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WTHR-TV Going Back for More

Indianapolis Market a Force in Major News Awards Competitions

The trophy cases are bulging at the news department of NBC affiliate WTHR-TV in Indianapolis, the result not only of the station’s quality of work but of the effort that news executives put into entering awards competitions.

In 2008, the station walked away with 17 regional Emmy Awards, a national and three regional Edward R. Murrow Awards, four National Headliner Awards and a dozen Indiana Associated Press Broadcasters Association Awards—not to mention a slew of other equally prestigious honors in the past few years.

“Indianapolis is a very competitive market, a market steeped in great investigative journalism, and that’s what we really hang our hat on—along with day-to-day coverage,” said Jim Tellus, WTHR’s former news director who was named VP and general manager of the station in January. “It’s a testament to both my station and our closest competitor, WISH-TV, that we both won Peabody Awards last year. For two local stations to win in the same year is extremely rare. It happened 30 years ago, in Chicago.”

The station broadcasts “Eyewitness News” weekdays from 4:30-7 a.m., at noon and at 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 p.m. The latest Nielsen book for November showed it was No. 1 in all of those time slots except noon.

“It says a lot about our brand integrity and core viewers,” Mr. Tellus said. “We are very fortunate to be one of the few dominant stations left in the country, and we make that list time and time again. We won the ratings for all of our major newscasts based around content, emphasis on community and investigative stories.”

Mr. Tellus credits the station’s owners, the privately held Columbus, Ohio-based Dispatch Broadcast Group, with providing the tools and resources the news organization needs to keep it top-tier.

“We’re very fortunate to have a family-owned company pour money into this station,” he said. “We have a bigger staff and bigger budgets, and that makes a difference when you’re competing in a news war.”

Next month, the news organization will begin its awards submission process for 2009, which will go something like this: The 85-member department is queried on what they are most proud of and which projects should be submitted for awards. A large number of ideas come forward, and then the submissions go through a vetting process led by the news management team.

An executive producer is assigned to be the point person for quality control of the entry process itself, which involves reporters, producers, editors and photographers filling out a slew of application forms, making dubs and paying entrant fees for a number of competitions, including the Emmys, Peabodys, Indiana Broadcasters Assn., the National Headliner Awards, the Murrows, the duPonts, AP and the Indiana AP Broadcasters Association. Then all of the entries from WTHR are sent together to each awarding entity.

Mr. Tellus will participate in the decisions made on which shows to submit in “best newscast” categories. “That’s something for which we know the successful ingredients, which include writing, pacing and using graphics as storytelling tools,” he said. “We will narrow it down to a handful.”

The five-person investigative unit enters a number of its reports, and has been amply awarded for its efforts, including a recent Peabody Award for “Prescription Privacy: 13 News Investigates.” The piece grew out of the story of a woman attacked in her home for an OxyContin prescription, and precipitated nationwide change in how pharmacies dispose of patients’ personal information.

“We found that pharmacies were throwing away people’s names and addresses and other private information in dumpsters open for anybody to discover,” Mr. Tellus said. “We went to Miami, Phoenix and Dallas and found the same thing. We asked pharmacies how they could allow this to happen. Now some corrective measures are in place.”

One of 2008’s most-awarded pieces for WTHR was the hard-news feature “Mission Complete,” the story of young Indiana soldier who lost both legs in Iraq, was treated at Bethesda Naval Hospital and said he didn’t want to go home until he was able to walk off the plane.

“We spent weeks in rehab with him there through all his struggles, watching him learn how to walk again and overcome devastating loss,” said Mr. Tellus. “We followed him back to Indiana, and as he walked off the plane greeted by family and friends, it was one of the most emotional stories you would ever see. It was something you’ll never forget.”

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