Monthly Archives: May 2009

A somewhat bright future

cartoon12-09-08
Last month, the national Society of Professional Journalists announced its Mark of Excellence Awards for collegiate journalists.  Based at (but not affiliated with) the University of Georgia, the Red and Black won awards for General News Reporting and Editorial Cartoonist.  What follows is a Q&A with the cartoonist, Bill Richards.  Richards has a family tie to this blog.  Don’t hold it against him.

cartoon11-14-08
1.  Best college editorial cartoonist in America.  Way to go.

Stick around long enough and your number will get called.

2.  A bunch of folks from the Red & Black won first-place awards.  Are they going into the newspaper business?

Some are. A few are working at the Gainesville Times. Another is in Florence, Alabama. Another is interning at an English-language paper in Chile. Insert joke about “willingness to relocate” here.

3.  Are you going into the newspaper business?

Yes, as soon as I sell off my Detroit real estate. I have been told by more than one editorial cartoonist that aspiring to get such a gig is like wanting to play in the Major Leagues. And only for the Yankees.  And only shortstop. Plus I heard somewhere that newspapers are dying. But I heard the Ulan Bataar Picayune-Intelligencer is hiring. Have you heard anything?

cartoon04-14-09

4.  What’s the backup plan?

I am going back to school to get a BFA in graphic design. It’s a good program because they teach art as business. And if I’m going to have any success drawing pictures for a living I have to be able to showcase my soon-to-be-expanded repertoire.

6.  Your family kinda thought you should have won this award a long time  ago.  What happened?

The Five Percent Nation of Gods and Earths.

7.  You decided not to go to journalism school.  Why?

Generally I walk and ride the bus. The burn victims would already be comatose before I could get to the scene for a quote.

cartoon02-02-09

Heads rolling

Not the founder of "Mad":  Bill Gaines

Not the founder of "Mad" magazine: Bill Gaines

There’s a sense of tumult at WGCL now.  We can’t condemn the thinking behind it.  Although the station’s 11pm news no longer falls into the asterisk category ratings-wise, its daytime newscasts are still a tough sell.  WGCL’s news director, Philly-native Steve Schwaid, has built the station into a competitive news organization.  But the viewers haven’t picked it up yet.  Hence, an unsettling purge.

Weeknight anchor Bill Gaines “retired” abruptly last week.  He anchored a 4pm newscast Wednesday — the last day of sweeps — then recorded a tease, and was gone by 6pm.  Most folks “retire” with great fanfare.  Gaines retired with the hounds at his heels.  Though he rarely flexed any real journalistic muscle, he was an easy-to-watch news anchor — and one of the few high-profile people of color on WGCL’s news.

Backup weather anchor Laura Huckabee will depart before the end of June.  Unlike weeknight weather anchor / heartthrob Dagmar Midcap, who apparently isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, Huckabee is an actual meteorologist.  And Huckabee  is smart and — we’ll say it — adorable, at least on TV.  During a noon newscast last year, she got the hiccups and some smart-aleck posted it on Youtube.  It’s gone semi-viral.  Maybe it’ll help Huckabee get a weeknight gig at a station that appreciates her.

Sarah Parker, WGCL

Sarah Parker, WGCL

Reporter Sarah Parker’s departure may be the most lamentable of the purge thus far. Parker was a pretty good general assignment reporter who got roped into working on WGCL’s “Better Mornings Atlanta” show, from 5-7am.  Parker got a lot of leeway on that show to do a lot of screwball stuff, apparently with the blessing of management.  But her antics got very little promotion, and she only got to do it for a few months — not enough time to solidify her identity with the show or bolster its ratings as a result.

Parker’s stuff had the potential to transcend the typical, predictable, tiresome local news formula.  She showed it expertly on a day last winter when the temperatures dropped into the teens.  While her competitors were producing omigod-its-armageddon live shots, Parker produced this absurd bit of whimsy.  No, it wasn’t “news,” but neither is a cold snap in mid-winter.  We found it quite refreshing.

If that image cost Parker her job — the BMA show is still barely watched –  then it’s management’s fault, not Parker’s.  If this isn’t her choice, it should be.

Lone wolf

Hey Mike-- Air Force One is over there!

Hey Mike-- Air Force One is over there!

The name is weak, but here’s a thumbs up to “the local news service,” the video pool arrangement anounced last week among three of the four Atlanta TV stations.   Given numerous unpleasant alternative, LNS is a clearheaded and sensible effort to streamline costs and rein in the unwieldy beast that often rears its head in competitive TV newsgathering.  The AJC reported the details Thursday and Friday.

The concept of LNS is simple:  When a low-key event is scheduled that requires coverage, one photographer from one station feeds video to all three stations in the pool.  This arrangement already exists for courtroom feeds.  This would extend it to wreath-layings, groundbreakings, presidential deplanings, baby Panda sightings, certain news conferences and other events where the video would be identical if shot by four different news photogs.

This reduces the unwieldy presence of news photographers at certain events, and frees the TV stations to use their photog staff to cover stuff that requires more competitive muscle.

The LNS concept was originated by local Fox stations in other markets.  WAGA pitched it here.  WXIA and WGCL bought in.  While acknowledging the potential savings, WSB conspicuously declined to join.  Bill Hoffman, GM at WSB, told the AJC:  “Right now we’re trying very hard to hold onto our independence.”

Pool arrangements can be tricky.  Occasionally, TV stations will labor under the impression that the other guys are unaware of certain court hearings.  They are loathe to activate the pool if they want an exclusive.  Sometimes, TV stations don’t learn about certain court events until the pool is activated.  This frequently results in the TV news equivalent of a game of chicken.   But odds are, LNS won’t suffer from too much of this.

Local TV stations will save very little, if any, actual money under the arrangement.  If they want to do that, they’ll start pooling helicopter resources.

Actual, non-factual

justin farmer 5.20.09There he goes again.  Justin Farmer is blowing the whistle on wasteful government spending.  Just like last time, the story is designed to make the viewer angry at the stupidity of government.  When Farmer clobbered UGA for sending some of its professors overseas for “academic enrichment,” UGA challenged Farmer’s methodology.  This time, his methodology is even more suspect.

First off, Farmer bases his report on interviews with two members of Congress.  One is Rep. Tom Price, R-Georgia of Roswell.  The other is Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma.  It appears both men were interviewed in their Congressional offices by somebody other than Farmer.  Their remarks are boilerplate, and unchallenged.  They could have come straight from a Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee feed, though we’d like to believe that an actual reporter was somewhere in the room when the interviews took place.

Farmer begins on what appears to be pretty solid ground, with a line about government subsidies for dead farmers.  Sure it’s outrageous.  It was also reported by the Washington Post in July 2007.  But it’s news to Farmer, and Rep. Coburn gets an opportunity to decry its wastefulness on WSB.

Farmer then reports that Sen. Coburn “was able to convince Congress to stop funding a stress reduction center here at the CDC, once it was revealed that nearly $400,000 was spent on zero gravity chairs, rotating pastel lights, and dry heat saunas for CDC employees to relax.”  Farmer recites this line in a slick standup with post-produced graphics.

Sounds awful.  It’s also wrong.

justin farmer2 5.20.09Yes, the CDC bought a stress reduction center (or fitness center if you prefer, with exercise machines and such).  Yes, the whole thing cost nearly 400k.  But the evidence is that the lights, chairs and saunas cost about $35,000.  Coburn stopped that, apparently.  And sure, you could say it’s silly.  But it ain’t “nearly $400,000″ as Farmer reported.

And curiously, Farmer probably knew this.  Following the erroneous standup, he reported “the CDC says Senator Coburn is wrong.”  But Coburn didn’t get it wrong — Farmer did.  Farmer interviewed a CDC spokesman who corrected the information.  So WSB didn’t completely mislead its audience — much. But if you know the information is wrong, why put it on TV to begin with?

(Might it be because he’d already shot a damn fine standup — with graphics and everything — and didn’t want to re-do it?  What other excuse could there be?)

Farmer concludes the piece on familiar ground:  Bashing academic research.  “This one may take the cake,” Farmer tells his audience.  He reports on a government grant for “a Detroit professor to study drinking and AIDS among prostitutes in China.”   It’s a one-line dismissal, presuming that there’s no value in this kind of research.

With the UGA piece, Farmer mostly explored a few issues and made an effort to give the piece balance.  Here, the only balance is on the CDC spending — the only local reporting he apparently did.  And he managed to get it wrong.

The news business is more forgiving than you’d think.  You don’t have to get it right all the time.  But you do have make a good faith effort to get the facts right, and sincerely believe that what you’re reporting is correct.

Even if it means shooting the standup again.  Grade:  F+

Right story, wrong question

Note:  This was originally written last week as part of the post that became “Bigmouth Strikes Again.”  It originally praised WGCL’s Wendy Saltzman for her work on the take-home vehicles story, while quibbling with another piece she produced on Congressional travel.  We edited the post after we figured out that WXIA had also produced the take-home vehicles story.  This is the portion we deleted.

Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

Wendy Saltzman’s investigation into travel by members of Congress was less impressive than the take-home vehicles piece.   The premise was worthy enough:  Big business likes to entertain members of Congress, including flying them and their families to “fact-finding” destinations like the Virgin Islands and Scotland.  But WGCL had trouble deciding what, exactly, is wrong with this practice.

“The question is:  when these groups are paying for these members trips, are they also buying their votes?” Saltzman asked in her intro.  But she made no attempt to link any votes to any bills that were of interest to Georgia Power et al, who’d paid for the trips.

The anchor intro referred to the trips as a “perk,” which is probably more accurate.  And it’s a seamy perk, no doubt.  But it’s pervasive.  It’s also legal, and it’s not funded by taxpayers.

This was a legitimate story, but it was too heavy-handed.  A lighter touch would have been more effective, and probably more damning.  (Saltzman might take lighter-touch tips from her competitor at WAGA, Randy Travis.)  The bottom line is that this “perk” is something voters ought to know about.   Saltzman is sniffing around an important issue.

But if you can’t answer the “buying their votes” question, then ask another question.  Truth is, substitute “their votes” for “access,” and we probably don’t have much of a gripe.   Grade:  B-

Bigmouth strikes again

No city car for the mayor?  Wendy Saltzman with Shirley Franklin

Love your scarf: Wendy Saltzman with Shirley Franklin

Wendy Saltzman has been a busy woman.   Like most reporters in understaffed shops, she’s probably overworked.  And she solely bears the on-air burden of giving WGCL badly needed credibility in classic, research-based investigative reporting (as distinguished from, say, consumer reporting or bare-hands-on-food-in-restaurants exposés).

Sometime over the winter, it appears Saltzman began work on a story about Atlanta Water Department employees driving city cars to their homes each night.  She found they lived as far away as Macon.  She researched city policy, which showed only the biggest of city bigshots and “first responders” should take home cars.  She bum-rushed Mayor Shirley Franklin, who dodged Saltzman’s question about the cost.  Both women wore winter-wear during the encounter.

And then Saltzman apparently sat on the story.  In the interim, she produced additional unrelated kick-ass material — including an expose of an auto dealer that sold used cars which were previously crashed and listed as “totaled” by insurance.

But while Saltzman waited, the tipsters within City Hall who knew about the practice probably grew antsy.   They kept talking.

WXIA’s Jerry Carnes got wind of the story.  Carnes learned that one of the employees drove his car home to Cedartown — a few hops shy of the Alabama border.  One morning, Carnes watched the city car make the trip and got video documenting it.  That set Carnes down the same path Saltzman had already visited weeks earlier.  But Carnes got it on TV first.

Of course, very few people in TV land actually notice these scorekeeping details, nor particularly care who did what “first” or “exclusively.”  But bragging rights are important in TV newsrooms, and management cares desperately about such stuff.  And Wendy Saltzman probably cares more than a little bit, an overworked reporter managing numerous high-profile stories.  She produced a story the following day that proved she’d had the goods, minus the damning video of the Cedartown-based city employee.  Carnes’s story was excellent.  So was Saltzman’s.

A day later, Saltzman had moved on to another unrelated investigation.  Meantime, Carnes was doing solid follow-ups to the city car story.  Both deserve credit for good work.  One of them was just a day late.

The next generation

News directors wishing for a sneak peak at the next wave of resume tapes may now visit a site that shows samples from latest crop of TV news aspirants from the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism.  The site belongs to Dan Keever, ex-WAGA photog of 33 years, NATAS Silver Circle guy and Grady TV news instructor.  Keever often invites guests to critique final projects in his class. He now invites professionals to weigh in on his website.

Mike Daly was among the critics in Keever’s latest class. Daly is a 20-year TV news veteran, late of WAGA and recently honorably discharged from the US Army.  He’s currently a video production mogul.  Daly’s notes are below.  (The piece below is only one example– go to http://dankeever.com to view them all.  His link is now on our blogroll.)

more about “untitled“, posted with vodpod

By Mike Daly

On April 28th, students in the Electronic News Gathering and Production class at the University of Georgia dropped thumb drives into the cardboard box that Dan Keever uses as a repository for end-of-semester projects. Students must showcase their project before the rest of the class, Mr. Keever, and any guests he has convinced to visit.

One at a time, the thumb drives are pulled from the box. The video projects they contain are viewed on a large screen at the end of the table where the students are seated.

The University of Georgia tags Dan as an “Academic Professional” at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communications. He’s been there since retiring from WAGA TV in Atlanta in August 2000. Dan began his career shooting film and worked through the various stages of videotape.  He watched television news grow up. Now, as an instructor with 33 years of field experience, he modestly helps shape the future of broadcast journalism.

I was one of the lucky visitors on April 28th. I say “lucky” because I love to watch these projects. Especially when Dan allows me to give my two-cents worth about them.

Renee Williams, a reporter at WCIV in Charleston, SC is a former student of Dan’s and joined me as a guest judge. She had plenty of good insight from someone who is closer in age to the students and succeeding in the biz.

Dan also wants other professionals to take a look at the projects. He posts them at http://dankeever.com and allows for comments. Constructive, professional criticism is what he is looking for here. Warnings of “Stay out of the business! It’s ugly and doesn’t pay well!” is not what he is looking for. These students know it’s a difficult business and have chosen to pursue it anyway, so give them some credit for that. If you want to have at least a small impact on those who will build broadcast journalism of the future, watch the projects and offer some good advice.

(Although Keever may restrict comments on his site — you may still make almost any comment you like on this site. — LAF)

You are going to see some of the same mistakes you made when you first got into the field yourself. You are going to see some mistakes that are still being made today. You are also going to see some potential and some creativity.  Either way, you have an opportunity to play at least a small part of shaping these young men and women who have an enormous job ahead of them.

So, take a look at the projects. Dan Keever and his students will be grateful for any constructive advice you have to offer.