Monthly Archives: June 2009

Fair and white balanced

fair and white balancedIf you aren’t clicking on Viewfinder Blues most days, you’re missing the most amusing TV news blog in the business.  We’ve written before about our man-crush on Stewart Pittman (though we’ve never actually met).  He’s a guy who slogs through a day shooting news at WGHP in High Point NC.  Then he goes home, puts the kids to bed and (presumably) fills a tumbler with dark liquor and starts to write.  It’s doubtful any of the paid writers at WGHP have much more than a fraction of this guy’s writing talent.

He’s got a great eye for the small issues that surround the local TV news business.  Pittman apparently makes liberal use of a still camera he carries on shoots.  The results turn up frequently on Viewfinder Blues.  This piece from June is a good example.  Pittman probably banged it out in ten minutes.  It’s brilliant.  This is but an excerpt.

You can tell A LOT [about] a photog by watching them white-balance. Take this cat. When he stumbled in late to a press conference in motion, a PR chick sidled up and jammed a program in his hand. He never looked at it; just stuck [it] in front of the lens and calibrated his colors. That the speaker he was about to shoot was standing under a spotlight thirty feet away didn’t seem to bother him. I like that; if only because it drives the production types crazy.

You owe it to yourself to read the entire post, especially if you’ve ever asked or been asked “got something white?” prior to a shoot.  Me, I’d hike up my dress shirt to show off the nearly-white t-shirt rippling over the beer-fed abdominal sixer.  It always worked well enough for TV news.

Emmy notes

emmy-statuetteScanning the list of winners from Saturday’s Southeastern Emmy awards, a few things stand out.

A TV station in Columbia SC beat WSB and WAGA in the Investigative Reporting category.  WLTX produced a report in May 2008 about South Carolina prison inmates stealing the identities of Citibank card holders.  The inmates sold the information from inside the prison to co-conspirators, who used the info to charge purchases to the unsuspecting card holders.  WLTX’s best material came from an inmate who was part of the ring, who said of the victims:  “They’re well off. They won’t miss it, after all they don’t even have to pay for it, because once they contest the purchase, they won’t be penalized for it.”

WAGA general assignment reporter Julia Harding won two Emmys.  With insufficient seniority to kick her nights-and-weekends schedule, Harding won for a special report on the inability of Atlanta police to curb the smash-n-grab “blue jean bandit” crimes.  Harding also won for her coverage of the March 2008 tornado in Cabbagetown.

Dagmar Midcap won WGCL’s only Emmy, for a piece called Hurricane Hunters.  Midcap’s win helps cement her spot as WGCL’s franchise face.  Who says your main weathercaster has to be a meteorologist?

It’s better to win an Emmy than not.  But ultimately, the Emmys don’t mean much.  Ask Tony Thomas, the WAGA reporter who won three of them last year, then was asked to take a pay cut (he quit instead).  Thomas won another Emmy this year for his coverage of the downtown tornado.

Meanwhile — in a perfect world, Saturday’s Emmy banquet would have included several acceptance speeches like this one from Seattle.

Smoltz v. Bradley

Mark Bradley, AJC

Mark Bradley, AJC

Most of us had no idea that one of Atlanta’s most thoughtful and prolific AJC sports columnists wasn’t on speaking terms with one of Atlanta’s most dynamic athletes.  Yet it seems that for most of his career as an Atlanta Brave, John Smoltz refused to speak with Mark Bradley (and Bradley reciprocated).  Why?  Because Bradley wrote a column critical of him in 1997.  From Bradley’s AJC blog:

I… simply stopped going near him. And you know who found it all hilarious? [Tom] Glavine, who dubbed me, “Smoltzie’s favorite journalist.” (Have I mentioned that Glavine is my all-time favorite Brave?)

Never mind that I’d written 10 gushing Smoltz columns over the previous decade. Those were eradicated by my one egregious sin. Since he didn’t want to talk with me, I mostly stopped writing about him. When he did something great, I’d say he did something great — fair’s fair — but I kept my distance.

We wouldn’t even say hello when we passed in the hall.

image_8584522-300x182The post is an eye-opening look into the world of sportswriting, which isn’t nearly as cushy a gig as it seems.  The relationships are complicated.  Sports isn’t rocket science.  Yet the athletes are often rock-stars with high school educations, covered by journalists who have to maintain balance in order to keep their jobs.

Frequently, TV stations will sic their news staffs on athletes when athletes find themselves unfavorably in the news. This allows the sports folk to play “good cop” and preserve their relationships with athletes while the news guy swoops in to play “bad cop.”

Bradley’s column also sheds light on the personality of Smoltz, a revered athlete who has an irrationally prickly side.   It takes a special breed to hold a twelve-year grudge against a guy who, ultimately, feeds into the hero-worship of professional athletes.  Smoltz disingenuously griped that the Braves forced him to sign with Boston.  In fact, the Braves offered Smoltz a contract contingent on his ability to actually pitch in a baseball game with his surgically-repaired shoulder.  Smoltz will make his first start for the Red Sox tonight.

Not that John Smoltz is a bad guy.  He’s been a great pitcher.  But it sounds like Bradley knew Smoltz much better than the city that still wants to worship him.

Update: Smoltz had a rough debut, losing to the Nationals.  He got hit hardest in the first inning, but struck out the final three batters he faced.  Here’s his line:

============IP     H     R     ER     BB     K     HR    HBP    SEASON ERA
Smoltz(L, 0-1)     5.0     7       5     5          1        5       0       1          9.00

Have you got yourself an occupation?

The staff at WXIA learned Tuesday that they’re only days away from getting new across-the-board pay cuts.  The pay cuts will apply to staff in all of Gannett’s 23 broadcasting properties.  Employees making more than $30,000 per year will get pay cuts of up to six percent.  Gannett broadcast president Dave Lougee sent a memo to employees outlining the cuts and the reasoning behind them, a copy of which was obtained by the Gannett Blog.

  • While many are cautiously optimistic that the worst of this economic downturn will soon be over, the broadcast industry continues to feel the effects. The decline in the auto industry alone – once about 30 percent of our division’s ad business – is a major challenge for us. And that’s just one example of the changes we are seeing.  I believe it’s clear there will be a permanent reset of the American economy on the other side of the economic storm. On top of that, our industry has been impacted by the revolution in the way people consume media and the way advertisers try to reach them.

The entire memo is here.

This, of course, is in addition to one-week unpaid furloughs that employees already took in both the first and second quarters of 2009.  It appears the pay cuts are in lieu of additional furloughs — at least for now.  Contract employees are being told they are technically exempt from the pay cut.  They were told the same thing about the furloughs, but most took them anyway.

The pay cuts take effect July 1.  “Here’s a week to plan for your pay cut.”  Thanks, Dave.

This is a queer time to be in the business of broadcasting.  It remains the only mainstream, traditional media source still beloved by consumers of news.  Yet its business model is unsteady and its long-term outlook is distressingly unclear.

The repercussions aren’t limited to WXIA.  WAGA has been demanding pay cuts from its on-air employees this year.  The cuts have typically come when the employee (or agent) shows up to talk about contract renewal.  Or, when an annual 30-day window opens in a multi-year contract.  We’ve heard of cuts at WAGA ranging from 10 to 30 percent, and we haven’t asked around that much.

Unlike Gannett, WAGA has largely declined to give employees details about salary cuts, other than to say “you’re next.”   When Gannett announced its furloughs in great detail, a certain esprit de corps emerged, with under-contract talent taking furloughs that they technically didn’t have to take.  (It was more than that, of course.  Their willingness to play ball took away a bit of ammo the company might have used against them when their contracts expired.)

But at WAGA, it’s unclear which categories of staffers are being selected to take cuts and management won’t say publicly.  This makes no sense, of course.  An employee-by-employee approach gives the staff a sense that management is huddling in dark rooms with calculators, making salary “corrections” designed to undo cost-of-living or merit raises earned over years of faithful service.  That’s much different than taking a pay cut for the team.

This is the kind of stuff that affects not just employees, but their families.  Spouses demand answers and a sense of fairness, a sense that’s nonexistent when this kind of life-blood information is kept under wraps.  It’s part of the solution at Gannett.  It’s part of the problem at WAGA.

Saturday night WAGA

Chris Shaw, WAGA

Chris Shaw, WAGA

Here’s what the DVR turned up while watching WAGA’s 10pm news Saturday.

Embattled sergeant. Chris Shaw produced a story about the homecoming of a soldier who lost three limbs in a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq.  Interesting enough.  But Shaw’s purpose was to tell a detailed story about a controversy surrounding two homes, funded by charitable outfits, to accommodate Sgt. David Battle.  One home was in Maryland, another in Fayetteville.  Turns out, one charity accused Battle’s wife of fraudulently applying for and receiving one of the homes.

The story became a bit convoluted.  It would have been easier to understand with clearer material about the accusation. Shaw used the best video at the top of the piece — but it only muddled the story about the charity controversy.  At the end of the piece, the anchors completely overlooked the controversy, and talked about how swell it was that Battle got such a nice homecoming.

Producing the story on the day Battle returned home also seemed a bit — rude?  Ahh, what do we know?  Grade:  B (grade changed upon further review– see comments).

Shootings and a killin’. Back-to-back anchor v/o’s of crime scenes involving garden variety shootings.  Great crime scene tape footage.  The cliche never gets old.

Traffic jam / no traffic jam. This was a v/o about traffic stacked up on I-85 due to an accident.  Yet a close examination of the live DOT camera showed traffic moving normally.  They either got the story wrong or showed the wrong camera.  No explanation was offered.

Darrell Carver, WAGA

Darrell Carver, WAGA

Georgia Theatre fire. Darrell Carver produced a serviceable piece about the aftermath of the landmark Athens fire.  Can’t say we learned much we didn’t already know.  It included the puzzling line that the “fire gutted the theater for most of Friday.”  The photographer inexplicably decided to keep Carver’s face out of focus during a standup.  Grade:  C

Iran Protests. WAGA decided to wait until 10:07pm to show the story that was the talk of the world Saturday.  The technique was good enough:  Get Julia Harding to fold the crazy internet video from Tehran into a local package showing protests at CNN center.  Although the local protests were lame, the Iran story should have been the lead.  Grade:  D for misjudging the importance of the Iran story.

Fugitive Cop. Portia Bruner’s piece on the whereabouts of a wanted-for-murder DeKalb cop was the most interesting local story in the show.   She showed surveillance video that appeared to show Derrick Yancey boarding a Greyhound bus after skipping bond in DeKalb.  She also talked with Yancey’s attorney.  The story was well-enough told but poorly edited, probably because it was very last-minute.  Grade:  B

Peachtree Road Race. Sports anchor Karen Graham delivered a fun-to-watch piece on folks training for the July 4 race.  It was light, breezy and well-done.  Grade:  B

Portia Bruner, WAGA

Portia Bruner, WAGA

America’s Most Wanted offered its star correspondent, ex-WAGA reporter Angeline Hartmann, for a live shot from AMW’s phone bank.  AMW had done a piece on Yancey.  We’ll forgive Hartmann for saying “phones were ringing off the hook, literally” just because she’s a) so adorable and b) because she appeared to instantly realize she’d committed the gaffe (unlike most of her audience).  One can imagine phones falling from their hooks as Hartmann vigorously smacked herself in the forehead after the shot ended.

DUI Checkpoint. Julia Harding pulled the unenviable double-duty of producing the Iran protest story, then running out to Union City to do a by-the-numbers DUI checkpoint piece.  The highlight was her live shot tag, when she reported the arrest of a woman who had displaced her child from a car seat in order to make room for the product of a beer run.   Grade:  B-

Overall: The local crime-scene stuff was minimal but played too highly.  The Iran miscue was very, very puzzling. The station should have kept Harding on the day’s most important story and skipped the  empty and predictable police / media crackdown in Union City.

The show was well paced and easy enough to watch, as local newscasts go. Graham and meteorologist Joanne Feldman are two significant reasons for that.   Grade:  B-


Your innovation station

The local TV news formula changes very little.  Since the 1970s, it’s largely gone like this:AnchormanPoster

  • Male and female co-anchors
  • Weather forecaster
  • Slightly crazy sports guy
  • Happy chatter amongst them
  • Reporter packages with voice track, sound, voice track and outcue
  • Live “doughnuts” with package wedged between live open and close
  • “Coming up!” teases
  • “Exclusives”
  • Show-closing kickers

Innovation is tough to find, as three of the four Atlanta local TV news directors made clear during last week’s Atlanta Press Club forum.

One could argue that innovation is essential as audiences, ad dollars and budgets continually shrink. Yet WSB’s news director said her station’s greatest innovation may be enterprising reporting.  WAGA’s news director talked about his thirty-year-old investigative unit.  Their remarks were numbingly unimaginative.

(Curiously, WGCL’s news director failed to mention his station’s new I-phone application that rolled out later that same week.)

WXIA is a proud, old Atlanta TV station with a distressingly small audience.  Its news director rattled off a list of recent innovations.  With little to lose, it makes sense that WXIA has embraced innovation.  What’s unclear at this point is whether any of its 21st century innovations can help WXIA draw an audience.

Click below to hear their answers to the innovation question, in the final installment of this tedious LAF series.  Talk about numbingly unimaginative…

Icons

"Get this creepy blogger away from me!"  Monica Pearson, WSB

"You're a blogger now? Awesome!" Monica Pearson, WSB

When Tom Houck jumped up to ask the first question at last week’s Atlanta Press Club TV news director’s forum, he referred to local news anchors as “icons.”  He asked a very good question:  Given the contraction of the news business, how long will local TV stations be able to justify paying large salaries to TV personalities like Monica Pearson at WSB, and Brenda Wood at WXIA?

Marian Pittman, news VP at WSB interrupted the question to say Pearson was “worth every penny.  Plus some!”

Unfortunately, only Pittman and Budd McEntee at WAGA answered the question.  McEntee’s answer consisted of a lengthy justification of the presence of iconic anchors.  He also artlessly dodged moderator Denis O’Hayer’s follow-up question about whether anchors would continue to pull in “the kinds of money” they do as newsrooms tighten budgets.

Pittman, employer of Pearson (who is Atlanta’s most iconic anchor and undoubtedly brings home the largest paycheck in local TV news) had a more interesting answer.  After saying that Pearson was “worth every penny,” Pittman referred to a Radio and Television News Directors Association survey that pointed to a likely decline of anchor salaries.  She also noted that across America, iconic anchors are losing their jobs because of tightening budgets.

Hear their answers to Houck’s “will anchors keep making big money” question below.

“Hybrid”

Original hybrid:  Julie Wolfe, WXIA

Original hybrid: Julie Wolfe, WXIA

WXIA was the first.  WGCL jumped in a few months ago.  WSB did it last week.  All of those Atlanta TV stations now employ “backpack journalists” a/k/a one-man-bands a/k/a “hybrids.”

The position seems to be a natural part of the evolution of 21st century newsgathering, where budgets have contracted alongside viewership and advertising dollars.  It’s regrettable in a big market, where both the reporter and photographer have challenging jobs.  It’s also inevitable, as the four Atlanta TV news directors seemed to agree during an Atlanta Press Club forum last week.

(It’s also very retro.  As WSB anchor Monica Pearson loudly proclaimed during the forum, “everything old is new again.”  Pearson told the gathering that in her first TV job in the 1960s, she reported, shot film, processed and edited film, then anchored the broadcast.)

Here’s what the Big Four had to say about one-man-bands.

Oh, wait– did we say Monica Pearson started her career in the 1960s?  We need to double check that….

TV news stinks, part two

"Absolutely, I'll look at your resume, kid!"  Marian Pittman, WSB

"Absolutely, I'll look at your resume, kid!" Marian Pittman, WSB

"When you need a change of scenery, Monica, you know who to call."  Steve Schwaid, WGCL

"When you need a change of scenery, Monica, you know who to call." Steve Schwaid, WGCL

When the Atlanta Press Club gathered the four Atlanta TV news directors for a forum last week, the first question from moderator Denis O’Hayer addressed this hypothesis:  TV news stinks.

The hypothesis wasn’t shocking.  The shocking part is that it came from the mouth of the VP of News at WXIA-TV, Ellen Crooke.  Crooke uttered the words in a GSU journalism class (and flashed them on a Powerpoint slide).  We dutifully reported it on this site.

The happy debunker:  Ellen Crooke, WXIA

The cheery contrarian: Ellen Crooke, WXIA

Crooke expanded on her hypothesis during the forum.  Predictably, the news directors at WSB and WAGA disagreed.  Given the fact that their newscasts have the largest audiences in town, Marian Pittman and Budd McEntee told the audience that local TV news is mostly doing a fine job, thank you.  WGCL’s Steve Schwaid gave a more nuanced answer that agreed with the essence of Crooke’s remark.

"Don't worry.  Be happy."  Budd McEntee, WAGA

"Don't worry. Be happy." Budd McEntee, WAGA

The four news directors were collegial and in mostly good humor.  The forum was a unique look at the four most influential behind-the-scenes folks in Atlanta TV news.  Below, there are four unedited clips from the APC forum in response to the “TV news stinks” question.  We may post additional material in the coming days.


Video and stills courtesy of Grayson Daughters; she’s also the blogger known as “spaceyg,” who recently referred to me on this blog as “his royal smugness.”  Thanks, Spacey.  Next time, you’re buying.

Ellen Crooke, WXIA

Budd McEntee, WAGA

Marian Pittman, WSB

Steve Schwaid, WGCL

Duck, and cover up

Evasive maneuver:  A well-coached Fulton school board member with Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

Evasive maneuver: A well-coached Fulton school board member with Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

There are many things to like about Wendy Saltzman’s WGCL series on wasteful spending in the Fulton County school system.

First, the money is substantial.  Saltzman convincingly reports that Fulton’s school system rigged its bidding process so that Office Depot could land a contract for school supplies.  Office Depot’s bid was nearly $1.6 million higher than the lower bidder.

Second, it passes the stink test.  Saltzman uses grade-school math to demonstrate that Office Depot is charging Fulton Co. substantially more than what the general public would pay for pencils, copiers, paper, binders and other supplies at an Office Depot store.  This is in stark contrast to other TV “investigations” into government “waste” that can’t get the math right, or don’t even try to calculate it.

No answers:  Susan Hale, Fulton School system

No answers: Susan Hale, Fulton School system

Third, there’s the astonishing hubris on the part of Fulton County Schools, whose spokeswoman laughably dodges Saltzman’s tough, yet entirely predictable questions about the contract.  The spokeswoman, whose name is Susan Hale, deserves enshrinement in the Stonewalling Hall of Fame.  She also deserves a pink slip from the school system she so poorly served.

Hale’s is a classic how-not-to for publicists and media relations personnel.  Her machinations gave Saltzman a perfectly good reason to double her output on this story, producing parts three and four on the silly Looney Tunes-style evasions of the public officials who voted for the contract.

The evasions potentially raised even more suspicions.  Saltzman didn’t say it, but this contract probably deserves the attention of a prosecutor.

Parts three and  four were pure entertainment.  In part three, Saltzman showed up at a school board meeting.  When the meeting wasn’t gaveled into session, Saltzman and her photog bum-rushed the elected officials, as any member of the public is entitled to do at a public meeting.  Saltzman showed board members embracing police officers and running to the rest room to avoid answering questions.  It was pitiful, and entirely fair game for WGCL.

They pay her to write this stuff:  Hale's e-mail

They pay her to write this stuff: Hale's e-mail

In part four,  Saltzman acquired an e-mail Hale wrote to school board members prior to that meeting.  Instead of advising school board members  how to handle the issue, she gives them tips for avoiding Saltzman and her photographer.

  • She will try to surprise you and catch you off-balance… It will be tempting to try to answer her questions — she will try to ‘bait’ you and get you riled up.
  • “…keep from saying anything on camera that could come across as flustered, nervous or guilty-looking.”

Not only did Hale fail to respond to WGCL’s questions, but she did an enormous disservice to her bosses.  By advising them to avoid Saltzman’s questions, she put the school board members in the exact position she strove to have them avoid:  Appearing flustered, nervous and guilty-looking.

What Hale failed to understand is this:  The story won’t go away just because she and her chums don’t want to talk about it.  The best way to handle bad news is with honesty and directness.  She finally figured that out Thursday, when Superintendent Cindy Loe and School Board Chairman Linda Bryant talked with Saltzman, wherein they admitted the Office Depot contract was fishy.  This gave WGCL fodder for a fifth piece in the investigation.

By making a public admission of the obvious, the Fulton County School Board may be able to avoid mobs of torch-bearing parents demanding their heads.  Loe told Saltzman that Office Depot is refunding the overage uncovered by WGCL.

Saltzman is tenacious and rather fearless.  Her output is extraordinary, wasting no time putting material on TV when it’s ready.  In part four of this series, she even employed a welcome touch of humor.  The goofy spectre of school board members running from her camera certainly deserved it.

WGCL deserves credit for a top-notch piece of investigative reporting, made even more entertaining by the boneheadedness of its target.  Grade:  A