Monthly Archives: June 2009

KARE/Minneapolis Gives Newsroom’s “Heart and Soul” His Pink Slip

091622219_kare blog 5 600x400You know the guy.  He’s the guy who’s not talent, and not news director, but he somehow makes the trains run on time.  The guy who’s as good in the morning meeting as he is in the convention center for the massive multi-camera remote.  He’s the guy who gets good phoners when a breaker happens in the second half-hour of the noon show.  He’s the guy who takes the news director’s new idea and somehow makes it happen–and look good.

At KARE, he was Lonnie Hartley, Senior Executive Producer, workaholic, and as David Brauer writes in his BrauBlog, KARE’s “heart and soul.”  Hartley’s 70-hour workweeks earned respect from staff, but apparently meant little when corporate cost-cutters ordered another head to roll Wednesday.

As David Brauer put it:  “Insiders say the newsroom had never seemed so shell-shocked as it was today, when a tearful Hartley told his troops goodbye.”

It makes you wonder what we’re doing to our newsrooms.  For years, KARE had the reputation of a real hard news shop, the kind of place young reporters and producers and anchors kept in the backs of their minds:  KARE would be a great place to end up.

Those Live Events with Station Signage, Stage, Field Switching and Tarps for Rain Don't Just Happen by Themselves, You Know

Those Live Events with Station Signage, Stage, Field Switching and Tarps for Rain Don't Just Happen by Themselves, You Know

But more and more, the gutting behind the scenes (and on the air, of course, with familiar faces vanishing) means stations are losing layer after significant layer; the people who get it done but don’t usually get their names in the paper when they get laid off.  The truck ops, the veteran photogs, the MacGyvers of local news who mean so much to news staff, but don’t register in corporate boardrooms.

Sure, things won’t run as well now.  More work to spread around, and some of it won’t get done. When the chips are down, and it’s hitting the fan, maybe magic won’t be made like it used to.  But with the weekend show a one-anchor, one-backpack-journalist effort, and photogs during the week running on a strict no-overtime policy; with engineering cut back and the assignment desk understaffed and inexperienced…does it really matter?

Hartley told David Brauer “I have a huge passion for news — you know what it’s like to break a great story, the fulfillment that comes from that.”  The sad part is, at places like KARE, that’s not the top priority anymore, if it’s a priority at all.

But hey, the new corporate graphics package looks nice.


Filed under Cutbacks

Local TV Newsers: Meet Denise. She May Be the Future. She May Eat Your Lunch.'s Denise Spidle's Denise Spidle

Reading the story in the Las Vegas Sun, you could forgive a veteran local television reporter for an instinctive chuckle.  Oh, aren’t they precious!  The newspaper people are trying to do TV! They’ve even gone and bought themselves a red couch and a curtain for a backdrop!

Yeah, you definitely want to laugh it off. But here’s the weird thing about  it’s interesting, it’s different, and it’s the supposedly-dead medium of print, encroaching–yet again–on TV’s turf.  It’s almost like (am I crazy here?) the print people think they can win the battle for local video online.  Nah.  That’s crazy. We own that!

From the Washington Post, and it’s excellent series of video documentaries posted online, to The New York Times’ creative and compelling commitment to multi-media storytelling, it’s becoming clear the print folk don’t want to stay on their side of the fence in what’s obviously a deathmatch.  There will be local news, of course, and it’ll probably be predominantly online at some point, but thinking that we’re the experts on video and so obviously it’s the papers that have to give up and go home… well, that’s a huge mistake.

Think about your TV newsroom.  What print tricks have you adopted?  Certainly you haven’t got bodies in police precincts running through the overnight arrests, and nobody’s hanging out in the courthouse checking on interesting lawsuits.  That’s what newspapers are for, right?

Ah, but you’ve learned to write in print form for the web!  Right?  You doctor up your 6 o’clock script into a mock-print style and file it–sorry, feed it–to the website.  And what a brilliant website it is, if I know anything about local TV, I’m sure yours is creative, ground-breaking, and chock full of unique uses of video. Right?


702_tilt_logo_newEverybody in town isn’t coming out of this alive, folks.  And assuming the print people will roll over and play dead just because, you know, the printing press is dead, well, that doesn’t seem to be working.  Sure, the paper won’t be hitting doorsteps like it used to, but those print folk seem so aggressive about getting into our game.  And far moreso than we seem to be about getting into theirs.  Or even, about getting more creative about what we do.  And that’s how companies go out of business.

Doing a “webcast” that’s a lousy and dated version of your noon newscast?  That’s not creative.  That’s not going to grab someone and say, hey, that’s different. But I wouldn’t put it past the kids in Vegas from getting that reaction.  Yeah, sure, their motto is “News Never Looked So Good.”  There’s that part of the equation. I get that.  But there’s something else.  There’s a creativity here that I haven’t seen coming from TV stations.

Take a look at the winners of the Knight Foundation’s 2009 News Challenge.  No call letters among the bunch.  But a LOT of creative, multi-platform, forward-thinking ideas about taking information and getting it in front of people, instead of sitting back on our broadcast bottoms and continuing to think the audience will just keep coming to us.

The Knight Foundation Voters Decide in Miami:  Local TV?  Not on the Table.

The Knight Foundation Voters Decide in Miami: Local TV? Not on the Table.

Eric Umansky and Scott Klein of ProPublica, and Aaron Pilhofer and Ben Koski of The New York Times won $719,500 to bankroll a project aimed at enriching investigative news reports by creating an easily searchable, free, public online database of public records.  (As Jeff Jarvis would say, that’s asking “What Would Google Do?)

Gail Robinson at the Gotham Gazette won $250,000 to create an online wiki devoted to local legislators’ voting records and campaign contributions, so voters in New York can go someplace–free–and find usable information.

And in Phoenix, Aleksandra Chojnacka and Adam Klawonn of the Daily Phoenix won $95,000 to fund their idea of using news, games and social networking to help commuters on the city’s light rail system informed about their city.

Where’s the proof broadcasters get it?  Where’s the creativity that shows we will endure, succeed and prosper five years from now?  Skype liveshots?  Anchor blogs?  Weather widgets?

Folks.  The Buick dealer isn’t coming back on a white horse to save you.  What are you doing to change?

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Small Crew, Big Danger

15guerrilla01-600It’s no leap to see that the arrests of Euna Lee and Laura Ling in North Korea have a lesson for the legions of backpack journalists covering local news stories across the country.  One-man (or woman) bands are cheaper, and for the journalist, clearly more dangerous when things go bad.

For Lee and Ling, reporting for Current TV, little is known about the exact structure of their support system.  We do know that Current does not have the around-the-world network of bureaus that can jump into action and get phones ringing in New York, London, and Washington when a crew fails to report in.

CBS' Kimberly Dozier in Iraq

CBS' Kimberly Dozier in Iraq

When CBS’ Kimbery Dozier and her crew came under attack in Iraq, it was their bureau chief who started sounding the alarms, and it was the intervention of powerful CBS brass in New York who were able to arrange evacuation and treatment for the critically injured Dozier. [Note: If you haven't read Dozier's book on the attack, the loss of her crew, and her struggle to survive, pick up a copy. It's called "Breathing the Fire," and it's a courageous book]

The freelancer working for an internet news operation, even one with a high profile name attached like Al Gore, just doesn’t have that kind of backup available.

And neither does the local news reporter who goes it alone.  I can recall several times in my reporting when a photographer and I got into a sketchy situation, and we needed each other.  Once, in Birmingham, my photographer was targeted by an angry police officer after the shooting death of a cop.  The officer was upset, and vented on us.  He picked a fight with my photog over where he’d been standing, and then pulled out his handcuffs.  Knowing he’d done nothing wrong, the photog handed me the camera and told me to get it all on tape.  You can’t do that when you’re alone.

News directors love one-man-bands, and eager journalists are taking the jobs.  There may, at times, be managers who think, “we shouldn’t send a backpacker into that situation alone.”  But I’m sure it will happen anyway.  Maybe you saw the YouTube clip of the one-man-band reporter doing his own liveshot who got caught in a gas station’s sprinkler system.  That was amusing.  But that shot showed how often things go wrong in the field–and how hard it can be for a person doing it all him or herself to get out of harm’s way, even if this time it was just a soaking.

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The Journalist, Improvised

There’s a quote from Henri Matisse that goes “there are wonderful things in real jazz, the talent for improvisation, the liveliness, the being at one with the audience.” Matisse was talking about choosing the word “Jazz” as the title of one of his final collections, the hand-brushed and stenciled works released under the Jazz name in 1947.

The series–now considered among the most important of Matisse’s career–grew out of setback and pain: as Greg Kucera describes the period, “The years of World War II were a difficult time for Matisse and his family. He had separated from his wife Amelie in 1940 when he moved to the south of France. His wife and his daughter Marguerite were each tried and then jailed by the Gestapo for their parts in the French Resistance movement. Marguerite was tortured and then deported to the Ravensbruck concentration camp but was miraculously rescued before arriving there.”  The artist himself was ravaged by gallstones, insomnia, failing vision, and the after effects of surgery for intestinal cancer, but as Kucera reflects, the pain produced a spark:  “After a risky operation, Matisse remarked to his friend Albert Marquet in 1942, ‘Truly, I’m not joking when I thank my lucky stars for the awful operation I had, since it has made me young again and philosophical which means that I don’t want to fritter away the new lease on life I’ve been given.'”

Without drawing too sharp a parallel, I believe many journalists are finding their own inspiration in the pain of unemployment, furlough and fear.  Over the past weeks, journalists on this page have shared their own versions of Matisse’s improvisational “Jazz:”  for Brian Andrews, it was selling everything he owned to move from Miami to Columbia and–quite literally–start his own English language news operation. For Polly Kreisman, it’s an online hyperlocal effort that, like the lady herself, has smarts and attitude.

And now, almost without realizing it, I’ve found myself producing my own collection of new works unlike anything I’ve produced before.  I’m improvising, and I’m loving it.  As you know (since you’re here), I began blogging back in January as a way of expressing my own uncertainties about the local television news business.  The daily writing–and connecting with creative, passionate people across the country–has become a treasured part of my life.  It started as strict improvisation:  I had no idea what it would become, I just knew I was being honest, about the business, and most of all, about myself.  As Matisse wrote, I was truly being “at one with the audience.”


Improv! On Stage at New York's Upright Citizens' Brigade Theater

And like nothing I’ve written before, people have responded to that.  I’ve made new connections, joined with other journalists determined to innovate and create instead of sit and bitch, and a few weeks ago, I found myself contacted about a job that somehow, in all the job-listing-looking I’d been doing, I missed. And they hired me.  (No agent-negotiated, megabucks deal here–I’m working for a nonprofit, and making nonprofit wages, so I’ll still be blogging my heart out, shooting my own stuff for my neighborhood newsblog, and getting goofy on Saturday nights for Toni Senecal’s “Toni On! New York” on WPIX.  (Today’s shoot:  doing improv with the comics at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade–am I driving the improvisation metaphor too hard?–if I am, whatev, they’re crazy funny and it was a blast to share the stage with them.)

Recovering Journalist and Philanthropist Ruth Ann Harnisch

"Recovering Journalist" and Philanthropist Ruth Ann Harnisch

Anyway, a week ago I ventured into a world that may one day be commonplace for journalists, or, perhaps, it won’t.  But for now, I’m part of  a journalistic experiment being bankrolled by a philanthropist (Ruth Ann Harnisch, former local newser turned benefactor to journalism schools, research programs and countless community efforts) and being studied by a university professor seeking–as so many of us are–new ways to keep journalists on the job.  I’m serving as a “community supported journalist” who works not for a paper or television station, but for a group of people who have a shared interest, in this case, in the field of coaching.  Will people interested in getting news on their field one day decide it’s worth their own money to keep a reporter on the beat? We’ll know more in a year.

The Coaching Commons:  Like No Newsroom I've Been a Part Of

The Coaching Commons: Like No Newsroom I've Been a Part Of

For now, I’m part pioneer, part guinea pig.  And improvising my butt off.  But like the artist with the new lease of life, I feel a stronger connection to my original love of journalism, writing, and storytelling than I’ve felt in a long time.  In part, because I really don’t know what I’m going to do next.  And also, because I feel a kinship with all the others out there spinning plates, juggling knives and tap dancing…waiting to see what new show an audience will pay for.

I feel confident one day soon we’ll look back and realize that some of us are doing some of the most important work of our careers.

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