by precious viewers of local TV news.

Our favorite part is the exasperation in Russ Spencer’s voice during the final 6pm hit.  We’d like to believe it’s rooted in Spencer himself wondering:  “Shouldn’t we use this time for a different story?”

Sweet irresistible confection, “and your oh so nutty chocolate covering…”

Lenslinger

Call me "Lenslinger."  Stewart Pittman, WGHP

Call me "Lenslinger." Stewart Pittman, WGHP

TV news photographers don’t get enough credit.    At some stations, they’re absurdly underpaid.  At other stations, they’re being phased out.  Yet they are the essence of TV newsgathering.  “Without us, you’d be watching radio.”  They like to say stuff like that.   They are often multi-talented.  Many are voracious readers.  Some are gifted painters and folk artists.  Some can write a script better than the TV reporter sitting next to them.

Clearly, one such photog is a guy named Stewart Pittman of WGHP in High Point NC.  Since 2004, Pittman has written a blog called Viewfinder Blues.  His posts are frequently day-of diaries of his life as a TV news guy.  He recently posted this video, which shows him and his camera getting dunked by a hurricane in 1994 (which he contrasts with Geraldo Rivera’s now-somewhat-famous dunk during Ike.  Of Rivera, Pittman writes:  “Hell, I’ve used drive-thru wet-naps with more accumulated moisture!”)

Unlike the reporter blogs you find on local TV station web sites, Pittman mostly doesn’t sugarcoat his view of the inside.  He’s found the fine line between job security and drop-dead honesty, and walks it skillfully.  Here’s his take on the morning editorial meeting:

(It’s) my least favorite part of the day. Why? Oh, I dunno – that feeling of utter helplessness as some former intern pitches his opinion of how I should spend my day…that trapped-gas sensation in my lower abdomen as some producer eyeballs me while recounting the wino revival she passed on the way to work …the rising bile in the back of my throat as an indifferent manager banishes me to twelve hours in a far flung live truck with the flick of his well-oiled Sharpie. Yeah, most days I’d rather take a two-by-four to the face than watch my immediate fate ricochet around a small conference room.

There are plenty of newsrooms whose bossfolk wouldn’t allow such subversion.  But it just happens that Pittman works in a newsroom headed by Karen Koutsky.  When she worked at WAGA more than a decade ago, Koutsky was well respected and destined for (what passes for) greatness in the world of TV news.  The fact that she doesn’t suppress Pittman’s mojo indicates that, even though she’s the VP of a medium-market newsroom, she hasn’t completely developed a taste for the Kool-Aid®.  Good for her.

It’s actually quite remarkable, the compulsion to suppress.  It’s as if the higher-ups in certain TV newsrooms know that their foolishness doesn’t withstand analysis.  Therefore, they suppress it.  The fact that Race Bannon won’t write under his/her real name says it all.  This, in an industry that likes to posture about freedom of expression — when it’s convenient for the production of the commercial product only.

We rant.  There’s a link to Viewfinder Blues to the right.  You are urged to click it often.

Gassy McGee

Ross Cavitt, WSB

Pushing the story: Ross Cavitt, WSB

Gasoline shortage / price stories often have a tediously one-note quality to them.   Over and over, the video and storylines repeat.  And it’s somewhat unavoidable.

So give Ross Cavitt credit for pumping some life into his story on WSB at 6 Wednesday.  Cavitt’s coverage from a Cobb Co. gas station had some surprising elements.

  • An actual on-camera shouting match between a customer and a station manager.  The customer accused the manager of hoarding gas for his friends.
  • A motorist who admitted he’d stalked a tanker truck to see which gas station was getting a fresh supply.
  • A picture of Cavitt and two other men pushing an out-of-gas car.  Cavitt didn’t call attention to it, to his credit.  But it was unmistakably him– his stick mic was clipped to his belt as he pushed.  It was a nice bit of hands-on “reporter involvement.”  It also helped him show the desperate straits of some of the motorists he encountered.
  • An interesting closing anecdote about a tanker truck driver.  Cavitt told viewers he asked the tanker truck driver if motorists “flash you the thumbs up or do they give you another digit…?”  Cavitt said the driver responded that it was “about fifty fifty.”

Atlanta’s TV stations seem to want desperately to engage viewers over gasoline shortages.  The problem is that the situation changes rapidly from gas station to gas station.  They all tout their web sites as sources of up to date information.  But good luck trying to actually use the sites, as the writer at Mostly Media did.  Here’s part of what she writes about WXIA’s site:

Besides, when you do click on a green arrow for a particular station, you see that it/the info was, in some cases, last updated 20 hours ago! Or was presented/updated to show NO gas about 2-hours ago, yet the arrow remains green in color. (For “Go” presumably.) But hey, bad information is better than NO information? In this particular case, I think not.

We suspect that it’s simply impossible to maintain comprehensive, updated, accurate information on a gazillion metro Atlanta gas stations.  She asks the right question.  But the answer appears to be “take our information with a grain of salt.  And don’t burn all your gas driving to that station with the green arrow.”

Addition by subtraction

On Friday, there was a shooting and kidnapping in SE Atlanta.  Two stations managed to get cameras to the scene, WGCL and WXIA.  Their approaches to the story were completely different, and quite instructive.  Both stations appeared to get the facts right.  One of them produced a broilerplate, garden variety package.  The other produced a rare thing of beauty.

Here’s WGCL’s Ryan Deal, Friday at 4pm.

Deal gives the story standard-issue treatment:  A fusillade of too-many facts in too short a period of time.  Soundbites that add urgency to the shooting part of the story while downplaying the most compelling part of it:  The fact that a father watched in horror as his toddler was kidnapped.  Deal’s piece discusses bullet holes, the consciousness of the victim, the fact that a dog was attacked, the whereabouts of the “shooter.”  In so doing, he fails to convey to the audience why this story is worth watching.

Contrast that with Jaye Watson at WXIA, who produced this piece Friday at 7pm:

Jaye Watson, WXIA

The wrath of the math: Jaye Watson, WXIA

Watson’s story focuses on the woman who ended the kidnapping, an element completely overlooked in Deal’s coverage.  Watson bypasses the on-camera interviews gathered about the shooting that started it all.  Instead, she stays with the kidnapping and its conclusion.  She matches pictures and words with elegance and simplicity.   She never mentions the “shooter.”  And her audience watches with a full understanding of what happened and why it was worth putting on TV.

The photogs at both stations did a fine job of shooting the story, though WXIA aired better video.  WXIA’s photog may very well have identified the child’s rescuer and alerted Watson to her importance in the story.  In fact, we suspect Watson wasn’t on scene while much of the drama played out, and viewed the key video elements later.  In the real world of breaking news, that’s not unusual.

Deal is a sympathetic figure here.  He worked hard to gather the material and to completely understand the head-spinning crime scene he was covering.  He doubtless felt compelled to give his audience coverage that was as “complete” as he could muster.  Most TV reporters would have done much the same.

But Watson skillfully saw this story as a case of addition by subtraction, weeding out the extraneous elements that clouded Deal’s story.  True, her story lacked the soundbites and natural sound hits that typically dress up local news packages.  She never named or interviewed the rescuer.  It didn’t matter.

Local TV news rarely yields pleasure, especially when covering crime scenes.  It was a pleasure to watch Jaye Watson’s coverage of this story.