One of the great mysteries to me in these final months of the DTV transition is why call letter television stations continue to allow their news departments to operate in such an abysmal way.
A mystery because—with this very tricky transition—broadcasters need all the help they can get. Yet most TV stations are allowing local newspapers to eat their lunch on video news production and presentation in their markets. It’s as if the stations think they don’t need to compete.
In times when anyone with a $2,000 DV camera package and a PC can produce some form of television news, many stations seem to think minimalism is best. Like one minute stories with zero production value. Or reporters who think doing a stand-up in front of breaking news is actually reporting the story.
And all that fake news, like putting pre-written voiceovers over corporate press kits. Yes, it still goes on. So much for a serious FCC crackdown.
Why is this—when local news is the sole reason for being for many TV stations?
Perhaps, they just don’t know any better. Maybe the skill set of television news personnel has dropped to almost nothing. Perhaps TV news reporters don’t know how to write a complete text story with all the key facts addressed.
SETTING THE BAR
What I do know is newspapers—from the largest to the very smallest—are doing some exceptional video reporting throughout the nation. Freed from the ludicrous time restraints of the clock, many newspaper Web sites are doing a fine job of using video and photographic slide shows to tell stories. Combined with a full text narrative, many newspapers have found the ideal formula for multimedia storytelling.
They are learning fast and getting better by the day. Local TV news, with Web sites that tend to look like their 11 p.m. newscasts, had better watch out.
It doesn’t seem to matter to KREN and KAZR, the Pappas Telecasting stations in Reno, Nev., where news has ended altogether. That came after major cuts to the bone that produced “video and citizen” journalists—euphemisms that already meant “how cheap can we produce it.” Obviously, the answer was “not cheap enough.”
The elimination of news, Pappas said in March, was partly because of the impending sale of some Pappas broadcast properties and partly because the stations didn’t see adequate advertising revenues to justify the expense of the news division. Nineteen employees lost their jobs.
In an earlier era, the FCC would have come down on Pappas in a single day for making such an absurd announcement. How can a station with no news meet its public service requirements? Since when does it matter if the station makes a profit or not on news? Good questions for FCC Chairman Kevin Martin at his competence hearings in Congress!
TAKING A STAND
Then there’s the story of Glen Mabie, the former news director of WEAU in Eau Claire, Wis., who quit his job rather than be forced into an absurd journalistic compromise.
Without Mabie’s knowledge, the station manager cut a deal with the area’s Sacred Heart Hospital that would allow the medical center to pay the station to do two stories each week. The stories would be provided by the hospital.
The station could not interview people from other area hospitals and the hospital would get first right to do interviews for any area medical stories.
Mabie tried to explain to his lamebrain station manager why this was journalistically wrong. He was ordered instead to “sell” the idea to his staff. And, according to The Digital Journalist Web site, he was also told to tell the news team to “wipe the capital J’s off their sweaters because that’s not the way we do things anymore.”
Rather than inform his staff of the arrangement as ordered, Mabie quit his job. When other media picked up the story, the station got cold feet and backed out of the hospital deal.
That was six weeks ago. Glen Mabie is still out of a job. He has paid a huge price for doing the right thing. At least he still has his integrity.
God knows what the station manager, who still has his job, is planning next.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve gone through one horror story after another in local TV news. It’s a constant cat and mouse game to determine if what’s portrayed as “news” is actually concealed advertising. It goes on and on.
Perhaps next February more than expected will happen when the analog switch is turned “off.” Maybe, a perfect storm will occur that will end much of this mischief. By then viewers may forget about their local TV stations when they are lost in 500 channels on cable.
Besides, any reason to remember will be long forgotten.
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Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.