Daily Archives: July 10, 2008

Welcome to the train wreck

To: Steve Schwaid, new News Director at WGCL

From: LAF

Subj: WTF were you thinking?

It seems you have accepted one of the most challenging– perhaps impossible– jobs in all of TV news. For this, you gave up a career as a suit at NBC. You’ve got guts.

Doubtless you’ve gotten lots of helpful insight about the Atlanta market. If your advisers have been straight with you, they’ve told you

  • Atlanta is a crude, large-market TV news town. Though situated in a state capital, TV news plays down politics. Its photography, editing and storytelling are functional but not artistic. Most of its stations play up weather and breaking news so much that it’s become a local punchline.
  • There’s lots of crime and police-blotter news. That’s because it’s easy, it’s plentiful and the newsrooms’ middle managers are afraid of getting beaten on it.
  • The audience for TV news is mostly lower income and lower educated. Reporters are treated as celebrities in trailer parks and low-income housing projects.
  • Higher-educated viewers have fled local TV news in disgust, mostly because of the out-of-context drumbeat of so-called breaking news. When crews show up in higher income neighborhoods in TV news trucks, they are mostly shunned.
  • WSB is the big gorilla, but that could change. Combined, Monica Pearson and John Pruitt would date back to the Grover Cleveland administration, age-wise. Its corps of reporters is experienced, smart and looking forward to their pensions. WSB’s news budget will dwarf that of everybody else. But a smart challenger can make a run at them.
  • WAGA succeeds because it mimics WSB. It does better investigative projects. But it scrimps on technology and salaries. Like WSB, it overblows breaking “news” that barely qualifies as news.
  • WXIA has a sharp reporting staff, shoots the prettiest pictures and produces the market’s dullest newscast. WXIA doesn’t show enough hard-news enterprise and has no investigative unit. And it’s strangling itself with its backpack journalist initiative.
  • Your station, WGCL, is a basket case and is frequently referred to as the worst large-market station in America. But you knew that. That’s why you took the challenge.

You’ll be tempted to go toe-to-toe with WAGA and WSB. Your background in Philadelphia almost assures it. But we have a better idea.

WXIA promotes itself as the station that produces “news that matters to you” (or something like that). Though it fails to execute consistently, WXIA’s concept is worth emulating. A smart guy like you can improve it and actually pull it off.

You’ve got some hard-hitting general assignment reporters at WGCL, like Harry Samler. Nurture them. Curb their excesses (and that of their managers), the “exclusive at all costs” mentality that led WGCL into many embarrassments over the years. Encourage them to bring well-sourced, enterprising stories to the table each day, as Jennifer Mayerlee apparently did Tuesday at 11pm. (Her story suggested DeKalb County’s poor maintenance of a piece of county-owned green space contributed to a murder in Chamblee).

Your station is already aggressive on breaking news and weather. Stay that way. But have the guts to not air the dopey breaking news that you’ll see on WSB and WAGA– the water main breaks, the gas leaks, the “suspicious packages.” Let those stations give team coverage to that stuff. Your station will cover it with an anchor v/o, and your viewers will thank you– and perhaps, tell their friends about you.

You have investigative reporters. Give them a longer leash. Let them take the time to produce quality work. Recognize that not every lead is going to produce a killer story. Keep them out of the clutches of your dayside assignment desk.

Give Adam Murphy something to do that doesn’t demean WGCL with its Restaurant Report Card franchise.

Stop mandating in-the-dark live shots at 11pm for stories that have 100% daylight video.

Emphasize quality photography and storytelling.

Send Dagmar Midcap to meteorology school.

Show up at a live shot unannounced every once in a while.

Welcome to Atlanta. You’ll like the town. Let Murphy take you to Manuel’s for a beer.

You may even like the local news, in the same examining-a-specimen-on-a-pin way that we do. Feel free to ask our advice any time. Chances are, we’ll offer it anyway, and at the right price.