October 1, 2002

Behind the Scenes in Local TV Journalism

<em>Local News</em>, a five-part documentary series that follows the daily of reporters, news managers and corporate executives at WCNC-TV, Charlotte's NBC affiliate, as they struggle to find a better way for local TV news. Photo: Aaron Stevenson.

Whether the stage is Los Angeles, or in the case of this compelling documentary series, Charlotte, North Carolina, the play that is local television news remains the same, a real classic. The beleaguered news director playing preacher to a congregation of silently amused news staffers who are told they are the best and must do more with less. The worldly wise street reporters who take their marching orders with a been there/done that roll of the eyes. The story meetings with almost as much racial tension as the school busing case that is the issue at hand.

For more than nine months the cameras rolled, collecting several hundred hours of footage, capturing the struggles of a low rated television news operation battling to win ratings the right way. Similar rating wars are being played out in hundreds of t.v. newsrooms, in markets large and small, across the nation. Having spent more than two decades anchoring and reporting in similar newsrooms around the country, I can attest to the accuracy of the portrayals. Watching Local News…One station fights the odds…, a five part documentary series that debuts on PBS this fall, I was actually embarrassed to recognize plot twists that I had mistakenly assumed were unique to my career arc. What is eerie is how consistently the same dilemmas surface and the same character types pop up in the same roles.

The earnest, cautious, white male news director, who describes news in terms of an intellectual exercise and cautions his staff to ratchet down their excitement when word of a bomb scare at a local school gets the staff’s adrenaline running, just days after the Columbine massacre. While seemingly caring, the news director’s apparent need for finding order in chaos sometimes seems to override his ability to make fast decisions in the midst of the messy, flow that is breaking news. He and his staff hold an impromptu roundtable debate over the appropriateness of reporting bomb scares as the clock ticks and a golden, if journalistically complicated, opportunity to break into programming and promote the later broadcasts is lost. Then there’s the well-liked, black, female producer who feels trapped under a glass ceiling. A newsroom veteran, she ultimately quits saying she’s been passed over for promotion too many times. And what newsroom would be complete without the quiet, yet simmeringly intense assistant news director who seems to be making a lot of high speed mathematical calculations despite his inscrutable expression, someone who soon proves he really is as intent on moving up the news ladder as he seems. As for the young, blonde anchorwoman in the red blazer and the over forty female reporter fighting that phase out known as a severance package, it’s all uncomfortably familiar. But, despite the predictability of everyone’s predicaments, this documentary is insightful enough to make these now timeworn newsroom dramas feel very fresh by allowing us to feel the angst of the players as they walk the walk. It’s an eye opening realization when, watching this documentary, it becomes obvious that these real life parts are so predictable because, as human beings in tightly structured cultural and corporate roles, there are few opportunities for taking a road less traveled. Survival, bills to pay, kids to raise, make dramatic ad-libs a prohibitively expensive proposition. Although a few tasty zingers do manage to land, in today’s corporate driven news climate, the freewheeling smart-assed rebel/reporter is much more likely to appear as a fictional character in the movies than as a real life journalist in the button down world that is the modern newsroom.

Local News is a co-production of Lumiere Productions and Thirteen/WNET New York. The filmmakers, including producers Calvin Skaggs and Ali Pomeroy, shared with me some of the strategies that enabled them to get so much candid, behind the scenes footage of a newsroom in the throes of a sometimes traumatic makeover. As WCNC-TV, Charlotte’s NBC Affiliate, struggles to reshape and re-energize its newscasts to appeal to a wider audience and coveted demographics, a veteran African-American reporter gets her walking papers, leaving the General Manager trying to explain her pending dismissal to a group of angry, local African-American community leaders. It is an excruciatingly awkward meeting, one of several scenes that will leave some viewers squirming with discomfort, as corporate and community cultures clash.

Skaggs and Pomeroy said it took a while for the newsroom to let down its collective guard. “The first month, people seemed more conscious of the camera than they did in months six, seven, eight and nine,” said Skaggs, explaining that they had the luxury of taking a waiting game approach that netted some astoundingly genuine, spontaneous conflict. The producers explained that, as part of persuading the station to allow them in, they agreed to certain ground rules. They always entered with the camera running and kept it running at all times, unless they were specifically asked to stop rolling. Eventually the camera became accepted as just another participant. As for the individuals who emerged as the key focus or stars of the series, Skaggs explains, “all really fine documentaries have been cast by the documentarian who says, here is the lead and the secondary lead.” But sometimes, the leads cast themselves. As Pomeroy put it, “…there were people, very early on, who were open.” “They pick you spill their guts to,” added Skaggs.

But the producers also acknowledge that it was huge challenge to work in an environment in which virtually everyone, by the very nature of their jobs, was extremely camera savvy from the get go. The documentarians said they were very careful to “..look for what was genuine…” and not allow any of the participants to manipulate the process to benefit their own careers or twist the piece toward a certain slant. The filmmakers said one way they tried to insure the integrity of their work was to studiously avoid forming individual relationships off-camera with the people they were putting on camera, avoiding situations where individuals might privately try to influence the tone of the documentary. “We don’t go out to dinner,” said Pomeroy.

I asked the producers if they thought the t.v. station’s General Manager had engaged in corporate doublespeak when he is captured on camera describing his staff as a family, even as he is working to push out a long time reporter. The producers responded that they tried to avoid scripting any judgments into the piece. That’s a main reason that the documentary avoids narration. “We just show it. If the audience things it’s doublespeak, then let them think that,” they said, adding “a lot of things are ambiguous. Life is ambiguous.” If any one perspective does filter through the five episodes it would seem to be this. In the battle that is local t.v. news there are no clear villains, just people faced with very tough choices.

The producers say a rough cut screening of the series to the station’s executives and key participants did turn up certain instances of moderate unhappiness. But, in the end, only about two minutes of footage was removed from the final cut. “We don’t want to get anybody fired,” said Ali Pomeroy, explaining that her ultimate goal is to inspire a better dialogue between local news stations and the communities they serve. Pomeroy also said she was happily surprised at the lack of cynicism in the local news corps. Her realization was that “many of the reporters are idealistic and do really care about their communities and are not just hacks.” By tracking the station’s extensive coverage, of an emotionally loaded school desegregation case, this series poignantly documents how a reporter’s idealism is tested by competitive forces that turn an already tough job of reporting into a sometimes torturous marathon.

While this documentary aims to open up communication between those who serve up the news and those who digest it, it can also serve as a journalistic scared straight for those angling to break into the t.v news business for the wrong reasons. It offers a perfect antidote for those who think an on camera news job will be a fast track fun ride to glamour and celebrity. This series throws a much needed bucket of cold water on that dreamy premise and should be required viewing for all communications majors.

Local News…One station fights the odds… will air on PBS October 9, 16, 23, 30 and November 6 at ten p.m. Check local listings.

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