Saturday, November 29

Who's On (In) First?

Joe Riggins said it best. You remember Joe “Skip” Riggins—the manager of the baseball team in Bull Durham? The late Trey Wilson played him on the big screen.

“Baseball,” he said, “"is a simple game. You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball." He accused his team of being “lollygaggers.”

I think television news is a simple business. You pick some stories, you cover some stories, you tell some stories.

The thing that makes baseball so endlessly fascinating is that down on that field there are a million options, a million choices to be made, many of them instantly. It sometimes seems that getting it right is a million-to-one shot. Yet some teams do get it right, consistently. They’re winners.

Same thing for television news. What stories do you pick to tell tonight? Why did you pick them? What’s your goal in reporting them? How do you decide what resources to assign to each story? A live truck? A helicopter? Team reporting? How much time can you spend on the story in the field? How much time can you devote to it on the air? How do you tell those stories? Graphics? Clever writing? Standups? Live guests? There are so many decisions to be made. But it seems to me that the news operations that do it well and do it consistently all focus on their viewers.

Obviously, I’ve been thinking a lot about WABC-TV lately, and about Al Primo, and about Eyewitness News. I remain struck by the fact that just about everything at WABC, all the story-telling tricks and tips he put in place—worked, has worked, and will work in the future, because it was all viewer-based. His emphasis on using a cast of real people (New Yorkers) as reporters, telling stories about real people (New Yorkers) to real people (New Yorkers) in a way real people (New Yorkers!!!) could understand? It really hasn’t been improved upon. And yet it leaves a lot of room for creative thinking and individual initiative. It’s a simple game—tell me a story!

WABC has been #1 in New York for most of the last forty years by following the plan, by believing in story-telling as a goal, by letting reporters and anchors develop their style to go with the station’s style, and by remembering that it’s all about communicating one-on-one with viewers. Lower the barriers to communication—look ‘em in the eye and tell ’em a story.

When I see TV news that doesn’t work, it’s always because reporters haven’t mastered the craft of storytelling—or have forgotten how—or don’t have the time—or don’t have the resources—or don’t know to put their viewers first.

I know, I know—I’m being an old fart again. But it took me a long time to earn whatever stripes I may have on my sleeves, to develop whatever skills I may have. Along the way I was taught why things are done the way they are. I tune in today—to any TV station you can name—and see people who know what to do (they’ve read the playbook), but they don’t know why. For that reason every newscast looks exactly the same.

I spent Thanksgiving with family back home in Cleveland.

Know the difference between TV news in Cleveland and Cincinnati and Columbus?

Me neither.

All the Cleveland stations looked the same to me—and none of them looked like Cleveland. Cleveland has cookie-cutter newscasts. Great looking anchors. Great looking reporters. Great video. Great looking sets. Great looking graphics. Great sounding music.

It was great. But they looked like lollygaggers, and it was all interchangeable. Your market too, I’ll bet.

Quick note. I had a nightmare the other night. Did you ever have one where you woke up in the middle of the night, got up, went to the bathroom, splashed some water on your face, returned to bed—and picked up the dream at the same spot!?!?!?!?

I dreamed—all night it seemed—that I was once again a news director and I was being ordered to make huge budget cuts. I had some sort of a spreadsheet in front of me. By each name there was a box showing how much money each person made this year—how much each was supposed to make next year—and the savings if I each one go immediately. My job (in the dream) was to add up the numbers from the “savings” boxes—to the penny-- and fire exactly the right people to reach a mandated bottom-line figure. Hit it exactly. Not a penny over, not a penny under. So a reporter whose salary ended in a "6" might stay, but one who's salary ended in a "7" would have to go. In the dream I kept adding and subtracting, trying to hit that exact number while still trying to retain good people and still do news. As I say, a nightmare.

In my last ND job I was ordered to do some serious budget trimming—but I did almost all of it by leaving positions unfilled, or by cutting overtime. I hated it. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a news director today, trimming fat, gristle, bone, meat—a living nightmare, I presume.

One of the local radio talkshow hosts recently was joking about the downturn in local TV revenue. Pennsylvania was a “swing state” this election year, and with two key Congressional races locally, the stations made millions more than in political ads than in any election year ever. Now that’s gone—and so is spot spending in general. After Christmas, what will be left? The host was laughing—laughing—that maybe TV needs a government bailout.

I think maybe I got out of TV news at the right moment. I got in just after the beginning—now I’m out just before the end. I wonder what's next.

Monday, November 10

I Witnessed It!

Anchor Rose Ann Scamardella, Reporter/MC Bob Lape, Creator/Honoree Al Primo

Tavern on the Green

November 9, 2008

New York Times Photo

I had another of my perfect “Tying My Shoes” Forest-Gump moments Sunday night. I arrived early at Tavern on the Green in New York for the Eyewitness News 40th anniversary party: a combination family reunion and tribute to the founder of EWN, Al Primo, who brought the format to Channel 7 forty years ago this month. Think about it: Al is still a very young 69—which means he was 29 when he dreamed up a way to present words and moving pictures on TV that changed the way the world looks at TV news. Wow!

Ironically, I left WABC 25 years ago this month after three years there. I guess you could say I helped write 7.5% of WABC’s EWN history. Still, if you’ve read any of my blog, you know that my time at Eyewitness News looms large and remains vivid in my memory.

So I went Sunday night to honor Al Primo, and to see whom I remembered from the old days, and who remembered me.

And boy, did I get my ticket stamped! Boy, did I come away feeling great!

I’ve written here about the trials and travails that have faced broadcast news in recent years. I have expressed dismay at the state of my chosen art—disdain for some of the people now in the biz—despair for its future.

My own recent past has been (to continue the alliteration) discouraging. The skills I spent so many years learning and the craft I so desperately wanted to master don’t seem to count for much anymore. I looked at my early career—and in those days people had careers, not just jobs—as my apprenticeship. The day I first set foot in the WABC newsroom the apprenticeship came to an end. I remember walking into EWN in 1980 and saying to myself, “Pinocchio, you’re a real boy at last!” Does anyone feel that pride starting a new job anymore?

One of the reasons for my occasional bouts of despair is that I’m not sure my career, in its recent incarnations, has had much meaning or has made much of a difference. But, I thought, maybe for my 7.5% of EWN’s history I did something important.

So I walked into Tavern on the Green Sunday night, and was talking to organizer/host Alan Weiss, when Jim Murphy came over to say Hi. He was a young producer when I left. I know he’s doing something important now, but I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember what. So I said, “Jim, what are you up to these days?” And he said, “I’m Executive Producer of Good Morning America.”

Uh . . . yeah . . . knew that . . . you’re Diane Sawyer’s boss . . . I knew that. Trust me. I knew that. I was just leaning over, TYING MY SHOES!

And I did know that! I did know that he had produced the CBS Evening News before that. It was just that seeing him in an old context, picking up a conversation we had been having a quarter-century ago, left me struggling to focus on a new context. Tying my shoes, indeed!

So I was red-faced. But he was gracious, and a friend.

I had other, less embarrassing moments.

Lou Young was a terrific, aggressive young reporter way back when. Now he’s at WCBS. He told me that in his frustrating rookie days, when he was a GA (general assignment) reporter and had to take his marching orders from the desk every day, he came to me discouraged that he wasn’t getting bigger stories. He recalled me saying, “You want to be a star? Anyone can go out on a ‘10’ and come back with a ‘10.’ I need you to go out on ‘3s’ and come back with ‘7s.’” He’s remembered that for 25+ years. He said he quoted it to someone just the other day. Do you know what that means to me a quarter-century later?

Ticket stamped!

Did I ever tell you about Howard Doyle? Howard was Executive Producer when I got there—the single most powerful day-to-day driving force behind what we put on at 6:00 every night. He bled EWN, and when it came to setting the news agenda every day he ran roughshod over the newsroom. He could be a demanding tyrant. Benevolent? Hardly. He was the gatekeeper, the arbiter of all things EWN, and he played the game for keeps every day. He was the original “Go Hard or Go Home” guy!

Trouble was he didn’t think the news desk shared his daily vision. It was common for him to come to the morning news meeting and completely toss out the desk’s planning. Trust me—it’s tough to have a staff that (eventually) numbered 245 stop—turn on a dime—and move off in a new direction. Tough to restart the day, every day, at 10:00 a.m. One reason Howard felt the need to bigfoot the desk was that the assignment editors didn’t have their own manager. Lots of assignment Indians, no chiefs. Jim Topping hired me to supervise the desk and get it on the same page as the EP.

I read between the lines. I decided it was my real job to earn Howard Doyle’s trust and respect.

I thought I did. I know we worked well together. He was my real teacher as I tried master Eyewitness and The Big Apple at the same time.

So Sunday night I saw Howard for the first time in 25 years. And he told me I was one of the most honest, decent pros he ever worked with. I’m not ashamed to say I got a lump in my throat. I can’t remember a compliment ever meaning more.

I forget from time to time how truly blessed I’ve been. People I really respect seem to respect me.

Lou and Howard are the two I’ll name here. One of the themes of the evening seemed to be that we were all family who shared a great adventure. Maybe, through the mists of memory, the tough times fade. I know that I’ve had co-workers in recent years that I haven’t particularly cared for or respected. There’s another post here somewhere in which I talk about one reporter who gave 100% effort 50% of the time—or was it 50% effort 100% of the time? Either way, Howard Doyle would have had him knee-capped out on Columbus Avenue and his body left in a dumpster behind Chips!

Not many slackers at the old Circle 7. And as I looked around that room Sunday night I realized that I cherished every person there: more names than I’d dare try listing, for risk of leaving someone important out: and they were all important.

I think—I hope—I got a chance to tell them how much they mean to me. Just being remembered by so many broadcasting giants—just being in their figurative and literal embrace—was a wonderful high. Brilliant men and women who dedicated themselves, who had a calling. Where are the young people today who want to pay that price?

I wrote a letter to my nephew “Fritz” last year as he was getting ready to leave high school: one of those go forth and be a man letters. I told him that, in the final analysis, I wished for him the blessings I’ve had so far. I told him my epitaph could read, “He had it pretty much his own way pretty much of the time.”

After Sunday night I can die a happy man!

And there’s this. You can’t get decent corned beef in Scranton, PA. So on my way out of NYC Sunday night I took a chance—and found a parking space 25 feet from the front door of the Carnegie Deli, and no line at the counter!

Don’t tell me there’s no God!

Wednesday, November 5

"Gotcha" Journalism

So Barack Obama is President-elect of the United State of America. "We the People", millions of us, made it happen.

How about

Interesting that "the meed-ya" is/are being credited/blamed with influencing the outcome of the election.

It cracks me up, though, that the Republicans
as usualhave spent weeks demonizing the media. It's a tactic that goes back at least to "Tailgunner Joe" McCarthy, was perfected by Richard Nixon, and updated by Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. The game plan is to demonize anyone who asks anything approaching a hard question. How Dare You Ask Such a Question? You're trying to practice 'Gotcha Journalism'." Picture Ronald Reagan walking towards the "Marine One" helicopter with a hand cupped behind an ear trying (but not very hard) to hear the shouted questions. And how many news conferences did George W. Bush hold?

Here's my take on it. If you're in a windowless room and look up at the digital clock on the wall and it says "3:00"
and if the Republicans say it's 3:00 a.m.—while the Democrats say it's 3:00's a reporter's job to go outside and see if it's dark or light!

A Republican like Karl Rove or Dick Cheney would say, "How
dare you question what I just said?"

(A conservative Republican would say, "The light will trickle down and dispel the darkness," but that's a different discussion.)

I first rubbed up against the "How Dare You" scenario in my first job in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with a Mayor by the name of Bob Boelens. WOOD-TV had a city hall reporter back then (early 70s) by the name of Doris Jarrell. Doris believed she served the public best
exactly by practicing "gotcha." She figured she served best by pointing out contradictions (although I called them "lies") in what officials had to say. Hold 'em accountable!

Poor Bob Boelens. I don't remember the exact issue, but I
do remember that it was controversial and he had taken a seemingly off-the-wall approach to it. In an interview with Doris he said that he wasn't flying blind, that he had obtained advice from several experts before making up his mind.

A couple of weeks later, in front of city council (and TV cameras!) he went off on a bit of a rant that went something like this: "There are those in the media who want you to believe that I had outside advice on this issue. Nothing could have been further from the truth, and I resent the implication."

Doris played the sound bites that night,

Gotcha, Bob Boelens. Good job, Doris Jarrell.

And as the producer of the newscast it fell to me to answer viewer calls, like the one from the infuriated lady who said, "You're trying to make our beloved Mayor out to be a liar."

Being a smart-assed young kid my answer was, "Not
trying, ma'am, not trying!"

Seems to me we need more Doris Jarrells. Heck, I'll bet Doris would have asked for better evidence about weapons of mass destruction before America went to war against Iraq! In 2008 she would have asked more about the financial bailout before it was approved.

So we get a $700 billion war and a $700 billion bailout. You know, before too long that sort of spending could add up to real money!!!!!!!!!

Come to think of it, maybe we should stop asking tough questions: we'll only learn things we don't want to know!