Author Archive

When is a Census Taker like a News Director?

-first posted at on March 30, 2010

If you’re a baby boomer like myself, I bet you’ve already sent in your census form.  I got mine about two weeks ago.  I threw it on the kitchen table when I came in after a long day in the newsroom, saying I’d deal with it the next day.  And I did.  The next morning (it was a Saturday), I opened the envelope, found the basic short form, and filled it out on the spot.  Within two minutes of opening the envelope, I had completed the form and was sticking it back in the return envelope.  By later that afternoon, I had already dropped it in a mailbox.

Not so with my son.  He’s 22, a college student, and lives in a duplex across town with his roommate.  I found his census form—still in the envelope in which it arrived—crumpled on the floor of the backseat of my car today.  Alex had used my car over the weekend to avoid putting the roof back on his little Datsun roadster when it was raining.  I was cleaning out his (and my) junk in the warm afternoon sun today and found the envelope.  I brought it in when I got home tonight, expecting Alex for dinner.  I mentioned it to him and pointed it out on the table in the hallway.  It’s still there.  Alex left without taking it with him.

So why did I fill out my form within 24 hours of when I got it and my son probably won’t fill his out at all?  The same reason I’ve missed voting in only one election in the last 30 years.  Presidential, state, municipal—I’ve only missed the one election when I was in Arizona a few days after my father’s death.  I filled out the census form for the same reason I would watch the news every night even if I didn’t make the news.  Because it’s the right thing to do for me, for society, and for this democracy.

Now, if you’re younger than about 35 or 40, that may sound borderline jingoistic.  But I’m not a zealot—I’m just a citizen.  Members of my cohort in school learned that we need to participate in democracy to make it work.  Sure we were indoctrinated, like school children usually are.  But it stuck with us because the package all fit together so well.  It appealed to me that the great American machine only worked if all the cogs were doing their part.  I sure don’t think about myself as a cog now, but to my young mind, there was a mechanical coolness to it.  I know that those of you around 50 or so know what I’m talking about.  And I know a bunch of you filled out your census form right away, too.

Not so with my son.  He voted in the Obama-McCain race because he saw its historic nature.  But I’m pretty sure he’s never voted any other time.  He doesn’t see the point in voting for the races that don’t interest him.  He’s not alone—look at voter turnout if you’re having municipal elections in the next month or so.  The census form doesn’t matter to Alex because he can’t see what’s in it for him.  It seems like a constitutionally-guaranteed inconvenience to him, so he’s skipping it.

So what’s all this got to do with news?  Alex doesn’t watch the news either.  He’s a smart kid, interested in politics and current events, but the news bores him.  He’ll check out “The Daily Show” a couple of times a week.  But local news?  Blah.  Like the elections and the census forms, he just doesn’t see the return on the investment.

As you might guess, I’ve been amused at all the efforts by the Census Bureau, local politicians, and others to get on the news as often as possible to remind people to fill out their forms and send them back.  They have news conference after news conference trying to get us to cover the census story over and over and get people thinking about sending the forms back.  What they don’t get is that the people who are watching the news already ARE the ones who send back their forms each time.  To say they’re preaching to the choir would be an understatement.  The same traits that guarantee news viewing also guarantee census form compliance.  It’s a slam dunk.

With this being the first census in which Millennials are living in their own households, I’m predicting the worst census return rate of the last 220 years.  And the decline over the last three or four censuses should mirror the decline in news viewing habits over the same period.  Neither is a good thing.  So what can we do about it?  I turn to the same thing that made me the super census responder/voter/news consumer I am now—education.  Our schools educated us to know the importance of participation in a democracy, so now we take it seriously.  We need a similar approach to media and news literacy, so that young students will grow into adulthood knowing the importance of staying informed.  I’ve written on news literacy before, so I won’t belabor the point here.  Check out this old blog if you want to know more:

The failures of this census will be obvious in black and white once the numbers come out.  And we’ll spend the next ten years trying to figure out how to get young people to respond better.  The failures of the same group to watch the news won’t be so obvious, but the problems resulting from that failure will be far worse.  And we won’t have ten years to fix them.

Tiers for Fears

-first posted at on March 23, 2010

I’ve spent the past few days helping judge the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors awards here in Columbia.  The awards honor the best in investigative reporting for print, web, broadcast and more.  To get this job done, a team of five of us from all media have been slugging through the entries to pick the winner.  The other broadcaster on the team is one of the all-time great TV investigative reporters—Lea Thompson.  Over her years at WRC-TV in Washington, NBC News, and Dateline NBC, she has done more investigations that have affected your life than you probably know.  From asbestos-filled hair dryers to dangerous DPT shots, she’s looked out for all of us with her reporting time and time again.

Sitting with Lea and the rest of the judges, we’ve seen the work of other current TV investigative reporting greats—all at the local level.  Whether it’s Tony Kovaleski in Denver, Mark Greenblatt in Houston, Byron Harris in Dallas, Bob Segall in Indianapolis, or dozens of others, these reporters are looking out for us in our own communities all the time.  They are, when you think about it, one of the best things about local TV news.  And in all this economic turmoil we’ve been through for the past 18 months, all of this fear about the future we’ve been facing, they’re something more.  They are anchors in a much truer sense of the word that the people who read our intros every night.  They are anchors around which we can build a new structure that will make TV news indispensible to our viewers.

The plan I’ll suggest here is something I’ve been mentioning in interviews and casual conversations since before I was elected RTDNA chairman.  I believe it’s a way to stop fighting the inevitable economic changes that will continue in our newsrooms and instead, hop aboard that wave of change to ride it to a better place.  We can take control of our newsroom destinies now if we realize what we can’t change and stop worrying about that, and instead shift our focus toward the areas where we still have control.  One of those areas is how we spend our limited resources.  I’m suggesting we set up a system of tiers in our newsrooms that focuses our hiring resources toward a top tier of specialists who can differentiate what we do from the competition.  Investigative reporters are one type of specialist we can hire.  But before I get to the others, let’s talk about the tiers in general.

TV newsrooms have really been mostly a pool activity for as long as they’ve been around.  Unlike the beat system that defines most newspaper newsrooms, we’ve been a system of generalists.  There are a finite number of newscasts to do each day (now add in web and mobile stories) and we all pitch in to get them done.  Sure, specialties have existed—including investigative reporting—but they’ve often been seen as luxuries we set off to the side to do when we can afford it.  Well, I’m making the argument now we can’t afford NOT to have these specialties.  They must be part of a tier—the top tier—of what we do in the newsroom.   Below that, another tier for those crews who’ll cover breaking news and continuing stories.  And below that again, the final tier would serve the producers with boilerplate content.

Let’s start at the bottom and define that a bit more.  The simplest stories we do each day are the ones that everyone does—the United Way news conference, the accident on the interstate in rush hour, the news release from the mayor’s office.  These stories do not need specialists.  They need a camera and a mic and a warm body to take notes.  I often tell my folks who go to these that they come back as recorders, not reporters, since they’re just regurgitating some basic W’s.  In some of the larger markets, this work has been pushed off to a local news service, an LNS, that produces the exact same work for all the stations who are members.  It’s natural to bristle a bit at the suggestion that you use the same video and information as your competitors.  But isn’t that pretty much what we do already?  Viewers at home can’t tell that your camera was two feet to the left of Brand X’s camera at that news conference.  It looks the same to them, so why use up valuable resources to shoot two different versions?  At this generalist level, the skills needed are quite minimal.  So the beauty here—the benefit that helps large markets the most—is that these can be entry-level jobs regardless of market size.  Kids right out of college can do this job in New York City.  And they’ll do it for dirt-cheap wages.

Now let’s look at the next tier up. I’m going to coin a new label here and call them “middle-lists”—halfway between generalists and specialists.  These folks tackle the stories between the run of the mill stuff the generalists do and what you need the specialists to shine on.  I’m thinking our best approach here is to make this tier where your breaking news team lives.  You can still use fairly young people for this (after all, they run faster), but now you’re looking for some more specific skills—great live performers, fast at thinking on their feet, aggressive with sources, that sort of thing.  Once again, these can be people new to your newsroom or new to the business—no need to work up the ladder for a long time anymore.  Suddenly, that’s a new benefit.  It means New York can hire New Yorkers, Seattle can hire Seattleites, and so on.  That satisfies the need Millennials have to work in their hometowns, and that serves newsrooms better as the live reporters won’t mispronounce the place names so much.

So I see the generalists and the middleists pretty much coming out of college to take these jobs.  They’ll be cheap and plentiful, keeping the price down and working for the thrill of it.  That (particularly if the generalists are pooled through LNS operations), will keep personnel costs much cheaper.  And that will free up money for two things—satisfying the owners’ need for profits, and really hiring the best specialists for the job.

Now, I mentioned before that the specialists would be, for instance, your investigative reporters.  I do believe every station needs one and should spend the money on getting a very good one (or team actually).  Who might the other specialists be?  That would depend on your market.  Let’s go back to those cities I mentioned before.  Seattle would probably want an aviation specialist. New York might want a labor specialist.  We’d need a tourism specialist in Miami, an environmental specialist in Denver, an immigration specialist in Tucson, and so on.  Each station could hire as many specialists as it thought it needed (and could find budget for).  And they’d be great reporters.  The extra pay would mean news directors would look through the ranks of generalists and middleists at their stations and others to find the people to promote.  That’s an incentive for those lower tiers to work hard to move up.  Those good enough to do so would.  Those not good enough would get tired of the low pay and get out of the business, making room for potentially better people to take their spots.  Darwin would be proud.

This system doesn’t change producing or assignments or newsroom management as a whole—though some of that certainly needs changing, too.  But it does smart-size your most important news gatherers and gives them a reason to work hard in order to grow.  It rewards our best reporters with jobs where they can sink their teeth into something more satisfying than a vo on a fire downtown, keeping them around longer and rewarding them monetarily and culturally for a job done well.

It does make me wonder, as we wrap up our IRE judging, how many more entries we’d have in this contest, the Murrows, and all the others, if we had a system that turned out specialists at the rate of which we’re capable.  I think it would be a pretty long weekend of judging.  But I wouldn’t complain at all.

Something New Under the Sun in the Media Blame Game

-first posted at on March 16, 2010

By now I’ve gotten pretty used to the “blame the media” game from the politicians. It started years ago when one of them found himself in a hotspot.  He’d point to the media and say how they were on a witch hunt to get him.  The ploy worked well enough with sympathetic audience members that it stuck.  It eventually worked its way up to the very top, reaching the vice presidency and then the presidency.  Many used this approach, but let’s start with Spiro Agnew (just because he’s a figure not enough young people know about.  Oddly, his remarks sound almost flattering compared to today’s attacks.  He once called members of the media part of a “tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one.”  His eventual former boss, Richard Nixon, wasn’t so gentlemanly in his remarks.  In 1973, following reporting on the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre”—the name given to Nixon’s dismissal of the Watergate special prosecutor and the ensuing fallout in the justice department—Nixon let the reporters in the White House have it, calling them “frantic” and “hysterical.”  Take a look at this excerpt of Nixon’s news conference to get a feel for the animosity there—and be sure you stick around for the punch line at the end:

Nixon, Agnew, and countless politicians before them all reacted to what they perceived as attacks from the media with retaliation through name calling and belittlement.  It was tit for tat back then, with those in the crosshairs firing back once the media lobbed in their perceived shells.

But skip forward a generation and the game changed.  By the 1990s the strategy had shifted to having the politicians attack first—not reacting to stories but lashing out first to characterize the media as lazy, lowdown, and leftist.  Politicians quickly found if they could put doubt about the intentions and the abilities of the media in the minds of citizens sympathetic to their side, they could move the reporting of said media farther outside those citizens’ acceptable perceptual zone. This “us against them” approach was pretty successful.  Once reporters became the bad guys, then politicians could wear the mask of the persecuted, asking all to look on them with pity as if the media were nothing more than playground bullies picking on the one honest child there.

The interesting thing about this pre-emptive approach was that it all stayed pretty much about the reporting.  Even when calling reporters out before the story aired, there of course had been another story before that.  Politicians were able to use the track record of reporters—even if fictitious—to let their supporters know those reporters were not on the right side of the issue.  But as another generation begins to roll around, the target on journalists’ backs is being painted in whole new way—one you might find quite personal and downright dishonest.

The politician in this case is perhaps the most famous sheriff in America.  Seventy-seven year old Joe Arpaio calls himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”  He certainly patrols some of its toughest territory—massive Maricopa County, Arizona, home to 8,600 square miles of desert and about 600 square miles of Phoenix.  Arpaio is perhaps best known as the guy who dresses his inmates in pink underwear. He’s also the guy under investigation right now by the FBI and Department of Justice.  He likes us to talk about the underwear—not so much the investigations.

I should stop right here for a moment, in the interest of transparency, to say that my 79-year-old mother “works” for Arpaio—sort of.  She’s an unpaid volunteer for his “Posse” (yes, that’s what he calls it) in her retirement community of Sun City West.  It sounds like she chases down fugitives on horseback, but she really directs traffic and such.  That’s my connection to the story.  Read into it what you will.

So back to those investigations.  They have been, as you might guess, a pretty big story in Phoenix.  Everyone is working the story.  And just as it has always been in every newsroom, when the big story comes along you want to win it and you want to rub your competitors’ noses in it.  At least that’s what I figured was at play when RTDNA member and KNXV-TV news director Joe Hengemuehler wrote this e-mail to his investigative reporter Josh Bernstein:

Subject: Arpaio Coverage


This note is a follow-up to the meeting we had this morning.  Please take a look at the aggressive reporting that two of our competitors are doing on the Arpaio story. These stories were produced yesterday. And please note that both reporters who produced deep packages on Arpaio are out of their station’s investigative units.

As discussed this morning, I want you to own this story. I want you to be as aggressive about covering the Arpaio story as you are about covering any other story. You’ve told me that you’ve told the Sheriff that you are going to come after him when there’s a story. That time is now.

Most of all Josh, I don’t want to get beat by anyone, print, broadcast or online on this story. And I do not want our investigative brand to be diminished in any way.

We have some ground to make up on this one. Let’s start today — by advancing this story and let’s exhaust every angle going forward.

Now, you might wonder why I have this email to share with you.  It looks like Bernstein did one of those moves we all do from time to time and accidentally forwarded that message out with other he intended for county government.  So the e-mail ended up in the sheriff’s hands.  And what did Arpaio do with it?  He posted it on his official website under a section called “The Truth Behind the Headlines.”  Now, leaving aside for a moment that the e-mail wasn’t a “headline,” let’s look at it again.  I’m a news director and I want my reporters to be aggressive on the big story.  And to me, that’s all we have here.  This is no smoking gun that the reporter is out to get the sheriff.  This is a news manager telling his reporter he’s getting beaten on a story and that he’d better get back in the game.

Arpaio saw it differently. He prefaced the e-mail with this:

The following is a letter from Channel 15’s news director, Joe Hengemuehler, to a reporter at the station, Josh Bernstein, that was made public today. The letter shows that Channel 15’s news director now wants his investigative reporter, Bernstein, to “come after” the Sheriff. The letter did not admonish Bernstein to be fair and impartial in his coverage of Arpaio but rather to “COME AFTER” him.

Given the email correspondence printed below, Sheriff Arpaio and the Office as a whole fully expect that Channel 15 will soon line up behind KPHO 5 and KPNX 12 as well as the Arizona Republic in a collective effort to denigrate Arpaio and the Office at every given opportunity.

Clearly we expect our reporters to be fair and impartial every time they hit the streets for us.  I don’t need to put it in an e-mail.  But Arpaio’s twisting Hengemuehler’s words in hopes the friendly readers of his site will take his side.  And they probably do.  And they’re not the only ones.

The e-mail’s not the only critique of the media you’ll find in the “Truth” section of the MCSO’s site.  Arpaio has his employees doing what are basically truth squad reports on stories that air in the market—I’m talking full packages here.  Sheriff’s deputies and PR types voice stories and appear as soundbites in pieces that rebut what’s been reported negatively about the sheriff.  The reports usually attack a line or two of a story, though not always saying they are completely wrong.  You can view the “stories” here ( to see what I mean.

I have to admit the sheriff might be onto something here.  I don’t know if he’s considering retirement any time soon, but he may want to start a business consulting with big corporations.  Imagine how different our view of the Toyota problems would be if we got to hear the “truth” from Toyota employees about how wrong the stories have been about the accelerator problems in their cars.  I know I’d feel a lot better about the boys at AIG if some of their folks could do a report for me on how the company had been wronged by all the media attention (and they sure could buy some nice HD gear with some of that bonus money).  And we could probably have this whole health care debate behind us by now if all the “truthful” reporting on that one could have been done by Obama administration spokespeople.

I know my mom will be angry with me for this one when she reads it (and I do hope my mom reads these blogs), but sheriff, you’re shooting blanks on this one.

The View from the Dais

-first posted at on March 9, 2010

I’ll close out the coverage of last week’s First Amendment Awards dinner with a few thoughts I collected from my vantage point looking out over the event.  I was on the rear left of the platform party, as viewed from the audience.  Check out the videos from the event and you’ll see me there behind Leon Harris in the front row.  My role on the dais was, as I joked to Bill Roswell, just to be a pretty face.  The RTDNA chairman has no official role at the First Amendment dinner.  For me, that will come next year when I take over the position of RTDNF chairman.  I was the only one on the platform without a speaking role, which left me free to look and listen all night.

What I saw and heard from my perch pleased me.  The room was electric that night.  There was, of course, the low roar of 500 people conversing and having a good time.  But there was more than that.  There was a sort of charged hum to it, too.  I think that sound was coming from so many people in tune in the same place on the same night.  It was a happy hum, and the hum was just the soundtrack to the visuals in the room.   With the full house that we had, I could see a sea of faces and shoulders and smiles sweeping all the way back into the dark recesses of the room.  I mention the smiles because there were so many, with candlelight and camera flashes reflecting back to me off all those exposed teeth.  These people were having a good time.

More than a couple of people at the event that evening said the feel in the room took them back fifty years to the old RTNDA dinner scene we all saw in “Good Night and Good Luck.”  The black tie, black and white dinner that opens and closes the film had the same vibe as the dinner last Thursday.  The movie shows a group of men and women at the convention in 1958 waiting to hear from Edward R. Murrow.  They laugh, talk, clink glasses, and set up the same sort of a scene as we had last week.  Perhaps the same electricity that accompanied Ed Murrow all those years ago was with us in the room as we honored today’s network TV and radio’s top names.

Now, one thing that was different—thankfully—from 1958 was the diverse nature of the crowd in our room.  Murrow’s audience was made up of mostly newsmen and their wives.  Ours was anything but that.  In every row and across the room, professional men and women shared the roles of boss and worker, reporter and producer, editor and writer.  News people of color populated the tables in a way not possible in 1958.  The combination of an old time feel with the modern advances in our business turned our scene into a mix of nostalgia and modernity.

As the speeches began, there was something else I could see that might have eluded the rest of the platform party and gathered diners.  Each honoree grabbed hold of the audience and did not let go the entire time at the microphone.  I could see their eyes light up as they leaned in the hear David Westin’s pledge to transform journalism to protect it for future generations.  I could see their expressions of solidarity as they listened to Barbara Cochran call on the Surpreme Court to allow cameras and microphones into its proceedings.  I could see their tears of joy as Harvey Nagler asked Cami McCormick to stand to the applause of the room.  I could see their nods of agreement when Marcellus Alexander proclaimed this is a great time to be a broadcaster.  And I could see their grins of glee as they chuckled through Brian Williams’ Bob Schieffer impression.  I saw it all.

The entire evening is one I will not soon forget.  I hope that everyone in the audience and the rest of the platform party, each with his or her own vantage point on the events of the evening, enjoyed the sights and the sounds as much as I did.  Next year I’ll be the emcee of the event and will see it in another way altogether.  I don’t know yet who the honorees will be that night, but I know our new association chairman will be sitting behind me in my old seat.  I’m going to advise him in advance to enjoy his view from the dais.

They Want What You Have

-first posted at on March 2, 2010

My town had its big annual documentary shindig this past weekend, the True/False Film Fest.  In its seventh year, the four-day event draws somewhere around 10,000 people to fill the seats of eight quirky film venues in this town of 100,000.  Organizers roll about 35 different films through the weekend, with subject matter ranging from the war in Iraq to Joan Rivers.  Crowds line up in the Missouri February chill to pack in to get the last few seats for showings that run into the wee hours of the morning.  My wife and I were among them, sliding into squeaky theater seats for about a dozen films—including a marathon six in a row on Saturday.

Crazed Christmas shoppers have their “Black Friday”—this is my equivalent.  I look forward to True/False weekend all year long and block out my schedule completely so that I can immerse myself in the documentaries one after another.  And I’m not the only one.  Walking by the other passholders, we compare notes on how many we’ve already seen, trying to show off our cinematic stamina.  And it hit me this year, amidst my theater-seat travels to Finland, Cambodia, and beyond that the success of this festival tells us a lot about TV news.

You see, the reason people travel from all over the world to a town that’s frankly not so easy to get to, the reason they line up in the cold to see these films, the reason the True/False Film fest even exists at all is because people LOVE real life stories.  And they love them even more on a grand scale.  Immerse some real people as characters in a tale about something really important and you’ve got the recipe for a great documentary.  And can tell you without even checking my news directors’ cookbook that’s the same recipe you use to make great TV news.

In case you don’t have that cookbook right there at your desk, let me tell you what’s in your viewers’ favorite recipe.  It begins with a great central character.  The film fest was full of them.  I was completely drawn to a pair of South Korean-born Danish comedians who found themselves part of an elaborate film project deep in the heart of North Korea—oh, and did I mention one of the comedians has cerebral palsy?  I couldn’t stop watching as an Alaska native returned to his home state hoping that global warming would be the help he needed to realize his dream of owning his very own gold mine.  And I wanted to look away but couldn’t as a pair of Pol Pot’s Cambodian killers related their murderous and cannibalistic ways in the Killing Fields.  The audiences were on the edge of their seats for these characters, just as the crucial characters we use in our very own newscasts draw people ever so much closer to their TV.  The Katrina victim, the hero cop, and the dying cancer patient are the characters we use to tell our stories.  And often, they’re the neighbors and friends of the people watching, carrying even more impact the faraway documentary casts.

Beyond the characters, the recipe calls for some measure of importance in the material at hand.  Some important films at the fest featured wars between nations, while others focused on that quiet war between teenagers and their parents.  Politics, pollution, poverty—those were some of the important topics covered by this magnetic group of films.  How many of those have you covered the past few months?  You can see there’s a familiarity to the documentary recipe that’s just like something you cook every day.

Perhaps the last main ingredient (before the directors add their own particular blend of cinematic herbs and spices) is the liberal application of beautiful visuals and breathtaking sound.  I spent my weekend taking in the delicate landscapes of China, the sturdy peaks of the Italian Alps, and the windswept vistas of the American west, all captured in full-on high definition film and video.  But what industry employs more talented visual craftspeople turning out more beautiful footage every day than the TV news business?  We have captured the tough and tender images of our communities for years.  Filmmakers I saw last weekend talked of the hours of footage they had to go through in a year’s time of making their docs.  Our teams shoot and edit that much every day.

Smart, engaged, and active people paid good money to travel to Columbia, Missouri last weekend to watch what you distribute for free every day.  They’re the kind of people you want watching your news.  They’re the kind of people your advertisers want seeing their commercials.  And all you need to do to get them is to follow the recipe.

We’ve strayed from the right ingredients before and driven this group away.  News that doesn’t matter will ruin the dish.  Too many meaningless crime stories, too many celebrities, too many attempts to cover breaking news before we know it’s even real news.  That leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the people with the palates most in tune with what you’re cooking.

There’s one final ingredient—one that some think they can leave out and still satisfy their customers.  Reality TV is a good example.  It looks like documentaries—or even news—at times, but it’s a poor imitation.  It’s had its faux success by turning out cheap, greasy junk food versions of the dishes you and the documentarians create.  The characters are there, flimsy as they often are, but the recipe lacks importance and beauty.  Beyond that, it lacks honesty.   Reality TV cannot captivate a news audience for very long because the dishonesty begins to shine through.  That’s the sickening aftertaste it leaves behind that turns the stomach of true news viewers.

I cleansed my palate at the table of a good portion of the great films last weekend.  I left each one with a growing sense of how wholesome and good TV news is if we stick to the right recipe.  The documentary filmmakers know it.  They treasure their recipes like a gift handed down from generation to generation.  We’ve been careless with ours.  Find the recipe again, choose only the finest ingredients, and when it’s ready, serve liberal portions.  If you do, you’ll have them coming back for more.

Bad Eldrick, Bad

May 30, 2010 1 comment

-first posted at on February 23, 2010

Henceforth I will always refer to the golfer most of you know as “Tiger” as Eldrick.

Why?  Well, after the so-called “news conference” Eldrick held last week, it’s time something be called by its proper name.  So forget “Tiger” Woods.  I’m going to use Eldrick Woods from here on out.  You see, a news conference denotes a sharing of information, a give and take, a two-way street.  While I’m not debating the newsworthiness of Eldrick’s reading of a prepared statement, it was not a news conference.  For that we’d need questions from reporters and answers from Eldrick. We got neither.

Eldrick gave a 14-minute speech that was carried around the globe on the air and online.  The speech, written in advance and rehearsed in both its performance and its reception by the loved ones staged in the room, was not what journalists wanted.  But it was better than what we got before.  Faithful readers of will recall that, less than a week after Eldrick’s “accident” outside his home in Florida, I wrote to say the golfer should be facing the media right away, telling at least a partial truth about a spat with his wife, and answering reporters’ questions. Had Eldrick done what I suggested then, I daresay he would never have needed to have the most sordid details of his private life go public.  Instead of releasing statements at the time on his web page, Eldrick should have come out and said, “Look, I had an argument with my wife over something stupid I did, drove off in a huff, and crashed my car.”  Men would have accepted the explanation, knowing how they can anger their wives from time to time, and women would have appreciated Eldrick’s admission that he was the one who did something stupid.  And short of Elin divorcing him in the wake of that admission (something that would have probably been less likely then than it is now after the way the alleged affairs went public),  reporters—us—would have likely not seen much of a story there and moved on.

So Eldrick did not then and still has not faced reporters and answered their questions. I made no bones before about my belief that no one becomes a superstar without the complicity of the media and their role in putting an athlete, actor, or other would-be star in front of the public to begin with.  With that introduction comes a debt to the media and the public to be theirs in some special, celebrity-driven way.  Eldrick has hidden from paying back that debt and it has cost him dearly.

What can we do about these celebrity-debt welchers?  First—and you can see I’m serious about this—don’t call what happened Friday a news conference (or a “press” conference if you want to conjure the anachronistic notion that we somehow broadcast through the use of printing presses).  Second, fight back when any number of nobodies in your locale decide they want to do their media appearances like Eldrick did.  Do NOT agree to so-called news conferences that limit your right to ask questions and have a dialogue with the subject.  Once again, I’m reminded of a not so long ago blog in which one clear-thinking news director in Knoxville, Bill Shory, protested that very tactic by the outgoing head football chump at the University of Tennessee.  Do NOT agree to any terms that keep you from asking questions.  For Eldrick, we bent over and took it because of the size of the story.  But that’s a dangerous position in which to leave yourself.  What we saw from him could easily have been recorded and “released” on YouTube.  Do you want that to be the method by which you get all your soundbites?

Finally, make what you’re doing public.  If someone calls a “news conference” that has no conferencing and doesn’t really allow anyone from the news to participate, say so—on the air.  Every time we get a prepared statement read on camera, something released in a pre-recorded video, or any other form of theater that pretends to be an encounter with reporters but really isn’t, we MUST tell our viewers, listeners, and readers about it.  These cowardly tactics only work if we go along with them.  If we don’t, if we protest and report that protest and the practices they call out to the public, then we weaken the approach.  And once it’s weak enough it will stop on its own.

When people step in front of a room full of cameras and microphones and reporters, they need to know the way those rooms operate.  We call the shots there, not the subjects.  And that should always be the rule, whether some small town politician is facing the glare of the camera lights, or whether it’s Eldrick.

The Discomfort of Change

-first posted at on February 16, 2010

My station changed its weather web page last week.  We had, up until then, a weather page that was terrific…in 2005.  We made some changes over the years, but it just had not kept up with the needs people had for weather sites online.  I even found myself, while managing our site on a daily basis, needing to look at for my online weather info.  We knew we needed a change, so station managers went out to look for a software solution that would allow us plenty of customization, but would still give users the chance to find fresh data all the time.

We put the new site up live last Thursday to work out the bugs and then started crowing about it on air Friday.  Our meteorologist did her entire weathercast at five, six, and ten standing in front of the site on the weather wall, running it through its paces for all to see.  Going into the weekend, I was excited we had debuted something this useful to our viewers and site visitors—until I opened my e-mail Saturday morning.

“Your new on line weather is not only more diffecult to navigate it is just as wrong as the old format. Once again if I want the current weather I must go to the Weather Underground to get a real forcast! DO YOU NOT MONITOR THIS SITE AT ALL? Please try to do Better.”

“I am not a meteorologist, I like the old way of looking up the weather better, I will go elsewhere to look up my weather I wish you would change it back to the old method.”

“Just some feedback on the new layout for the weather page. It’s not very good; it looks cluttered and it’s difficult to get to what I want to see. The popups are not as good as having the picture on the page change.”

“I had bookmarked your weather but with the new presentation I am doing away with that bookmark.  You had a great weather site but this new one is terrible.”

I, of course, answer all the e-mails I get—no matter how bad the spelling and punctuation.  In each case here, I asked the writer to be specific in what it was on the old site that was no longer present on the new site—knowing full well that the new site has EVERYTHING the old site had and much more.  That last fellow above wrote back with the most honest reply of the bunch.  He typed—sheepishly, if it’s possible to type sheepishly—these words:

“I guess I just liked the old site.”

There you have it.  Those eight words sum up the biggest problem you’ll have with your viewers.  They don’t like change.  Even if the change delivers more for them, they won’t like it.  Among these complainers above, not one could name anything they used on the old site that they did not also have on the new site.  So it wasn’t the function that upset them, it was the form.

Now here’s the biggest headache from all of this.  There was a time not so long ago that TV stations could find a look, find an anchor team, find an approach, and just stick with it.  How many of us grew up watching a station in our hometowns that stayed pretty much the same for years?  There was strength then in staying the same.  Imagine being that news director.  Your reporters know their beats.  Your anchors know their communities.  The approach that’s worked to tell the stories keeps working over and over again.  And the viewers are satisfied—maybe not stimulated, but satisfied.  So why change?

Here’s why.  Those viewers with an eye on the way things used to be are still out there.  I could tell that at least half of the people who wrote me to complain where older folks, retirees and the like.  They’re still a big part of our audience.  Their steadfastness in viewing habits props up our numbers because they’re there every night.  We hate to anger them for fear of losing them.  But lose them we will. Because of their age, these most loyal—and change-resistant—viewers will not last forever.  So we go looking for the younger set, hoping to lure them with three-screen availability, stories on social media and other young topics, and most of all, change.

We can’t have it all.  Change to bring in new viewers will push away your old reliable folks as fast as our new weather page did.  But sticking with the tried and true is a sure fire ticket to the news graveyard.  For my two cents worth, I’m going to keep changing.  Riding a dying demographic to extinction won’t do anything to serve the future.  We’ve entered an era of micro-audiences and personal news experiences.  We might as well get used to the fact that the massive audiences of the past are exactly that—a thing of the past.  Embracing change—something that’s often as hard to do for journalists as it is for viewers—is the way to survive.

Perhaps we do what some of the people we cover do to make sure things don’t last too long.  How about taking a page from your state legislature and putting a sunset provision on newsroom policy?  Any idea you put into effect today automatically expires in three years.  No matter how great it’s working, it has to go on its appointed schedule.  It sounds crazy, but keeping a good idea too long is what got us to the dwindling audiences of today.  I say sunsetting even our best ideas will mean a new dawn for journalism down the road.  And shouldn’t that culture of reinvention be the habit we want don’t want to change?

Things You’re Saying Wrong and Don’t Even Know It

-first posted at on February 9, 2010

Back when I started working at KOMU in 1986, then news director John Quarderer used to share his journalistic wisdom with me day in and day out.  Many of the things he said have stuck with me for nearly a quarter of a century, but perhaps none more so than a discussion we had once about words and writing.  “People don’t read as much as they used to,” said John, “so we’re the defenders of the language now.  TV news has to be sure to protect English and keep it safe.”

I’ve always kept that lofty charge in mind as I’ve edited countless reporter and producer scripts over all these years.  I’ve done my best every time to protect the language and keep it from deteriorating on my watch—at least in my little corner of television.  But it seems to be a losing battle at times.  And I’m calling on all of you to help.

Take a listen to your newscasts and redouble your efforts to protect the language in all its forms—written or spoken.  I keep track of some of the more egregious errors that seem to happen all the time, sharing them with my newsroom so that the journalists there can learn it from me in case they never learned it before.  I’ve picked out a few that most of you have had air incorrectly in your newsrooms—even if you didn’t know it.

The pronunciation of “often”: A few years back in elementary schools everywhere, I’m guessing the teachers gave up on this one. The word “often” is properly pronounced OFF-en.   The “t” is silent.  Trust me, it’s silent.  I’m guessing this chronic mispronunciation is the product of phonics training or some sort of rule tying together spelling and sound, but pronouncing it OFF-ten is AW-ful.  English has its quirks, but there are some good comps here.  When your reporters start pronouncing the “t’s” in hasten, soften, listen, moisten, christen, glisten, etc, I’ll start accepting it in “often.”  Until then, silence that “t” in your copy.

Meanwhile versus meantime: I hear these two words misused all the time–not just in my newsroom, but on local and national news everywhere.  In my own shop a few weeks ago, we had a story that began, “Meantime, the government is suing the world’s biggest maker of computer microprocessors.”   Wrong.  “Meantime” is a noun that means an occurrence happening at the same time as another.  So a sentence that means the exact same as what my producer wrote would have been, “Simultaneous occurrence, the government is suing the world’s biggest maker of computer microprocessors.”  Nonsense, right?  What the producer should have written is, “Meanwhile, the government is suing the world’s biggest maker of computer microprocessors.”  “Meanwhile” is an adverb that in this case modifies the verb “is suing.”   Your reporters and producers cannot use the two interchangeably.  If they insist on using “meantime,” they must make an adverb phrase out of it by adding the words “in the” in front of it.  So we could have had, “In the meantime, the government is suing the world’s biggest maker of computer microprocessors.”  But why use the extra words?  Get your folks to stick with the adverb “meanwhile” when writing in this way.

Changing the meaning of “long-lived” and “short-lived”: The two adjectives derive from the noun life (having either a long or short one) and not from the verb live (because you can’t do so longly or shortly).  Therefore, the proper pronunciation has a long “i” sound in “lived,” like the “i” in “hive.”  It should not be pronounced like the “i” in “give.”  The problem here seems to come from a desire on the speaker’s part to describe a style of living rather than a length of life.  Change this bad habit in your newsroom and they’ll look at you funny, but you’ll be doing your part.

Finally, an I told you so: My colleagues in Columbia will laugh when they see me bringing this up, but ten years ago, we actually sat around trying to figure out how the years of the 21st Century would be pronounced.  Most of the folks then figured the year would be pronounced fully, as in “two thousand and one” (by the way, the “and” is unnecessary and mathematically changes the word, but we’ll have that argument another time).  I told them I admired that they were being influenced by the great Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that the proper way to pronounce the first year of the century would be “twenty-oh-one.”  My logic was flawless.  The pronunciation was shorter, mirrored previous centuries, and shortened nicely to “on-one,” “oh-two,” etc.  We tried it my way for a while, but the public went with Kubrick and pronounced it the long way.  But as we approach the next decade (it begins in 2011, not 2010—trust me), people have come around to my way.  Now it’s getting pretty common to hear references to “twenty-ten,” “twenty-eleven,” and beyond.  So I’m gloating a bit now, knowing I was right all along, even if people didn’t believe me ten years ago.

But there’s no gloating necessary if you fix these and other problems in your newsroom’s use of English.  Instead, just enjoy a job well done as you become a language defender.  Future generations will thank you—even if they do so by texting you “THX“ in return.

Meeting in the Middle

-first posted at on February 2, 2010

I was lucky enough to take part in RTDNF’s News and Terrorism workshop in my hometown of St. Louis last week.  The event was the 18th in a series of gatherings that bring together journalists, emergency personnel, and policy makers to discuss how to react in the event of a terrorist attack in a U. S. city.  This is the second of the workshops I’ve been able to attend.  The first was on the other side of my state about six years ago in Kansas City.  Both times I was struck with the workshops’ ability to bring people together who are essential to public safety—but who seldom talk unless an emergency is already taking place.  The RTDNF events have been crucial to getting those who respond to emergencies—either to cover them or to respond to them—to talk about what they could do better for their common customer, the public.

This meeting in the middle (of the country and the topic) was healthy all around.  Broadcast news directors John Butler of KMOX and Audrey Prywitch of KTVI/KPLR, along with Pat Gauen from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, schooled the first responders and political emergency planners on just what newsrooms want and need in a time of crisis.  And every journalist in the room, yours truly included, learned how those who run toward emergencies rank the importance of giving the media what they want.  Much to our dismay, that part of the job is not very high on most emergency workers’ crisis to-do list.  There is a gulf between us that the workshops help, but cannot eliminate altogether.  And there’s great risk it will get bigger.

That threat comes from the most striking difference between the 2004 Kansas City workshop and the event last week in St. Louis—the speed with which we must gather and distribute information.  In 2004, there was no Twitter, our websites often waited to post news until after it was on the air, and smartphones weren’t all that smart.  So while a terror attack was still a huge story then, our best way to get it out quickly was through breaking into on-air programming.  The pressure is much greater now.  We actually compete with amateurs who are tweeting or facebooking breaking news as they see it.  Still, our brands mean something to our audiences.  They trust that the information we provide is more accurate than what eyewitnesses spread electronically.  But they also expect we’ll deliver what we know as fast as the amateurs do.  On the other side, emergency responders are not always interested in getting out information as quickly as possible.  They often want to withhold information for fear of causing a panic.  But that does not sit well with our mission.

Kent Collins, my colleague at the Missouri School of Journalism, summed up this conflict when he asked the assembled group in St. Louis how we could close this gulf between the media and their push for the public’s right to know and the government and its desire to withhold information.  No one in the room had the answer to his question.  The gulf remains.

It seems that closing the information gulf is the direction our efforts should go now.   I can’t help but be a bit biased here, falling in with the journalists’ side, but the public does need to know when disaster strikes and it has never been equipped so well to receive news quickly. The question is just what will pass for “news” when disaster strikes.  Tweets from the area with all manner of exaggeration and error will not be what is best for the people.  What people will need in a crisis is experienced reporting from journalists they can trust—and they’ll need it immediately.  Based on what I saw in St. Louis last week, that will take access, information, and cooperation.

Access to the scene will be critical.  Our amateur competitors will already be there.  In the St. Louis scenarios, two downtown buildings were the scenes of bomb attacks.  Should such a tragedy truly strike, those buildings and the ones in the area will be filled with people tweeting, texting, and blogging about what happened.  Our reporters need the same access.  We must work to have the right to get in close to the scene when something important happens.  There was a light moment at the event when, after revealing there were elevated radiation readings around the blast sites, moderator Aaron Brown asked Audrey Prywitch if her reporters had radiation suits.  Everyone laughed, but the point was made.  Access brings with it the necessity to protect our crews in what could be some very dangerous situations.  If we plan to be a close to the scene as the Tweeters, we need to start on our preparedness now.

Once the crews do make it into the affected area, we’ll need information.  This is at the heart of the question asked at the event.  We must continue to work to get government and other emergency officials to see the value of providing as much information to the public as possible.  Our best way to win them over is to show how responsible we can be with accurate information and how we can separate that from rumors and other false information.  Acting as a trusted conduit for official information will be part of our reporting task.  That will not eliminate our need to work independently and dig for information from other sources.  But I hope the officials can see we are the best way to reach the public with as much accurate information as possible.

Finally, cooperation will be key to making this all work.  I’m not talking about giving up our arm’s length approach to government agencies.  Our watchdog role will continue.  We cannot team up with the people we will cover during a crisis time.  But we can cooperate with them to deliver coverage that serves that common customer.  That cooperation won’t be easy, but it will be necessary.  Otherwise, we’re going to lose out to the Twittersphere and that means our customers will lose out, too.

The scenarios in St. Lous were chilling, just as they have been in all the other workshop cities.  They spelled out a possible future where thousands are dead from terror attacks and the eyes and ears of the survivors turn to us to find out what’s happening and what to do next.  I’m proud to be part of a profession that can meet those expectations. But that won’t happen if we sit back and just wait for it.  Be proactive now.  Start talking to the officials in your area about this.  Team up with other journalists to give your arguments more weight.  Meet in the middle now so that when disaster strikes, you can bring the public what it needs to know.

I Blame Smuckers: A Cautionary Tale

May 29, 2010 1 comment

-first posted at on January 26, 2010

My blood ran cold while traveling a few weeks back as I sat in my hotel room and checked in on the station web site to see how things were looking.  As our rotator ran through our top stories, the worst four words a news director can ever see on his site popped into view.

“Woman Celebrates 100th Birthday”

There it was.  There was no denying it.  The station—in the absence of my wisdom and guidance—had covered a 100-year-old’s birthday party.  Did they know the havoc they had called forth with this story?  Could they even begin to understand the unspeakable horrors that would come from this one, senseless act?

Veteran news directors, read no further.  Unless you’re one of the lucky ones, you’ve already lived through this horror.  There’s no reason for you to relive it again in what I write below. Save yourself and click away now.

But you younger readers out there, dare to forge ahead.  The tale I’ll tell is not a pretty one, but hearing it now could save you from the living nightmare this sort of story can bring.

How, you may wonder, can covering someone who’s spent a century on this earth lead to so much dread?  Let me tell you, this threat is very real.  Covering a 100-year-old’s birthday changes you, your managers, and your station—forever.   Sure, it seems innocent enough.  Perhaps, you’d even consider it kind.  But it’s the cruelest thing you’ll ever do professionally.  How, you might ask, is this cruel?  Showing a person reaching the milestone of 100 years has got to be an act of celebration, not cruelty.  In that, you would be right.  Show one person would be a fun story.  But you can never show just one.

Do the math with me for a moment.  The latest estimates put the total number of centenarians in the U.S. population at about 72,000.    That’s an average of 1,440 per state.  Worse yet, that’s an average of 346 per television market. New York would have more, of course, and Glendive would have fewer.  But look out Lincoln/Hastings, Nebraska.  As the median market in population, you’re looking 346 right in the wrinkled face.  That means those mid-sized markets are going to do just about one hundredth birthday celebration every day.  In Philadelphia, prepare for ten a day.  The numbers are staggering.

Now, I’m way ahead of you here.  You’re saying to yourself, “Well, I’m not going to cover that sort of story every day.”  Fair enough.  But how do you choose which birthdays to cover and which to skip?  You know, the birthday boys and girls probably wouldn’t mind it a bit if you ignored their big days and didn’t send out that camera.  But it’s not them you need to worry about.  It’s their kids.

That’s right.  You have not lived as a news director until you’ve received the angry phone call of the 78-year-old son of a local centenarian who’s birthday you just skipped covering.  There is no good excuse you can give that will get that person off the phone.  He’ll look at every other story you did in the newscasts that day and declare them inferior in news value to the anniversary of the birth of his mother or father. You just cannot win that one.

What’s worse, once someone lives to the ripe old age of 100, they have a lot of progeny.  Skip that party and you’ll hear from children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and every other person remotely related to the person reaching the milestone.  I even heard one time from the big brother of a woman turning 100, complaining we did not cover her party (he was 102 at the time).

I blame Smuckers and Willard Scott for getting us into this mess.  It was probably 25 or more years ago that someone at the Today Show got the idea to plaster faces on jelly jars and have Willard struggle with their names.  It was the television equivalent of feeding a stray cat.  Once you do it once, it just keeps coming back.  Willard and the jelly people created a TV birthday culture anyone with a relative nearing 100 thinks about.  They plan a party, hope for a mention on the Today Show, and settle for local TV just in case.  The problem is, they’re not calling Willard Scott if he doesn’t do his part.  They just call us.

Young reporters, heed my words.  You do NOT want to head to the local retirement home when the call on that birthday party comes in.  I tell my reporters they should never lie.  So keep a good enterprise story in your back pocket you can use as an excuse when those 100th birthday feelers come in.  You’ll thank me for this advice some day.

P.S.: So far, the story we ran hasn’t caused any serious repercussions.  But I still duck down in my car when a Buick drives by.  I never know who’s looking for me.