Monthly Archives: June 2008

Welcome to the 1990s

July may be an interesting month to monitor WAGA’s news. The station is slowly making a major technological change that will affect how its edited news packages are created and presented on TV. It represents a significant learning curve for the staff. And it drags WAGA into the 21st century, the last Atlanta station to make this switch.

For most of the last thirty years, WAGA has used 1970s-era tape-to-tape editing technology. Sometime in July– the date keeps moving back– it’s scheduled to make the switch to a non-linear editing system. Non-linear systems have been in use for years in Hollywood. WXIA and WGCL pioneered it in Atlanta. It’s computer-based. It’s faster (excluding ingestion of tape into the hard drive) and much more forgiving of mistakes. And it’s a completely new system that can, at first, boggle the minds of old-school photogs and editors.

WAGA’s first foray into non-linear editing is believed to have taken place in 2003, when it sent a crew to cover the invasion of Iraq. The crew quaintly edited pieces on Apple’s I-Movie program.

WAGA will also eliminate videotape from its electronic newsgathering, switching to Panasonic P-2 cameras that shoot video on computer chips. This will be a rare instance where WAGA is somewhat ahead of the curve, technology-wise

The idea is to eliminate videotape from its newscasts, putting all of its video elements on hard drives. This eliminates the classic newsroom scene of an editor running down a hallway, carrying a freshly-edited videotape package to the feedbay seconds before its scheduled newscast slot. It means that computer hard-drives will perform this function instead. As everybody knows, hard-drives are great until they crash.

The disappearance of videotape may create some serious challenges. TV reporters are notorious for squirrelling away field tapes from ongoing stories. Beta tapes are cheap. A 16GB P-2 card costs $900.

It’s a rare step forward for WAGA, a TV station that is reluctant to equip its reporters with laptops and its live trucks with GPS units out of sheer cheapskatedness. Every summer, interns show up at WAGA aghast that this big-market TV station hasn’t caught up with the non-linear editing technology found in college journalism schools. Sometime in July, the interns may be able to edit with more proficiency than much of the staff.

The price of news

The AJC announced today it’s jacking up its per-newspaper daily price from 50 to 75 cents. A bland, four-sentence announcement appeared on today’s front page:

  • On Monday, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will cost 75 cents for our readers purchasing a single copy newspaper published Monday through Saturday. This change marks the first increase in our single copy price since January 1993. However, this action has become necessary to continue providing our customers the highest level of service and to help offset the escalating distribution, fuel and newsprint costs. The Sunday single copy price of $2 remains unchanged.

Our prediction: This bold move with solve the newspaper’s circulation and revenue problems.

“Interview the judge, please.”

Yesterday, a Fulton County jury convicted Chiman Rai of hiring a hit man to kill his daughter-in-law. A gaggle of TV reporters– local and national– has spent more than a week covering Rai’s capital murder trial.  In their honor, here’s a list of some of the silliest questions they’ve been asked by their producers and managers back in the newsroom, bless their hearts.

  1. When will the jury come back with a verdict? (Answer: There’s no way to know.)
  2. Will the jury convict him? (Answer: See above.)
  3. What was the jury’s reaction to a particular piece of testimony? (Answer: TV reporters are encamped in a room watching a TV feed of the testimony. The camera isn’t allowed to shoot pictures of the jury.)
  4. Why are you watching a feed? Why aren’t you in the courtroom? (Answer: Because you want me on TV at noon, 5 and 6, I have to watch the time codes of the feed so I can continually produce TV pieces).
  5. Is the court recessed for lunch yet? (Answer: I don’t know. I’m outside from 11:30am to 12:15pm producing a story for noon. Did you send a producer to cover for me? Didn’t think so.)
  6. What a cushy gig, sitting in court all day. Did you have a leisurely lunch? (Answer: See above. I had to spend the lunch hour in the media room watching material that my machine recorded while I was gone for the noon show.)
  7. Can we talk to jurors after the conviction? (Answer: Following a guilty verdict in a capital murder trial, the jury remains empaneled to hear testimony in the penalty phase of the trial. Then the jury decides whether to send the convict to death row or to prison for life. Reporters can’t talk to jurors while they’re empaneled.)
  8. We want you to interview the judge. (Answer: It never happens. Ask Hilton Fuller, the judge in the Brian Nichols case who had to recuse himself after an off-the-record comment ended up in print.)
  9. Will the defendant give us an exclusive interview? (Answer: Highly, highly unlikely.)
  10. Can you ask anyway?
  11. Will the jury talk to us after the sentencing verdict? (Answer: It depends. Juror interviews are almost always enlightening. As a result, TV crews cover the entrances to the courthouse and will literally chase jurors to their cars seeking comment. Occasionally, a group of jurors will conduct civilized interviews at the close of a case. But one almost never knows until the case is over.)
  12. Will the jury foreman do a sit-down interview with our nightside crew?
  13. Will the victim’s family do a sit-down interview with our nightside crew? Could you set that up for us in your spare time, please?

2008 Emmys

Saturday was a good day for a TV reporter named John Le. He’s a feature reporter at WLOS in Asheville NC. Saturday, Le won three Southeast Regional Emmy awards. Le single-handedly captured more Emmys than the entire staff of WGCL or WXIA.

It was also a good day for Tony Thomas, a general assignment reporter for WAGA. Thomas also bagged three Emmys, two for weather coverage.

(Btw, next time you see WGCL’s Wendy Saltzman, offer her a hug. She was nominated in three categories but got skunked.)

For many, the big story at this year’s Emmys was the improbable victory of WGCL in the final category of the awards program: Best Newscast. The awards committee selects a date at random and compares the newscasts of all the stations in the Atlanta market. WGCL had a good day that day. It proves that when WGCL peels away its silliest tendencies and lets its people do their jobs, this station has the potential to find an audience.

But to us, the bigger story was about guys like John Le, and stations like WLOS and WYFF, both in the Greenville / Spartanburg / Asheville market. Those smaller market stations took home a bunch of Emmys that the Atlanta stations should have been able to get:

  • News photographer, WYFF
  • News editor, WLOS
  • News writer, WLOS (John Le)
  • Sports story, WLOS (John Le)
  • Breaking news, WSPA
  • Investigative reporting, WYFF
  • Health / Science news, WLOS (John Le)
  • News Feature, WLOS
  • On camera reporter, WLOS
  • Weather anchor, WYFF
  • Weather, WLOS (tied with WAGA)

Download the entire 34 page document of Emmy nominees and winners here.

It’s worth noting that WYFF won the investigative reporting Emmy over two entries from WAGA’s vaunted I-Team. (But the I-team made up for it with Emmys in two other categories.)

It’s also worth noting that zero Atlanta stations had an entry in the Feature reporting category. It speaks volumes about the market’s disinterest in telling stories that lack a hard news edge. Quoting from John Le’s bio on WLOS’s web site: “John Le‘s mission is pretty simple: to find the most memorable story of the day.”

Not the middling breaking news. Not the “get.” Not the “can it be a lead?” exclusive. Those are the stories that drive the competitive fires of news directors and consultants, and drive audiences away from local TV news.

The “memorable” stories? Tune in to WLOS. We found this John Le piece on Youtube:

Rehab for Savage

Former WSB news anchor Warren Savage avoided trial on cocaine charges after completing a drug treatment program, according to the AJC. Savage walked away from his morning anchor job after he’d repeatedly failed to show up for his 2:30am shift. His colleagues at WSB frequently had to roust him from his slumber to get him to the set on time. The behavior dumbfounded his colleagues, and foreshadowed his subsequent drug arrests.

Savage left WSB in September 2005. By August 2006, he was posing for his first booking photo.

Rodney Ho interviewed Savage after he quit WSB, but prior to his arrests. First busted in Gwinnett Co. for marijuana possession, Savage kinda disappeared following a cocaine arrest in Forsyth County. Turns out, he was in the treatment program. Somehow, Ho of the AJC ended up with a bunch of Savage’s possessions. Ho describes thusly:

Soon after he was arrested, I received a call from a guy who had some of his possessions, which had been confiscated from a storage bin. He wanted to get rid of them. I still have some of Warren’s items. Unfortunately, at the time, I had no clue how to get a hold of Warren to give them to him. It’s mostly awards and photographs of him and friends/family but also included some receipts for items he pawned off such as computers and a guitar. So Warren—if you want your personal effects, contact me…

One suspects that Mr. Savage will be strongly encouraged to submit to an AJC interview before re-acquiring his stuff.

Fred Powers

We just cracked a beer and toasted Fred Powers, the WGCL reporter who died after a long struggle with a rare form of cancer. Powers had just begun to gain some traction in the market with a signature schtick that nobody in Atlanta had tried before or has attempted since. This is from Rodney Ho’s December 2004 AJC story:

WGCL-TV reporter Fred Powers has been set on fire, bitten by dogs and hit by a Taser —- all in the name of news. No wonder he’s being dubbed the “human pinata” by TV wags.

“He is, without a doubt, the king of stunt reporters, ” said Mike James, editor of, a broadcast news Web site. “What he does is cool, but it’s not news.”

Or is it?

“They’re not just stunt stories, ” Powers countered. “We’re telling stories that have impact.”

Shortly after that article, Powers learned he had cancer. He last appeared on WGCL in March. He was on disability leave, but volunteered to help with coverage of the downtown tornado. WGCL broadcast excerpts in an obit Monday.

Though he’d gained some notoriety for his ratings-period live stunts, Powers was mostly a day-to-day general assignment reporter at WGCL. He covered news with a certain amount of intensity, and was a spirited and congenial competitor. And he had guts.

From WGCL’s web site:  His memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday at Saint Mark’s United Methodist Church at 781 Peachtree Street.

The AJC has more on Powers’ life and his untimely passing. We offer our condolences to his family and colleagues.

Restaurant Report Card

It is the oddest, sloppiest and most schizoid TV news franchise in town. WGCL foists its “restaurant report card” on viewers once a week, and the results are almost always at once horrifying and laughable.

The franchise promises the best and worst of Atlanta restaurants. We don’t know how Adam Murphy selects the best. Last week he chose Straits, a restaurant owned by the hip-hop star / actor known as Ludacris. Each piece begins with Murphy as TV performer, doing his best on-camera Glenn Burns / Guy Smiley impersonation.

Murphy: You’ll never believe who’s on the program! Check this out. Grammy award winning artist Chris “Ludacris” Bridges!”

Bridges: Hey. What’s going on, my man?

Murphy: What’s up my man? How ya doing?

Bridges: Doing a little supervising around here, making sure everything is clean around here. That’s the most important thing….

Murphy: Who’s this over here?

Bridges: This is my business partner, the infamous Mr. Chris Yo.

Murphy: Yo.

It’s all very amiable until Murphy abruptly sheds his “just hangin’ out with my man Ludacris” demeanor and starts busting chops.

“I want you guys to leave,” begins the section with Murphy confronting a restauranteur who scored poorly in a Health Department inspection. “It didn’t take us long to get thrown out of this Gwinnett County restaurant,” Murphy assures us. The restaurant flunked because an inspector saw an employee slicing bagels barehanded, and “an employee opened a package with their teeth,” among other affronts to good health, sanitation and grammar.

“Can we ask you about the violations?” Murphy says to the restauranteur. “No,” he answers, repeating his admonition to the camera crew to scram. Murphy walks the legal line deftly. Once he’s ordered to leave the private property, he must. But he doesn’t have to turn off the camera, and he can still ask questions as he’s moving toward the door.

It’s classic TV investigative reporting, confronting wrongdoers unwilling to be questioned. But then it hits you: Murphy is confronting small business owners about sloppy work in their restaurants, a one-time lousy score in a county inspection. We cringe as we watch.

Two weeks earlier, Murphy and photog entered an O’Charley’s during lunchtime. The manager politely and repeatedly asked Murphy to return at 2pm, after the lunch rush was over. “We’d be more than happy to take a few minutes with you,” says the surprisingly even-tempered restaurant manager. Murphy would have none of it.

“I don’t want to interrupt our guests’ lunch. We’re trying to take care of them and run our business,” the manager protests, the mic stuck under his chin in the restaurant lobby. The encounter makes Murphy look foolish.

WGCL posted the entire confrontation on its website. It only makes Murphy look worse. The restaurant manager politely asks Murphy to return six times. “Everything possible we corrected yesterday before 5 o’clock in the afternoon,” the store manager tells Murphy at the top of the confrontation. Murphy used very little of the restaurant manager’s cool-headed defense, and he apparently never accepted his offer to return at 2pm.

This kind of thing makes everybody in TV news look bad. If it packed a punch, it would give a black eye to the concept of investigative reporting. But this is so silly, it’s more like a bitch-slap.

And then– Murphy closes on-camera with the same cheery “hey, look at all this great food at this great restaurant” hucksterism that that opened the piece. It’s just weird as hell.

We gotta admit, though: Whenever WGCL delivers a “restaurant report card,” we watch. Why? Because we know we’re about to see some of the squirreliest, dopiest stuff in all of local TV news.

“And the number one threat to America…”

The graphic leading into Ross Cavitt’s live shot on WSB Thursday at six said “Bear on the Loose.” The story was about a black bear, documented with a cell phone camera, trotting through an East Cobb parking lot. Cavitt ended his live shot by advising viewers: “If you see this bear… go the other way.” Cavitt’s photog apparently declined to take the advice, however. The photog got close-up pictures of the bear “lounging behind an office park,” as Cavitt said. Thankfully, a chain link fence separated the bear from the photog.

It was a pretty good “get” for WSB. The DNR tried all afternoon to get as close to the bear as WSB’s photog got. Even after shooting the bear with a tranquilizer dart, the animal eluded its pursuers.

By 10pm, WAGA’s Julia Harding was on the same story. She got the same cell phone video, but her photog didn’t get the prized bear video. “Julia– what’s that behind you?” Russ Spencer playfully asked Harding at the end of her live shot, implying that the bear was in the background. Harding deadpanned that a strip mall was behind her, the joke eluding her (and perhaps much of the audience).

Interestingly, the graphic leading into Harding’s piece said “Bear on the Run.” One hour later, WSB’s 11pm follow-up also led with a graphic that said “Bear on the Run,” rather than “Bear on the Loose.” Coincidence?  Was “bear on the run” so doggone clever that WSB copied WAGA’s graphic?  Conspiracy theorists need not look on the web. Neither station has posted its bear coverage.

The Colbert nation would have been proud.


Julie Wolfe was on TV three times during her night shift Wednesday at WXIA. George Franco, same thing at WAGA. Both may have gone home with a bit of whiplash, a chronic condition among local TV reporters.

Wolfe began with a drive to Peachtree City, where the “backpack journalist” shot and reported an enterprise story about graffiti problems. Still in her twenties, the UGA grad has gained a reputation in Atlanta as a pretty good photographer. Her video in the graffiti piece was impressive. Her storytelling was good, too.

Like Wolfe, George Franco’s night shift began on a high note. Franco located a victim in a Doraville abduction-and-robbery case targeting Hispanics. (WGCL had done the same story Friday but couldn’t produce a victim.) Franco’s story, about robbers posing as federal agents, was compelling but seemed abruptly cut short. Turns out there was a reason.

At 9pm Wednesday, fire broke out at a DeKalb County apartment complex. Wolfe and Franco had probably just finished the scripts for their stories. They voiced their scripts, then hauled butt to the apartment fire.

Wolfe got there first, ably producing live shots for the A-blocks of WXIA/WATL’s 10pm news, and WXIA’s 11. Franco’s crew was unable to get him on TV until about 10:20pm. There was, no doubt, much consternation in WAGA’s newsroom when they saw Wolfe on TV while Franco’s crew was still trying to establish a live shot.

As for the apartment fire? Garden-variety. WSB’s Eric Philips gave it his all, telling viewers firefighters at first believed “two souls (were) trapped inside;” the apartment buildings, “totally destroyed because of those roaring flames that whipped through there like a very strong wind.”

Thankfully, Wolfe and Franco avoided the overly dramatic language. No doubt, Wolfe’s UGA professors taught her that “totally destroyed” is a top-shelf redundancy.

Turned out, nobody was trapped. Nobody was hurt. A few folks were displaced. Another evening’s work was somewhat upended by the great Atlanta TV news cliche.

Meet the new boss

That didn’t take long.

We have unconfirmed reports WGCL hired an old-school news hound named Steve Schwaid to run its sputtering newsroom. Schwaid has been with NBC since 2001. Bloggers at TV Spy describe him as a guy with a heavy hand and little patience.

This guy is a rare, smart, savvy, and damn good exec. You should consider yourself lucky if you’re at 46. He’ll make you, the station, and even the other newsrooms better just trying to keep up. It’s the best thing Meredith [WGCL’s Des Moines-based owner] has ever done.

And more:

Type A personality. All the general whiners from CBS46 may want to polish up their resumes as I do not belive this guy will put up with it. You will be out the door.

Ten years ago, Schwaid was hired in Philadelphia, at a time when the TV market churned and upstart stations upended old favorites. Schwaid led one of the upstarts. From a March 2003 article in Philadelphia Magazine:

Before landing in Philadelphia, Schwaid… had built a reputation for sweeping through newsrooms from Tampa to Hartford with the destructive force of the storms he loves to hype, and getting results in the process. Though he looked bookish in his suspenders and glasses, Schwaid made it clear that things were going to be done his way, with an emphasis on splashy graphics, breaking news, and weather.

Most news directors fall into one of two categories: people persons who are sensitive to personnel issues and can carry on a conversation; and field generals who set aside the common courtesies most humans extend to each other and focus on nothing but the news and the numbers. Even his fans, [WCAU GM Dennis] Bianchi included, know which category Schwaid falls into. “Does Steve have some ‘development areas,’ as we like to say in human resources? Absolutely,” says Bianchi. “But we all do.”

When news broke… reporters had three minutes to be at their posts or face his wrath. “It was like we were under attack,” says a former employee. In a staff meeting, Schwaid announced, “If I had an Uzi right now, I’d take all of you out with no remorse.” On another occasion, he walked into the newsroom and asked, “Who are the writers here?” When arms went up, Schwaid bellowed: “Our writing sucks!”

We’ll see if age has mellowed the Schwaid of a decade ago. If it hasn’t, then it may mean that WGCL will try to out-shout WSB and WAGA in breaking news and hyping weather. Atlanta needs a smarter newscast.