Monthly Archives: January 2010

Formula one

The man, the suit, the haircut, the legend: Tom Snyder

Tom Snyder, the news anchor turned host of the long-defunct “Tomorrow” show on NBC, would occasionally get asked about writing.  He would famously reply:  “I can’t write.  But I can write 90 seconds of television.”

Snyder’s answer was a snarky assessment of TV news as much as his own talent.  It also overlooked the genuinely thoughtful writers of TV news:  Charles Osgood, David Brinkley, Bob Dotson and Tom Petit (who? I loved Petit in the 80s) on a national level; Marc Pickard, Jon Shirek, Jaye Watson, Jerry Carnes, Jeff Dore, Randy Travis and a few others locally.

For the rest of us, see the video above.

When I worked at a TV station that valued every manner of so-called breaking news, and boilerplate surveillance-video “exclusives,” (“take a good look at this man…”) I often leaned on formulaic writing.  With every deadline seemingly a few minutes away, and the stories mere variations of the story told the day before, the formula worked.  Nobody called me on it, because the stories were clean, understandable and made slot.  My formula included the occasional offbeat adjective or adverb, which gave the writing a bit of faux creativity.  But I knew it was formulaic.

Writer's bloc: Ross McLaughlin, Marc Pickard, Chris Sweigart, Jennifer "Jaye" Watson, Shawn Hoder, Jon Shirek, Bill Liss, Jerry Carnes (taking a knee) and your blogger - WXIA

My position at WXIA has raised my game somewhat.  The stories are more varied.  The talent in the newsroom, writing-wise, is the best I’ve ever seen.  But this blog also plainly showcases the limitations of my own writing talent, which seems to lean to the straightforward, with a decent grasp of basic high school grammar and spelling but little flourish.  Every morning, I wake up irritated that I can’t write with the elegance of Shirek or Pickard, or with the madcap observational ability of this guy.

I’m now struggling a bit, writing-wise, with some specials that will air in February.  The subject matter calls for new formulas.

I’ll figure it out.  But my inspiration won’t come from Charlie Brooker or Tom Snyder, though both men are obviously inspired in their own way.

Snyder, especially, for the haircut alone.

Stink Test

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Two things about this story.

First, it illustrates how tone deaf folks can be.  Jeremy Porter seems like a sensible, ambitious guy.  His vision is interesting:  He wants to build an environmentally-friendly motorsports park in undeveloped Dawson County.  He wants customers when it opens this fall.

But he and his PR folks came up with an odd promotion:  Free half day passes for violators of Georgia’s new superspeeder law.  It was offensive to law-abiding motorists yet  Porter had trouble understanding that.  By the end of our conversation, I’m still not sure he understood it.

Second:  The story construction reflects the fact that this was a deadline-crunching, last-minute production.  Photographer Bill Jones and I returned from Dawson County in rush hour.  Jones had about twenty-five minutes to edit it.  The story consisted of three short voice tracks, a standup and a series of soundbites.

Porter told me that he and his publicist came up with the idea because they were “overdue” to issue a new press release.  Sometimes, the best publicity is no publicity.


John Gerard, WXIA

When I started working at WXIA, I learned I’d be working alongside a guy called “Commuter Dude.”  That would be his on-air name.  He’d cover viewer gripes about roads and such.  He’d wear a reflective vest on camera.

“Sounds kitschy,” I thought.  As a supervisor told me about the Commuter Dude, I fought mightily to suppress a skeptically raised eyebrow.

Now I’m a fan.   When the Commuter Dude’s stuff appears on my TV set, I’ll stop and pay attention.

I’m especially a fan of this as an interesting alternative to the drumbeat of mayhem and breaking “news” that remains the common currency of local TV.  Maybe the Commuter Dude isn’t covering an issue in my neighborhood.  But whatever its location, I can relate.  I can’t relate to garden-variety fires and traffic wrecks because they all sound and look the same.

The Commuter Dude is a guy named John Gerard.  Gerard is a low-key, self-effacing guy to whom the word “dude” is a natural description (not in the classic Western sense, but in the “hey dude” 2000s sense).  Gerard mostly shoots his own video on an eggplant-cam.  He has an abundance of material to cherrypick from his inbox / tip jar.

But his job isn’t easy.  Covering hiccups in signage, traffic lights, traffic engineering and asphalt can turn quickly into one-note storytelling.  Gerard strives mightily to avoid that, and succeeds more often than not.

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Gerard does so by exploiting characters who gripe about “craters,” as he typically calls potholes.  This guy was amusing because he referred to watching WXIA during the “dark ages” of weatherman Johnny Beckman.  (Many would argue that those free-spending years were actually an age of enlightenment, but I’m not going to quibble…)

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This woman was amusing because she kept referring to Gerard as the “computer dude.”

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And in this piece, Gerard actually went to court with a motorist who’d been ticketed for disregarding a “no left turn” sign that had disappeared from an intersection.  The court threw out the case.  Gotta like any TV news goon who actually helps right a wrong.  Gerard does this stuff all the time.

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Gerard’s involvement in fixing trouble spots results in a lot of first-person reporting and writing.  This can be an awkward device.  It would be obnoxious in a more ego-driven personality.  Gerard isn’t much of a chest-thumper, thankfully.

Which is part of the reason why I’m a fan.

“Put down the camera and help somebody!”

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The Daily Show has become a go-to for exposing misleading video in the TV news biz.  When Fox News transposed rally footage in Washington, showing a larger crowd than actually attended, the Daily Show nailed them.

Yet the Daily Show does its own sleight-of-hand in editing a comedy bit featuring footage shot by a Weather Channel photog depicting the Atlanta showflake-and-ice event earlier this month.

Jon Stewart shows video recorded in Midtown at the intersection of Monroe and Virginia, and questions why the photog didn’t “throw down some rock salt” instead of doing his job.

Note how Stewart’s video editors deftly relocated the “look out!” warning so that it’s audible just a few milliseconds before the crash.  Compare it to the actual Weather Channel video here, where the photog’s utterance is heard a full second earlier.

Stewart calls the warning “lame and quite late.”  But the editing makes it seem later than it really is.  Not by much.  But, still.  It’s doctored.

The comedy is solid.  I’m still giggling like a schoolgirl at “the blimp’s on fire.”

But the conclusion is flawed.  The photog had a natural reaction to what he was seeing, and did a far greater service to the community by documenting the icy roads than he would have done by throwing down rock salt, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t in his grab-bag of photog equipment.

As for the sketchy edit:

Nailed ya, Daily Show! Oh, snap! It’s peanut butter jelly time!

(Uh, hello?  Sorry, LAF. Comedy Central is an entertainment channel.  The Daily Show  isn’t a news organization.  They doctor stuff all the time.  Like the graphic you’ve put in the top of the post.)

Oh.  Right.  Never mind.

(I realize I’m a little late to the party with this.  The Daily Show played this clip weeks ago.   The LAF household seems to always have a two-week backlog of Daily Show episodes on the DVR…)

Winne Watch 1.21.10

Secret Squirrel

Readers of this site have clamored for the return of “Winne Watch.”

OK, that would be a broad overstatement.  The truth is,  I miss it.  I also suspect Mr. Winne, once again a respected competitor,  doesn’t mind the attention.  So here goes:  The return of Winne Watch.

You’re welcome.

“J.J. was shot in the face at a fish fry on Father’s Day weekend.” – Mark Winne, WSB on December 18.

The story detailed the search for the guy who shot J.J.  Drama points:  √ (out of five possible.)

RIP John Cater

John Cater had been a freelance reporter at WXIA, WGCL and WSB.  He died Tuesday; an unknown illness hospitalized him at Thanksgiving.  An infection developed.  He never shook it.

Talk about a life cut short.  Cater was 32.

I didn’t know Cater.  He made it into this site twice, once during his coverage of a Tea Party event; the other, for his coverage of the Botanical Garden accident.  Both references were mostly complimentary.

Amani Channel reports that Cater attended last spring’s NABJ conference in Tampa.  “Though I didn’t know him well, I’ll remember his wide smile, his positive outlook, and he was a true broadcast professional,” Channel writes in My Urban Report.

Last year Cater won an Emmy.  In a memo to her staff Tuesday, WXIA news director Ellen Crooke wrote:  “His joy and enthusiasm that night was wonderful to see.  His mother wanted us all to know because she said he loved working in this market and he was very proud of his time at 11Alive.”

Mood swing

It had been two and a half years since I’d covered a killing.  In this case, it was a shooting rampage, fatally injuring three people at Kennesaw’s Penske facility.  “You’re on victims / family,” read the text message.  It was inevitable.  I’d worked five months at WXIA and had successfully avoided such stuff until Wednesday.

The desk had found the address of one of the victims who’d been shot dead by the gunman at Penske.  We drove up to the house in an unmarked vehicle.  A man in his thirties was working on his pickup truck in the driveway, the son of murder victim Van Springer.

Victim: Van Springer

Our car stopped.  I walked up and introduced myself.  He gave me a hard look.  I was matter-of-fact:  “Sorry for your loss.  You know  that this is news and we’re covering it.   If you, or somebody in your family would like to talk to me, we can portray Mr. Springer as someone substantial.  Right now, he’s a name on a list of  victims.”  My words sounded hollow to me.  I could only imagine how they sounded to him.

He wasn’t buying.   Some do, some don’t.  Some victim families want to speak publicly about their loved ones, suddenly thrust in the news because they died horribly.  Others react with anger, and the presence of the news media gives them an opportunity to lash out.  I considered myself fortunate that my unsuccessful conversation with the gentleman was still civil.

“Before I go, may I ask to see a photo of Mr. Springer?  It helps to give the victim a human face.”  I’ve never mastered the spiel in such circumstances.  I figure the less I say, the better.

The man’s gaze softened a bit.  “Let me go ask my wife.”  He disappeared into the house, then returned and said his wife would find a photo.  As I stood on the sidewalk, a crew from WGCL appeared.  Harry Samler walked up.  I told Harry that the family wasn’t interested in talking to us, but was digging up a photo.

Then the man piped up:  “If we talked to you, what would we say?”  Samler and I took turns explaining that a few words describing their loved one would help convey the depth of loss sustained.  “I realize that goes without saying.  But it gives the story context when we know something about the victim and it comes directly from somebody who loved him.”   Once again, the words seemed lacking.  You’d think that a guy with my experience would have a rock-solid spiel memorized for such circumstances.

The wife emerged with a photo.  She and her husband wanted to talk to us, she explained.  But they wanted to discuss it first with the widow, who was making funeral arrangements.  She suggested we check back a few hours later.

Then the mood shifted.

We returned a few hours later.  Nobody was home.  We parked a few houses away, waiting for the son and daughter-in-law to return.

A competitor drove up in a garish, brightly marked live truck and spotted our unmarked car.  We spoke; the competitor lacked the photo of Mr. Springer.  I spilled what I knew:  The family was considering talking on TV, and had already provided us with a photo.  They would probably return shortly.

(Why give such intel to a competitor?  Because they saw us staking out the house, and would figure it out anyway.  Plus, WGCL’s crew knew what I knew, so my info wasn’t “exclusive.”  I knew and liked the reporter and photog, and I like Karma.  Withholding such stuff would have made me secretive and squirrelly, and I’m not a big fan of such behavior when the info isn’t earth-shaking.)

A car drove up to the house.  The competitor pulled up to the house, anxious because their deadline was approaching.  Our car stayed back.

A man I hadn’t seen before appeared on the lawn with a cane.  The reporter emerged from the competitor’s truck.  The man began angrily waving his cane.  I couldn’t hear the conversation, but the communication was clear:  Leave us the hell alone.  The son and daughter-in-law, who were so gracious to me, entered the house and said nothing.  The competing reporter retreated to her live truck, which drove off.   “That was rough,” the photog told me later.

This scenario is typical.  Reporters must ask family members if they want to participate in stories about their murdered loved ones.  Sometimes they are grateful for the opportunity to speak publicly about their loss.  We won’t know until we ask.

Frequently, there is disagreement within the family.  Almost always, the most emotional voices prevail.  If one family member wants to lash out at the media, the other family members won’t stop them.  They already have enough on their plate.

And it almost doesn’t matter how talented or experienced or aggressive or sensitive the reporter is.  Because it’s the family’s call.

I finished that day with a dull headache.  Comparatively, my pain was minor.

Wonky WABE

I left local news in 2007 and returned in 2009.  When I began covering stories again, I noticed one eye-opening change in the news market.

Radio news is different.  WSB radio was the most relevant radio game in town in 2007.  Nowadays, that relevance seems to belong to WABE.

I used to run into WSB radio reporters at stories regularly.  Now I see WABE reporters.  They covered the Atlanta mayor race consistently.  WSB radio seemed puzzlingly absent.

I listen to both stations.  WABE produces local news pieces each weekday on a variety of stories.  WABE also regularly produces feature-length stories, like the clear-headed piece Odette Yousef delivered in November on the toothlessness of the Citizen Review Board, which reviews APD conduct.

By contrast, WSB is fixated on breaking news, plus every-six-minutes traffic and weather during drive times.    It still does enterprise reporting, but very rarely.

WSB radio lost staff over the last few years, and now runs a skeleton crew.  It leans pretty heavily on material from WSB-TV.  Richard Sankster reliably covers overnight mayhem.  Sandra Parrish covers the Capitol admirably.

As Rodney Ho notes, WSB’s ratings seem to be slipping, and WABE’s are surprisingly strong.  However, radio ratings are unpredictable; it’s unlikely WABE will ever become a ratings leader.  Audiences crave personalities, pop culture and mayhem.  WABE delivers that stuff too sparingly for most.

The churn in the radio market isn’t surprising.

Radio news mattered a lot when I first started at WAGA in 1986.  Back then, WGST was the city’s premier news station.  WGST also carried talk shows by Neal Boortz and Clark Howard (as well as Dick Williams, Tom Houck, Mike Malloy, “Ralph from Ben Hill” and Tammy Lloyd).

Ludlow Porch

WGST went on its greatest tear when it snagged Braves baseball broadcasts from WSB, at the same time that the Braves went from worst-to-first in 1991.  If you were on the radio in Atlanta, WGST was the place to be.

Meantime, WSB carried Ludlow Porch’s folksy but mostly irrelevant morning show.  Its local news operation seemed to be a shadow of WGST, which audaciously called itself “the news monster.”  Boortz lampooned WSB’s call letters, saying they stood for “we’re so boring.”

WSB fought back admirably, though.  It jettisoned Porch, and grabbed Howard, Boortz and the Braves from WGST.  For a few years, WGST tried to compete but couldn’t.  It’s now a radio signal sadly carrying mostly syndicated programming, with no local news presence whatsoever.   (See comments for a point of view disputing this observation.)

Overqualified: Odette Yousef, WABE

Enter WABE.  It has a tiny staff.  Its reporters almost never cover breaking news — apparently because WABE management knows NPR’s listeners aren’t interested in local carnage.  It covers issues.  It attends news conferences and city council meetings.  Like other news organizations, it repackages stuff from other media and has plenty of room for improvement.  But it’s smart and it’s relevant.

(Last Friday provided a great example.  WABE ignored the “omigod it’s Armageddon” aspect of the snowfall.  Its 8am local news covered gun rights, prison conditions and homeless issues.  It only mentioned the weather during forecasts and just-the-facts recitals of traffic wrecks.)

Unlike web, newspaper and other broadcast media, WABE offers something genuinely unique:  Wonky, commercial-free local radio news.

Speaking of wonky, Yousef actually plays that harp.  Maybe she learned it at Harvard, where she got a degree in economics and east Asian studies and probably never listened to Joy Division.

Unlike its larger media brethren, WABE has a business model that may actually succeed.  It’s dependent on fundraising, not commercials.    If its management (owned by the Atlanta Board of Education, a whole ‘nother issue that I’ll leave alone here) doesn’t lose its nerve, WABE may be the “mainstream media” cockroach that sticks around long after the rest of us are wiped out.

Hypothetically speaking…

Donna Lowry, WXIA

Suppose you’re assigned to cover the first day of the legislative session.  Suppose you drive straight to the Capitol, learn of a communications snafu, and realize your colleague’s House credentials (and yours, probably) have been distributed at the TV station.  You drive back to the TV station.  You fetch your colleague’s credentials.  But yours are missing.

You lurch around the newsroom, looking for your credential.  An alarmed co-worker named Donna Lowry says, essentially, “WTF?”  You explain you lack a House credential, and the session starts an hour hence.

Suppose your colleague Donna Lowry, who isn’t covering the legislature, makes an offer:  “Use mine!”  She fishes her credential from her desk and hands it to you.   “You think they can tell us apart?” she asks, referring to the photo ID depicting an image far more lovely than the frazzled, un-credentialed male TV news goon has ever produced.

A bemused photog sitting nearby may pipe up:  “Well, Doug’s a bit — taller.”

Suppose you show up at the House chamber.  The doorman, a serious-minded older gent, demands a credential.  You pull Donna Lowry’s credential.  You strategically place your forefinger over a portion of the photo, and casually flash the credential.  The doorman, who also guards the House cloakroom, allows you to enter the press room.

Suppose it happens two more times.  Each time, the doorman demands your credential.  Each time, you show him Donna Lowry’s credential.  Each time, he allows you to pass.

Suppose that happened Monday.  To actually admit to such stuff would invite grave consequences, no?

And to try it again, hypothetically speaking, would be stupid.  Especially now.


Click here to view the “Icy Crash in Roswell” link that was previously embedded here.)

There are many reasons why I don’t run a TV newsroom.  Most have to do with an absence of talent.  Some of it is due to an aversion to the high-wire act that news directors perform career-wise, knowing that their shelf life is historically very short.

Crow: The other white meat

Last week provided a very specific reason:  I lack the foresight to treat a forecast of an inch of snow like the coming of Armageddon.  “Weather ‘event’?!” I snorted at one point during an editorial meeting, 36 hours in advance of Thursday’s night’s snow/ice.

I was skeptically certain that there’d be only a dusting of snow; that TV would overreact to it; and that audiences would watch (because threats of weird weather drive up the numbers of Households Using Television, measurable by ratings services), mostly laugh and everybody would get on with their lives within a day or so.

Shows what I know.

WXIA photog David Brooks shot the above video on Willeo Rd. in Roswell.  For the lady in the pickup truck who slid convincingly into a tree, there was an unmistakable moment of weather-related Armageddon.

Same with the folks who found themselves in the four-car pileup outside Woody’s Cheesesteaks at Virginia and Monroe.  Click here to see video previously embedded below.

The drama photog JoJo Johnson documented (below) on I-20 Thursday night was similar.  Those who made it home unscratched that night probably spent the next 24 hours watching TV coverage of the “weather event.”

Did any other Atlanta station get this kind of material?  Feel free to comment and include a link.

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The bosslady stocked the Thursday night / Friday morning schedule with extra staff, and just about all of ’em had legit stories to tell.  Her competitors did the same thing.

Good call.  Two / three days later, the polar chill and persistent ice are still a pain in Atlanta’s neck, and still a story.

So I’ll stick to blogging.   And my next “yes ma’am” will be especially deferential.