Monthly Archives: July 2009

A deep bench

Joanne Feldman, WAGA

Joanne Feldman, WAGA

WAGA appears to have solved its morning Road Warrior problem with perhaps the second-best solution at its disposal. Sidestepping our superior suggestion, WAGA has engaged the services of some of its utility-player talent, and deputized each of them for once-a-week yuks on Good Day Atlanta.

This puts its bench of non-primary weather and sports talent in roles outside of their normal comfort zone.  But they’ve adapted well.

The Road Warrior is an individual who visits remote locations with a camera and live microphone, and yaks it up with whomever is interesting on the scene.  Weekend weathercaster Joanne Feldman showed up at the Chattahoochee Nature Center earlier this month. A good sport, Feldman even donned bouncy antennae in honor of a planned release of butterflies.

The roster also includes Cheryl White, Buck Lanford, Jeff Hill and Karen Graham.  Hill’s dry wit is among the few good reasons to actually watch GDA.  He’s an excellent counter-balance to the high-fructose corn syrup constituting much of the rest of the show.

Karen Graham, WAGA

Karen Graham, WAGA

The best of the Road Warriors is probably Karen Graham.  Graham recently dined from chow prepared by an acclaimed chef named Dwayne Hairston.    It’s usually no fun to watch TV folks eat on-camera.  Graham, however, is engaging and down-to-earth.  And she’s not afraid to tell the chatty studio anchors to shut up.

Feldman and Graham start their work-weeks on Saturdays, doing evening shifts anchoring the 10pm news.  The 5am arrival in midweek is undoubtedly jarring.  But the work appears to be mostly undemanding and is probably a refreshing respite from weather and sports.  When WAGA extends GDA to a fourth hour in a few weeks, it’ll have a solid bench of Road Warriors behind them.

Winne Watch 7.20.09

Down in the lab:  Mark Winne, WSB

Down in the lab: Mark Winne, WSB

Secret Squirrel

Secret Squirrel

“GBI medical examiner Steve Atkinson says the victim had no top teeth at death, but nine on the bottom, two with fillings… Reporting live from the morgue, Mark Winne channel two action news.”

- WSB’s Mark Winne, reporting on an unidentified murder victim whose skeletal remains were found in a shallow grave.  During his live shot, Winne showed some of the victim’s clothing, hair and a decayed ace bandage worn on his arm.  Winne’s “live — from the morgue!” outcue is worth the wait.    Drama points:  √√√ (out of five)

Reporter Threatened! Details at 5!

Someone wants to kill Richard Belcher.

Yes, again.

Ok, that’s not exactly a new story.  Somebody or another always wants to kill Richard Belcher.

Since he is actually a very nice guy (especially for an investigative reporter), I suppose this just confirms the fact that the man is very good at what he does.  Trust me, if you are ever getting out of your car, and you look up and see Richard Belcher walking toward you with some documents in his hand and a videographer already rolling tape, it is a safe bet that life as you know it is about to come to an end — or at the very least change forever.

(First, a disclaimer.  I am friends with Richard and for many years worked with him at WSB-TV Action News, a station I still love, respect and occasionally even ask for a favor.  So, take me at my word when I compliment both his investigative prowess and the station’s shrewd marketing.)

At any rate, the target of Belcher’s latest investigation is this truly fabulous old geezer:

belcher

WSB-TV Action News aired this absolutely spellbinding promo for Belcher’s investigation as often as possible, and, over and over, the man reaches for Belcher’s throat and snarls, “You better (bleep) watch it, man. I can break your neck!”

It is brilliant.  Truly.

No lie, I could watch this clip 100 more times.  It’s just that entertaining.

But do I care about the particulars of Belcher’s investiation? Does it really matter to me what those documents prove about this small town public official and why he’s so darn upset?

Nahhhhhh…

I mean, he’s the city manager (or something like that) in Braswell — wherever that is.  At first, I thought it was Braselton, the town Kim Basinger famously bought and later sold, but I was wrong — as is so often the case.

So, unless you happen to be one of that town’s 14 or 15 residents, or unless it turns out the mean old fool is actually D.B. Cooper and he’s been hiding in rural Georgia all these years, chances are excellent that your life is not going to be affected no matter what wrongdoing Belcher has uncovered.  (From the looks of it, I’d guess something to do with meth, but I’d probably be wrong again.)

Thus, the caption under this promo on the WSB website says, “SNEAK PEEK: Man Threatens WSB-TV Reporter.”

The actual investigative story — whatever it might be — is completely overshadowed by the fact that the camera was rolling when this clone of Walter Brennan became agitated enough by the impending destruction of his career to go crazy in the street.  (Does Braswell have more than one street?  Not sure.)

As all of you in the business already are aware, this is what is referred to in newsrooms as “Good TV.”

The phrase is a bit of a misnomer, obviously.  It is “good” not because it contributes to the betterment of mankind or anything like that, but because people will want to watch it.

In seeming recognition of that fact, the WSB website goes a step farther than ever before — posting a full minute and a half of unedited videotape from the incident.  (You’ll find it if you scroll down on the same page as the promo above.)  Why bother watching the news story itself, when you can see the entire hilarious confrontation like a clip from “America’s Funniest Home Videos?”

The caption says, “RAW VIDEO: City Manager Threatens Richard Belcher.”

And, yes.  Yes, he does just that.  The city manager of Bumblewherever threatens Richard at length.

(If for some unimaginable reason you still want to see Belcher’s investigative report and bore yourself with the evidence he’s expertly uncovered of some kind of wrongdoing, you’ll find it on the site, too. The caption reads, “Tiny Community Embroiled in Big Dispute Over Taxpayer Money.”   The introductory graphic, however, just says, “Outraged Official.”)

I really don’t want or need to watch it, though.  Belcher’s reputation is impeccable.  I trust that that he got the goods (whatever they may be) and this raving coot is the local scumbag, or a reasonable facimilie thereof.

The particulars just don’t matter.

And so, viewers are saved the trouble of wasting time watching an actual news story, thanks to wsbtv.com and the “Good Parts” version.  Once again, Action News has beaten the competition by pioneering a new frontier.

– CB Hackworth

Burying the lede

That sound you hear in the distance is a blogger crying “uncle!”

The blogger, having spent twenty-five months eking out mortgage payments as an entrepreneur, is taking a job with the Man.  The job will return the blogger to a line of work for which he has a great deal of affection, in an industry that has never been sketchier.

I become a regularly-scheduled part-time WXIA reporter on August 10.

Where the magic happens:  LAF World HQ, Decatur GA

Where the magic happens: LAF World HQ, Decatur GA

Why return?  Because TV news is the one trade in which I have any measure of real expertise.  Although I’d dallied in the printed word since my departure from WAGA in June 2007, printed words are making money for very few writers.   TV news is hurting economically, but it appears to be the only mainstream media source still liked by the public and still employing journalists somewhat reliably.

Why return?  Because WXIA very kindly asked me to do so, with the mutual goal of telling cool TV stories.  WXIA’s roster of reporters consists of top-notch storytellers.  It’s humbling to to be in their midst.

WXIA asked me to do so while knowing quite well, as you probably do, my mixed feelings toward local TV news.  In many settings, that would make me damaged goods.  WXIA hired me in spite of my recent history as a crabby media blogger.  As you know, the woman hiring me has famously said “TV news stinks.”  Ellen Crooke and I agree about a lot of things, and I’m a fan of hers.  I’m sure we’ll also disagree a time or two.

Will I cover an apartment fire, ever?  Quite probably.  I’m OK with it.  I hope you’re watching when it happens.  If not, I’ll find a link and put on on this blog.

So here’s the buried lede:  This blog is gonna have to change.

As a staff reporter at WXIA, I will no longer be able to write about my competitors the way I’ve been able to do as a somewhat dispassionate outsider / former insider.  I can’t bust their chops; it would be unseemly for WXIA to have on its payroll a guy who blogs about stuff that WXIA’s competitors have botched.  Wendy Saltzman got my last kid-gloved swipe, God love her (though I’ve still got a couple of posts squirreled away that I’ll publish prior to the start of my employment at WXIA).

Likewise, it would be equally unsettling for my new co-workers at WXIA to walk the hallways wondering if that snarky blogger is gonna publicly talk sh#t about stuff that happened in the workplace.  They’re entitled to know that won’t happen.  It won’t happen.

I intend to continue to blog about my experiences at WXIA.  My hope is that it will remain an honest examination of life as a (resurrected) TV newsman.  I intend that LAF will remain a somewhat enlightening site.

Likewise, LAF will hopefully continue to deliver media critiques from writers like CB Hackworth.  Anybody else want in?  Contact me.  (Got a story idea for WXIA?  Contact me.)

My video production company is still in business, btw.  It’s a happy side-effect to the part-time nature of my new employment.  TomorrowVision Media is paying LAF readers decent referral fees for video projects.  We’re serious.  We love paying referral fees.  Come get yours.

Meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing my old friends on the street.  I’m also looking forward to encountering folks whose work may have met an unfavorable review or two on this site.  If Adam Murphy makes bunny-ears behind my head during a live shot, I wouldn’t blame him.

Speaking of burying the lede:  I’m gonna be a “multi-media journalist.”  Read:  Backpack journalist.  Yep.

Shallow dip

Show of hands:  How many of you know somebody who served twenty years in the military and is collecting the pension s/he earned?

Now, how many of those military folk are earning a paycheck at another job, while collecting the military pension?

Question:  Is that a bad thing, or a good thing?

saltzman2 7.20.09If you’re WGCL, it’s a bad thing.  The TV station is in the throes of producing a six-part (and counting) series of reports on Fulton County employees “accused” of double-dipping.

“Double-dipping” means that the employees have worked a respectable career for the county, have earned retirement benefits, yet have returned to the payroll for “temporary” work.

Or as Wendy Saltzman put it in part one:  They’re paid “their lucrative county pension, and a second plush paycheck on top of that.”

Saltzman’s series focuses on the fact that Fulton County policy restricts double-dipping.  The restriction makes sense.  Some employees game the system, with the assistance of friendly managers who allow them to retire, collect benefits, then return to the payroll for cushy jobs.

Likewise, Saltzman has delivered a clean hit on the procedure violation.  “Temporary” employees with pensions are only supposed to work six months.  She found some who’d worked four years.

What’s mostly overlooked in the WGCL series is this inconvenient fact:  If those folks didn’t return to the payroll, somebody else probably would.  Maybe full-time, with benefits.  (As temporary employees, the double-dippers typically collect no additional benefits).

Wendy Saltzman with Gary Stiles

Wendy Saltzman with Gary Stiles

In part two, Fulton County police assistant chief Gary Stiles told Saltzman that he’s re-hiring retirees because he can’t get enough qualified people willing to work.  “Bring them to me.  We’ll hire them today,” Stiles tells Saltzman.

In part five of her series, Saltzman attended a pension board hearing.  There, a county manager pointed out that the re-hired retirees actually save the county $700,000 per year — because they don’t receive benefits.

Both of these explanations make perfect sense.  But WGCL aggressively and shamelessly backs the concept of “advocacy journalism.”  It’s a good audience-grabber:  Find wrongdoing, and bust chops on the story until somebody does something to fix it.  WGCL has all-but owned the scandalous Atlanta water bills story with this approach.

Yes, the county is violating its policy.  But “fixing” the problem won’t necessarily save taxpayers any money.  In fact, doing so could increase costs and arguably compromise public safety.

The problem is that it just sounds bad.  One employee pulling two government checks?  Your tax dollars? There’s gotta be something wrong with that — even if there really isn’t.

From WGCL's web site

From WGCL's web site

WGCL isn’t alone.  The AJC has done double-dipping stories for years.  But the AJC stories have typically gone deeper, catching double-dipping state workers who snooze on the payroll, collecting a second check from a friendly supervisor.

WGCL has made no allegation that these Fulton Co. employees aren’t earning their paychecks.  Instead, they’re merely violating policy.

WGCL has correctly exposed inconsistencies in Fulton County policy.  But to “accuse” employees of double-dipping implies they are wrongdoers when there’s nothing to suggest the employees are at fault for anything, except working past retirement age. 

This is a nuanced story, and Saltzman is capable of telling it.  She’s given “the other side” some due, but the “advocacy” drumbeat ain’t right for this story.   Grade:  B-

Inside the tent…

See update below.

Monday night, WGCL gave video cameras to a handful of Atlanta bloggers.  For WGCL, the idea is to channel some of the buzz from the blogosphere to the station’s web site.  The idea is evil genius.  The bloggers knew better, but many couldn’t resist accepting the free loaner cameras.  WGCL’s caveat was that the bloggers had to provide video snippets twice a week that are relevant to their blogs and their world.  The blogger would decide the content.  The pay would be zip.

This appears to be the first example of their effort, from Spacey G.

Spacey G was just playin’, of course.  Bloggers tend to do that.  But they also create the kind of word-on-the-street chatter that makes marketing folks salivate.

During Monday’s meeting, news director Steve Schwaid pitched a WGCL site called “blog stew” (hilarious misspelled as “blow” stew at one point during a powerpoint presentation).  The site would be a table-of-contents for sites that WGCL considers to be the region’s best blogs.  Some of those blogs  would produce video that WGCL would put on its “stew” site and use in its newscasts if newsworthy.  LAF declined the camera.

Schwaid handled the group knowledgeably and agreeably.  This was no easy task.  Many of them are suspicious of the “mainstream media.”  A techno-geek at heart, Schwaid was comfortable with the terminology and the technology, and ably disarmed the crankiest of the bloggers.  The effort earned him mostly praise from Spacey G, Buzz Brockway and the A-man, who’ve also posted detailed accounts of the meeting.  A-man also has a snippet of video from the meeting.

Having bloggers inside the tent is a shrewd step.  Unless WGCL manages to piss ‘em all off, this can only help its quest to build an audience.  The effort earns a grade of A.

Update: As one might expect, some bloggers who attended are having some strong disagreements about the meeting.  Some are playing out within the same blog!  Below are mere excerpts; click the links for the full-scale rants.

  • Here’s one:  “Alas, a new idea couldn’t be found within 50 miles of Studio B last night, unless something was brewing on the Georgia Tech campus three blocks South. It was difficult to decipher the exact goal of the meeting, but it seems to have been a solicitation to provide free content to the station’s website — either passively or aggressively.”
  • Here’s another:  “So don’t give me any shit about how CBS’ idea is fatally flawed or that I have somehow sold out until 1. You can think outside of the box and see how to use it for our advantage and 2. Until it’s been tested and proven a failure. The problem with so many “new media” folks is that they automatically place on their “new media” tinfoil hat and look for conspiracies at every angle.”

The WAGA way

tacoma newsomeYour name is Tacoma Newsome.  You’re the new kid at WAGA.  OK, you’re no kid.  You’ve paid your TV reporter dues elsewhere.  You’re polished.  You’re ready for the big time.

Careful what you wish for.

WAGA is a big happy family.  Nearly all of your co-workers are lovely and agreeable people.  Many of them are downright entertaining.  Like most families, there’s a certain element of dysfunction.  At WAGA, it’s pervasive enough that one veteran reporter continually refers to “the waga way.”  It’s not a complimentary reference.

You probably have a three-year contract (with windows at each anniversary, effectively making it a series of one-year contracts).  Settle in, but don’t get too comfortable.  Here are some helpful tips from a guy who spent 21 years in the family.

* The general manager, Gene McHugh, is a prince and perhaps the nicest guy in the building.  Don’t cross him.

* The news director, Budd McEntee, is super-smart, talented and quick-witted.  He will be the first to tell you that he’s not a nice guy and he’s not there to be your friend.  Believe him.

* Expect to hear the term “Budd wants…” frequently from Mr. McEntee’s embattled, well-meaning middle-managers.   You’ll almost never hear it from Mr. McEntee himself, however.  As the guy running eight and a half hours of local news programming each weekday (soon to be 9 1/2), he’s very busy.

* You’re working a 3am shift.  That’s not as terrible as it sounds, because it minimizes your exposure to the army of managers who show up at 9am each day.  Expect the final three-plus hours of your shift to be the most painful.Kool-Aid

* Understand that the middle managers are every bit as overworked as anybody in that newsroom.  They take a lot of abuse.  They’re actually nice people, but can get a little crazy.  They’ve all drunk the local TV news Kool-Aid, and expect you to enjoy its taste each day.

* Respect your show producers.  You’ll hear the reporters at the other stations gripe about their producers, but you shouldn’t.  At WAGA, your producers are bright and capable.  They’re under pressures comparable to yours.  And unlike you, they’re stuck in the building.

* Eventually, you’ll work a day shift.  Expect to cover news with one hand tied behind your back.  You’ll be expected to work on tomorrow’s news today, while beating the competition on today’s story.  By 3pm each day, an individual known as the “planning editor” will call you to ask what exclusive story you have planned for tomorrow.  S/he isn’t kidding.

You’ll get similar treatment for nightside and weekends.  If you work nightside, expect your phone to start ringing hours prior to the start of your shift.  Nightside can be crazy-pants.

* As a daysider, producing separate pieces for the noon, 5pm and 6pm newscasts is de rigeur. Learn to breathe without a lot of oxygen.

* When the EP for Special Projects asks you for ideas for sweeps, give her a half-dozen each time.  If they’re recycled from your previous job, that’s OK.  Special Projects will provide your most consistent opportunity to produce stories that you’d actually be proud to show people.  Take advantage.v2008-09

* Don’t let your managers see behind the curtain.  If you’ve got a story idea that came from your next-door neighbor, don’t volunteer that.  Let ‘em think you develop stories by working sources day and night.

* If you want to become an investigative reporter, you’ll probably have to do it without becoming part of the I-Team.  The last reporter to move into that unit did so about 12 years ago.

* If you’re expecting to become an anchor, don’t hold your breath.

Feeling your pain:  Franz Kafka

Feeling your pain: Franz Kafka

* Don’t expect anything resembling “job security.”  You were hired because your audition DVD landed at the top of a large stack of applicants.  The stack is refreshed daily.  You can be replaced, and they don’t mind saying it out loud.

* Read Kafka.  It probably won’t help you understand your workplace, but it might make you feel better.

Like most young TV news folks entering “the big time,” this experience will hit you in unexpected ways.  You’ll be amazed at the trivial pursuits of big market news.  You’ll find the feeding of the beast to be exhausting. Learn to revel in the fact that you work small miracles each day.  You and your photog will be the only ones who fully appreciate it, however.

You’ll learn that your 3am shift will frequently become a 12-hour shift.  As the new kid, you won’t feel comfortable asking for relief.  Do it anyway.

When your contract expires, you’ll probably search your soul for an answer to the question:  Do I want to keep doing this?

Funny thing is, TV news needs good people.  The audience appreciates them.  But that doesn’t mean your employers necessarily will.

Keep up the good work, kid.  You’re doing a great job.