Monthly Archives: February 2013

Ten questions

Why do TV stations design news vehicles– live trucks, “storm trackers,” satellite trucks — without first consulting the personnel who will actually have to use them?

Why do some apparently-reasonable public officials hire sneering, useless or sometimes just insane public information officers?314778_10151352680768820_1929651730_n

Why are separate credentials required to cover the Georgia House and the Georgia Senate?

When people outside the state Capitol ask to see a “press credential,” do they have any idea what they’re actually looking for?

Why can’t news channels discontinue the constant “ticker” at the bottom of the screen, which began with 9/11 and never went away?

Why must local news stations put up an ever-present lower-third graphic describing the story the viewer is presumably watching?

Why does the Georgia Senate have a press office?

As TV news technology has improved, why is using it so much more complicated?

How long can local TV continue to cry wolf over “dangerous” weather before viewers finally catch on and tune us out?

Would somebody please inform WSB’s viewers that Monica is gone?  They can watch the other stations now.

Stairs to somewhere

Off the staircase:  Rebecca Lindstrom, WXIA

Off the staircase: Rebecca Lindstrom, WXIA

A new local news set excites producers, anchors and news managers.  It may even intrigue the audience, the hoped-for result.  For the last thirty years, set redesigns have tended toward the shiny and the space-age, and rarely produce anything truly eye-opening.

Last week’s debut of WXIA’s new set was the exception.  It has The Staircase.

The Staircase isn’t exactly the centerpiece of the new set.  The set is a 360 degree ice-blue design that absorbs the entirety of the station’s modest studio, encroaching into the newsroom and making all of us random players in the mise-en-scene of the nightly news.

Over my desk, toward Cleveland: The old set.

Over my desk, toward Cleveland: The old set.

The centerpiece is a ginormous TV screen that dwarfs the presenter standing in front of it.  It’s framed in neon and replaces a dozen or so HD sets that almost-but-not-quite delivered the illusion of one giant picture.  We call it “the Wiz wall,” which is more about “-ometer” than it is about “gee.”

The Staircase is the oddity.

The construction started in early January.  Denizens of the newsroom were beseeched to be patient amidst the buzzing of saws and the smell of paint.  More than once, I had to temporarily evacuate my desk — located, it turns out, at a choke point for the ingress construction material and the egress of old-set discards.  (The old set was shipped to a high school in Cleveland, Georgia.)

As the new set took shape, a balcony appeared.  The previous set also had a balcony, but no way to get to it.   For this balcony, a staircase appeared.

The staircase was suspect from the get-go.  The steps stuck out of the wall, with no structure undergirding it.  There was no handrail, giving it an edgy, hint-of-danger look.  The same day, a memo went out:  Do not, under any circumstances, climb on the staircase.  It doesn’t support the weight of a human being.IMG_2145

As a reminder, a large sign was placed at its foot alongside an orange traffic cone.  The sign is now a constant off-air presence.

As a design feature, The Staircase provides the illusion of height and depth and symbolizes our goals as a newsroom.  Editorially, we strive for depth.  Ratings-wise, it’s height. It’s a constant battle, into which our armies of newsfolk — at all TV stations — march each day.

As long as they stay off the stairs.

Dodgeball

Here’s a word of advice for members of the state legislature:  Want to make yourself look as bad as possible?  Then dodge that TV reporter trying to ask you questions.

Doug (left) with Rep. Douglas

Doug (left) with Rep. Douglas

Example:  Rep. Demetrius Douglas (D-Stockbridge), who had accepted, from a registered lobbyist, a pair of pricey tickets for a Falcons playoff game.  The game was played the night before the freshman rep was sworn in.  Because a state-required disclosure showed he took the tickets before he took the oath of office, I judged this to be a bit of trough-feeding worth highlighting.

Another freshman, Rep. Ronnie Mabra (D-Fayetteville), did the exact same thing.  Accepting such gifts is legal, somewhat commonplace and arguably outrageous.  I’d never heard of a legislators-elect accepting gifts prior to getting sworn in, however.

I spotted Douglas at the Capitol Monday.  As he walked past our camera, I identified myself and asked him to stop and answer a question about the game and the tickets.   I told him the topic before I asked questions, giving him a chance to compose himself and formulate an answer.  But the camera was rolling.

Douglas chose to skulk off instead.  It was not attractive.  Undoubtedly our viewers, like my bosses, were amused.

Mabra was more complicated.  I found him in his office.  We talked off-camera at length.  Mabra came up with some amusing reasons he didn’t want to do an on-camera interview:  He needed to get approval from “the leadership” first.  He had to be someplace else.  He needed to shave first.

We waited outside the building, and Mabra conveniently exited.  I approached.  We rolled.  He talked.  To his credit, he hung in there until I’d run out of questions.

Bring me the head of Sen. Bill Heath (R-Bremen)!

The scalp of Sen. Bill Heath (R-Bremen)

The guy who should know better is Sen. Bill Heath (R-Bremen).  Unlike Mabra and Douglas, Heath has been around the Capitol a few years.  Heath is the Republican who unseated legendary House Speaker Tom Murphy (D-Bremen).

Lori Geary wanted to talk to Heath about some snarky responses he sent to people emailing him with complaints about the cushy job given to a former state senator at Georgia Public Broadcasting.  Geary probably asked him politely first, and realized he wasn’t going to submit easily to an on-camera chat.

She saw Heath exit the Senate chamber and went into chase mode.  Heath ducked into an office and literally went into hiding.  Geary’s video, apparently shot through the door, amusingly shows a thatch of Heath’s hair tucked behind a copier.

It was not attractive, and it got way more attention than it would have if Heath had simply manned-up and answered Geary’s questions like a grownup.  Geary’s viewers, and bosses, were undoubtedly tickled by what they saw.

It’s your choice, ladies and gentlemen.  Do you want to look ridiculous or not?  We’ll do our stories, one way or the other.

Inside the golden sombrero

“Sometimes you get the bear.  And sometimes, the bear gets you.” – Cdr. Will Riker

While Ross Cavitt and company watched the Adairsville tornado blow past their rolling TV camera, certain other crews of newsgatherers spent Wednesday January 30 at the other extreme of the newsgathering clusterfΦ♣k that takes place in severe weather situations. Fortunately, this timeline is not indicative of a typical workday at my shop, which constantly strives to use resources efficiently.  But severe weather is never typical.

9:40 am.  I’m told that I’ll be stationed in DeKalb County, awaiting severe weather.Golden+Sombrero+Speedy+Gonzalez

10:15  I’m told they’re calling in Pete Smith, a nightside photographer, to work with me.

11am.  Smith shows up at work, informs me we’re going to Carrollton.  Carrollton is the westernmost spot in Georgia that’s accessible by microwave signal.  Since weather tends to come from the west, a news crew always gets sent to Carrollton.  Julie Wolfe and company are already in Carrollton for the AM news.  Smith and I are to relieve them.

11:50.  We arrive at the Carrollton exit, spot a WAGA crew at a gas station doing the same thing we are.  By this time, reports have begun to come in that a tornado has struck in Adairsville, some 50 miles to the north of us.  WXIA and other Atlanta stations have pre-empted all programming for weather coverage.

12:30pm.  Smith and I swap vehicles with Wolfe’s crew.  We’re now in their microwave live truck.  We’re also packing a LiveU unit.  LiveU is a backpack unit that aggregates cell phone signals into a live TV picture.

12:48.  The assignment desk tells us to head to Dallas, where there’s a tornado warning.

1:30.  We arrive in Dallas.  I call the Paulding Co. Sheriff’s Office.  A woman tells me, in great detail, that the only incident on their radar involves a fallen tree branch.  By the time we arrive at the tree branch, cleanup crews are packing and leaving.  Smith finds an awning and shoots a semi-flooded street near downtown.  I take a photo and post it on Facebook.  The caption says “On the fringes of today’s severe weather, there’s us.”

Doug and Pete in Dallas, GA

Doug and Pete in Dallas, GA

2:07.  An email informs the dayside staff to expect to work through the 11pm newscast.  In addition to field crews, the note applies to producers and managers.

2:14.  The desk tells us to go to Holly Springs, where flooding has damaged a street.

3:30.  We arrive at our Holly Springs destination.  Flash flooding has receded.  There’s no evidence of damage.  Smith tromps into the rain to shoot video of standing water in a city park.

4:15.  I send a text message advising that we’re wearing “the golden sombrero,” a term used to describe a baseball player who has struck out four times in one game.  Other reporters text back saying they’re experiencing a similar absence of newsgathering opportunities.

4:18 Two reporters who are actually covering storm damage reply to our texts, admonishing us to quit sending mass text messages.

4:35.  The desk sends us to Calhoun, 40 miles north.  Ross McLaughlin and Shawn Hoder need our live truck.

5:30.  We arrive in Calhoun, park our live truck in a driveway leading to a destroyed house.   Smith fires up LiveU.  McLaughlin prepares for a live shot.

6:05.  The live shot fails.  Turns out cell phone service is spotty.  McLaughlin does a phoner.

6:15.  Hoder and I visit a destroyed house, where I see people perusing the wreckage with flashlights.  We interview a man who says his pee-paw was inside the house when the tornado struck.  Pee-paw is nearby, loudly indicating that he wants us to scram.  We exit the property with about five minutes of video.

7pm.  McLaughlin attempts another LiveU shot, which fails again.

7:15.  I see an email indicating that dinner is being served in the newsroom.

7:25.  I buy a Slim-Jim at a convenience store.  Along with an emergency granola bar I keep in my bag, it turns out to be supper.

7:30.  We relocate to the hospital in Calhoun.  No victims are there — they either got released, or got sent to a trauma center in Chattanooga.  But the cell service is more reliable.

8pm.  Hoder and I fire up laptops to edit stories.  Hoder and McLaughlin’s piece is 48 seconds long.  My piece, featuring Pee-paw’s grandson, is 38 seconds.

10:11pm.  McLaughlin successfully does a live shot in the 10pm newscast, tossing to his package and tagging it from the hospital.

10:14 pm.  My live shot fails.  My :38 piece gets played from the studio.

11:10pm.  McLaughlin does a live shot.  I’m not included in the 11pm newscast.

11:30pm.  We depart Calhoun

1am.  I see the inside of my bedroom.

Total:  16 hours; 250 miles;  zero live shots, one 38 second package; solid confirmation that weather coverage is always unpredictable.

And a decent paycheck for a day’s work, for which I’m very grateful.