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Editorials help stations stand out

Mar 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

At a time when localism is touted as the future of broadcast television, many stations have abandoned on-air editorials. But the stations that still do them find they have an edge over their competitors. They say the pieces give them a higher profile, and in the 500-channel broadcast universe, they are seen as stations that care about the communities they serve.

Post-Newsweek is the only major station group that mandates editorials. All of the group’s general managers must deliver editorials-it’s part of their job description.

“We at the stations understand there is a lot more to a station than just a newscast,” said Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek Stations. “The newscast is the obvious way viewers relate to the station. But when the general manager does an editorial, the viewers understand that there are other people at the station other than the newscasters. It enables them to see there is more to the station than just the news. It puts a face on the station and a face on opinions, and it helps lead the content of the station outside the news.”

Mr. Frank said the only rule general managers must follow is they cannot editorialize on national issues or endorse political candidates.

In addition to promoting feedback and dialogue, editorials at Post-Newsweek stations have also helped change public policy. Mr. Frank cites an editorial on tollbooths at CBS affiliate WJXT-TV, Jacksonville. On bridges in that city, old tollbooths had created traffic jams, and after the station’s GM delivered an on-air editorial on the subject, the city found a way to eliminate the need for tollbooths altogether.

“When I was general manager in Detroit, I did three editorials a week,” Mr. Frank said. “Some of our stations do five a week. Like editorials in newspapers, it helps highlight and solve issues of importance to the community.”

Mr. Frank said last year NBC affiliate WDIV-TV, Detroit, ran editorials on a series of news reports it aired on faulty equipment the fire department was using that put the public at risk. The city later “dramatically increased” its budget for the fire department.

“It fits who we are; we’re very community-minded,” Mr. Frank said. “We know that editorials play an important role in what we do. The latest editorials are all posted on our Web sites. We welcome feedback, and we offer opposing viewpoints. We give them the same airtime.”

The newest Post-Newsweek station, CBS affiliate WKMG-TV, Orlando, Fla., began editorials in November. WDIV’s new general manager, Joe Berwanger, began providing editorials last summer when he started at that station.

Hearst-Argyle Television President and CEO David Barrett said though they are not mandatory, editorials are run at many Hearst-Argyle stations, including ABC affiliate WCVB-TV, Boston; NBC affiliate WBAL-TV, Baltimore; and NBC affiliate KSBW-TV, Monterey-Salinas, Calif.

“We encourage them to be engaged in the community,” Mr. Barrett said. “It helps define the image of a station. It helps assert the leadership role in the community. U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) says Paul [La Camera, WCVB general manager] is the most well-defined person in the marketplace, and he’s well-known for the editorials he does.”

Boston station WCVB is known for its involvement in the community and the editorials that have always been a hallmark of the station.

“We’ve always done it, for the 29-year history of the station,” said Mr. La Camera, who has been at WCVB for all of those 29 years. “We’re the only ones in the market that do editorials.”

Mr. La Camera has written and delivered his editorials for the past seven years. Before that, he supervised the process.

“WCVB remains in many ways an old-line television station that continues to try to provide news, information and community service in a variety of formats,” Mr. La Camera said.

The two editorials that have generated the most response from viewers were one that expressed opposition to the death penalty and another that called for stiffer gun control measures. Another controversial editorial was one Mr. La Camera did on the need to expand Boston’s Logan Airport. Most recently Mr. La Camera delivered an editorial against televised executions.

The now-defunct Broadcast Editorial Association gave out annual awards for the best editorials. Phil Balboni, the former WCVB editorial director who later founded New England Cable News, was a former BEA president.

“Following the deregulation of broadcasting in the early part of the Reagan administration, as some of the public service requirements were eliminated, many stations began to eliminate editorials,” Mr. Balboni said. “Over time, the number of members of the association declined to the point that it no longer became a viable entity.”

According to Marjorie Arons-Barron, a former editorial director at WCVB and now a communications consultant, the BEA dissolved in the mid-1990s when it merged with the National Conference of Editorial Writers print association.

“Virtually all stations understood that a measure of their commitment to localism was fulfilling the responsibility to editorialize,” Ms. Arons-Barron said. “The bottom line is editorializing was a way for stations to show they care about the local community.”

She said she hopes to see more stations begin to run editorials.

“Unfortunately I don’t see any rush to deal with local, state or national policy to the extent that you would see a resurgence of editorials,” Ms. Arons-Barron said. “If you look at local news today, you know what the emphasis is, and the emphasis isn’t sorting out complex issues and having the station go out on a limb taking a position for or against it.”

While there isn’t a national association recognizing on-air editorials, local Associated Press chapters still do. In April the Texas Associated Press will present Post-Newsweek-owned KPRC-TV, Houston, with the award for best television editorial in the state. The chairman of the Texas AP chapter, Paul Brown, said only one other station entered this year: KMID-TV, Midland. Mr. Brown said next year this category may no longer be offered, because of the lack of submissions.

“It’s a possibility it may not be there next year,” Mr. Brown said. “We really would like to have categories with a lot of entries.”

While it is unusual to see a station’s general manager on the air these days, those who do editorials sometimes get mini-celebrity status in their markets.

KPRC General Manager Steve Wasserman has been interrupted at restaurants by local viewers asking for his autograph. He obliges, he says, because, “I think it’s rude not to.”

“I have a line I use at the end of the editorial: `I’m Steve Wasserman; let me hear from you,”’ Mr. Wasserman said. “I used that in Jacksonville, where I was general manager before, and I got a lot of response there, too. People will stop me in the street and say, `Let me hear from you.”’

Mr. Wasserman delivers about three editorials a week, and each one runs three times during the day. His station is the only one in its market running editorials. He doesn’t think the Internet supplants the need for editorials. “The Web site is there to support the television product, not replace it.”

With Post-Newsweek’s partnership with Internet Broadcast Systems for its Web sites, past editorials are archived on KPRC’s Web site. Viewers send e-mail to respond, and Mr. Wasserman said he “gets tons of e-mail every day” on the editorials.

“I think the business community and the governmental community, the institutions in the market, recognize when a station does it, and it gives the station a certain profile, a profile being active in the community, “Mr. Wasserman said. “They used to just come to the newspaper; now they come to us, too.”

Mr. Wasserman said he believes editorials will make a comeback.

“I certainly feel local is in vogue,” Mr. Wasserman said. “Editorializing is healthy. It’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, I get recognized a lot; it gives me a profile in the market that helps me with advertisers, viewers and community leaders. The negati
ve is I have a high profile in the community, and I lose my anonymity.”