Monthly Archives: January 2017

Watson and Wood

Some dear friends, a couple who live near me, regularly watch 11Alive News. Best I can tell, it’s mostly because they admire the work of Jaye Watson.

Jennifer "Jaye" Watson, plus an admirer / friend

Jennifer “Jaye” Watson, plus an admirer / friend

Jennifer “Jaye” Watson is a seventeen year reporter at 11Alive.  In her earliest days there, a news director ordered her to assume the on-air name of “Jaye.” As the years passed, she evolved into a backup anchor. Under news director Ellen Crooke, she deservedly became a storytelling specialist.  As such, she won a trove of writing and storytelling awards.

Her “moments” on TV typically involved wrenching stories of adversity / triumph of the human spirit, elegantly written and produced collaboratively with 11Alive’s best photographers.

She leaves WXIA Friday January 13th for a job at Emory University.

Our industry loses good people every day.  It’s so commonplace that I have trouble even acknowledging them, much less writing about them.

The losses this coming month are glaring. Watson will blaze a trail for the exit, followed closely by Brenda Wood, Atlanta’s best news anchor. Brenda leaves February 7.

As good and as credible as Brenda is on-air, she is, like Watson, a force majeur when writing and producing stories.  It’s a talent folks rarely get to see in Brenda.  Major market news anchors are more consumed than you might think simply anchoring the news.  Reporting and producing stories becomes secondary.

brendaIt shone when Brenda covered the Olympics in Beijing in 2008.  She also produced top-notch segments in various documentaries, including the retrospective we made last year about the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

And while I’ve known Brenda since she first landed in 1989 at WAGA, Watson has been my day-to-day cubicle buddy — and family friend —  for the last seven years.

Although she’s brilliant and gifted, Watson is also endearingly abrupt and unpredictable, a well-coiffed, walking non-sequitor in sensible shoes. She’s almost laughably warmhearted, passionate about politics, and has a lovely twisted streak. We are dissimilar enough to make the friendship very interesting.

Watson accepts a national Murrow award for TV writing in 2014.

Watson accepts a national Murrow award for TV writing in 2014.

She’s also extraordinarily humble. She has zero awards displayed at her house, though she and her husband Kenny Hamilton, WXIA’s former chief photographer, have probably won fifty Emmys between them, maybe more. When she wins an Emmy, she often gives the statue to the subject of the story.

Weirdly, some of my proudest professional moments have been when Watson has erupted in her cubicle, agitated and searching for a word or phrase in a story she’s writing, and insists upon my help.  On a handful of occasions, she’s sent me a script she didn’t quite like, and asked me to fix it.  Whenever it happened, and I could actually help, I found myself endlessly flattered.  But to be clear: She very rarely needed my help.

Before I got to know her, during my 2008 TV news hiatus, I wrote a piece in this blog about Watson’s writing skills, putting side-by-side her coverage of some garden-variety mayhem against the earnest yet underwhelming coverage of a former WGCL reporter.  The comparison showed there was no comparison.

I probably won’t see her this week.  I’ll be ensconced at the Capitol. She will be, undoubtedly, receiving well-deserved accolades at work — just as Brenda will as February 7 nears. Although Watson is expected to retain an occasional on-air storytelling presence at WXIA, they will be irregular at best.

I could write a whole ‘nother post about how on-air women navigating middle age justifiably fear for their futures in TV news, regardless of their talent.  As a greybeard TV news male, I’m keenly aware of a double standard. The recent abrupt exits of talented, veteran female anchors at a competing local station are all the evidence you need. To its credit, WXIA tried to keep Watson and Wood.

Lea-Anne Jackson conquers eyeware

Lea-Anne Jackson conquers eyeware

January 13 will be a rough day.  Watson leaves, and so does promotions chica Lea-Anne Jackson, whom I’ve known since she was an 80s-era intern at WAGA. She is one of the most quick-witted people in the building; she memorably and adorably photobombed a live shot I did on St. Patrick’s Day a generation ago. One of my greatest pleasures in alighting at WXIA in 2009 was unexpectedly seeing Lea-Anne in a hallway and resuming our friendship.  She is also pals with Watson; their hushed tete-a-tetes at Watson’s adjacent cube frequently led to imagined conspiracies against me.

There may be a public sendoff.  Perhaps I’ll tip off my friends in the neighborhood.

To see Jennifer Watson’s take on her departure, click here.

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Defining “news”

“Why is this news?”

That’s always a reasonable question. Answering it isn’t always easy.

In this instance, the questioner was Steven Maples, attorney for Tex McIver.  We were outside the Fulton County jail just before Christmas.  McIver, charged with felony involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his wife Diane, was about to post bond and exit the jail.  A gaggle of photographers was waiting, plus one reporter.

mciver-release_1482526449995_7456397_ver1-0

Tex McIver (left) exits the Fulton County jail with his attorney Steven Maples

I had met Maples earlier in the week. As attorneys go, he seemed humble and humorous.  My presence in his life at that moment might be viewed by many, under similar circumstances, as an affront.  He didn’t.

While waiting for McIver to get out of the lockup and into the lobby, after a few minutes of amiable smalltalk, Maples pointedly posed the question.  

“Why is this news?”

I rarely cover mayhem at WXIA, and I’m grateful for that.  The McIver story was never my cup of tea.  But news folk often get stuck on stories they might not prefer.  As professionals, we have to embrace — and sometimes even defend — such assignments.

The circumstances, and the people involved, make it newsworthy, I answered.

The circumstances raise reasonable questions of Mr. McIver’s intent.  The investigation raises questions of whether Mr. McIver was getting special treatment from the police.

Maples snorted. He also seemed to appreciate an honest answer.

I also felt he deserved a bit of insight into the unscientific decision making of our business.

The truth is, our audience becomes more engaged in stories like this when those involved are — shall we say — people of means.  That was my diplomatic way of saying: When it’s rich folks involved, it’s more sensational.  (I personally avoid the word “sensational” because it’s a term used to undermine the motivations of the news media, though I can’t argue with its accuracy.)

People are idiots, Maples answered in frustration.  If they knew all the details, they would realize this shooting was a terrible tragedy.

steven-maples

Maples amiably allowed me to “ambush” interview him two days earlier

I wasn’t going to argue about the intelligence of our audience.  There’s a lot of hard evidence out there, especially on the internet, that supports his observation.

That led to a confession.

When I first started in this business, folks in newsrooms had to use their judgment and their smarts to decide what was newsworthy,  I told him. Except for Nielsen ratings and circulation data for newspapers, there was no “science.”  Many stories are obvious.  Some are more subjective. We made judgment calls based on our experience and our instincts and our unscientific knowledge of what we thought the audience wanted and needed to know. We still make those judgment calls.

But nowadays, there’s actual science added to the soup: We can measure which stories have traction on the internet.  The internet provides data measuring actual eyeballs, the type of which we used to only imagine. 

Now that we can count those eyeballs, we use that data to help us decide what stories we should follow. The McIver story, I told him, has a measurable following that we cannot ignore.

People are idiots, Maples said again.

Unfortunately, the internet — with all its awesome measurability — is part of a problem that has gradually eroded the credibility of traditional, commercial news media. We have propped up material on social media as newsworthy. Clickbait sites that traffic in unsubstantiated (or “fake”) news have large followings.

People are also unable to discern the difference between news and editorial.  Opinion pieces and pundit commentary gets lumped together with the product of those of us whose job it is to gather and evenhandedly present factual material.  That’s not just an internet problem, but the stew of “news” on the internet rarely lists the ingredients.

As a result, news is becoming messy and a bit ugly  — unless one actually takes a moment to define it.

Mr. Maples asked a question that ought to get asked more often.