Scott Libin

Scott Libin is news director at WCCO-TV, the CBS-owned-and-operated station in Minneapolis. He joined the station in the fall of 2007 from The Poynter Institute, where he was managing editor of Poynter Online and a faculty member specializing in the areas of leadership and ethical decision-making. A broadcast journalist for many years, he also teaches newsgathering, writing and producing.


photos

Collector pays newspapers millions to digitize vintage photos

For many newspapers, digitizing decades of photo archives is important, but not urgent; always a goal, but never a priority; a great idea, but a huge expense. That’s why so many editors over the last few years have been so eager to do business with John Rogers, a collector from Little Rock, Arkansas.

In 2008, Rogers paid $1.62 million for a Honus Wagner baseball card.  The next year, he began proving to the newspaper industry that he was equally serious about acquiring vintage photographs when he struck a deal to buy up the archives of the Detroit News. It was the first of several agreements Rogers would reach with newspapers over the coming couple of years, and he appears to be ready to do much more such business.

Finding a photo more than a few years old had always been an adventure at best, according to Bob Houlihan, Detroit News director of photography. “We’d hoof it up to the fourth floor, get through somewhere on the order of 25 filing cabinets, scan it, caption it and go about our merry business.”

Digitizing the archive was something the News had always wanted to do, Houlihan says, but by his estimate, it would have cost between $1 and $5 per photograph to do it right.

There was no cost to dealing with Rogers. In fact, he paid the paper – though neither party will say how much – then took the originals and began providing digital copies, along with metadata that has made use of the archive a snap by comparison with the past.

“It now takes 10 or 15 keystrokes instead of an hour of research,” Houlihan says.

The News sold its photos as collectibles only. It did not transfer copyright and can still sell copies – more easily, in fact. Other newspapers have done business with Rogers on different terms – terms Rogers and the papers tend to keep to themselves.

“We’ve given seven-figure checks to papers and we’ve done deals where there was no cash involved. The majority involve some cash,” Rogers says. “We’ve never had a paper yet permit us to divulge what we paid.”

Some, like the St. Petersburg Times (owned by The Poynter Institute), won’t even say where the hard-copy originals end up. “We want to be sure to honor the terms of the agreement,” says Research Editor Tim Rozgonyi. He is effusive, however, on the advantages of digitization.  Hard copies, Rozgonyi says, “are only as accessible as the degree to which they were indexed. That was done by people and you can’t compare that to full-text indexing of metadata. The searchability is orders of magnitude better.”

Rogers says his newspaper partners all feel that way, whatever the specific terms of their agreement. “They put value on the fact that we’re going to provide them several million dollars in services,” he says. He also provides information that, to a news organization, could be priceless.  “Every shred of metadata is made available, including handwritten information on the back of photos.”

Along with the Detroit News and St. Petersburg Times, the Rogers Photo Archive now lists in its collection the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily News, the Detroit Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit Journal, The Denver Post, the Denver Evening Post, The Sporting News and Sport Magazine.

Rogers started acquiring large photo archives from individual photographers about a decade ago and says, over a period of six or seven years, he collected about 3 million images, initially from sports photographers. “It was a lucrative business and it was enjoyable.”

He says his collection now comprises more than 10 times that number – about 35 million images, according to Rogers, of which he owns or shares copyright to about 25 million.

“We’re patiently building the world’s largest repository of vintage photography,” Rogers says. He acknowledges that it can’t always be all about writing checks and acquiring collections. At some point, he does expect his collection to begin bringing money in, not just inspiring him to spend more. “If we’re not making money, I can’t continue this, but what’s driving this is my passion for photography.”

Rogers says his phone is “ringing off the hook” with interest from other newspapers, and he’s convinced he’s found a way to marry his love of images to the needs of newspapers and their desire to digitize.

“What’s driving this is not economics, what’s driving it is that I’m a photo nut. If I can, on the side, have a business model that works,” Rogers says, “then all the better.”

Digitizing a newspaper’s entire archive is labor-intensive and time-consuming, typically taking the better part of a year, and sometimes more.

Rogers’ archivists carefully pack up each collection and transport it to Arkansas, where they scan each hard copy, front and back, and painstakingly compile caption, date, content, source and other data.

“Imagine doing that with a million-plus photos,” says Rozgonyi of the St. Petersburg Times, who began the project last fall and expects his final files back later this year. In the meantime, he says, the newspaper maintains access to its photos. “We’re able to tell them we need a photo and get it almost immediately, even during the process.”

No editor could hand over his newspaper’s entire archives to anybody without some qualms, no matter how worthy the project or carefully negotiated the terms. Rozgonyi says talking to Houlihan was hugely helpful in allaying any fears the Times might have had.

The Detroit News, as the first paper to do business with Rogers, had no such references to check. As “due diligence,” Houlihan says, he went to Little Rock to check out Rogers’ operation himself. The News also parted with only a third of its collection at a time. That was mostly for logistical reasons, Houlihan says, but was also a little less scary than giving Rogers all of its photos at once, “in case his warehouse burned down or he got hit by a bus or something.”

Houlihan expects to get the last of his digital files back later this month. He has great confidence in Rogers now, but remembers what it was like to watch those first crates go out the door in the hands of strangers.  “There was a definite pucker factor.”

Once hard copies reach the Rogers facility in Arkansas, the work is sometimes complicated by the condition of original photos. “We go into these archives,” he says, “and the majority, unfortunately, were not kept untouched. There are large gaps or it’s stored in a basement and has water damage … Most have not been preserved the way they need to be.”

Rogers gets especially excited about the restoration of photos from the first half of the 20th century that were routinely defaced by editing marks made in grease pencil and other damaging materials. He gushes about seeing faces – from gangster “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn to future President John F. Kennedy – once whited out, now recovered by his archivists.

“It’s our history. It’s America,” Rogers says.

He is equally passionate about unpublished images and unprinted negatives. “A photographer might go on assignment and shoot 100 images and print only one of them,” Rogers says. His goal is to have them all.

Kenny Irby, Poynter senior faculty for visual journalism, says that sort of buried treasure in the form of unpublished photos can make history, as did Dirck Halstead’s famous image of President Bill Clinton with intern Monica Lewinsky. “He made the argument that, had he given that image to Time magazine, nobody would be able to find it.” Halstead had it in his own archive because he kept his outtakes, Irby says.

Irby also understands what he calls “the further commoditization of photography,” including the aggressive marketing many newspapers now undertake of historic and popular images from their archives – something Rogers’ deals not only allow, but facilitate.

Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds is blunt about the need for newspapers to leverage their assets wisely.

“Newspapers are just not earning enough to keep quality up and to invest real money in all the things they know they need to be trying — mobile, tablet apps, etc.,”  Edmonds says. “So they are very big, and have been for several years, on selling off non-essential assets or businesses.”

And not just photo archives, according to Edmonds. He offers as an example Scripps’ sale of rights to certain comics. Finding new revenues that protect priorities, says Edmonds, “That’s going to help them get to the digital future.”

Rogers’ first newspaper partners at the Detroit News say they are already seeing benefits, both journalistic and commercial.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in print sales — Motown stuff, ’67 riots, sports, etc.,” says director of photography Houlihan. The only downside he sees so far is the ease with which he can now lose himself in the archives – these days without hoofing it up to the fourth floor.

“I go in for stuff and come up for air three hours later because I’m so mesmerized by what I’m finding.” Read more

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WJLA General Manager Bill Lord on future of TBD.com: ‘We need to be more cost conscious, and we need more page views’

In retrospect, maybe choosing the name TBD was prophetic.

Six months after its birth, the fate of the Washington, D.C., metro news site now appears to be determined — and it isn’t at all what the founding force behind the site had in mind.

That first general manager, Jim Brady, was gone three months after launch. The site he left behind now falls under the control of Bill Lord, general manager and news director of WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate co-owned by parent company Allbritton Communications.

Upon launch last summer, the innovative TBD swallowed whole WJLA’s online presence. It simultaneously absorbed and changed the on-air name of Allbritton’s all-news local cable outlet, rebranding the 19-year-old channel as TBD-TV. But WJLA.com and NewsChannel 8 will be back — and soon.

Lord says he’s working on a timeline this week. He calls the latest reorganization a “mid-course correction” and says he’s telling employees it’s not a huge change.

“Our plan is to have two TV stations, broadcast and cable [WJLA and NewsChannel 8], and two websites,” Lord says: the resurrected WJLA.com and TBD.com, which will continue to provide an online presence for NewsChannel 8.

“All four will have a certain level of commonality of staff. Everybody has to participate in the online effort, or it won’t work.”

What didn’t work, Lord says, was maintaining TBD.com as a standalone site that also served WJLA viewers.

“We need both — an independent site and a way to post very specific content for the TV station. To keep TBD independent, you really couldn’t do that very well.”

At least on that one point, Lord and Brady agree.

When legacies and new brands collide

“The lessons are the same ones I learned at The [Washington] Post,” Brady told me, referring to his decision to depart from his job there two years ago, prior to the newspaper’s merger of print and online operations.

“It’s hard to build something very different” in the shadow of a legacy brand,” he says. “Right from the start it was sort of us versus them.  Having lived through my time at The Post, I was familiar with that.”

Brady says, contrary to what many people might assume, his time at TBD.com was not the tale of a former newspaper guy trying to drag TV people into a new online space.

“I think if I’d started TBD as spinoff of another print publication, the outcome would have been the same,” Brady said.

“Too many of these debates turn into some kind of good-versus-bad, old-versus-young thing,” Brady said. “The real natural tension is existing business versus startup.”

Whether the existing business is print or broadcast, Brady believes, “if there’s a huge revenue stream that’s dying off a little bit, there’s the sense that you need all hands on deck to preserve that,” and the risk tolerance that’s vital to innovation — “a certain freedom of thinking,” he calls is — can quickly be extinguished.

Brady also believes that for TBD.com to have succeeded fully in business terms, it needed to handle its own sales.

“That opportunity was taken away even before launch,” he says, in a move he calls “panicky.” And that mentality, Brady believes, was the biggest reason TBD.com fell short of the high hopes so many had at its inception.

Lord downplays the sales side of the story, but defends the decision to have television people involved.

Where’s the money?

“The largest slice of online revenue will come from traditional advertisers who are already on the air anyway,” Lord said, and he doesn’t want two sales people from one organization going after the same client.

This month’s changes, Lord says, are driven by economics. “We need to be more cost-conscious, and we need more page views,” he says.  “I don’t think there were specific goals [at the time of TBD’s launch], but there will be now,” and not just in terms of overall traffic. “I want page-view goals for each visitor,” Lord says.

TBD.com’s blog network and aggregation strategy may have had some truly new elements to it, but the tension between it and its broadcast siblings has a very familiar ring. Media companies have struggled for years with how heavily to invest in promising new platforms that show great growth but generate a tiny fraction of the revenue produced by on-air advertising.

“I thought the company had more of a risk-taking, innovative bent to it, and was willing to go through some growing pains,” Brady said. “You have to have an open, honest conversation if you’re doing this kind of thing with an existing television station or newspaper: How does it affect the legacy brand? What level of cooperation can you expect?  … I think you have to set that mindset right at the beginning, and that did not happen.”

Brady sounds a lot less angry than some of his biggest fans and staunchest defenders.

The broadcast side of the story

In a blog titled “R.I.P. TBD,” “Recovering Journalist” Mark Potts blames the “smothering” of TBD.com on “incredible lack of vision” as well as “meddling and bad decision-making by executives at corporate parent Allbritton Communications.”

Potts says any disappointing return-on-investment results were “doubtless because the TV people who muscled into the site’s ad sales didn’t really know what they were doing.”

New York University Professor Jay Rosen tweeted succinctly:  “The TV guys won.”

As a former “TV guy” myself, I asked another reformed television type for his take on TBD.com.

Cory Bergman is director of new product development at msnbc.com and a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board.

When he wrote about TBD last year, he was encouraging and even complimentary, but not gushing.

Here’s part of what he says today:

I applaud Allbritton and the TBD team for launching a bold experiment with the investment to back it up.  Local media companies today are not investing nearly enough in new ideas, and the launch of TBD was a risk worth taking. In many ways, it energized the industry, and we shouldn’t look at its recent struggles as ammunition to shoot down new ideas. With local advertising dollars splintering like never before, local TV urgently needs to take new risks to invent new ad products and attract much larger online and mobile audiences.

From my outsider’s perspective, TBD is too much, too soon. Under even the most optimistic scenarios, revenue can’t support that staff size for the immediate future, which requires a very patient parent company.  But that patience becomes frayed when the Web and TV teams are pointing in different directions despite having the same mission to deliver a quality news product.

One TV-Web partnership Brady says sets the standard for teamwork is at WRAL-TV and WRAL.com in Raleigh, N.C.

Dominant brands, multiple platforms

“The relationship is very, very collaborative,” according to Vice President and General Manager Steve Hammel. “It’s in everyone’s interest to see that the Web is as strong as possible.”

Even at WRAL, it’s always been easier to get television viewers to the Web than to get Web users tuned in to the TV station. But with one billion page views last year, Hammel says, “If we just get a small percentage of that in on-air viewing, we’re doing all right.”

Brady never felt TBD.com got the consistent on-air promotion it deserved; nor does he believe his bosses or television colleagues understood what the site was really about.

“ ‘Where is the thing that led the news last night on TBD?’ Leading our site with a 90-second piece about a fire that’s been out since last night wasn’t going to work.”

Lord says WJLA-TV will carry extensive on-air promotion for TBD.com, but outside of newscasts. Within newscasts, viewers will be sent once again to WJLA.com.

“TBD will have its own staff, its own reporters and its own content, which will be very unique to that site,” Lord says. “We want it to have its own identity.”

Brady says, during his months there, TBD.com and WJLA-TV did collaborate effectively at least once when it mattered most. He’s proudest of the breaking-news coverage produced across platforms when a man took hostages at the suburban Washington headquarters of the Discovery Channel.

It was, he says, much harder to maintain that level of cooperation and coverage when there was no major breaking event, which may be the one thing the unorthodox TBD.com had in common with every other news organization, regardless of medium. Read more

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Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters march in Alexandria, Egypt with an Arabic sign that reads "Egypt, one nation, one blood."  (Tarek Fawzy/AP)

Egypt coverage breaks records for international news, while snow comes in a distant second nationally

Turns out a guy on a camel charging through Cairo’s crowded Tahrir Square is a more compelling story to mainstream American news media than hundreds of snow-swamped cars stalled on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. At least that’s one implication of the latest Project for Excellence in Journalism’s weekly News Coverage Index.

It’s been a year of wild winter weather in this country, with clever copy writers nearly exhausting the available supply of over-the-top terms for the next big event: Snowmageddon.  Snowpocalypse. Snowmygod. Snowinthetowel. And it may feel, especially to those not caught up in the storm of the moment, that such stories get more than their share of attention. But it turns out that, during a week when Oklahoma looked like Minnesota, the story setting record levels for coverage was the continuing unrest in the Middle East, especially Egypt.

According to the PEJ Index for the week of Jan. 31, that story filled 56 percent of the newshole. That is, 56 percent of the time and/or space devoted to all news content for the week by the 52 outlets included in the sample.

Mark Jurkowitz, who writes PEJ’s weekly Index report, says the Egyptian protests are the biggest international story his organization has tracked in the four years since it launched the Index.

Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters march in Alexandria, Egypt with an Arabic sign that reads "Egypt, one nation, one blood." (Tarek Fawzy/AP)

“We’re at new heights here, given that there are no U.S. troops involved,” Jurkowitz said.

The Egyptian story took the top ranking from the war in Iraq, which accounted for 43 percent of the newshole during the week of Sept. 9-14, 2007. The earthquake in Haiti, with its hundreds of thousands of casualties and near-neighborhood location, now drops to third place. It earned 41 percent of coverage the week of Jan. 11-17, 2009.

Winter weather coverage, by comparison, gets far less traction. Even in the face of a Katie-bar-the-door blizzard like last week’s, it accounted for only 8 percent of the newshole.

“Weather was second,” said Jurkowitz, “but it got lapped by international news.” At 57 to 8 percent, “lapped” may be putting it mildly. If the News Index were a football game, it would have been a laugher. If it were an election, it would have been a shellacking.

In fact, ubiquitous as the story may have seemed, last week’s storm wasn’t the most heavily covered winter event in the PEJ’s four years of data. That came only five weeks earlier, when the Christmas blizzard clobbered the Northeast.

Drop a foot or two of snow during the busiest travel week of the year on the biggest concentration of news media in the world, and what do you get? Thirteen percent of the newshole, according to PEJ – a lot more than last week’s wintry blast, but still less than a quarter of the coverage Egypt earned by the same standard in the most recent Index.

It’s important to note that the PEJ News Coverage Index tracks just that – coverage – and not consumer interest.  For that, there’s the appropriately named News Interest Index, generated by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.  The Interest Index analyzes the public’s response to the stories identified in the Coverage Index, and for last week, it finds a big gap between interest and coverage.

The Egypt story that occupied 56 percent of the newshole was listed by just 30 percent of respondents as the story they were following most closely. The previous week, only 11 percent listed Egypt as their top story, when it accounted for 20 percent of coverage, meaning the disparity between coverage and interest grew as the protests in Cairo continued.

Despite that disparity, Egypt was listed as the top story by more people than any other story in the Interest Index for last week — but it edged out winter weather by only a slight margin. Twenty-six percent of those surveyed listed the storms as the story they were following most closely, while coverage of those storms accounted for only 8 percent of the newshole. That’s another significant gap, but in this case interest was far greater than coverage, while on Egypt, coverage far outpaced interest.

There are, of course, other measures of viewer interest: The Weather Channel reported record prime-time on-air ratings and an all-time high number of online page views for Jan. 31, when weather was at its worst in some parts of the country.

It probably wouldn’t surprise most people that, of the coverage winter weather does get from national media, a disproportionate amount appears on network television. Coverage of such stories is twice as extensive – or more – on network television as in print, radio and online news media.

“Dramatic visuals and footage from local affiliates make weather a bigger staple of network news than of other sectors,” Jurkowitz said.

And while the PEJ Coverage Index does include local newspapers as small as the Toledo Blade and the Joplin Globe, it does not track local television newscasts, where it’s safe to say weather trumps just about all other news.

So, what accounts for the seemingly sudden resurgence of interest in international issues among American news media who for years have been closing bureaus, cutting coverage overseas and going local like never before? There’s no research on that yet, at least looking at the Egypt experience, but Jurkowitz has some ideas.

“Part of the narrative was journalists in peril,” Jurkowitz said.  “Anytime the media become part of the story, it gets more coverage.”

That may seem like simple self-absorption, but it’s easier to understand in light of results like what CNN saw after Anderson Cooper came under attack on the streets of Cairo. His show that night topped rival Greta Van Susteren’s on Fox News Channel by 65,000 viewers.

Whatever the reason, the attention Egypt earned last week is a dramatic departure for mainstream media in this country. They chose a dangerous, distant and expensive story over one that was easier to understand, closer to home and far cheaper to cover. Read more

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Digitizing Dad: Voices from the Analog Age

A week and a half ago, I heard my father’s voice for the first time in more than 20 years.  That would have been extraordinary enough if only because my dad died in 1983, but the words I heard so recently were spoken long before that — more than a decade before my birth. 

In the years since his death, I have heard from my father many times, figuratively if not literally.  He still appears occasionally in my dreams.  He influences me in all sorts of ways.  I have his handwriting and hairline, or soon will. He left me his love of language, his sense of humor and his appetite for news.  But actual voices from beyond the grave are generally beyond me, except when technology assists, as it did in this case. 

Going through my dad’s office soon after he died, I found a stack of strange records.  Unlike the slick, flexible vinyl LPs I had known in the ’60s and ’70s, these were heavy, thick and brittle, with grooves on only one side.  Most were also much bigger than the music albums I had grown up with, way too wide to fit on a standard turntable — and even in 1983, turntables were becoming not-so-standard equipment.  Because of the diameter of these discs, I had no easy way to listen to them, but I could see from their yellowed labels what they were:  recordings from my father’s radio days in the late 1940s and early ’50s, before magnetic audio tape became the standard recording medium for such programming.

By the time I was born in ’59, Dad had taken his first steps away from the microphone and into management.  As a kid, I had never heard him on the air — and I wouldn’t for many years to come. 

I knew my father’s radio recordings would always mean a lot to me, but I didn’t know what to do with them back in the mid-’80s, so I packed them away.  Over the decades that followed, I moved more times than I care to count or recall, each time carefully hand-carrying the old records to my new home and storing them where I thought they’d be safe. 

With the dawn of the digital age, I made several consecutive new year’s resolutions to transfer the recordings to some more modern medium, but the online directions I found for doing so seemed complicated and I never quite found the time or courage to try. 

Then I came across the kind of device designed for those easily intimidated by technology — a retro-inspired record-player-and-CD-recorder-in-one.  The good news is that using it was actually as easy as it looked. 

The bad news is that the records sounded as bad as they looked.  Still, through the static, came the sound of my father-to-be at the age of about 26 or 27.  He was only a year or two out of the army, and even newer to Washington, D. C., where he worked for WWDC.  I don’t remember Dad with a New York accent, but in those early post-war years he sounded like just what he was:  a guy just off the bus from the Bronx.  To my ears today, he sounds unfathomably young and a little like Groucho Marx — nothing like the impressive baritone I recall from my childhood. 

The first track I listened to was labeled in grease pencil, right on the record surface, “Barber Shop Interview.”   It was what today we would call a feature piece, an “as live” — that is, unedited — interview with Washington’s first female barber to own her own shop, and with one of her customers.  

Apart from a more mature vocal sound, I’m not sure what I expected.  Maybe some sexist remarks or patronizing treatment of the woman who was the story’s subject.  My father never behaved that way around me, but this was from the ’40s.  Men in the movies I’ve seen from that era tended to talk tough, wear fedoras and use words like “dame.” 

My father did have some hats, but I heard no Bogart-like language, nor anything I would even call insensitive — unless you count the story’s premise, that it was novel to find a woman who had chosen to be a barber rather than a “beauty operator.” 

I can’t be sure I’ve got the spelling right, but my father introduced her as Miss Hilda Nordbak.  He described her giving a male customer something called a “suntan shave.”  Miss Nordbak had come to America from her native Sweden, settling initially in New York, then moving during World War II, as so many people did, to Washington — “for patriotic reasons,” my father said, putting words in Miss Nordbak’s mouth. 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” my father said to his listeners, “I might explain right now that Miss Nordbak is massaging Mr. Ralph Glenn,  who seems to be very, very happy and very, very comfortable.” 

And so it went:  “Folks, this is a beautiful barber shop here and Miss Nordbak is a very, very attractive young woman.  Mr. Ralph Glenn is still smiling peacefully there, and he seems to be at peace with the whole world.”

Dad didn’t claim to be Edward R. Murrow, and bombs weren’t falling on London when this report aired.  He asked a series of chatty questions and tossed back to the studio, having adequately chronicled the birth of barbering across sexes in our nation’s capital.

I still don’t know how I’ll play the other albums.  They’re 16 inches across and my nifty new machine can”t handle that.  I may yet regret the purchase.  My wife’s comprehensive Carpenters collection has already come out of the closet and soon will be sending its soothing sounds to all corners of our home.  The neighbors mentioned some long-dormant disco LPs they’d sure like to dub over to CD, too. 

But I think now that I’ve begun, I’ll keep working on digitizing my dad’s old radio recordings.  Somewhere there’s a turntable big enough, and I’m more curious than ever about what the rest of the records hold. 

In fact, when I’m done with Dad, I know the next archival effort awaiting me.  It involves a box of my own early on-air work from the mid-’80s — in the form of three-quarter-inch videotape that will be about as easy to play as those moldy, over-sized old albums.  The cassettes capture me doing TV news at about the age my father was when he visited Hilda Nordbak’s beautiful barber shop. 

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Minn. Bridge Collapse: Tracking Local Coverage from Afar

My mother-in-law called from Minneapolis just minutes after live coverage on local television there began. Here in Florida, my wife and I went online even before we turned on the TV — a first for me, as a longtime TV journalist — on the assumption it would take the national cable networks a little while to catch up. 
 

We went first to the Web site of KSTP-TV, where I was news director for five years, then to the sites of its competitors. All were streaming live video that we found difficult to process. We knew the voices of the anchors, we knew the neighborhood, we’d been over the 35W bridge many times. 

My wife, Michelle, reminded me of a time we crossed it twice on a trip to buy a coffee table. She graduated from the University of Minnesota. We could see the campus, just blocks from the bridge collapse. I worked maybe a mile beyond that. Still, we had trouble understanding the scene on the screen. It took us a long time just to distinguish east from west, St. Paul from Minneapolis. Some things defy understanding, especially at first. 
   

We heard network anchors mispronounce Minnesota names and interview Twin Cities reporters we know. I saw someone I knew as a competing news director address a news conference in his new capacity as Red Cross spokesman. We watched astonishing images gathered by photojournalists whose work has always made Minneapolis television news exceptional. 
 
I couldn’t escape how sickly similar some of the shots were to the photos and video I’ve seen from the 1980 collapse of the Sunshine Skyway bridge over Tampa Bay.
 
In the flood of memories the Minneapolis bridge disaster triggered, I couldn’t help thinking often of another tragedy, not yet a week old:  the collision of TV news helicopters in Phoenix last Friday, which killed four. There had to be at least three and probably four helicopters from Twin Cities TV stations over the 35W collapse. There would have been virtually no other way to provide such big-picture perspective of this event. I wondered what was going through the minds of the pilots, reporters and other former colleagues of mine as they took to the skies, or directed others to do so. 
 
At least, I thought, maybe no one will question their motives or criticize them for chasing this story.  Read more
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Update: TV News Helicopter Coverage Examined

Update:  Al Tompkins reports on developments in the aftermath of Friday’s Phoenix crash.  See Tuesday’s Morning Meeting

Also, Jill Geisler proposes an unorthodox approach to minimizing risks and maximizing resources.  See this week’s Leading Lines.




Background:  Two pilots and two reporters died in Phoenix Friday afternoon when their television news helicopters collided in the air during coverage of a police chase on the ground.  The helicopters belonged to KNXV-TV and KTVK-TV. 

 
The Associated Press reported that at least one of the helicopters was transmitting a live report at the time of the collision.  At least one pilot representing another Phoenix TV station, also covering the police chase, reported seeing the crash.
 
KTVK reported that its pilot Scott Bowerbank and photojournalist Jim Cox were killed.  KNXV said its pilot Craig Smith and photojournalist Rick Krolack died. 
 
The Arizona Republic had this account of the crash:  http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/0727crashmain0727.html
 
Here is background on Craig Smith:
 
 
Jim Cox remembered: 
 

Background on Scott Bowerbank:
 
Click here to link to the condolence book for Bowerbank:  http://www.legacy.com/azcentral/GB/GuestbookView.aspx?PersonId=91549502
 
 
 
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Feedback for Thought: Did We Do the Right Thing?

By Scott Libin
Poynter Online Managing Editor

Where I work, the legendary status
of Eugene Patterson is perhaps second only to that of Nelson Poynter
himself. Patterson won a Pulitzer Prize
for his Atlanta Constitution columns
on civil rights during the 1960s. He
became editor of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times
in 1972 and, upon Poynter’s death in 1978, became chairman of the board of the
Modern Media Institute, now known as The Poynter Institute.

A more-revered figure around here
would be hard to name. So, when someone
said on this site last week
that Patterson should have been shot for those
civil rights columns,
well, those would be fightin’ words — if we at the Institute weren’t such a
collegial group.

The comment came from Bill White,
commander of the American National Socialist Workers’ Party, whose magazine
cover for April features a swastika and the huge headline reading “Happy
Birthday Hitler.” White was responding
to a piece by Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark titled “They Shot His Dog: Historical
Lessons on Incivility,”

which drew a parallel between the racist hate letters that appeared on op-ed
pages in the South during the ’60s and some of the online user comments causing
concern among journalists across the country today.

Why would we allow on our site the
suggestion by a white supremacist that Gene Patterson deserved to die?

In one sense, it seems to violate
our own guidelines on user comments,
which say, “We will remove messages that contain … personal attacks, insults or
threats.”

On the other hand, in context, the
comment could constitute an attempt at humor: “Its [sic] a shame they shot his dog — they should have shot him
instead. I can’t see what the dog had to do with it,” White wrote.

He went on to offer his
perspective on the broader issue that was at the very heart of Clark’s
column and the coverage that accompanied it — the conflict between the values
of civil discourse and of freely expressed opinion on significant issues:

“You can censor anything you like
but you guys don’t own or control the media any more — and what you do or
don’t do in your increasingly irrelevant publications really just doesn’t
matter,” White wrote.

That sentiment is probably shared
by many people who would like to think they have nothing in common with the
politics of people like White. The same
could be said for his closing comment:

“So continue the self-absorbed
debate from the position of your own ‘importance’ while that very importance –
and you [sic] ability to act as gate keeper of public opinion — fades away.”

White’s comments also offer
insight into the tactics of the group he represents — insight that may be
troubling, but that has clear relevance to those who report on issues that are
important, emotional and divisive:

“Now, we don’t just protest at the
newspaper — we go to the writer’s homes and protest there,” White says.

It didn’t make my day to encounter
such a subtly menacing message aimed at journalists on our site. But the mission of Poynter Online is not to
protect journalists from unpleasant truths or unpopular political
positions. It is to inform and help
journalists do their jobs.

Sometimes that means encountering
comments that offend.

What do you think? Read more

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When Big News Breaks and the Boss is Gone

By Scott Libin

When an event like Monday’s massacre at Virginia Tech occurs close to home, journalists and newsroom leaders confront extraordinary challenges. When it happens across the country, the decisions to be made are somewhat different. And when the boss is far away from the newsroom, those decisions can become even trickier.

That was the situation for many television news directors this week. Gathered in Las Vegas for the annual RTNDA convention when the news broke, some broke for home to oversee coverage from the newsroom. Others, including some from markets close to the crime scene, decided for a number of reasons to stay at the convention.

Not one news director I talked with Monday took what was once the industry-standard approach of letting the networks handle national news, while devoting local resources to local stories.

For Barry Klaus, news director of WXII-TV in Winston-Salem, N.C., it was a close call — literally and figuratively. His station is only about two hours from Virginia Tech. One of his primary competitors left the convention for home when the shooting story broke.

Klaus found himself with a choice: fly back east to supervise coverage in person, or remain at the convention with colleagues and corporate news staff from Hearst-Argyle, the company that owns his station and 25 others.

“What worked for us today was the Hearst group effort,” he said. Collaborating on coverage proved easier, he said, because so many managers were together in one place. Within hours, satellite trucks from five Hearst stations were on their way to the scene. Crews from other group stations and Hearst’s Washington bureau headed for Blacksburg, too.

“It was more effective for me to stay and remain in contact than to spend five hours on a plane, out of touch,” Klaus said. But Klaus said there was another major consideration:

“I trust my managers,” he said, praising WXII Assistant News Director Kim Ballard and Executive Producer Lisa Fulk. “If you need to be there for every big story, you’re doing it wrong. You hire good people and you trust them.”

One of Klaus’ Hearst colleagues at the convention is Lori Waldon, news director at WISN-TV in Milwaukee. She was in a Las Vegas taxi when her assistant news director called with the first report on the shootings. When it became obvious that multiple victims were involved, she said her management team had no doubts about how to respond.

“We go where news is,” Waldon said. “We want to be there.”

Waldon said her general manager back at the station raised legitimate questions about why it was necessary to send anyone from Milwaukee, rather than leaving coverage to the network. Waldon said, “On a big story, we want our best people there.”

That meant sending not a reporter, but the station’s 6 o’clock anchor, to add what Waldon calls “not only presence but texture.

“Your anchors are your number-one reporters. You don’t hire anchors who don’t report. They live for these things.”

Besides, Waldon said, for viewers, “It’s like a familiar blanket in a strange place. You know us, you trust us.”

Her cross-town competitor agrees, but doesn’t put it in quite such nurturing terms.

Bill Berra, vice president of news at WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee, said he sent two crews to Blacksburg Monday — without hesitation. “We do that because of our place in the market. People tune to us on any big story,” he said. “We act as more than just a local station.”

In fact, Berra said, “People don’t differentiate between local and national stories anymore. They don’t care on big stories like this.”

Berra’s station extended its usually hour-long 11 a.m. newscast to two hours Monday and began its early-evening news block at 3 instead of 4 p.m. He hinted that, had he been at the station, he might even have replaced more daytime entertainment programming, going “wall to wall” with continuous coverage of the shootings.

At WXYZ-TV in Detroit, coverage was contained to scheduled local newscasts and network special reports during the day, but the Virginia Tech killings did dominate the day’s coverage, and led all newscasts. News Director Andrea Parquet-Taylor sent a crew to Blacksburg to work with colleagues and satellite trucks from Scripps Television Station group newsrooms in Cincinnati and Baltimore.

“Our mantra, our mindset is, if it’s a huge story, we go,” Parquet-Taylor said. And there’s a practical point to her approach. “We can control our own destiny,” rather than relaying on network news services.

“We also want Q-and-A with our reporter,” she said, emphasizing “first-person accounts from reporters you know and trust.”

Monday would have been a huge news day at WABC-TV in New York even without the Virginia Tech killings. As the day began, the obvious big story was the huge nor’easter storm pounding the region. Still, news director Kenny Plotnik said sending a crew to Virginia was an easy call.

“If it wasn’t for the fact that we’re under 20 feet of water, I’d send several crews,” he said. That’s despite the fact that WABC is a network-owned-and-operated station, the biggest local newsroom in the ABC group — or most any other group.

“I don’t count on our network to do anything for us,” Plotnik said. But on the breaking news in Blacksburg, his decisions were driven by more than competitive concerns. Plotnik has one son in college and another in graduate school. He identifies with parents of college students everywhere, and said several students from Virginia Tech had recently interned in the newsroom at WABC-TV.

As of late Monday, Plotnik had been unable to reach any of them. Read more

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News: The Source That Blogs Are Made Of

During the first hour of the RTNDA convention’s opening panel discussion Sunday night, the only mention of news came during an online video chat moderator Miles O’Brien had with his 14-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter back in their rooms at home in New York.  They are cute, personable kids, and, as the children of a network news reporter, they watch more TV and care more about current events than we can safely assume their classmates do.
 
But it did seem odd that two teenagers not even physically present in the room would be the only ones to address journalism until the session was about two-thirds over.  (That doesn’t count Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation, who made a few opening remarks before the panel discussion started.  Newton announced a $1.2-million grant to RTNDF’s high school journalism program.)
 
Representing the new media generation on stage were videobloggers Zadi Diaz, of http://jetsetshow.com/, and Amanda Congdon, formerly of Rocketboom.  She now works ABC News , but insisted –- when the J-word actually entered the conversation after more than an hour –- that she has “never claimed to be a journalist.”
 
O’Brien took the crowd to visit both sites, first watching Diaz do a clever shtick about her pesky, persnickety, inexpensive equipment.  She’s charming and comfortable enough on camera to captivate 40- to 50,000 viewers a day, by her count, most of them teens.  Then came Congdon’s work, which focused mostly on some unusual video of a backhoe – “or is that a front-hoe?” she asked, adding, “I know ‘ho’ is a bad word.”  The footage may have come from an actual newscast somewhere, but that’s about as close as Congdon came to connecting with any actual journalism.
 
Otherwise, the session was a recitation of buzzwords and catchphrases that have become achingly familiar over the past few years: paradigm shifts, tipping points, 24/7 news, mainstream media, dinosaurs, echo chamber, info-snacking, etc.
 
The most refreshing moments came toward the end, when the conversation finally left social networking and micro-blogging and turned to reporting.  Michael Rosenblum, founder of what he calls the VJ movement, offered an impassioned soliloquy on traditional journalism, exhorting visionary leaders to “burn it down.”  Videoblogger Diaz responded by saying she couldn’t quite side with Rosenblum, that she sees a continuing if changing role for actual journalism, both online and off.
 
Then, in a question-and-answer session that should have begun much, much earlier, a college student from Colorado asked what may have been the question of the night:  “If traditional news organizations go out of business,” as Rosenblum predicts, “where will the bloggers get the material they talk about?”
 
I couldn’t get across the crowded room in time to get the questioner’s name, but to my knowledge, he never did get an answer.    Read more

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Covering Colleagues and Tragedy

When journalists report on the death of a colleague or a competitor, it’s fair to compare their work with the way they’d handle such a story involving someone with whom they had no such close connection. Do they seem more sensitive to the feelings of family and friends? Are they as aggressive as they would be otherwise? More aggressive? Do they omit elements of the story that they might pursue if it were about a stranger? How do they handle the story of tragedy that touches them personally?

About 14 hours after the apparent suicide of WFLA-TV meteorologist John Winter, I tuned in to the newscast he appeared on for 12 years. It’s one I have watched many mornings since I first moved to the Tampa Bay area in 1995. I also flipped briefly to other local stations and caught a little of their coverage.

What I saw was both solid and sentimental. The entire eight-minute first block of WFLA’s 6 a.m. newscast was devoted to Winter’s life and death. Ironically or maybe appropriately, even “weather on the 8s” was missing. In place of the show’s usual animated open and rousing music appeared a simple fade-up from black to a full-screen still photo of Winter that appeared to be his official station portrait. The anchor voice-over was noticeably more subdued than normal, but the emotional undercurrent was effectively managed — and that characterized the coverage that followed.

I learned that an anonymous call brought police to Winter’s home around 3:30 the previous afternoon; that when they got there, they met a friend of his who had come over because he couldn’t reach Winter by phone; and that when police went inside, they heard a single gunshot. They found him in the garage. He died on the scene.

I saw the usual establishing video of Winter’s house, with police tape and emergency vehicles in the foreground. A tighter shot of his car in the driveway followed. I did not see any neighbors, nor did I hear any sound bites from them recounting what they’d seen and heard or speculating on what might have led Winter to take his own life. Would such sound have been part of the story if it were about a famous person who didn’t work at the station? Should it be part of such stories? Will it in the future when WFLA covers cases that don’t come quite so close to home?

Other elements of this morning’s coverage celebrated Winter’s work, both on the air and in the community, his humor, his friendships, his devotion to his alma mater. Mace Michaels, filling in on weather, put Winter’s Kansas Jayhawks coffee mug on the anchor desk and said it would stay there all morning.

Reporter Jennifer Leigh filled in for regular morning anchor Gayle Guyardo, who took the day off and sent her thanks for the condolences that had already reached her. Anchor Bill Ratliff soldiered through the segment, neither stoic nor cloying in his tone. His most poignant moment, wishing Winter “God speed, my friend,” was unusual but not out of character for Ratliff, who on any given day seems more genuine and unassuming than most anchors ever manage to be.

Later in the morning, some production difficulties crept into a Today show cut-in. Just before 8 a.m., there were some awkward on-air moments — the kind that can result from a director in the control room who is either distracted or unfamiliar with the shift or both. WFLA’s regular morning director, the anchors mentioned earlier, was Winter’s closest colleague and good friend outside the station.

What little I saw of coverage on competing stations was somber and respectful. WFTS, which calls itself ABC Action News, even referred to Winter as a “News Channel 8 meteorologist.” It’s unusual in my experience to hear the competition use another station’s brand language, rather than the more neutral-sounding call letters.

It has been almost six years since WFLA had to report on a comparable tragedy involving a station employee. Danielle Cipriani, a newscast director, was murdered in July 2001. Did that experience affect the way the station handled Winter’s suicide? The station seems to have less turnover than most these days, but both the general manager and news director who were in charge then are gone now. The evening and morning anchor teams are largely unchanged; many reporters, photojournalists and others have been around more than long enough to have experienced Cipriani’s loss personally.

Reporting on the death of someone so close changes the way many journalists go about the story, and about their work for a long time to come — sometimes forever. That does not mean that only those who have suffered firsthand can empathize and incorporate compassion into covering human loss.

Cases like this one raise important questions, including:

  • How close is too close? When should a journalist recuse himself or herself from a story? When should a manager step in and remove someone who isn’t functioning well and can’t or won’t see the need to step back?
  • How much special consideration, if any, is due to those closest to such stories — families and friends of the person lost — compared with the way journalists treat the loved ones of victims who don’t have personal connections to the news organization?
  • What other stories should cases like this prompt news organizations to pursue? Most don’t cover suicide very often or very effectively. That can leave them even more vulnerable when suicide affects the newsroom so directly. How can they educate themselves and their readers, listeners or viewers beyond the public facts of the case and fond tributes to their late colleague?
  • What can other newsrooms, not close to this case, do now to prepare for the day such a story does occur in their own communities, their own buildings, their own families?

Poynter Online offers resources to help journalists do a better job reporting on suicide. Stories like the death of John Winter offer newsroom leaders everywhere an opportunity to think about how they would handle such a challenge. And the fragility of life makes it likely that at some point in every newsperson’s career, these issues will become suddenly, intensely and personally very relevant. Read more

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