TV News Is Its Own Worst Enemy

On the desk in Milwaukee late 1970s. Typewriters. Film. Wall maps. Rich content.

I’m aghast at the imagery of network reporters being abused, treated as criminals, and rebuked by the con man pretending to be our President. It reminds me most of 1968, when what appeared to be anarchy was quieted by the law and order campaign of Richard Nixon. That’s not possible today, for law and order are the twin demons responsible for everything. Oh, Terry, just shut up.

I can’t do that, because “the news” is in fact a part of today’s problem, although most in the press would dismiss that as ignorance.

I can’t write about this without first declaring my sincere hope that the following doesn’t turn out to be one of those old man rants about the way things used to be. There will be some of that, of course, but I’m hoping that the overall tone is one of intelligent argument. For the record, I cut my teeth in the television news world in the early 70s on the assignment desk in Milwaukee. The reason that’s important is that at that time, news was a very difficult business in Milwaukee. We had a mayor’s office with hard rules of no contact with the company that I worked for at the time. We also had a police chief with dictatorial control over law enforcement. The only police officer authorized to speak to the media was the chief of detectives. I guess the point is we had to be resourceful.

The other dynamic at work was that we hadn’t become a profit center yet, so we had no reason to behave by anybody’s financial rules. With profit margins often hovering around 50%, there was no requirement to cut costs. This is to say that news people today wouldn’t recognize what we had, even though it’s clearly glamorized in textbooks, fiction, and movies.

What I’d really like to present here is the differences in the way I thought versus my competition, because it makes a statement about one of the reasons the press today plays the role of instigator far more than it thinks.

To begin, I need to digress for a moment to tell you a story from my own experience in the business. As the decade turned from the 70s into the 80s, I was working as the host and producer of PM Magazine for WHAS-TV in Louisville, Kentucky. I was also musical and played the 5‑string banjo, so I was selected to be the host of our live coverage Friday night and Saturday night of the Bluegrass Music Festival of the United States. It was my first experience with being the host on live TV, and I was terrified. The first night went great. The videos of earlier performances came and went without a hitch thanks to my natural commentary and ideal conditions. Everything went well, and my producer and boss, George Hulcher, thought it was an outstanding performance by everybody. It was.

However, Saturday night turned to crap immediately, because we were a CBS affiliate, and CBS was carrying the U.S. Open tennis tournament and that most memorable, 5‑set match between John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. We started about 90-minutes late, which wouldn’t have been a problem except that the final act of the night was EmmyLou Harris, and EmmyLou had some requirements for the festival, including having our entire set struck and put away by the time her performance began. The sun had already set, and it was too dark for me to be seen anywhere. So production gave me a single photographer and a night light and put us in the middle of thousands of drunk EmmyLou fans. We came out of the final videotape to me, as George said over my earphone, “I’m sorry, Terry, but you have FIVE minutes to fill.” The light came on, and suddenly everybody around me came to life with noise, shouts, vulgarities, and revelry. It was the most embarrassed I’ve ever been. The plan for me to talk to fans went out the window, because these folks obviously didn’t care when they said or did, so I basically told my life story about bluegrass surrounded by this loud and crazy mob.

That was the night I left the park immediately and took a Greyhound to see family in Chicago and just steamed about it. I swore I’d NEVER let anybody I was producing end up in a situation like that. It was also the night I decided that on-the-air work just wasn’t for me. I’d already had much knowledge about the disruptive nature of TV cameras in public, and especially with a bright light that pierces the darkness.

Going live from newsworthy locations is a production, promotional, and presentation technique and little more. Its domination of television newscast production strains credulity, but nobody complains, especially about what happens to the news itself in the process. This “innovation” in “storytelling” was led by technology, news consultants, and producers who wanted to generate artificial drama in the presentation of television news. So, what happens when the drama present is real and unpredictable?

Look at it this way. “Live” reports are an effect in the nomenclature of TV production. Effects are only effective when they’re not presented as the norm. Just what we wanted, eh? Live for live’s sake overtakes everything else, and we’re left with a useless effect that’s no longer effective in stacking a news program.

So, what we’re witnessing today — with police treating the press the same way they’re treating protestors — is what happens when you put reporters in the middle of things — like my EmmyLou Harris experience — you end up with potentially great drama but also reporters miffed that they can’t do their jobs in the process. People, in the final analysis, didn’t we do this to ourselves? Going live serves a useful, journalistic end, but it also tilts the story towards those who are telling it and away from what’s happening behind or in front of them. There’s no way we should allow our reporters to become the story, but this is what’s being taught in our schools and in our practice. “Involve yourselves in the story as if YOU are the audiences eyes and ears” sounds terrific until it’s put into actual practice, wherein they actually alter the story by drawing attention to themselves. Not always, mind you, but enough that we ought to take a step back for a moment and think about what we’re doing.

As a television news director — and more so as an assignment manager — much of my daily focus was on what could or would be our lead story. The smaller the market, the more difficult the task and not because the police blotter was any less dominant, but because newsworthy human behavior is more obscured and the ability to uncover it is restricted by a community that works hard to keep such things under wraps. I knew a young reporter on Kawaii, for example, who worked for the local cable company and was forbidden from reporting on automobile accidents involving anybody other than tourists. This was to “protect” the local citizenry from embarrassment or residual difficulties. Granted, this was extreme, but the story reveals how difficult it can be to cover the news when the audience is your neighbors.

The point is that finding that lead story was not easy, so it was my number one priority, and I was very good at getting inside the community’s mind through data research and getting to know those who were well-connected and in the know. Knowing how important family (Ohana) was to Hawaiian people, for example, I accepted an appointment to the Governor’s Commission on the Family, which opened the door to endless stories and trends.

News stories never exist in a vacuum; they must be nurtured through contacts, sources, and especially an understanding of how things work locally. Who really calls the shots? It’s rarely anybody elected, but you wouldn’t know that from watching the local news. It requires shoe leather and especially an abiding curiosity about community thinking. Only in that way can you reasonably expect to become an essential part of the area’s information leadership. This is something you want, because it will lead to trust and eventually viewership.

In Huntsville, for example, I needed to know who the movers and shakers were, so we sent letters to people in positions to know (like the “committee of 100”, etc.) and asked them to anonymously give us names. The result was a series of reports about what we’d learned. Our senior anchor did the interviews, but the real value of such a project was to find our way to the inside track of community development, which led to a great many other stories downstream. GREAT reporters help, of course, but they need the evidentiary push that such knowledge can provide.

This ability to focus clearly on what community leaders felt was important and understanding the “why” was one of the things that undergirded my reputation as a news director. I still strongly believe that coverage is the best path to status and to tangible news leadership in the market. My colleagues in the news consulting business would argue that marketing is the answer here, along with consistent branding within the language of the newscasts, and I don’t disagree. However, I think the marketing mission is made so much easier with coverage that “makes” news instead of waiting for it to come to us. Instead of homogenized “investigating” gleaned from what “worked” in another market, our value proposition should be based on local knowledge, values, and mission.

Presentation and language are super important, but what’s being presented and marketed is vastly more important than how it’s presented. That doesn’t mean (at all) that presentation and marketing aren’t important. They very much are, but in the place where newsrooms hold their editorial meetings — which the promo boys attend — they should address not the newscast but the news itself. Some days may require a totally different form of presentation, but creativity often goes out the window when placed in a box of one-potato, two-potato, three-potato, four. And, the bigger the market, the more likely presentation matters over content.

So, I was always a coverage guy, and I was eager to offer undergirding data and information that would allow reporters to blossom and grow their own curiosity and skills at identifying and telling stories.

At the time I was there, Richmond was the per capita murder capital of the country. Lots of stories had been done, but the year we topped 200 murders, I had one of our reporters put numbers 1–200 on poker chips and put them in a big basket. She then randomly selected five numbers for a series that we called “Remember Me.” The reporter did profiles of each of the five victims in an effort to share their humanity. It was stunningly powerful and attention-getting.

In Chattanooga, I drew up a challenging plan for us to examine religion in the Tennessee Valley. We surveyed the population and created a mailing list of clergy in order to give them the same survey. The differences between their answers and the answers from the public formed the basis for two weeks worth of stories that we shared with one of the local papers. The series — dubbed “I Believe” — lasted a month and doubled our ratings. Had I stayed there, it would’ve become a weekly franchise.

Believing that the people in the newsroom always knew more than outsiders, I always surveyed my staff to understand their grasp of the issues and our coverage. It was a great way to begin my own investigation and to implement a philosophy for us to follow. Each market was different, and if coverage is to be your foundation, it had to be founded in purpose and community leadership. Such knowledge is essential in dismissing pretenders with self-serving eyes on forcing themselves into acceptance of other community leaders.

For this, I chose to remain in small and mid-sized markets, which my critics used to tag me with the pejorative title of “journeyman.” I was nobody’s “manager,” so I really had no use for long-term babysitting of a newsroom. I was more of a fixer of newsrooms than the manager of any organization, and that required that I move around a lot.

Local television news is mostly about the weather these days. It’s the one thing local stations can do that others cannot, because it’s one of the few information sources where proximity still matters. Of course, proximity could matter more, if the people working in our newsrooms were trained more to think than to “present”.

I noticed a change in such people during my career, and so I put this question into my interviews with job candidates: “Why did this business choose you?” Early on, most of my colleagues were former newspaper people who were seriously into the idea of making a difference with their lives. As the 80s came and went, most of the candidates answering my question told an almost identical story: “When the local TV anchor came to my school, I just KNEW this was what I wanted to do.” Not only is that long distance from making a difference, but it’s remarkably self-centered. It’s like saying “I want to be on TV”, which is not far from those with a simple cell phone go these days.

And, who do they emulate? The news people who are bound to the identity they created for themselves in this crazy world that we call television journalism today.

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