Al Tompkins

Consulting clients: ABC Owned and Operated Stations, Telemundo Television Stations; Meredith Television Stations; Scripps Howard Television, NBC owned and operation stations Promotions Directors; Stations; Hearst Argyle Television Stations; Gannett Television Stations; Griffin Communications; NBC Owned and Operated Stations; New York Times Television Stations; Cox Television; Cox Cable, Cox Washington DC Bureau, RUV TV (Iceland), Belo Television Stations; Freedom Newspapers of Florida, Freedom Newspapers of North Carolina, The Raleigh News & Observer, Shurz Broadcast stations, Radio and Television News Directors Association; RTNDA Canada; Radio and Television News Directors Foundation; The Ford Foundation; Hampton University, Kings University, Belmont University, Western Kentucky University, Middle Tennessee State University Alabama Broadcasters Association; Arkansas Broadcasters Association; Oklahoma Broadcasters Association; Hawaii Association of Broadcasters; Texas Association of Broadcasters; Ohio AP Broadcasters Association; Pennsylvania Broadcasters Association; Illinois Broadcasters Association; Washington State Broadcasters Association; Georgia Broadcasters Association; Tennessee Broadcasters Association; Louisiana Broadcasters Association; New York State Broadcasters Association; West Virginia Broadcasters Association; Missouri Broadcasters Association; Virginia Broadcasters Association; North Carolina Broadcasters Association; South Carolina Association of Broadcasters; Wisconsin Broadcasters Association; Iowa Broadcasters Association;Oregon Broadcasters, North Carolina Press Association, Alaska Broadcasters Association, New Mexico Broadcasters AssociationNational Academy of Television Arts and Sciences -- NATAS (Pennsylvania); NATAS (Washington DC); NATAS (Miami); WMC-TV; WSB-TV; KXAS-TV; KHOU-TV; WNEM-TV; KPHO-TV; WEWS-TV; WPTV-TV; WESH-TV; WKMG-TV; WTVW-TV; WPBF-TV; WHO-TV; KWTV-TV; WZZM-TV; WNEP-TV; WTKR-TV; KTHV-TV; KCTV-TV; WGAL; WTVF; WSBT See discussion of Poynter consulting in Poynter Ethics FAQ.

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Reporting under fire: CNN’s Ivan Watson stays calm

Photo courtesy CNN

Photo courtesy CNN

In the months ahead, as I show journalists examples of excellent reporting, I will use a story that CNN’s senior international correspondent Ivan Watson filed this week.

Watson and his CNN crew flew in a helicopter with the Iraqi air force and fighters with the Kurdish peshmerga to drop supplies and rescue 20 or so Iraqis from Mount Sinjar, where they had fled attacks from the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“We landed on several short occasions, and that’s where — amid this explosion of dust and chaos — these desperate civilians came racing towards the helicopter, throwing their children on board the aircraft. The crew was just trying to pull up as many people as possible,” Watson said.

Watson said in his story he worried that some of the boxes the crew had tossed out may have hit some of the rushing crowd.

Tuesday, a day after Watson’s flight, New York Times journalist Alissa Rubin, Read more


CBS prepared to play rough with affiliates over money

CBS fired an opening salvo in what could become a disruption for network affiliated television stations.

WISH TV, the LIN Broadcasting owned station in Indianapolis will no longer be the CBS affiliate starting January 1, 2015. CBS is moving from LIN owned WISH-TV to the Tribune owned station WTTV, currently the CW affiliate. Tribune also owns the FOX station in Indy.

The move will cost WISH about half of its revenue, according to one media analyst, who added it will serve as a warning to other network affiliated stations. CBS is sending a signal that it is prepared to play rough when it comes to the percentage of revenue that local stations pass along from the retransmission fees that cable companies pay the local stations. In TV terms, the money that an affiliate pays a network is “network compensation” often called “net-comp.” Side note: A couple of decades ago, networks sent compensation to local stations and it is now the other way around.

Local stations hoped that agreements with cable companies would be a stable and significant new income stream. But now, networks, stressed by the high costs of athletic contracts, are putting new pressure on the affiliates to hand over more of the cable income. SNL Kagan, a leading media research firm, says within three to five years local stations may be handing over 50-to-60 percent of their cable retransmission income to the networks. The cost of resisting could be high.

CBS initiated the talks when Tribune approached the network about extending CBS agreements for other stations it owns. CBS spokesman Dana McClintock said the deal has been in the works “for months” and confirms that the cable retransmission fees were a key reason for the Indianapolis affiliate switch. McClintock also agreed that while it is unusual for CBS to change affiliates, it is not unprecedented. And he said cable transmission fees will become a bigger issue in future affiliate negotiations around the country.

Justin Nielson, Sr. Justin Nielson, Research Analyst, SNL Kagan

Justin Nielson, Research Analyst, SNL Kagan

Justin Nielson, Senior Research Analyst for SNL Kagan told that he estimates a CW affiliate in Indianapolis generates $10-$15 million in annual advertising revenue. He estimates that a CBS affiliate generates $30-$40 million a year. “On top of that,” he said, “You would add the cable retransmission income, which would be significantly higher for a CBS station that has more viewers than a CW station.” Nielson said by losing the CBS affiliation, WISH will likely lose millions of dollars in revenue. How much depends on whether the station can land a new affiliation agreement with another network or whether it tries to “go it alone” as a fully independent station, which would be unusual.

WISH TV does not mention the affiliate switch on its website.  The soon to be new CBS affiliate announced the change on it’s co-owned FOX website.

Not only does WISH give up CBS programming including news and entertainment, in Indianapolis, it gives up Colts football.  CBS holds the rights to AFC games.

In a statement posted on its corporate website, Tribune said the new affiliation with CBS means it will add local news:

“This comprehensive agreement further expands our strong partnership with CBS and allows us to provide an array of outstanding programming, including leading live sports, news and entertainment,” said Tribune Broadcasting President Larry Wert. “Through WTTV’s new affiliation, we look forward to significantly enhancing our sports offerings, local news coverage and commitment to the community.”

The shakeup happened just one week after Tribune spun off its broadcasting properties from its print holdings.

WTTV hopes to have local news when it launches the new affiliation January 1, said Jessica Bellucci, Tribune director of communication. She said the Fox station that Tribune owns in Indianapolis already produces more than ten hours of news a day and the CBS station may share a newsroom and some resources. But she said, the CBS station will not just repurpose or repeat stories from the FOX station. Bellucci added Tribune believes the FCC will have no problems with the company owning both a FOX and CBS affiliate in this case.

Tribune also used the opportunity to lock up it’s CBS agreements in Memphis, Huntsville, Ft. Smith Arkansas and Richmond, Virginia. None of those agreements were due, but Tribune and CBS re-upped the agreements early.

LIN media finds itself in a delicate spot.  In March, LIN announced it would merge with Media General. As soon as the news broke about the affiliate change, LIN stock dropped nearly 4 percent, it was off even further on Tuesday. Media General stock dropped about the same amount and also continued to drop on Tuesday. But both have enjoyed highs since their merger announcement and are above 2013 levels. LIN has 10 other CBS affiliates around the country and will have to face CBS negotiations again as affiliation agreements come due.

Other network affiliates will be watching what happened in Indianapolis, Nielson said. “CBS has significant costs to cover, including its new NFL Thursday night football rights.”  And while he expects networks to stay with their current affiliates if they can, the shakeup in Indianapolis this week sends a signal that networks are willing to change channels if another owner is willing to pay what the network wants. Read more

Robin Williams

How to cover the Robin Williams story responsibly

The suspected suicide of comedian Robin Williams is an opportunity for journalists to give more coverage to a topic that deserves it. Suicide rates in the United States rose between 2000 and 2007.

But screaming headlines, speculation and images of crying fans could do a lot of harm. Journalists have to cover such high-profile deaths — the key question is how.

The CDC reported last year that in 2009, more people died from suicide than from car accidents. It also found “substantial increases in suicide rates among middle-aged adults in the United States.”

Baby Boomers “who have faced years of economic worry and easy access to prescription painkillers may be particularly vulnerable to self-inflicted harm,” Tara Parker-Pope wrote in a New York Times article about the CDC’s findings.

From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 13.7. Although suicide rates are growing among both middle-aged men and women, far more men take their own lives. The suicide rate for middle-aged men was 27.3 deaths per 100,000, while for women it was 8.1 deaths per 100,000.

Coverage Guidelines

The American Association of Suicidology has this collection of recommendations for journalists who cover the issue.

The AAS makes three big points:

  • More than 50 research studies worldwide have found that certain types of news coverage can increase the likelihood of suicide in vulnerable individuals. The magnitude of the increase is related to the amount,  duration and prominence of coverage.

  • Risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/ graphic headlines or images, and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.

  • Covering suicide carefully, even briefly, can change public misperceptions and correct myths, which can encourage those who are vulnerable or at risk to seek help.

One of the most common mistakes that journalists can make in covering suicide is to advance the notion that one big thing caused someone to take their life.  Suicide is a complex response that usually involves lots of factors including mental illness. In fact, suicide experts estimate 90 percent of suicides have some connection to mental illness and/or substance abuse. Both are treatable.

A couple of years ago I helped teach a workshop for journalists who cover suicides. The Dart Foundation pulled together tons of resources that will help you, including these:

Read more

High school journalists produce documentary despite protests

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Why don’t more photojournalists become news directors?



Sinclair Broadcasting Group named Lane Michaelsen its new corporate news director, Rick Gevers reported Aug. 3. Sinclair, the biggest local television ownership group in the U.S., now has three former photojournalists in top news division leadership positions.

Michaelsen became a national award-winning photojournalist at WSMV (where I worked with him) and at KARE-11 in Minneapolis. After a one-year residency at The Poynter Institute, he rose to news director in Little Rock, D.C., Tampa, Miami, Cincinnati and Atlanta.

Photojournalist Stan Heist is Sinclair’s news talent manager and in 2006 was the National Press Photographers Association national TV Photographer of the Year. He started his career as a news photographer and a live truck operator at WKEF-TV in Dayton, Ohio. Scott Livingston is the group’s vice president of news. While he worked at WBFF in Baltimore, Livingston was twice named Photographer of the Year by the Associated Press and was honored three times by the National Press Photographers Association.

It’s fairly rare for photographers to become news directors. I wanted to know what others could do to move photojournalists into glass-office jobs. In addition to Heist and Livingston, I asked other former and current news executives to offer some advice.

John Lansing, the former head of Scripps Networks Interactive, started as a photographer in Paducah, Kentucky, and over the years worked as news director at WCCO Minneapolis and WBBM Chicago. He rose to general manager in Detroit and Cleveland. Bruce Carter, the news director at WLEX-TV Lexington, Kentucky, began as a photojournalist. Bruce and I worked together in Bowling Green, Kentucky, back in the days of film.  I also asked my esteemed colleague Jill Geisler to add her thoughts, since she trains news executives around the world and has been working in and around newsrooms for more than 40 years.

How does your photojournalism background inform your decision-making as a news executive?



Livingston: We’re big believers in the power of our pictures and sound. Our news corporate team has a great grasp on what makes a memorable story. Just as photojournalists look for those special moments which will connect with the viewer, we look for a connection in every story we choose to put in our newscasts. Not every news item is a full package, but every news story needs to be told in a way that has value to the viewer. We respect that every viewer has access to myriad news sources. Their choice to watch us is because of our commitment to make the ordinary extraordinary.

Carter: A successful photojournalist has to have a considerable bank of skill sets. They tend to possess strong people skills. They not only deal with the stresses and strains of the daily newsroom work environment but they also interact with public officials in difficult times, people in tragic situations, victims under duress and the like. Photojournalists learn to work and create in a collaborative team environment, they tend to be highly organized, excellent problem solvers and know how to meet extremely demanding daily deadlines. In addition, I find most photojournalists to be creative and engaging people that love a challenge, love storytelling and have a true passion for what they do.



Lansing: To be successful as a photojournalist you must focus on every aspect of the assignment; the visuals you record are the end result of your ability to manage a complex set of variables such as: understanding as much about the assignment as the reporter, planning and logistics, technical competency with equipment, problem solving on the fly, engaging people in often tense situations, excellence in sound recording, understanding lighting advantages or restrictions, managing competitive concerns, meeting deadlines, managing expectations of the assignment desk and producers and of course understanding how to tell great visual stories that will engage and inform an audience, have a keen sense of your mission as a journalist and its ethical underpinnings.

If you are constantly thinking one or two steps ahead, and taking full responsibility for the final product on air, you are enhancing your chances for success.  I can’t think of a better job description for a news director.



Heist: As a photojournalists, we’re driven by video’s unique ability to capture moments — and for me that’s a big driver in my decisions. We understand that the content our stations produce must be compelling, informative and relatable for the audience, every day. So when I review work, it’s always through the lens of creating an authentic experience for the viewer, and helping them better understand the issues that affect them every day.

Perhaps as a more practical matter, from our photojournalism past, we’re used to working with all types of people both inside the newsroom and out on the street. We’ve made tough calls in the building, and been challenged by the pressures out in the field. Even though we were news employees, we had to have very good relationships with engineering, graphics, production, and others inside the building. At least for me, understanding how to build those relationships took time–but it was key to being able to move up and see the bigger picture. This pays off now, because in order to be successful in my job I need to understand and connect with every type of news employees, not just photographers.

Why is it so rare for photojournalists to rise through the ranks as producers, reporters and sales executives do? 

Heist: A great question, and one I hope to explore more in my role here at Sinclair. I think as an industry we can all do a better job of developing leaders from within the ranks and giving them the tools they need to succeed as leaders earlier in their career. The way this business moves so quickly, sometimes it’s hard to get the right management training in before the opportunity to lead presents itself.

I do think a big reason is that people in the roles you have mentioned have so much more time inside the building, where the decisions are made. That’s why it’s so important for photojournalists to get involved in both the day-to-day operations, and the big picture, if they want to get involved in management. Leaders have to think about things on an organizational level, which means understanding how their newsroom fits within the station and within the community at large. Producers have the inside track with this, at least as far as being a news director goes, because they are in the building when decisions are being made.

Lansing: It’s rare because photojournalists are naturally prone to making other people look good, and making it look easy, which I assure you it is not.

If you read the great business book “Good to Great,” author Jim Collins describes the best business leaders as those who follow the “Hedgehog Principle”, meaning they are goal oriented, focused on leading teams by example rather than ego.  These leaders work in service to the team, not the other way around. I think that is a good description of the best photojournalists I have known and the best leaders I have encountered.  But like many businesses it’s easy to assume the people who work more closely to the money or the power somehow understand the most of what makes the business work. I think that is a risky assumption for a television station that relies almost entirely on having viewers choose their content over 4 or 5 other choices. It seems more logical to choose those closest to generating engaging content versus counting money.



Carter:  I think the fact that most creative and talented photojournalists have a passion for what they do, being creative visual storytellers, so many stick with doing just that for most of their career. Some leave the business and go to work for production houses or start their own photography-based business. Others continue their career in television news, which I think is great! If you love what you do, then do it.

There is one group of photojournalists which I feel is a tremendous untapped resource for future news and station managers, that group being chief news photographers. These are people that usually rose up through the ranks and became proven respected leaders by their staff and newsroom peers. They are organized managers and team leaders. With a bit of financial/sales training, this talented group of photojournalists could be a great talent pool for any company.

Livingston: Probably because being a photojournalist is way more fun than any of those other jobs!  Seriously, no other time in my life did I exercise more creativity, more autonomy than when I had a camera (and deck) on my shoulder.  Historically, there have been great photojournalists in news management: Butch Montoya, Bruce Carter, John Lansing, to name a few. In our current climate, photographers also act as reporters, producers and multimedia journalists.  I predict that with photojournalists having more of an obvious editorial voice, we will see more photojournalists evolve into news managers.



Geisler: I think it’s more likely than ever for photojournalists to grow into newsroom leadership roles, but there have been obstacles. Namely: training, geography and culture.

  • Training: In the past, photographers came from a variety of backgrounds, including a more trade-school model that focused on the art of making pictures and not necessarily the full spectrum of media history and law, communications theory, and writing. When an organization is led by people who place a strong value on writing (as print AND broadcast newsrooms traditionally have been), they can undervalue talented people for whom that’s a lesser skill.
  • Geography:  In the days of film, photographers and their gear were housed in walled-off areas of TV stations, thanks to OSHA requirements related to the chemicals used in processing film. They didn’t live in the newsroom, where decisions are made.  As technology changed, it took time to physically knock down walls, and that was often done by forward-thinking newsroom leaders who realized there was  buried treasure in the building — photographers who didn’t want to simply be dispatched to assignments, but were eager to be partners in brainstorming and developing them.
  • Culture: As photographers began to work in tandem with reporters, producers and managers, and as many came into the business with more broad-based liberal arts education, their status changed from “helper” to “partner” — and from there, much more easily to “leader.”

What do photojournalists need to do more (or less) to improve their odds of rising into leadership jobs?

Livingston: Be involved and engaged in the editorial process. We all remember when photogs liked to hide in the back, waiting to be called by the assignment desk. Those days are gone. We not only encourage but expect our photography staff to provide just as many story ideas as the rest of the staff. Frankly, they have a great grasp on what’s going on due to the fact they are out in the field all day. By definition, photographers are great observers and listeners and have the ability to get genuine evolving soundbites by making those observations.

Carter: If a photojournalist wants to climb the ranks into a managerial role they need to inform their manager(s) of their career aspirations. Managers look for people that show interest in exploring new things. I suggest spending time with your general manager, news director and other department heads. Ask questions, be inquisitive. Volunteer to take on additional tasks and responsibilities. Make yourself indispensable. Learn everything and anything about every single department and how the station functions as a whole. Be involved in the daily operations, exhibit leadership, be a mentor those around you with lesser skill sets. Managers will take note.

Geisler: Avoid silos and us/them thinking. Be a presence in the newsroom, immerse yourself in storytelling rather than just visual journalism, be a continuous learner, coach and mentor others, ask for feedback — and read this column I published last week.

Lansing: Be well informed and act as a professional journalist, not a camera jockey.  Show up at editorial meetings with good story ideas. Dress like a professional even if you have jeans and boots for some stories. Understand your station’s strategic plan and ask questions at staff meetings. Learn how sales works, embrace mentors and friendships from all departments. Ask the GM for a chance to learn more about how you can help the station succeed.

Heist: Get involved. It’s very easy for a photojournalist to respond to the needs of the newsroom, especially when the job is so taxing by nature. Photographers and reporters can easily have their daily schedule upended at any moment during the day. It’s in their nature to be on standby. If a photojournalist has an interest in leadership, it’s important to take a view of the news operation as a whole. You can’t be worried about only your assignments of the day. Look for opportunities to help the newsroom be stronger, and don’t wait for them to come to you. I’ve seen it several times from those who have worked with me when I was a chief in Richmond and in Baltimore. I remember one photographer in particular who would ask me repeatedly if he could help organize and maintain the live trucks for me. It didn’t take long before I “delegated” that task to him — and he embraced it. He saw a need and he filled it. Today he’s in management for an international broadcaster in D.C. Read more


Former NBC Journalist/Executive Paula Madison Finds the Story of Her Life

Paula Madison shocked her colleagues when she walked away from television in October, 2011. She was 58 and an executive vice president at NBC.

“I wanted to find my family,” she told me. “I knew that everything I had done, from majoring in black studies at Vassar College to studying the Caribbean and China, then being a reporter and developing my world view, all of this, I realize was getting me ready for something.”

It was getting her ready to report the greatest story of her life.  Her own.

Photo Courtesy Madison Media Management

Paula Madison (Photo Courtesy Madison Media Management)

Paula Williams Madison and her brothers Elrick and Howard grew up in Harlem, raised by their immigrant single mother Nell Vera Lowe.  There was a time when they depended on welfare to get by. Paula recalls a lecture from her mother. “I came home from elementary school one day and handed my mother my grade card. She told me ‘I did not come to this country for you to get a B. I came to this country for you to be wealthy.’”

It was an extraordinary vision with, it turns out, deep roots. Paula and her brothers didn’t look like most black people in Harlem. They had no relatives there. There was something different about their facial features.

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Samuel Lowe (Photo courtesy Madison Media Management)

“My mother looked Chinese,” Paula says. “I grew up knowing my mother had Chinese ancestry.”  The family story was that Paula’s mother was born in Jamaica and that her maternal grandfather’s name was Samuel Lowe, a Chinese shopkeeper in Kingston, Jamaica. “My grandfather’s first two partners were black Jamaican women whom he did not marry. His family sent a Chinese wife for him to marry — sight unseen,” Paula says.

Lowe had fathered several children with the other women. The family story was, one day Samuel Lowe left Kingston and went home to China and died. The story, as with many family stories, was not complete.

In April 2012, six months after she retired from her executive jobs at KNBC and NBCUniversal Paula Madison began her quest to discover the real story of who she was. One thing, she was was successful. She and her brothers had invested in real estate and other businesses and amassed a fortune. They bought the WNBA basketball franchise, the L.A. Sparks, which she sold this year to Magic Johnson. She and her brothers bought the majority share of The Africa Channel television network.

She expected it would take years to unravel the family’s past.

“The first thing I did was log on to I built a family tree around my mother’s name and plugged in a lot of names of my Black relatives. New connections began to appear. Then I turned to and I found birth certificates as well as aunts and uncles.” She found ship’s logs that listed her grandfather Lowe’s travels from China to Jamaica where he went to work at a sugar plantation in 1905. It was a time when many Chinese traveled to the Caribbean to work. There Samuel met Paula’s Jamaican born grandmother. Paula’s mother, Nell Vera Lowe, barely knew her father. In 1945, she took advantage of relaxed U.S. immigration laws and moved to New York. Everyone assumed Samuel Lowe had lived a lowly shopkeeper’s life.

But Paula Madison could not settle for assumptions. On a trip to Jamaica, she started nosing around the shops known by locals as “Chiney shops,” places opened by Chinese immigrants. She asked if anybody had ever heard of a shopkeeper named Samuel Lowe and was surprised to find people who knew him, she also found relatives who helped her begin to understand the Jamaican-Chinese culture and migration patterns.

She discovered Samuel Lowe had expanded his businesses significantly in Kingston and after 30 years on the island, traveled back to China. Paula found out that many Chinese-Jamaicans had come from a group of North Chinese who had been driven from their homes to South China. They were called the “Hakka” and every four years the Hakka descendants held a reunion. Only a couple of months after her search began, she and her brothers hustled to attended one of those reunions in Toronto, where they met with a group of Hakka who pledged to help her find her Chinese family.

Her new Hakka friends told her there were only two villages in South China where you would find the Lowe name. One of those towns was a village called Niu Fu, the other seemed like a natural fit-Lowe Swee Hap, a Chinese city that included the family name. Her Hakka friends began contacting relatives in China and within a matter of weeks, the lines were connected. She found that she was related to a cadre of previously unknown aunts, uncles and cousins living in Shenzhen, China.

In August, now only five months after she began her search, Paula made the trip to China to meet her lost family. She returned to China in December 2012 with her brothers and 16 family members to piece together the lost family stories.

Her Chinese kin greeted her warmly and told stories about Samuel Lowe. The family was surprised to learn that Paula’s mother was likely Samuel’s oldest daughter and would have held a high place of honor had they known of her.

December 2012, Paul Madison and American relatives meet Chinese relative in first family reunion. (Photo courtesy Madison Media Management)

December 2012, Paula Madison and American relatives meet Chinese relative in first family reunion. (Photo courtesy Madison Media Management)

Screen shot 2014-08-01 at 2.54.05 PMSince meeting her new extended family in China, Paul and her brothers have gone into business with cousins shipping Napa wines and Maine lobsters to China. In 2015, Harper Collins will release a book on the whole odyssey. The documentary “Finding Samuel Lowe: From Harlem to China” is making the film festival rounds and will eventually end up on television and The Africa Channel.

For Paula, unraveling the mystery helped her makes sense of her own life. She now knows her own drive to invest and develop businesses comes from her entrepreneurial Chinese grandfather, even though they never met. She said she wants to open people’s eyes to help them want to know more about their family’s past and continue family legacies.

“This is a universal story, we are all immigrants, we come from all over and most of us have lost pieces and bits of our story along the way. My grandfather used his full Chinese name when he gave it to the ship’s clerk heading for Ellis Island, that he had to pass through from Jamaica to China. The clerk reduced the name to Samuel Lowe,” Madison said. But because Lowe had to stay at Ellis Island for quarantine, his name showed up in the National Archives. “For African Americans, slavery in the United States interrupted and destroyed family histories. Part of my goal is to help black people understand that slavery is a blip, a horrible blip, but a blip in the history of who they are.”

Paula Madison

Siqi Luo, great-granddaughter of Samuel Lowe, her father, Minjin Luo and Paula Williams Madison finding Samuel Lowe’s lineage on the Lowe/Luo family tree in the family’s ancestral village, Lowe Swee Hap, Shenzhen, China. (Photo Courtesy Madison Media Management)

In Chinese culture, villages sometimes keep family stories. The stories, that go back centuries, are written in a document called Jia Pua.  Paula saw her family’s Jia Pua that stretches back three thousand years to 1006 B.C. and there was, of course, no mention of her mother, or of the black Chinese-American family she raised. Not once in three thousand years has the document added footnotes or backdated additions. But Paula Madison insisted on accuracy. “You know I wouldn’t rest until that happened,” she said. Nell Vera Lowe’s name was added to the village history book.

There was a reason Paula Madison had a lifelong gnawing need to know her past. She comes by it naturally. The gates of Paula Madison’s ancestral village of Lowe Swee Hap in Shenzhen, China are topped with a sign with three words. “Family, Education, Prosperity.”  Note, that the word “family” comes first.

VIDEO: Paula Madison explains why she thinks it is important to explore family stories. Read more


Local TV Stations Investigate Football Helmet Safety: Get Results

One of the benefits of my job is that as I travel around the country working with TV stations, I see story ideas that spread like kudzu from one market to the next. One station in one city finds some success with the story, others hear about it, copy the idea and localize it.  I find most of these cut and paste ideas pop up around “sweeps” months and most are awful.  Here’s one that isn’t.  It is worth looking at where you are and it may keep some kid from getting hurt.

In May, WDIV in Detroit began investigating high school football helmet safety. The station found that local high schools routinely issued players helmets that helmet safety experts said didn’t provide enough protection.

They used information from a rating system developed at Virginia Tech that assesses the safety of different football helmets. WDIV found that in Wayne County alone (Detroit), 13 schools are using the 1-star rated helmets. The station said nearly one-fourth of the helmets being used by high school players in Detroit Public Schools are One-Star or Two-Star helmets.

WISH-TV in Indianapolis also took up the helmet story. The station pointed out there is no manufacturer’s rating for helmet safety and produced stories saying youth helmets are often too heavy. Like WDIV, the station posted survey results from seven local school systems about what helmets they issued. As a result of WISH’s reporting, state officials will require schools to report concussions starting this month.

More recently, WTHR in Indianapolis pushed the story further. While teaching at a workshop for Dispatch Broadcasting stations recently, I heard about WTHR’s survey of 160 Indiana schools. The station filed more than 100 open records requests to produce an interactive map of the makes and models of 12,000 football helmets in use by high school and middle school players across the station’s viewing area. Three months later the station is still battling some school systems for the records. The station found hundreds of helmets in use that experts say offer little protection against concussions.

“Since 2011, the Virginia Tech studies of football helmets have shown that some of the most popular models of football helmets gave marginal protection against concussions,” said Bob Segall, investigative reporter. Many programs, including the NFL, used the information to quickly move to more protective models. But we found that for a range of reasons, high school and middle school programs didn’t move as fast.”

Once WTHR had its extensive database, the station contacted schools to let them know they were using helmets that were low rated. “This was a way to educate schools, parents and players,” Segall said. “In lots of cases we discovered the schools and coaches just were not aware that the helmets they were using were not the best choices. When we told them, the majority switched away or plan to quickly.”

Get Local-How Big is the Problem?

Segall tells me Indiana does not keep records of how many players suffer concussions, but the stations that have done these stories have all reported anecdotal evidence that the problem is worse at the high school level than even for college players. A 2013 study published by the Institutes of Medicine said high school football players suffered 11.2 concussions for every 10,000 games and practices. Among college players, the rate stood at 6.3.  But the study raised questions about whether any helmet goes far enough to prevent concussions. Segall said coaches are beginning to stress safer blocking and tackling techniques that prevent injuries.

In some states, schools do not limit the number of players on a team. So in Indiana, a football team could have 100 players dressed out in uniforms. Virginia Tech experts said any school that cannot afford the most protective helmets should not put players on the field.

The Virginia Tech / Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences website lists the 2014 helmet ratings. You will notice that there is little difference in cost between lower rated helmets and the highest rated ones.

Virginia Tech lists frequently asked questions about helmets, ratings and injuries.

But the story doesn’t end there. Segall told me that soon, researchers hope to have test results and ratings on other helmets including those used in baseball, lacrosse and hockey.

Even though other news outlets in other cities have done these stories, the journalists found the information is not getting to the people who need it most. It would be tempting to air stories about football helmet safety during football season, in the November ratings period for local TV.  But these three stations didn’t wait. By airing and publishing stories before the new season begins, they may have prevented some athletes from suffering serious damage. Read more


Scripps and Journal is just the latest in a series of mega broadcast mergers

There is an underlying fact that makes the Scripps and Journal deal make sense: Broadcasting is still profitable. Second quarter earnings have been strong and topped last year’s numbers.

Wall Street loves broadcasting, and bigger broadcast companies do better than smaller ones these days. Bigger companies have more leverage to negotiate retransmission deals with cable companies. Once this deal is approved, Scripps will be the powerhouse owner of ABC stations, which gives the company leverage to influence the network. Scripps stock hit five-year highs Thursday in response to the news that the company was spinning off its newspapers from the broadcast and online properties.

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Wednesday’s  deal is part of a mosaic of mega-media mergers that have produced super-sized broadcast owners that are more than twice the size of what they were only a decade ago. These giant companies include Sinclair, Nexstar, Media General, Gannett, Gray and others all of whom have grown considerably even while newspapers retreat.

All have seen stocks soar to at or around five-year peaks.

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Scripps is not new to the spinoff play. In 2008, riding on a wave of popularity with its food and lifestyle cable channels, the company created Scripps Networks Interactive, which includes Food Network, The Travel Channel, HGTV and the Cooking Channel. The new company’s value has been steadily rising since the spinoff.

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Last year, Scripps paid $110 million cash for ABC affiliate WKBW in Buffalo and WMYD, a MyNetworkTV affiliate in Detroit, where Scripps owns WXYZ as well. In 2011, Scripps bought up the McGraw-Hill group for $212 million cash.

This year, Scripps made news by adding staff and launching a paywalled broadcast news website at WCPO in Cincinnati. The group said it intended to produce Web-exclusive material that would be worth paying for and if the gamble worked, it would expand the idea to other markets. It has not expanded yet.

Look at this chart Pew Research published in May, which showed how the biggest owners have grown even before the Scripps-Journal deal. (With stations in 27 markets, the Scripps/Journal deal will make that company the fifth-largest holder of television stations in the country.)


1-TV-News-ViewingAnd local television still is the main source of local news for Americans.

Local broadcasters also are rising a wave of favorable Supreme Court decisions. Broadcast stocks rocketed after the Supreme Court struck down Aereo’s attempt to pass along local station signals without paying for them, and the court’s Citizens United decision virtually assures the windfall from political ads will continue.

Some of the biggest broadcast players, including Scripps, Sinclair, Gray and Nexstar are heavily invested in states that have the most heated midterm political elections this year. Early forecasts predicted a $2.6 billion spend on midterm races this year, rivaling the $2.9 billion spent in the last presidential election.

Scripps stations also have a history of being deeply involved in community affairs. The Scripps Howard Foundation contributes millions to local causes and educational institutions in markets where it has properties. (Disclosure: The Poynter Institute received $20k in support from SHF in 2013 and 2014 and Poynter hosts the Scripps Howard National Awards judging each year.) Read more


Cell Sets Fire to Pillow, Story Sets Fire to TV Station Website

A news report about a small fire with no injuries took the internet by storm last week. The question is why.

The story is about a Dallas area teen who says her cellphone caught fire beneath her pillow as she slept

The teen went to sleep with her Samsung Galaxy S4 under her pillow and awoke to a smouldering mess, according to KDFW, a Dallas-Fort Worth Fox affiliate. The father of the teen told KDFW he thinks the phone battery may have caused the meltdown, Samsung says the battery was not an original part but was a replacement unit.

The video has generated more than 1.1 million YouTube Views, 4 million page views on the station’s website and generated even more for the other Fox owned and operated stations that posted the story.  Until now, the station’s YouTube record stood at 27,000. KDFW Consumer reporter Steve Noviello says he has never seen anything like it, but says there are some solid reasons for its success.

“The story is easy to relate to and pulls on those ‘holy grail’ elements that news consumers love- ‘Your Children, Your Safety, Your Stuff,’” he said.

Photo Courtesy KDFW Dallas

Photo Courtesy KDFW Dallas

And he says he wrote the online story in a way that he thought would appeal to that audience differently than the TV story. “The way I posted the story was very deliberate- in addition to shooting video, I snapped some cellphone pics.  When it came time to post I did so with the cell photos not the standard generic news logo or freeze frame from the package.” Noviello says the Fox stations that used the snapshot photo as their lead image saw about double the return as those that used a freeze-frame from the story.

Stations often don’t post news stories on YouTube preferring instead to drive viewers to station website pages. But YouTube does offer compensation from a share of advertising revenue it generates in pre-roll ads on popular videos.

Noviello said the large YouTube viewership helped the online site. “We didn’t get wrapped up in where the traffic was going,  only that it was flowing.  This ‘viral’ was a first for us and the data is very useful.  As opposed to trying to ‘direct’ all traffic back to our website to make the folks upstairs in sales happy, we got it out there and watched the rising tide lift all boats.” In short, he said, we stopped trying to force the viewer to come to where “we are” but tried to reach them where they are.

Noviello said 65 percent of the 1 million plus YouTube views were from mobile phones.

I had to ask why Noviello believed the story to be real. “We did another story some time back about lithium ion batteries and I have had hundreds of e-mails from people who tell me their batteries get hot. It has included everything from phones to e-cigarettes and baby monitors,” so the story of the phone fire beneath a pillow was not a big surprise.

That safety issue is not just a scare tactic.  A Pew Research report says most teens sleep with their cell phones. And it is not just a “teen thing.” Pew says 65% of adults say they sleep with their phones in the bed or next to the bed too. “Samsung does warn you not to put your phone in your bed, but the warning is on page 208 of the phone’s user manual,” Noviello said.  When he wrote the story summary Noviello mentioned the buried warning saying,  “13-year-old sleeps while her cell phone smolders under her pillow.  The manufacturer points to a warning you’ve likely never read.”

Noviello is producing additional stories about battery safety. “The stories we are hearing about are not all replacement batteries.” The Consumer Product Safety Commission set standards in 2007 but today’s electronics are different from older devices. The question arises about whether the old standards should apply to today’s equipment.

For newsrooms, especially TV newsrooms, this story goes against conventional wisdom about what kind of video will generate the most online traffic. The conventional wisdom and experience is that raw or nearly raw sensational video of spot news or oddities are the viral traffic winners. But this story is a completely packaged news story that ran online just as it aired on TV. The lesson seems to be that new and compelling content attracts viewers.

Read more


Resources for Journalists Covering Malaysian Air MH17

Poynter is assembling a Twitter list of journalists who are on the ground or near the crash site of the Malaysia Airline jet. These contacts may be especially useful to those of you who want to get permission to use images and get information directly from journalists on the scene.

FlightRadar24 is a website that provides global flight tracking. The site provides this data showing where the Malaysia Air jet was last seen on radar. Read more