Monthly Archives: February 2009

Line shot

Down and to the left:  Bill Liss, WXIA

Down and to the left: Bill Liss, WXIA

By Tom Tucker

In the noon shows Thursday, three of the four local stations led with job fair stories (live shots). But only WXIA did anything different — and compelling.

WGCL: reporter at job fair, Georgia International Convention Center, standing in the line for the standup.
WAGA: reporter at job fair, south Fulton county, standing a couple dozen feet from the line of job-seekers.

WXIA: Bill Liss, standing in the line with the job-seekers, interviewing them (and one person doing the hiring) right there during the noon show. Additionally, instead of a standard shot, photographer John Duffy somehow managed to get a top-down shot of the line, then zoomed to Liss and stayed on him despite the obvious distance between Duffy and Liss. Those shots were extremely compelling and not something you normally see out of any of the stations.

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The story could’ve been quite boring, and to people who have jobs and feel relatively secure, perhaps it was. The trick is to get people to be interested any way possible. Duffy and Liss worked together to humanize the story, show the scope of people at the job fair, talk to job-seekers and people doing the hiring without the standard “stand-up, cover video, vo-sot, stand-up bridge, vo-sot, tag out” method. It definitely made me take notice.

“Tom Tucker” is a pseudonym for an employee of an Atlanta TV news station. He submitted this story on condition of anonymity. He is not a member of any news team. In his spare time, he likes to actively avoid TV news altogether.


edwin_newman_3226451Way back when, an NBC guy named Edwin Newman produced an annual rhyme that summarized the year’s news.  He’d read the rhyme on the Today show.  Best we can recall, it was always clever and fun.

Brett Martin, the ex-WAGA and ex-WGCL morning guy, would probably be the first to say that he’s no Edwin Newman.  But a twisted version of Newman’s spirit lives in (what’s apparently) a series of rhyming, hip-hop flavored news-summary pieces that Martin is now producing independently.  Martin puts a lot of work into it.  You may judge the results.

As a guy who produced the occasional Dr. Seuss-style rhyme for TV (usually over the fierce objections of producers), I have a certain admiration for Martin’s writing effort.  He also has an unflinching willingness to make a fool of himself.  If you’re into the Martin persona, the pieces are fun to watch.  This is the second edition, produced in mid-February.  It’s an improvement on the first one.

When he worked as WAGA’s Road Warrior, Martin had a ton of fans.  Field crews constantly took questions from old people who watched Good Day Atlanta who wanted to know what “that Brett Martin” would do next.  As if we knew.  Martin is “between jobs” currently.

Martin’s videos haven’t gone viral.  He has a Youtube channel, to which fans may subscribe.  His method remains unclear, but the madness is unmistakable.

Cling-on warrior

clung-to-hoodWAGA’s metronomic general-assignment drumbeat of petty exclusives and plodding reporter storytelling got a somewhat interesting reprieve Monday.  Denise Dillon’s piece on a guy who intervened in a hit-and-run accident wasn’t big news.  But Dillon’s storytelling was fun and the photog had a big ol’ time with a story that lacked visuals.

It helped that the subject of her story, Eric Hefton, was almost a little too into telling his story on TV, and recruiting his family to chime in.  But hey — we’re not judgin’ him, except to say that his decision to physically intervene in the incident may have been a misstep.  In so doing, he ended up riding up Satellite Boulevard in Gwinnett County on the hood of a drunk woman’s car.  Maybe he should have just gotten the license number and phoned 911.

Our favorite graphic is the lower-third super that describes Hefton as “clung to hood.”  But WAGA loses points for its graphic leading into the piece, which lamely read “wild ride.”  Grade:  B+

First blood

Timing is everything, the cliche goes.  This cliche has a measure of truth, at least regarding the story of DeKalb police chief Terrell Bolton.  Unlikely to survive his current contretemps with his new boss, DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, Bolton may be inclined to blame WAGA’s Dale Russell for digging up information leading to his demise.  If so, he’d be overlooking (as we’ve done, until now) the reporter who (it appears) actually broke this story more than a year ago:  Joanna Massee at WGCL.

Massee’s piece posted on WGCL’s web site on February 4, 2008.  Russell’s I-Team investigation, which contained mostly the same material, posted on November 24, 2008.  But Russell’s work aired shortly after Burrell Ellis was elected CEO.  Ellis was already suspicious of Bolton, whose appointment was force-fed by Ellis’s predecessor, Vernon Jones.  Russell’s story gave Ellis a fresh reason for a hard look at the chief.  Ellis’s investigation gave Russell’s story legs that Massee’s story lacked.

Massee’s story is worth viewing because it shows her effort to pin down Jones on the comp time story.  On-camera, Jones tells Massee he’ll be happy to talk to her later about Bolton’s comp time.  Not surprisingly, the always-slippery Jones never did so.

Unfortunately for Massee, Russell’s story also had greater clout because WAGA has more clout than WGCL.   And Russell’s I-team had the resources to devote three nights to the Bolton story, plus numerous follow-ups.  Jones probably blew off Massee’s interview request because he figured nobody would notice.  WGCL deserves more respect.  It’ll earn it when it gets more viewers.

H/T to DeKalb Officers Speak


WAGA, 2.18.09

WAGA, 2.18.09

WAGA’s weather coverage Wednesday was a lovely exercise in cognitive dissonance.  First, you gotta understand:  Nothing spikes the adrenaline of desk-bound news managers more than the prospect of sending their field crews into awful weather.  They know viewers are watching in greater numbers.  Get a live funnel cloud behind a reporter, and you’ve smacked a home run.

The problem is:  Viewers are increasingly aware that when TV stations send crews into areas with active thunderstorm or tornado warnings, the crews may be taking dangerous risks.  While TV is urging everybody else to take cover and stay indoors, their crews are driving into the teeth of the storm.

During its 5pm news, Devin Fehely showed up in a live shot from McDonough.  Fehely casually mentioned that the report would be brief due to the presence of lightning.  Anchor Amanda Davis cut him off and abruptly ended Fehely’s report.  She and Russ Spencer then discussed the logistics of Fehely’s live shot, including the forty-foot metal mast that TV trucks raise into the sky to send a microwave signal back to the station.  They all-but stated the obvious:  It ain’t smart to raise such a mast during a lightning storm.

Some time later, Mark Hyman did a live shot in Midtown.  Hyman made a point of noting that the truck mast was retracted.  But his live shot was also short.

It’s as if the TV station is saying:  Put yourself in harm’s way now, and then we’ll make ourselves look good by telling you to get out.

So why do it?  Because the other TV stations are doing it.  If viewers are bored with the meteorologist on WSB, they might switch to WAGA to see if they’re doing anything different.  A live shot in a storm may hold the viewer’s attention, even while it endangers the crew.

In all fairness, managers will tell field crews that it’s their call on whether to go live.  Fehely and his photog undoubtedly made the decision to do it.  Fehely also knows this:  They sent him into the thunderstorm with a live truck, and not so he could sit on his hands.  And he wants to keep his job.

The right approach, of course, is to wait until the storm passes.  You learn where the worst damage is.  You send the crew there instantly.  But that’s not good enough.  WAGA and the other Atlanta stations want to anticipate where the worst damage is.  Funny thing is, they rarely succeed.  But that doesn’t stop them from trying.

One of these days, they’ll get a funnel cloud behind a reporter during a live shot.  There’ll be high-fives in the newsroom.  And the anchors will gravely advise the reporter to take cover.

More with less

Sans jammies:  Sam Crenshaw, WXIA

Sans jammies: Sam Crenshaw, WXIA

Given the fact that Gannett has had to furlough employees in 2009, it would have seemed downright criminal for WXIA to cover the start of baseball’s spring training with its usual compliment of reporters, anchors, photographers and live truck operators.  Yet the story is high interest.  And with Orlando but a one-day drive away, the Atlanta media have traditionally covered it on-site.  So WXIA apparently sent Sam Crenshaw and a photographer.  And Crenshaw has been delivering live reports via Skype, the streaming-video web thing that is becoming increasingly popular among TV stations cutting corners.  It works.

Crenshaw has been delivering reports via Skype on WXIA’s newscasts from morning to night (“Sammie in his jammies!” exclaimed Fred Kalil about Crenshaw’s Skype reports on the station’s 5 – 7am newscasts).  Skype looks as cheap as it is, delivering a stop-action picture that’s so crude, WXIA would only play Crenshaw’s 6pm live shot Tuesday in the studio monitor.  It never took the shot full-screen, as it would a normal satellite or microwave live shot.

But if Crenshaw is just sitting and talking, voicing over clean tape fed in earlier, there’s no real harm.  And it benefits the station by enabling it to work Crenshaw like a dog.  Live trucks are problematic. Satellite time is expensive.  And live truck operators, with their troublesome commercial driver’s licenses, are restricted from working round-the-clock by the US DOT.  Skype has no such restriction.  If Sammie can set up his camera-equipped lappy in his jammies, he can do a live shot on TV without a live truck operator or even a photographer.  Woo-hoo.

Skype has other benefits.  While in DC last month, we saw a WRC reporter do Skype live shots on a moving train on the city’s Metro transit system.  Because Metro has solid cell phone service, Skype was reliable.  And the live shot couldn’t have taken place with the reporter tethered to a traditional live truck.

(Skype also enabled some stations to cover the inauguration with craven cheapness, sending reporters on buses with local supporters and having them fend for themselves on two-day trips from places like Florida and Iowa.  It gave the TV stations a “presence,” suitable for their promotion.  But the logistics were often nightmarish, and the coverage was likely very one-note).

TV news has been hoping for this technology for decades.  Skype is still very, very flawed;  if a reporter wants to do a live shot at an active scene in a local neighborhood, his stop-action Skype shot will make it look like he’s reporting from Baghdad, while his competitor does a clean shot with traditional microwave technology.  But this is the proverbial foot in the door.  Given the ugly contraction in the traditional media economy. it probably can’t happen soon enough.

Inconvenient truths

Mark Winne, WSB

Sidestepping an inconvenient fact: Mark Winne, WSB

Mark Winne is a proud man, and he should be.  Winne does a lot of good work as one of WSB’s investigative reporters.  He’s done some of that work with the help of Terrell Bolton, DeKalb County’s police chief.  Bolton gave Winne an exclusive last year when Bolton decided he needed to arm his cops with tasers.  Winne has had other insider access to DeKalb PD investigators, doubtless with Bolton’s blessing.   And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Winne’s job is to cultivate relationships with folks who can help him break news.

But Winne’s pride is preventing him from telling the full story of Bolton’s embattled relationship with his new boss, DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis.  Last week, Ellis suspended Bolton from his job.  Winne, as well as reporters from the AJC, have played the Ellis / Bolton tug-of-war as a generic power struggle.  But the essence of the power struggle is a result of a series of stories produced by Dale Russell, WAGA’s chief investigative reporter — and Winne’s professional arch rival.

Terrell Bolton with Dale Russell, WAGA

Terrell Bolton with Dale Russell, WAGA

Take this story, produced on the fateful day that Ellis suspended Bolton.  In it, Winne never mentions that Ellis is investigating Bolton’s use of comp time — the key issue that has put Bolton in Ellis’s cross-hairs.  Why not?  Probably because Russell was the first to raise that issue, based on a series of Open Records Act requests.  Russell showed Bolton had taken dozens of comp days, despite a DeKalb County policy denying such perks for higher-ups like police chiefs. Russell’s story from the same day appears here.

Russell and Winne have a competitive history in Atlanta that goes back decades.  The two men once got in a physical confrontation while covering a story and had to be separated by their photogs.  They were both much, much younger then.

Sometimes the AJC will cite original reporting done in other media outlets, but the AJC has been oddly unwilling to cite Russell’s work in what has become a major story that got feature-length treatment Sunday.  Local TV almost never directly cites the reporting of a competitor.   But the Open Records Act information on Bolton’s comp time is available to anybody, including Winne.  Winne’s refusal to fully explore the issue leaves his viewers with vagaries about a “power struggle.”

Somewhere within his über-competitive heart, Winne knows that Russell got the goods on Bolton.  All Winne has, at least on this story, is his stubborn pride.

It’s all about me vol. 4

The life of a general assignment TV reporter can rewarding.  It can also be nasty, brutish and unpredictable.  There are several ways to avoid its perils.  You can become an anchor.  You can take a pay cut and find a smaller market.  You can find another line of work.  Or you can get a gig.  The gig, or franchise, gives the reporter a specialty:  Health reporter, investigative reporter, political reporter.  Those gigs all have their own perils and pressures, but they take the assignment desk somewhat out of the equation.  That’s always a good thing.

For five years, I had the best job in the world.  Feature reporters are rare cats.  News directors are loathe to devote resources to features when research shows that audiences want hard news. But for awhile, my boss overlooked his loathing and let it happen anyway.   With photographers Rodney Hall and Mike Daly, and editor / producer Andi Larner, I got to dredge up and produce whatever features I could find.  The whackier, the better.

One day I walked into the news director’s office and was told that the feature gig was toast; report back to the assignment desk.  It was ugly.  I never regained my footing, though I dragged out my career as a TV reporter for another seven years.

At WXIA, Marc Pickard has gone through something similar.  He no longer exclusively does “Earthwatch” stories.  He now also answers to the desk as a very capable, very skilled general assignment reporter.  If the transition has pained him, it hasn’t shown on the air.   Meantime, backpack reporter Julie Wolfe has begun a feature gig of sorts for WXIA’s morning shows.  Her stories aren’t whacky.  She’s more into poignance.  It puts her on a high-wire, though.  Don’t get too used to it, kid.

This post has been updated to correct information about Marc Pickard’s Earthwatch franchise.

It’s all about me, vol. 3

St. Patrick's Day 1992

Lawsuit free: St. Patrick's Day 1992

Five weird career moments as a TV newsman, 1980 – 1994.

1.  The only time I tried to do weather, 1981, WTVA Tupelo Mississippi.  I had a weather map with magnetic pieces stuck to it, indicating weather images I’d made up based on AP copy.  I was absurdly nervous.  I used a pointer, and dislodged magnets when I nervously whacked the weather map.  It got worse when the studio camera operator, who liked to smoke the weed prior to newscasts, began laughing uncontrollably as I tried to retain control of my spiel.  FAIL.  Regrettably, it wasn’t recorded.

2.  My hiring at WAGA, April 1986.  News director Jack Frazier invited me to the newsroom at 9am, then ignored me the rest of the day.  I stood around awkwardly while newsroom personnel tried not to stare.  I found a sympathetic editor, Joanne Malis, and sweet-talked my way into her booth so I could hide.  At lunch, the assistant news director took me to Atkins Park, and I broke a bottle of ketchup.  That night, Frazier took me to a bar called PJ Haley’s.  He consumed three beers in twenty minutes, and offered me a three-year contract starting at $45,000 per year.

3.  In 1991, WAGA was sued three times because of stories I’d done.  One alleged I’d libeled a dead person, which was immediately dismissed.  Another claimed I’d libeled a schizophrenic.  The young man filed the suit himself and acted as his own attorney.  The judge allowed him to question me under oath in a deposition before dismissing the suit.  If you haven’t been cross-examined by a schizophrenic, you haven’t been cross-examined.  The third alleged that I’d failed to conceal the identity of folks whose identity I’d promised to conceal.  Word to the wise:  If your interviewee’s friends and neighbors can identify the “anonymous” interviewee, he’s not anonymous.

4.  Hurricane Andrew struck South Florida in 1992.    Photog Helen Lester and I got to Miami just as the storm was coming ashore, and slept in the lobby of the Miami Federal Reserve Bank.  The CBS station from which we worked had generator power only and no A/C.  The nearest hotel room was in Ft. Pierce.  Our cell phone was the size of a shoe box and worked intermittently.  We stayed a week.  I learned to edit under fire that week, as Helen left to do one-man-band coverage for our 11pm news while I edited for six.

5.  In 1994, I pitched a story on professional baseball in Japan. The pitch was a hail-mary, a joke.  But WAGA bought it.  They sent me and Steve Zumwalt to Tokyo and Kobe to follow a team called the Orix Blue Wave, which employed former Atlanta Brave  Francisco Cabrera.  The Blue Wave’s leadoff hitter was a rookie named Ichiro Suzuki, who hit .390 that year. I had to take a week of vacation in advance of the trip in order to do the legwork to make the trip happen.  The series aired shortly before Major League Baseball went on strike that year, cancelling the World Series.

(post is updated to correct the date of Hurricane Andrew.)

It’s all about me, vol 2

"A day in the life of an embedded," April 18, 2003

"A day in the life of an embedded," April 18, 2003

This week, we indulge the writer of this blog as he marks his one-year anniversary of his first LAF post.

No doubt, the craziest story I ever covered was the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.  Embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division, the coverage was a combination of weird intensity and a comedy of errors.  My best souvenir is the newspaper to the right.  The photo misidentified (in French) photog Eddie Cortes and me as soldiers.  The man in the middle is Yves Eudes, whom we’d befriended and writer of the piece (but not the caption).  Six vignettes from that adventure:

1. Prior to departure, Eddie and I got our anthrax and smallpox shots at Ft. Gordon GA and shot a story on it.   Afterward, as Eddie drove back to Atlanta, I viewed the video via laptop on a newfangled program that did something called “non-linear editing.”  When I looked up 90 minutes later, I saw road signs that said “Columbia, next four exits.”  Eddie had driven the wrong way on I-20.

2. While in Kuwait, a day or two before the invasion, I caught a bug and lost my voice.  On its worst day, I wrote a nat sound package and scripted material for Eddie so he could handle live phoners. The Army medics quaintly gave me penecillin, the only antibiotic they had.  Ten tablets constituted a dose.  They didn’t help.  I subsequently did most of the phoners in a faint rasp and sounded pitiful.

3. Eddie edited our pieces on I-movie.  We sent them to Atlanta as e-mail files.  It often took our satellite phone equipment an hour or longer to send the files.  If a glitch broke the connection, as often happened, we’d have to start over from scratch.  We spent many hours watching a green light blinking, indicating our connection was good, and dreading the red light that appeared when it wasn’t.

4. At Ft. Stewart, the Army issued us chemical suits and gas masks.  They said we’d get Kevlar in Kuwait.  When we got to Kuwait, there was no Kevlar for us.  We couldn’t find any at the Army surplus stores in Kuwait City.  We rode “over the berm” in a Humvee with cloth doors, and were clearly less protected than the soldiers.  For that reason, we departed about a week after the invasion began.   When we did so, it was aboard a Chinook helicopter with a gunner seated on the open back loading door.  We sat on the floor.  Some of our fellow travelers were detainees suspected of spying.  They had seats.  The two-hour ride was so cold and windy, Eddie and I spooned to stay warm.  Neither of us had showered in a week.

5. When the Chinook dropped us at Camp Udairi in Kuwait at midnight, MPs took away the suspected spies.  We were left standing at the airstrip.  A Newsweek guy and I wandered the base looking for somebody in charge.  After finding him, that Colonel told me that he couldn’t provide a ride back to Kuwait City.  He suggested we hitchhike.  The next morning, we dragged our gear to the gate and did exactly that.  An American contractor obliged us with a lift in his SUV.

Missile attack live shot, March 28 2003

Sleep deprived: Missile attack live shot, March 28 2003

6.  After arriving at the Kuwait City Sheraton, we cleaned up and went to bed early.  An hour after I crashed — my first sleep in a real bed in nearly a month — a WAGA manager called me to tell me that my hotel was under attack.  “Turn on Fox News,” she said, and I did.  Sure enough, Fox News was reporting that a missile had exploded “near the Sheraton” in Kuwait City.  It had actually impacted at a mall a mile away, causing moderate damage and no serious injuries.  But Eddie and I stayed up the rest of the night, doing phoners and a live shot at the Kuwait city Fox studio for the 10pm news / 6am Kuwait time.  We caught a plane home at 10am.

I lost ten pounds during that story.  I re-gained my voice almost the moment I landed on US soil.  WAGA insisted I take a week off, a rare humane gesture which I still appreciate.  Eddie Cortes now works at CNN Español.  Our wives think it’s funny that we spooned in a helicopter in Iraq.