Category Archives: shirek jon

Written on the wind

WXIA reporter Marc Pickard will retire Friday, concluding a 34 year career as one of the premier storytellers in Atlanta TV news. I asked longtime WXIA reporter Jon Shirek to write a few words marking the occasion, excerpted below.

By Jon Shirek

For news to remain “news,” we will always need journalists to dig up stories of public officials committing acts of malfeasance and other offenses of self-centered stupidity at the cost of others. Our government “of the people” depends, in part, on the independent watchdogs of a free press.

Marc Pickard, WXIA

But we will also, always, need investigative reporters whose ammunition includes the spirit and skills of a Charles Kuralt and of a Marc Pickard, who know how to tell the real stories of real life. They serve up a hard-hitting report by gently getting inside the soul of a story . Marc’s gift has included being able to convince a succession of news directors that he will do his best work for them when they trust him and give him lots of room, and let him forge his own path, away from the rutted roads that many of the rest of us tread.

As much as Marc loves TV News and storytelling, he will, with little prompting, tell you with his serene but rascally and nearly always smiling and congenial spirit how much he has grown to hate being subject to the whims of the breaking news gods. Special projects, environmental reporting, health reporting, the years he spent focusing on the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, have been some of what he’s always loved to do. And in every role, on his own terms, he’s broken stories, he’s provoked change, he’s inspired viewers, he’s made a positive difference.

To the end, Marc is still the idealistic and eager cub reporter on his first assignment, in the body of a vet newsguy – scheduling 7am breakfast meetings; at his desk by 8 or 8:30 working the phone; entertaining any and all who stop by his desk. Then he’s at the morning meeting, and out the door.

Where are his thousands of news stories, now? Aside from the relative few that are preserved here or there, it’s left to science fiction writers to speculate about all those TV news stories riding forever at the speed of light on TV signals that drift into other galaxies, maybe for our neighbors to reassemble and see someday as they study what kind of planet is this Earth. And from a man named Marc Pickard, they’ll see the work of a barnstorming Shakespeare skywriting sonnets in the wind that were already wisps of memories by the time he began his next assignment, day after week after month after year, and always, always, having a grand time.

So here are five of Pickard’s news scripts; again, I picked them at random.

A good TV news script is not always self-contained on the printed page, and may not even make complete sense, it needs the video and sound to complete the “package.” Think of these few examples, though, as Pickard “Unplugged.” Notice the notes he writes to the photographers/editors suggesting how he thought his words might fit with what they’d shot.

I would be the first to say: journalism will diminish without Marc Pickard digging, reporting, interviewing — gaining the confidence of people who bare their hearts and souls to him eloquently — meticulously logging every second of every tape, calling back, fact-checking, letting his non-fiction tales emerge on their own, naturally, from seed to blossom, in a day… after day after day. I can’t imagine this place, this city and state, without him finding and telling us his stories.

__________

Some asides:

I could tell you how one Sunday long ago, during Marc’s WSB spot-news life, I witnessed him wearing a tux (!) covering a twelve-hour police SWAT and FBI hostage crisis in downtown Atlanta. He always wore his beeper (this was 1981, way pre-cell-phone), and he had it on with his rarely-worn tux Saturday night, and it went off. He was so focused on the story I don’t think he ever realized he looked like a penguin in the Sahara. No one else but Marc in that unexpected situation could have pulled off Fred Astaire at a crime scene with such understated flair.

I could tell you about the amazing work he and Photographer Mike Zakel did for most of a decade covering the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. WXIA was the “official” Summer Olympics TV station in Atlanta in ’96. More than once, Marc heard second and third hand that competitors were discounting anything Marc aired because he and Mike were simply receiving their scoops on a silver platter. To this day he has never said a word in his own defense. The reality is that ACOG was often too disorganized and overwhelmed to bother much with the likes of us or anyone else in the local news media. Marc and Mike just kept digging, and striking, excuse the pun, gold, on their own with no help from any “official” relationship.

But a few additional years of doing general news stories, often the same ones, over and over again – same song, different verse — he said, wore him down. So he found a way to retire from that type of local news reporting a long time ago; he found a way to pursue the work he loves by doing more of the types of stories he hoped could impact people’s lives for the better.

Marc loves baseball. He loves Braves baseball. He had season tickets long before the Braves began their winning ways in ’91. He held on to those tickets when the Braves moved from Atlanta Fulton County Stadium to Turner Field. These aren’t just seats somewhere at the ballpark. These are behind-the-Braves-dugout seats. As you walk down, down, down the steps toward the field, Walter greets you and escorts you to those seats. You can smell the lawn, hear the whoosh of the fastball, practically talk to the guys as they warm up to bat. Every once in a while when Marc and Jeannie can’t go, he lets go of his tickets, and once in a while I’ve won the scramble to grab ‘em up. That’s how I know.

Pickard, 2nd from left; Shirek, 3rd from right (standing)

Marc’s nickname in the newsroom, and good sport that he is, he’s never complained, is “EarthWorm.” Or, to his closest tormentors, “Worm.” Randy Waters is one of our sports guys who decide someone’s nickname.  Randy came up with Marc’s soon after Marc arrived, because Marc started as the environmental “EarthWatch” reporter. And through all his many other assignments, EarthWorm he’s remained and will always be.

There’s been some talk among the reporters in the newsroom, with Marc eavesdropping surreptitiously as any self-respecting journalist will do, about what will happen to his desk. It’s valuable real estate — News Central for anyone who wants to keep up with what’s going on in our newsroom. It’s in the cubicle cluster consisting Marc, Jaye Watson, Duffie Dixon, Matt Pearl, Kevin Rowson, Julie Wolfe, Bill Liss, with Paul Crawley, Donna Lowry and Jennifer Leslie and the C.I.A. guys Ross and Shawn nearby. More importantly, the desk is the one that’s closest to the office of Marlene Henderson, one of Marc’s best friends, fellow Braves fan, and our newsroom protector whose administrative title does not hint at the millions of little but lifesaving miracles she constantly performs for the rest of us knuckleheads, including listening patiently and sympathetically to anyone who needs a patient and sympathetic ear.

I’ve said we should reserve Marc’s desk, keep it as it is and unoccupied, complete with some of his clutter that he could will to us, and, on top of it, place a small sign engraved, of course, “Gone Fishing.” I’m holding out hope that he’ll get the itch to come back to that desk and do some freelancing in between all those fishing trips.

Advertisements

Karma

In most professions,  your competition is a pain in your neck.  That’s certainly true in the business of TV news.  But today I’m here to praise my competition.  I might even say I’m thankful for them.  But that’s just the tryptophan talking.

The tryptophan reminds me of the time when, following the verdict in the Gold Club trial, we TV news goons were covering the exits at the Federal Courthouse, hunting jurors.

The organized crime trial had lasted for months.  The jurors had heard mind-numbing quantities of disjointed evidence.  When it was over, many jurors were eager to vent.  As they emerged one-by-one, cameras surrounded them and reporters asked them about the evidence.  The jurors mostly stood and answered.

And my photog’s camera died.

Died, as in:  Stopped working.  Wouldn’t record video and audio.  Wouldn’t roll when he hit the “REC” button.  Thus, all this one-time-only material went uncaptured by WAGA-TV, which had covered the trial from start to finish.

That’s when a competitor stepped in.  Jon Shirek of WXIA-TV and I had listened to much of the Gold Club trial testimony together.  We’d killed countless lunch hours together in the courthouse cafeteria.  We’d compared quotes from testimony because the damned US Supreme Court won’t allow recording devices in Federal courtrooms.

Shirek saw what was happening to us.  He and photog Mike Zakel offered to dub and share their juror video.  With no other options, I gratefully accepted.  Funny thing is this:  If Shirek hadn’t offered, I’m pretty sure Jeff Dore and / or Lyn Harasin at WSB would have made the same offer.

This sharing-of-video isn’t exactly commonplace.  But in a situation where exclusivity isn’t an issue — and where the competitor is facing an “it could happen to anybody” technical issue — such sharing is a back-alley secret that usually takes place with management never finding out.  The payoff is Karma.  I can’t remember the specifics, but I’ve slipped video to a few competitors in my day.  They, too, were grateful.

UPI photo

This unlikely competitive behavior apparently dates back to the early days of TV news.  Don McClellan touchingly outlines a similar incident in his blog.  The story was the aftermath of the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As McClellan writes, he was at the Atlanta airport covering the return of King’s remains for WSB.  McClellan was the voice behind a hard-wired live shot as the passengers and cargo emerged.

We were the only live shot when the plane landed.    Our pictures and my voice were the only ones on all three networks:  NBC, CBS and ABC.  There were no others in 1968.   I was trying to describe what was happening from a distance without being able to see things clearly across the tarmac.  Engineers had not had time to set up a monitor.    Suddenly beside and beneath me was Jim Axel [of WAGA] with this tiny battery powered monitor.   Though we were  competitors, Jim held the monitor directly in front of me so I could identify the members of the entourage accompanying Dr. King’s body.

Taking a dive: Don McClellan, WSB

McClellan has been writing some retrospective posts of late, looking back at his long career in Atlanta TV news.  Though he also writes about his medical issues, his marathon running and his skydiving exploits, his recent historical posts are worth reading.

He wrote this about his correspondence with King’s assassin, James Earl Ray.

Here’s a piece about Mayor Ivan Allen hitching a ride with McClellan following a visit to Atlanta by Lyndon Johnson.

Here are two pieces about racially-charged events he covered, one by the Black Panthers and the other by the Ku Klux Klan.

Scroll through his blog back to August 2009 and beyond, and another succession of memories-from-TV flows in his posts.  Don McClellan’s blog is now linked under “Atlanta TV blogs” to the right.

Re-education camp

Earlier this month, WXIA sent one of its most experienced reporters to backpack journalism school and scheduled classes for another. The reporters, Paul Crawley and Jon Shirek, began work in TV news during the film era. Crawley (left) joined WXIA in 1978, Shirek in 1980.

“Backpack journalism” is a 21st century term for a brutal concept typically reserved for the smallest TV markets: One-man-band TV coverage. The reporter also shoots and edits. And drives. And makes phone calls. “Backpack” refers to the lighter, less durable, less versatile cameras assigned to these souls.

WXIA already has three full-time backpackers. Jerry Carnes was a one-man-band at the station’s now-defunct Athens bureau when he started twenty years ago. He “volunteered” to do it again. Youngsters Julie Wolfe and Catherine Kim were hired as guinea pigs for the labor-saving experiment.

Apparently, WXIA is now asking reporters seeking contract renewal a question: Wanna go to backpack school? There’s only one correct answer, by the way.

Shirek spent three days in Asbury Park NJ with instructors produced by Gannett. The instructors were there to familiarize the reporter with the gear and the routine of the backpack journalist. He would learn focus and color balance. He would learn tape ingestion and non-linear editing.

WXIA has some of the best TV photographers in the Southeast, some nationally recognized. The seminar gives Shirek and Crawley three days to learn to do what their camera-toting colleagues have done for decades.

WXIA is no doubt emboldened by the success of Julie Wolfe, who has quickly begun to stand out on WXIA’s staff. The UGA grad has a keen eye behind the viewfinder and routinely shoots artful video that stands up well with the veteran photogs at WXIA. Wolfe is also a sharp storyteller. Her vocal delivery isn’t crisp enough yet. But when the assignment desk sends Wolfe out, alone, to produce a story, they’ll almost always get something solid in return. And they’ll certainly get their money’s worth.

Wolfe also produces with one hand figuratively tied behind her back. The information that yields a top-grade TV story typically doesn’t come easily. TV reporters at Atlanta stations are constantly making and fielding phone calls while their photographers are driving and navigating. Wolfe is driving and dialing.

This isn’t just about the obvious danger of compelling a reporter to look up phone numbers, dial and receive calls while changing lanes on I-285. Reporters make phone calls that go beyond that day’s newsgathering effort. They stay in touch with sources. They sound out stories for later in the week. They do it while en route to locations. They also do it while their photographers are shooting and editing. Wolfe, as driver, shooter and editor, is hamstrung as a reporter.

TV reporting isn’t rocket science. It’s not a science at all. There are many shades of grey, and they appear in different forms in story after story. Reporters have to make judgments quickly. Photographers help with those judgments, especially when the reporter is young and inexperienced. If Wolfe wants to bounce an idea off somebody, she has to make another phone call to WXIA’s newsroom.

Crawley and Shirek are certainly experienced enough to handle the rigors of backpack journalism and the challenges of solo newsgathering.

But WXIA is cheating itself, and its viewers. Its competitors are getting better information, by definition. By persisting in this sad experiment, WXIA sends a message its audience:

Expect less.

This corrects an earlier version which mistakenly reported that Crawley attended the school this month. 

Good, bad, ugly

The Good: Jon Shirek’s 6pm piece on WXIA on gas-crunch changes in auto sales. Shirek spoke with a dealer who no longer takes SUVs on trade-ins. He also revealed that hybrids may be less cost-effective than an old fashioned four-cyclinder buggy. As always, Shirek’s piece was thoughtful and well-written.

The Bad: WXIA’s new and unclever slogan: “Your gas station station.”

The Ugly: On WXIA / WATL’s 10pm news, management ordered the station to play an extended promotion for a new entertainment web site in the middle of the newscast. The promo was fronted by a chatty radio DJ, and seemed to go on forever. When the camera finally cut back to Brenda Wood and Ted Hall, they couldn’t conceal their embarrassment.

Shirek’s Book of Revelations

This is how you cover an apartment fire. The best story on WXIA’s 7pm news Monday was Jon Shirek’s piece about a complex that burned overnight. The story could have been a cliche, filled with phrases like “lucky to be alive” and “picking up the pieces of their broken lives.” Shirek, one of the best TV news writers in town, knows better. He found a woman who survived the fire (everybody got out alive). He revealed that the woman had also survived the March tornado. Then he revealed that she had been displaced by hurricane Katrina.  Sounds not-so-compelling here.  Shirek worked it.

Shirek’s storytelling was a newswriting clinic, uncovering each element as the story developed– giving the audience a small “holy smokes!” moment with each revelation. Shirek has been around a long time and has doubtless told this story countless times. He made this one memorable. Regrettably, it doesn’t appear to be on 11’s web site.