Monthly Archives: February 2009

The Rocky’s “Final Edition” and What it Means to the Future of Local News

Telling Their Own Sad Story with Style: "Final Edition"

Maybe you won’t ever take my advice and try Twitter, and that’s cool. I can keep making great connections and digging up unique stories there without you. I won’t force you to cross that social media bridge if you’re not ready. But I will insist that you watch the short film, “Final Edition,” a moving account of the final days of the proud and storied Rocky Mountain News.

The Rocky's Matthew Roberts

The Rocky's Matthew Roberts

The film is the work of Matthew Roberts and a gifted team of video storytellers who were, until Friday, working at the very cutting edge of local news. The irony that this short film now serves as an epitaph for a once-mighty newspaper is sad to the point of nausea. But it captures perfectly where we are right now: some historically print-based local newsrooms are moving fast and furious into imaginative, different video storytelling, and threaten to beat local tv newsers at their own game. Watch the film and decide for yourself if you’ve seen anything like that on your nearest “Action News” lately. It’s a lot closer to documentary than to 1:15 local news packages. And it’s a lot more powerful.

Sure, it wasn’t banged out in an afternoon. But then again, local tv newsers don’t produce that kind of stuff when given the time either. It’s usually something more along the lines of dirty motel room sheet investigations. “Final Edition” has no flashy graphics (just some damn creative ones, like softly floating photographs of the many Rocky headquarters buildings over the years, and the memorable history captured on the tab’s front pages), and no short bites. It combines on the street interviews that breathe… with true documentary camera work that makes every second of the film visually arresting as its content rips your heart out.

There are currently newspapers shooting video in cities all over the country. Some are trying to copy the local tv model, others are taking the Rocky’s route, including the Washington Post, which calls its stories “documentary videos.” And they’re good, too. Scary good, in this tv newser’s opinion. I watched a Post story on iTunes and tried to track down the filmmaker without luck. Today, after watching “Final Edition,” I looked up Matthew on Twitter, sent him a note and heard right back. He’s a talented guy, and somebody’s going to snatch him up. (Oh, sorry, did I mention Twitter again?)

The Rockys Video Team at Work on Election Night

The Rocky's Video Team at Work on Election Night

Here’s my point: I feel like I could learn a lot about visual storytelling from this “newspaper” guy. And that gives me a hint as to where we could take the concept of local news past the old models into something new, different, creative, and sucessful. As you watch the film, you feel Denver. You feel the paper. You feel the people. It takes you there. And just as someone says in the film, it takes a local journalist to do that kind of work. Local news is essential and people will always crave it. It’s up to us to take a page out of the book of a print guy who just lost his job to find our way.

Maybe Matthew Roberts will show us, because let me tell you, wherever he ends up, whether it’s a print newsroom, a television newsroom, or something else entirely, that’s where I want to be, too, doing something fresh, creative, and important.

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If They Can Kill the Rocky, What Makes You Think Your TV Station’s Going to Survive?

The Rocky's Newsroom Gets the News:  It's Over

The Rocky's Newsroom Gets the News: It's Over


We have these “truths” we seem to hold so damn self-evident in local news, the whole “they can’t live without us” stuff that the smartest tv newsers still cling to like baby blankets.  The problem is, these fundamental truths don’t really hold up under close examination, and with every passing day, there’s more and more evidence that what we do is not the “given” we have so long believed it to be.  Remember once, it was a “given” that a lower channel number was better than a higher one, and UHF?  Oh my God.  UHF.  The other day I mentioned the concept of UHF and got a blank stare from an intern at a top university.  They don’t teach it, because it’s irrelevant.  Not only is channel number irrelevant, as local stations go digital, the channel number we may be clinging to won’t even be the right number anymore.
The Rockys New Years Edition, 1900

The Rocky's New Year's Edition, 1900


It’s a new ballgame.  And it’s a game we can lose.  I crack up reading these determined posts on tv sites, where newsers debate the future ownership of certain stations.  Inevitably, someone will chime in that one of the networks is “dying” to buy this or that station.  Really?  Are networks buying stations, or looking for a way to get out of the local affiliate model altogether?  What are the odds your market will continue to support three, four, five or more local tv newsrooms over the next five years?  I hate to bring up the comparison, but without a new model and some innovation away from the news at 6, and 11 and “innovations” like weekend morning news and “webcasts,” we may be looking a lot more like newspapers than any of us would care to admit.

Print had a multi-paper heyday.  Now many cities are one-paper towns, and some have no paper at all.  Tomorrow, the Rocky Mountain News will hit the streets of Denver for the last time, shutting down after 150 years.  Don’t even start to say that can’t happen to your might fifty years of history at Channel 6.

WTVJ/Miami: Florida History Dating to 1949


In Miami, NBC’s WTVJ was as good as gone, offloaded by NBC to Post-Newsweek to be rolled into an ABC-NBC duopoly that many (especially in the TVJ newsroom) feared would mean, essentially, eliminating their newsroom and running WPLG’s product on two channels, with one staff, under one roof.  (The TVJ call letters, channel assignment and peacock making the move;  the majority of the news talent and support staff becoming the cost savings) The deal died, not for the concept, but for the banks.  The loans that underpinned the purchase faded with the rest of the economy, and, for the time being, WTVJ, with its decades of South Florida history, lives on.  But it was a close call that should open eyes.  If a set of call letters like WTVJ can very nearly die off as a true, living, breathing, competitive newsroom in a big city, it can happen anywhere.

In Denver, Rich Boehne, CEO of Rocky owner E. W. Scripps Company, put it bluntly to the paper’s people: “Denver can’t support two newspapers any longer,” according to an account of the meeting published on the Rocky’s website, which noted that some staffers cried at the news of the paper’s death.  “People are in grief,” said Editor John Temple.

On Saturday, Denver will become a one newspaper town, with the Denver Post the last man standing in an old west print duel that has waged since the 1920s.

Why not TV?  Over at LostRemote, Cory Bergman blames that old “wall” for a “fatal disconnect” between us local tv newsers and the folks upstairs who get the Pontiac guy to buy spots.  You know, when “they” get us some ads, we’ll be fine: “The problem,” Bergman blogs, “journalists wash their hands of the business side of the equation. That’s the business guys’ problem, said one newspaper journalist. But it’s not. It’s everyone’s problem.”  His solution? Work together to create a product that people might want to buy–or watch.  “By splitting journalism and business into two buckets separated by a longstanding cultural divide, the two groups fail to collaborate on ideas that tap the strengths of both. And neither have a track record of understanding how technology enables community, the greatest opportunity of all.”

Can the TVJ Legacy Be Saved?

Can the TVJ Legacy Be Saved?


Bergman believes–as I do–that finding a model beyond 5, 6, and 11, beyond the exciting addition of weekend morning news and email alerts (sent right to your mobile phone when weather threatens!) means recrafting the whole damn thing, which is something newspapers didn’t do very well, and tv’s not so hot at, either. (Look at the raging success of the DTV transition.)  Bergman boils it down to putting the “business” back in the news business:  “local journalists are losing their jobs, often blaming the business guys. But along with upper management, they’re all to blame for failing to collaborate. For failing to understand their users and advertisers’ evolving needs. Not OUR needs. But our CUSTOMERS needs.”

What do you think?  Will your station be doing news in five years?  Who will you be working for ten years from now?  How long can we count on viewers showing up for appointment newscast viewing–and getting advertisers to pay for the privilege of buying time on those newscasts?

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve worked at for E.W. Scripps, and Post-Newsweek, and know many of the people who would’ve been directly affected in the Miami duopoly, both the managers at WPLG who without a doubt would have created something unique and very likely profitable–and the journalists at WTVJ, who I consider good people and would have hated to see any of them lose their jobs]

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Local TV Stations: The Money Printing Press is Broken. Can Stations Build a New One?

Will News on the iPhone Save Us?

Will News on the iPhone Save Us?


It’s an accepted truism in TV that local stations, as long as there have been local stations, have been money-making machines.  At least, until recently, when the gears jammed, the networks stopped being station groups’ BFFs, audiences started sampling other sources for news, and even the uber-dependable local advertisers took their Buick dealer dollars and shoved ’em under the mattress.

Scary times.  Local newsers are out of work, wondering if stations will ever field the local news benches that we all grew up expecting.  The financial model that kept local news afloat-and profitable-seems to have fallen apart.  Is that a temporary reaction to the recession, or a sign that things are evolving, as they have been for years in the newspaper biz?

Slate makes a compelling argument that debating the financial model misses the point:  “unlike most businesses, serious journalism has seldom been about the straightforward pursuit of profit. Nearly all of the most important journalistic institutions in the free world are hybrids of one form or another—for-profit but underwritten by generous owners or other profitable businesses; not-for-profit yet entrepreneurial; co-operative; or government-subsidized,” writes Jacob Weisberg.

But hold on there, JW.  What about the reassuring words we’ve been hearing from our news directors, GMs, and station group suits:  “the web will save us!  serve the web!”  (You know, just like weekend morning news did).  Well, Weisberg points to the past:  “In times of yore, the best American newspapers worked like this: Public-spirited families with names like Sulzberger, Bancroft, Chandler, and Graham (the owners of Newsweek, Slate, and the Washington Post) built highly profitable businesses by becoming dominant information sources in major local markets.”

Graham and Bradlee:  Money, Talent and History-Making Journalism

Graham and Bradlee: Money, Talent and History-Making Journalism

Weisberg argues that it was the media barons whose bankrolls made things work, not a successful financial model, and that, for papers at least–and perhaps local tv newsers as well, the magic formula that saves us all may not be there either:  “With the decline of their traditional revenue sources, capitalists in the news business are having to become even more creative. But they won’t find the grail of a new economic model for journalism—because there wasn’t an old one.”

What’s your take, local newsers?  Is the web and all its multi-platform potential a path to profitability?  Was giving news away for free a mistake?  Would anyone pay for the waterskiing squirrels we’ve been feeding them for years anyway?  Will we all end up working for web-based, advertiser supported and charitably-endowed hybrids that let us do worthwhile reporting at moderate, but not princely pay?

Do tell.

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Local Sports: Key Component of Staying Local and Relevant? Or First to Throw Overboard? (Both?)

Lets Go to the Videotape!

"Let's Go to the Videotape!"

Of all the things that have stayed with me about growing up watching local TV news, two things stand out: the evolution of WCBS/NY’s “2” logo over the years, and the time I got to sit in Warner Wolf’s chair on the Channel 2 News set.  As a kid in Connecticut watching New York news, I won’t ever forget Beutel and Grimsby and the Cool Hand Luke music;  I won’t forget Jim Jensen, Chuck or Sue.  But for some reason, it’s Warner Wolf who I think was the first true “character” that made watching the 6 o’clock news something I would actually talk about at school the next day, what with his trademark style and “let’s go to the videotape!”

Today, there aren’t many wise young sportscasters expecting to be Warner Wolf one day.  Sure, you don’t “go to the videotape” anymore, but more importantly, sports has become the go-to source for deep-sixing talent and freeing up cash at struggling stations from coast to coast. WCBS, Wolf’s old station and the one I watched as a kid, (Anybody remember “NewsBreaker Territory?”) recently fired its main sports anchor, Ducis Rogers, and the morning guy, John Discepolo.  Sports, struggling for air time, is down to one lone anchor/reporter.

New York still has Len Berman, but many markets may do away with local sports altogether. Managers claim there’s no need, since true sports fans get their info from ESPN, or regional sports nets.  As Stacey Brown writes in the Scranton Times-Tribune, “Nightly sports reporting and local news appear to be headed for a divorce.”  

WOLF/Scrantons FOX 56

WOLF/Scranton's FOX 56

“It is a shame you don’t see more local sports during the newscasts,” Jon Cadman told Brown.  Cadman’s GM at (ah, irony) WOLF-TV in Scranton.  He says costs are just too high, and something’s gotta give.  So forget about seeing your kid’s high school touchdown run on Channel 16.  Maybe it’ll make SportsCenter.

In my own newsroom yesterday, as the sports folk were busy writing scripts, producing their ever-shrinking six o’clock sportscast, I heard the bellowing boom of the Asst. News Director:  “Sports is dead!”  It happens a lot.  And as a newsguy, I get it–to a point.  When news breaks, you’d expect weather and sports to give.  But in this environment of cutbacks and layoffs, is killing sports altogether the next step?  And does that, in a sense, take away one more thing that sets local news apart?  

I’ve worked in some sports-crazy cities, especially in the South, and let me tell you, there’s hardly a bond as strong as that between sports fan and sports talent.  When they show up at the high school football game on a Friday night, that’s the kind of thing that earns viewer loyalty. (Remember the Friday night football shows where sportsteams would actually use the station helicopter to fly around to as many games as possible?  Bringing not only a camera to get the game on TV that night, but the chopper to fly the colors in front of a packed stadium:  “Wow, Channel 5 ROCKS!”)

But even in small town Scranton, sports is on life support.  And in big city, sports-crazed New York, calling it a sports “department” seems like a bit of a stretch.  Are we turning away viewers to save a few dollars?  Or do the viewers really not care anymore–have they truly moved on?

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The Morning Meeting, Televised. Best. Reality Show. Ever.

Who Doesnt Love the Morning Meeting?/PBS Photo

Who Doesn't Love the Morning Meeting?/PBS Photo

I’ve sat through more than my fair share of morning meetings.  (Waaaaaay more)  And through the years, on more than one occasion, I’ve thought to myself, “if people saw the way we pick our stories, it’d be the best reality show on TV.”  Not only for the backstabbing, brutal sarcasm about the subjects of news events, but for the reporter-on-reporter snark attacks and the producer-on-reporter eye-rolling at story pitches.

In one station, I knew a producer who would sit silently through the reporter pitches, keeping a silent tally with her pen, putting checkmarks next to reporters’ names each time a reporter would use the phrase, “I think it’d be interesting if we… ”  In one morning meeting, the producer told me an energetic reporter hit the record:  5 “I think it’d be interesting”s in one story pitch.  (Pitch, btw, failed)

So imagine my childlike delight at the news from the Poynter Institute’s Al Tompkins, who writes of his recent workshop at WGAL/Lancaster, PA:  “I trained the staff how to use lots of online sites, including CoveritLive.com, a Web site that makes it easy to hold a live online chat with anyone. That’s when WGAL photographer Greg Berkey chimed in with something like, ‘We should invite viewers to join us live in our morning meeting and pitch story ideas to the newsroom.'”   Seriously.  And they did it.

wgalThe idea launched this week, with viewers invited to join the meeting from 9:30 to 10:15.  (Just imagine the pompous journalism with a capital “J” story ideas being floated… “I think we need to delve, yes delve, into the backstory on this bill!”  “We’ve got to follow the money, people!”)

News Director Dan O”Donnell said viewers were pitching their own stories:  “The first day people were chatting about the economy and a woman who runs a skills training program we had never heard of was in the chat room and invited us over. It was a good story. The second day we were working on a story about the ways people are still enjoying “luxury” at a lower cost. The chatters tossed out a whole bunch of ideas that we can work into our story.”

Oh boy.  Prepare for 3 hour meetings, folks.  O’Donnell admits there were a few phone-in “rants.”  But what about the team at Action News dialing up the Eyewitness News morning meeting?  O’Donnell says “I guess that’s a possibility. I have some good competitors. I’m sure they don’t need my chat room to come up with story ideas. It’s not really a concern.”

You Have Been Eliminated

"You Have Been Eliminated"

Maybe news directors could move the “show” directly to the station’s air.  Morning Meeting!  A perfect way for managers to turn layoffs into potentially profitable programming, as each morning, one reporter is voted out of the newsroom based on their knowledge of local events and the quality of their story pitches.

Each show ends with the news director confronting a teary-eyed soon-to-be-ex-employee:  “I’m sorry, your story was not chosen.  You have been eliminated.”

TV GOLD.

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Latest Layoffs: Anchor, Longtime Managers Out at WNYW/NY

 

NYs Fox 5:  Spinning in a Vortex of Constant Change

NY's Fox 5: Spinning in a Vortex of Constant Change

The departures at FOX flagship WNYW continue, with former weekend anchor Karen Hepp leaving the station last week, according to reliable New York Daily News reporter Richard Huff.  Hepp’s disappearance from the E. 67th Street studios follows that of entertainment reporter Toni Senecal, who declined an offer of a new contract in favor of a production deal elsewhere.

Behind the scenes, sources say the turnover Tuesday took the jobs of two top managers, Managing Editor Joe Farrington, and early news executive producer Mike Milhaven, both of whom had been with the station for several years.  No comment yet from FOX.

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Media General Goes With Employee Furloughs: 10 Unpaid Days in '09

Media Generals WVTM/Birmingham

Media General's WVTM/Birmingham

Media General confirmed the rumors today, with word that “despite aggressive sales initiatives and significant cost reductions already implemented, we need to build in additional expense savings to offset the revenue shortfalls we anticipate,” in the decidedly corporate words of Marshall Morton, Media General’s CEO.  To put in words more commonly floated around television newsrooms, you just got two weeks off, whether you want ’em–or can afford ’em.  No pay.

Media General owns 19 local television stations, including WFLA/Tampa, WVTM/Birmingham, WSAV/Savannah, and WJAR/Providence.  Employees will be forced to take ten unpaid days, including four days off before the end of March, according to the Associated Press.  The AP reports the company has already cut costs by $19 million dollars by suspending matching payments to employees’ 401(k) retirement plans.

Media Generals WSAV/Savanahh

Media General's WSAV/Savanahh

The furloughs follow a round of corporate layoffs across several Media General stations over the last few months, including 80 positions cut in Florida last November, and on-air cuts in Birmingham and Charleston just weeks ago.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the furloughs are mandatory for all non-union, non-contract employees, though union and contract employees will be asked to “voluntarily” participate in the ten no work, no pay days.

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