Commitment a Key to Success
Repeat Winners Say Awards Come From Dedication to Solid Journalism
Each year when the awards are handed out, some of the same names pop up on the lists and some of the same journalists, news directors and general managers head to the stage to accept the honors. Among the regulars are a number of stations owned by Belo Corp. and Hearst-Argyle, along with two Indianapolis stations—WTHR-TV, owned by Dispatch, and WISH-TV, a LIN TV station—and Seattle’s KOMO-TV, owned by Fisher Communications.
While some stations rise to the occasion when a major news story happens in their backyard, the repeat winners are generally not merely the result of chance. They come from competitive markets such as Indianapolis, where solid reporting can help a station stand out, and are a product of corporate cultures that value investigative journalism. Both WTHR and WISH took home Peabody Awards in 2007.
In 2008, Belo’s 20 stations took home four national Edward R. Murrow Awards, a Peabody Award and three Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton Awards. Going back to 2000, Belo stations have snagged nine duPonts; nine Peabodys; and 23 national Murrows, which the company says is more than any other commercial station group in the nation.
Belo’s WFAA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth, has been a standout, winning three Peabodys in five years. This year, when it came time to evaluate the Peabody entries, the judges had a dilemma: Four reports from the station seemed to merit attention. The unusual decision was made to combine the entries into a single award, so that the station wouldn’t run away with all the honors, Peabody Awards director Horace Newcomb told TelevisionWeek earlier this year.
“We have a corporate culture that’s rooted in journalism, from the company on down, from the corporate offices on down, that focuses on excellence in journalism and not just lowest common denominator, win at any-cost,” said Michael Valentine, the station’s executive news director. “That gives us incredible freedom and support to pursue stories that are much more relevant to our communities.”
That includes going after a big local employer and even a network with which Belo has a relationship, when the story is there. One of WFAA’s big recent stories examined state oversight of problems with couplings used by a local natural-gas supplier, which caused several deaths and put thousands of others at risk. It was part of the winning Peabody entry, took home a duPont and also was singled out for an in-depth look by PBS’ “Expose: America’s Investigative Reports.” WFAA also won both a duPont and a Peabody for its three-part investigation into “Dateline NBC” and its controversial “To Catch a Predator” franchise.
“I think we’d be naive to think that we live in a vacuum” and that stories don’t have an impact on advertiser relationships and revenue stream at both the station and the company level, said Mr. Valentine. Nonetheless, he said, “The company has been supportive, and we have gotten no corporate pushback.”
Fred Young, who is retiring at the end of the year from his post as senior VP overseeing news operations for Hearst-Argyle TV stations in 26 markets, says “culture and commitment” explain his group’s strong award track record.
Recent accolades include national Murrow Awards for Baltimore station WBAL-TV and KCCI-TV in Des Moines as well as recognition in radio; 29 regional Murrow Awards, for radio, TV and Web reporting; a Peabody, a National Headliner Award and an Investigative Reporters and Editors Medal to WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh for an investigation into spending practices at the Pennsylvania state-run student loan agency; and four consecutive Walter Cronkite Awards from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communications for excellence in television political journalism, a particular focus of the Hearst-Argyle stations.
“We believe, we always have, that the news is what drives Hearst-Argyle,” said Mr. Young, adding that while the stations have had ups and downs, they are generally No. 1 or No. 2 in their markets, bearing out the philosophy. “It’s doing quality news coverage that sets you apart from the competition and the many other sources of news that are coming at people these days,” he said.
Being honored for the work, Mr. Young said, plays into a station’s community image and status, but internally it’s also “a morale builder; it makes people feel good about themselves and gives them something to strive for, to reach for.” And over the long term, he said, it can also drive revenue. “I think our sales department are among the proudest folks in the building when we win these awards,” he said, noting that they are “selling reputation.”