Monthly Archives: December 2008

Street cred

Steve Schwaid, WGCL

Refreshingly curious: Steve Schwaid, WGCL

Steve Schwaid is the news director at WGCL.  After an LAF commenter mentioned that he helped cover the fatal Atlanta Botanical Garden construction accident, we wanted his impressions.  He agreed to answer some e-mailed questions:

–Word is that you actually showed up at the Botanical Garden accident and helped out / observed. Care to answer some on-the-record questions?

At every station I’ve worked I’ve always tried to go out in the field. First, it helps me get a little more sense of the market, an understanding of the gear and challenges our folks are dealing with. Plus, I get to hear how we manage our crews via the radio and such.

In Philly during my last year there I went out a few times and worked actual shifts pulling cables, etc. It helps me understand the dynamics of the field and reminds me of the pressures our folks are under.

I’ll always remember a situation in Tampa where the desk once said “on the map it’s only an inch away.” Yeah, and there’s a body of water called Tampa Bay covering most of that inch.

– what compelled you to go?

Our early reporter was up north. It was a few more minutes before the next reporter was due in.  It sounded big and I hadn’t done a breaker in Atlanta so it just seemed to make sense. If it was a big story I figured I could help gather info as the crews set up for video and live. Honestly, it was just gut and instinct when the desk shouted at 9:06 there was a bridge collapse with at least 12 injured.

Plus, I love news. It was a chance to get out in the field on a breaker.

– did anything surprise you?

Nothing really. The professionalism among all of the market’s crews in the field was note worthy. I did think that the way the police corralled everyone into a “bull pen” but allowed the public to wander in other areas seemed a little strange. The local media seemed a touch laid back for a breaker – I’m used to NY and Philly folks who are pressing hard for new info during breaking news.

I thought the folks at the initial PIO presser were a little reserved. I felt the PIO had more info and wasn’t forthcoming.

– did you solve any problems that might have arisen?

I don’t know if I solved any problems. I helped position the live truck as one of our photogs was shooting video, It did open my eyes to ways we need to handle breaking news internally. I think that was a good thing and will make us a stronger operation.

– do you think your presence intimidated your staff?

I doubt it. I don’t think I acted as a manager. I carried the sticks, asked questions, did interviews, moved the truck, etc. The one thing I’ve learned in my career is never tell a good photog what to do on the scene. They know their stuff and they know how to do three things at once and kick butt. I watched Renee [Starzyk] and Jeff Thorn in action as well as Everett [Bevelle] and Mark Melvin, I don’t think I intimidated them but I did try to stay out of their way and be there when they needed help.

what was your impression of the level of competition versus camaraderie among stations?
Keep in mind we were in a bull pen area so it impacted the competition for the best shot. I’m always impressed how well shooters work with each other. Part of that is because managers, producers and reporters come and go. But photogs become the fabric of the station and the market. I’ve told my team that if a photog raises a question about a story or challenges some info then stop the process and do a recheck of the facts. Photogs are rarely wrong.

– did you see any miracles? And that’s a serious question.

Miracles? I don’t think so, at least not for the time I was out there.

I know this sounds corny, but I am always amazed at how we make TV. Think about it.  I can say I want something on the air and it can happen in minutes or seconds. I can call the control room and have the anchors say something or go to a certain live shot and see it happen it in seconds. Where else does that happen?

– I never once saw the news director at my Atlanta station at a field assignment. Do you recommend it? Why?

I absolutely recommend it. I think it helps ground us as NDs about what happens outside the bubble of the newsroom. Why shouldn’t an ND go out in the field? I love TV news – it’s the best job in the world.  A key part of our job is managing a very complex work force – any opportunity to understand what our folks do only helps.

I think with the pressures we’re under for budgets and the changing technologies it’s really critical to go into the field, especially during breaking news. I think it gives us street cred. Plus, during budget times or the heart to heart with the GM we can cite facts and situations to talk about staffing issues.

I was also reminded of the web out there. Our Web ME called me in the midst of it all and said to send him a cell phone pic. Honestly, it wasn’t top of mind. It is now and in fact we’ve set up a process to make it easier for all of our folks to send in web pics following this.

What does surprise me is how as an industry I think we’re behind the technology curve. We all have to be able to respond faster to use the new tools and toys to make TV.


tony-thomas-122608The holidays can be desperate times for the news biz.  With vacations, staffs are pared to a bare minimum.  Offices are closed.  Newsmakers disappear.   Friday’s late news on WAGA was a fine example of such desperation.

A pickup truck crossed a center line in rural Douglas County, struck an oncoming vehicle and killed a woman.  It’s a terrible personal tragedy.  The victim’s family has our sympathy.  So does WAGA’s news audience, which endured a Tony Thomas live shot on a darkened highway three and a half hours after the accident happened.

Despite anchor Tom Haynes’s effort to dress it up as a “developing story,” there was little to say.  One could almost hear the remotes clicking as local TV foisted this bit of Breaking News on its audience.

Oddly, Thomas had just completed another story in Carrollton on a murder investigation, which he presented on WAGA’s 10pm news.  The 10 also showed the accident scene, with a quick anchor reader.  It was the right way to cover a story with no on-scene drama and few details.

There are a couple of levels of desperation at play here.  One is the desire to cover anything that has the appearance of “breaking news” or a “developing story”– even when the scene has long been cleared.

There’s also WAGA’s earnest effort to give its 11pm news a different look from its 10pm news — even if it means taking an hours-old traffic accident and making it into a lead story.

That said, WAGA has 90 minutes of news to fill between 10 and 11:30pm —  even during holidays, when there’s not much happening.  This is the result.

High profile

judith-rivera-1Too often, when a newsmaker says “I don’t want my face on TV,” reporters quickly agree.  They may ask their photogs to  videotape the interviewee in the classic silhouette.  But more often, it’s done on the fly.  So they shoot the back of the subject’s head.  Or their hands.  Or the reporter nodding as the subject talks.

We think the subject ought to have a good reason to cloak their identity:  Fear of reprisal is always a good reason.  But there aren’t many others.  We don’t know why Judith Rivera wanted her face concealed as she talked to reporters outside Grady Hospital Friday.  And one can’t imagine why she agreed to allow them to use her name if she wanted her identity hidden.  While speaking to the assembled mic-wielding folk, some photogs shot pictures of her hands and clothing.  WGCL shot a wide shot of the back of her head.  If the station was serious about concealing her face from public view, the framing was unfortunate — especially on a couple of occasions when she turned her head sideways.rivera-profile

TV stations get sued over this kind of stuff.  Ms. Rivera had already announced her intention to take legal action against the contractors at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, where a walkway collapsed Friday.  If she’s a litigious sort, her case against WGCL would probably be undermined by her agreement to be identified by name.  But there’s no question her friends and family would be able to identify her.  Likewise, any stalkers or ex-husbands, were there any.

Maybe one of the reporters at the impromptu news conference pointed out the incongruity of her requested anonymity.  But odds are, they were just happy to “get” a relative of a victim, and submitted to her condition.  If WGCL (and the other Atlanta stations) agreed not to show her face, then they should have abided.  And when the woman carelessly turned her head, revealing part of her profile, then the station had an obligation to keep that portion of the interview off the air, by airing video of the accident scene or something else.

Chances are, WGCL’s managers didn’t catch this until after it aired.  That leaves it up to the crew in the field to be smart enough to protect their source,  itself — and its employer — when it promises anonymity.

Garden variety

One can just imagine the cell phones lighting up a little after 9am Friday.  That’s when the Atlanta Botanical Garden construction accident happened — right at the time that day shifts started for TV news folks and their managers.  All four stations threw resources at the story.  By 11pm, it was still the lead.  Many hyper-competitive TV folks would judge their various efforts based on the noon show.  But more viewers watch the later newscasts, by which time the chaos of the coverage had sorted out and reporters were able to tell stories.  Mostly, the four Atlanta stations had the same material.  The difference was in how they used it.

Hall, Pickard, Carnes, plus Watson 'n' Dixon

Ted Hall, Pickard, Jerry Carnes, plus Watson 'n' Dixon, WXIA

WXIA wins the “best coverage” prize.  Marc Pickard’s lead story at 7pm was clearheaded, and circumspect.  Pickard  focused on a construction worker named Juan Padeio, who had left the doomed walkway moments before the accident happened.   Pickard concluded by saying “today was not his day.”  It was good stuff.  So was Keith Whitney’s piece at 11, which folded element’s of the day’s coverage into a single, all-encompassing package.  Like Pickard’s piece, it was well-written and well-produced.  At 7, Duffie Dixon produced an interesting sidebar piece we saw nowhere else on the design of the walkway and the complexity of the construction. The only hitch was WXIA’s effort to cram five people into a quadruple box at 6, which made Dixon and Jaye Watson appear oddly co-joined.  WXIA’s grade:  B+

Get out of my shot!  Jose Gonzales (with WGCL's Joanna Massee)

Get out of my shot! Jose Gonzales (with WGCL's Joanna Massee)

WAGA’s coverage was almost as good.  Its team coverage in its 10 and 11pm shows made the most sense.  Tony Thomas stayed at the accident scene.  At ten, he reported that the accident scene “looked like a war zone.”  At 11, Thomas wrote that “something went terribly wrong.”  The two cliches undermined two otherwise well-told stories.  Meantime, George Franco appeared to be the only reporter to actually understand a Spanish-speaking accident survivor named Jose Gonzales, who left Grady amid a sea of TV cameras but spoke no English.  At six, Chris Shaw packaged the same story Pickard produced at WXIA, but without Pickard’s deft storytelling touch.  WAGA’s grade:  B

At this point, we interject with a word about news helicopters. Shaw and Pickard’s interview audio with the soft-spoken Juan Padeio were marred by the buzz of news helicopters.  TV stations legitimately sent their helicopters as soon as they heard about the accident.  The aerial picture of the collapsed walkway provided the best visual perspective.  On WAGA at 6, Amanda Davis told viewers that “SkyFox 5 has been above the scene all day.” All day?  Why?  Get the picture and go away, and quit killing the audio of your crews trying to tell the story on the ground. Helicopters’ grade:  Overkill.

WSB and WGCL fronted their late live shots from Grady.  The story was continuing to develop there.  But WGCL’s Joanna Massee’s piece leaned too heavily on accident aerials and video from Grady.  It lacked the stronger material from the accident scene on the ground. At 4pm, Adam Murphy delivered a “we ask the tough questions” piece about 911 response and Grady’s ER readiness.  The answers raised no red flags.  Though Murphy’s piece wasn’t badly done, it seemed an odd effort to merely to play into WGCL’s “tough questions” promotion.  WGCL’s grade:  B-

WSB’s John Cater — live at Grady — had the same problem at 11:  Not enough material from the accident scene.  Unlike WGCL, WSB compensated by running three vo/sots after Cater’s piece which featured video and sound from the accident scene.  At 11, WSB was the only station to have the name of the fatality victim.  Cater, a new guy, appears to be a somewhat thoughtful writer.  But next time, we’d suggest he steer clear of beginning his coverage with “this turned out to be anything but a normal day…”  At 6pm, Amanda Rosseter reported from the accident scene, while Tom Regan produced a live vo/sot from Grady.  Both were solid but unexceptional.  WSB’s grade:  C+

The Cult of Dagmar

The subject of this post is kinda the proverbial gorilla in the room, an issue mostly sidestepped on this modest blog.  Dagmar Midcap is the foremost face of WGCL’s news, a weather forecaster without any meteorological bona fides.  But that doesn’t seem to matter (in light of that, though, it’s always amusing to see WGCL proudly display the AMS credentials of its other two forecasters, Laura Huckabee and Jennifer Valdez).  Midcap is blessed with what Anheuser-Busch might call “watchability.”  For a station of WGCL’s stature, any such asset is a plus, meteorologist or not.

On TV each night, Midcap is bland and buttoned-down, with almost no hint of the sexpot cult leader that rules her salivating fans. The cult of Dagmar is best found in locations outside of WGCL’s airwaves.  There are the billboards.  They used to display Midcap’s talents from head to sternum.  In recent months, the station’s promotion has toned down the hint of cleavage, concentrating on points north.  But the best place to look is Youtube.

Turns out that the radio show known as The Regular Guys worships Midcap.  And one of the Guys is a man who calls himself Southside Steve (SSS), a fortyish, ponytailed, overgrown frat boy who produces TV vignettes with titles like “Hooters Swimsuit Pagaent.”  He uploads them to Youtube, and several include Midcap.  “Are you into radio guys?” he asks leeringly in the piece seen below.  Yet as creepy as SSS seems, give Midcap credit for handling his drooling ickyness with grace and humor.

There are many other examples.  Even when SSS interviewed WGCL reporter Kim Fettig, he couldn’t resist a Dagmar question. Our favorite moment is when Fettig asks him if he was “creepy” during an interview with Midcap.  SSS’s  entire persona suggests that Fettig already knew the answer.

Curiously, the collection of Dagmar appearances on SSS uploads appears to end right around the time that WGCL hired Steve Schwaid as news director.  Schwaid has striven to strengthen WGCL’s credibility as a news organization, so it may not be a coincidence.

Meantime, go ahead and say it:  Way to play to the cheap seats, LAF.  Thank you very much.

Winne Watch 12.16.08

Secret Squirrel

Secret Squirrel

“He had just changed out of his court clothes and was about to change his address — from a local jail, to state prison.”

WSB’s Mark Winne, Tuesday at 6pm.  Drama points:  √√√√ (out of five).brian-nichols

Winne had obtained tape shot by Fulton Co. Sheriff’s deputies, showing convicted killer Brian Nichols transferring from local custody to a state prison.  Winne interviewed a Fulton Co. sheriff’s office Major, who says Nichols was “trembling” as he entered the state prison.  “You sure?” Winne quickly asked, and the Major reaffirmed.  Winne also reported that Nichols heard catcalls from other prisoners as he entered.  It was a nice little TV scoop.

Appreciating Bisher

Furman Bisher

Furman Bisher, AJC

It’s past time we gave this man his due while he’s still among us, still covering games and still banging out copy on, we hope, a Royal manual typewriter.  Furman Bisher, forever an Atlanta Journal guy dragged kicking and screaming into the AJC, is 90 years old and still covering sports in Atlanta, Georgia.  Let’s pin a medal on this guy’s chest now, but not too hard.   His column Sunday was worthwhile reading, with a first-hand account of a baseball Hall of Fame committee’s machinations as it tried to select from an old-timer’s ballot.  It was a most fitting topic for Bisher.  It began thusly:

It must have been easier to escape old Alcatraz than it is to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Its gates are zealously — and jealously guarded.

This is the fellowship that Joe DiMaggio couldn’t make in the first round. Or the second. Or the third. Nine members of the Baseball Writers of America, the voting constituency, passed over Henry Aaron.

Look, it’s not the Supreme Court. It’s about baseball, the national pastime. A sport.

Bisher and Jackson, 1949

Here’s to old school punctuation, truncated sentences, old-timey observation and the perspective that comes from decades of experience.  This is a guy who got the definitive interview with “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (right, 1949).  He called this year’s Georgia-Georgia Tech game “the most unusual… I have watched, and this was my 58th.”  He buried that bit of jaw-dropping personal trivia halfway into the column.

Bisher isn’t the best writer on the AJC sports pages, a section that has remarkably retained most of its marquee players despite gruesome staff reductions.  He leans on the tried-and-true, especially when describing the grass and sunshine observed at a daytime Braves game.  Sometimes he crankily clings to his 1940s values, embarrassingly so, the way your grandfather might.  But hey, he’s 90 years old and still bringin’ it.

He’s earned the right to be less PC than the younger (are any of them younger than 50?) sports columnists at the AJC.  When he’s gone, an important, public, living link to the mid-twentieth century goes too — the Greatest Generation and all that.  Journalism is supposedly the first draft of history.  Furman Bisher is history and journalism combined.

  • Durwood McAllister died Monday while playing golf in Conyers.  Before there was Jim Wooten, McAllister was the editorial voice of the conservative Atlanta Journal until his retirement in 1992.  He’d been with the Journal 38 years.
  • Mike King’s departure from the AJC was well done.  He composed a routine column Saturday about a local controversy in Cobb County.  Then, in a sidebar box, he quoted Mark Twain:  “If there is anything more uncalled for … it is one of those tearful, blubbery, long-winded “valedictories” —- where a man who has been annoying the public for ten years can not take leave of them without sitting down to cry out a column and a half.”   It was a classy departure.
  • King’s departure came the same week that the AJC announced it was reducing its circulation to the immediate Atlanta area and cutting 100 more jobs.  Earlier this month, Cox announced it was eliminating its Washington bureau.  It is breathtaking and horrifying to watch this newspaper struggle for its very survival.

City liquidity

Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

Wendy Saltzman, WGCL

You probably didn’t see what may be the most relevant TV investigative report of 2008.   It aired this week on WGCL,  showing that the city of Atlanta’s money woes are, in part, due to its own failure to collect money owed to the city.  Wendy Saltzman reported that the city is owed more than $30 million in past due water bills.  And on the day the piece aired, the city’s water department had to lay off nearly 100 employees due to the city’s ongoing budget crisis.

Saltzman talked with some of the biggest alleged deadbeats.  The biggest of all was Chastain Park Amphitheater, with a past due bill of $109,000 and change.  By starting her piece with that eye-opener, Saltzman drew the viewer into a story that threatened to be dry and statistical.  A couple of semi-confrontational moments ensued with other alleged deadbeats.  Then she dropped another unexpected bombshell:  The biggest deadbeat is the City of Atlanta, which is apparently rife with agencies that ignore bills from the city’s water department.

Saltzman’s story was further complicated by the fact that Mayor Shirley Franklin decided to call a news conference on the issue the day WGCL’s story was scheduled to air.  Franklin vowed to call the top 25 deadbeat herself and request payment.  She also contradicted herself during the newser about the city’s failure to pay itself.  “It doesn’t matter what the number is,” Franklin said at the podium.  “But it does!” Saltzman is heard saying emphatically from the audience.  “It matters what the number is,” Franklin agrees, almost too readily.

The story certainly lacks the salacious flavor of some investigative stories delivered on TV in Atlanta since October (and we’ve only viewed a fraction of them).  But we’re gonna stick our necks out and say that this series is more relevant than any of them — because of the jobs and services lost by the city of Atlanta’s budget crisis, and the fact that so much money is outstanding.  All that affects real people more than NeNe’s duplicity or Gena Evans’ salacious e-mails.  WGCL’s investigative unit is getting better by the day.  Grade:  A-

One gem, three oddities

Four stories jumped out at us from WGCL’s website.  All had an odd quality to them. (None was the “Restaurant Report Card,” which we’re unofficially ignoring these days…)

Mike Moore, WGCL

Mike Moore, WGCL

Mike Moore delivered a piece the site calls “bad news takes stressful toll on Atlantans.”  Predictably, WGCL took no credit for any of that “bad news.”  Moore did man-on-the-street interviews with three men who were losing jobs or afraid of losing jobs.  It led us to expect some sort of unemployment-malaise-mindset think piece.  But the three vignettes developed into no real storyline.  The most interesting thing about it was Moore’s stylish striped overcoat, which caused an audible buzz in his intro.

(Why would a striped coat cause a buzz?  Andy Funk explains:  “Sharp, vertical transitions between white and black — such as from striped clothing — lead to the greatest amount of high-frequencies in a video signal. Due to the way live shots are sent back to the station (microwave signal with the video FM-modulated and the audio as a subcarrier, often at 4.83 MHz), video with a lot of high-frequency content can encroach upon the audio subcarrier and be heard as an objectionable buzz.”  Thanks for that, Andy.)

An engineer at WGCL got the word to Moore, who shed the coat by the time he delivered his live tag, eliminating the buzz.  Grade:  C

Tom Waits

Tom Waits

The peculiarly-titled “Missing Couple Talks to CBS 46” was the work of Harry Samler. WGCL gave it the “we ask the tough questions” treatment, but Samler correctly treated the elderly couple with kid gloves.  “Just tell us what happened,” Samler said in the only moment approaching a tough question.  “You tell me,” answered the no-longer-missing Sam Hewatt good-naturedly.  He and his wife left a Waffle House in Loganville and ended up in Hoover Alabama.  “Next time, someone else will be driving” said Samler in his live shot.   No other station talked to the couple, probably because they recognized it as an odd personal embarrassment rather than a news story.  Still, Samler’s Grade is B-.

Sarah Parker, WGCL

Sarah Parker, WGCL

WGCL now re-broadcasts vignettes from Sarah Parker’s live shots from the station’s “Better Mornings” program.  Good thing, a) since Better Mornings frequently shows up as an asterisk in the ratings, Parker’s work gets some actual eyeballs and b) her squirrelly antics, shown later, may open some of those eyeballs for the 5 – 7am show.  In this vignette, Parker dons Tom Waits-style eyewear and a bikini top over a t-shirt, then does a cannonball into a pool, nearly clobbering some training Navy Seals.  Since Better Mornings professes not to be a newscast, we have to evaluate Parker’s performance and style, with a resounding grade of B+.

Harry Samler, WGCL

Harry Samler, WGCL

Saving the best for last, here’s Samler again.  We wish we’d seen this story before we declared the death of whimsy.  This is borderline brilliant, almost Corvinesque but without the darkness.  Samler produced a breezy, funny yet informative story about Decatur’s new parking meters.  The writing is cute and chatty.  The nat sound hits are splendid (especially the meter cops laughing about the fines).  Samler’s standup enhances the tone and bridges the storyline.   And the piece concludes with an amusing two-line punchline, a nice example of giving the viewer something unexpected at the end of the piece.  Great success. Check it out.  Grade:  A-