War From the Local Angle

Apr 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

With the war in Iraq dominating headlines around the world, news directors are scrambling to make the war local-putting in long hours and hard work to give this international story an edge that’s personally relevant to their audiences.
“For me, what’s happening in Iraq right now is a local story because it touches local people. A local story is what local people are talking about,” said Frank Volpicella, executive news director at KVUE-TV, the ABC affiliate in Austin, Texas, voicing a view shared by colleagues around the country.
Five news directors recently talked with TelevisionWeek about how they are covering the war in Iraq locally while grappling with other pressing issues, both on-air and behind the scenes.
On the eve of RTNDA@NAB, the Radio-Television News Directors Association’s annual conference running this week in Las Vegas, TelevisionWeek correspondent Christine Bunish talked to the five news directors about the war, the upcoming elections and other local issues and how they’re coping with competition and cutbacks. An edited transcript of those interviews follows:
TelevisionWeek: With so much news focused on the war with Iraq and related international issues these days, how do you cover it locally without looking as though you’re just rehashing the network news?
Ed Chapuis: The San Francisco market is so big and diverse and we have so much local news to cover we’re not worried about looking like a rehash of network coverage. In covering the war, we try to make sure we’re carrying our Fox coverage primarily, but we also have access to CNN coverage.
While we’re monitoring and using those two, we’re not shy about jumping in and doing things locally we find important. [On March 20 and 21] we jumped in a dozen times or more as protesters tried to take over city buildings and bridges.
Shannon High-Bassalik: If there’s a key international story that affects us, we go. [WFOR reporter Mike Kirsch] went to Afghanistan; now he’s in Iraq for this war. Also being in South Florida, the Caribbean, Cuba, Haiti are important to us, as is South America, so we do a lot of traveling.
Miami’s a very diverse market, so there’s a lot of local reaction. We have a Muslim and Arab community here. We talk to them about what’s going on. The same with the Caribbean and South America. We have embassies here, people who have winter homes from those countries, so it’s quite easy for us to localize an international story.
Don Pratt: Because we have such a big military presence, we do have a high degree of presence in the media in terms of war coverage. There are things unique to Charleston you can only get from Charleston TV stations and not the network: all the activity at the Charleston Air Force Base, the reserves, the people left at home, the effect on the agencies-fire, police, corrections. All those stories are best told by a local station. People will tune to us to get those stories.
Some people have the impression that local stations’ war coverage is going to be a network rehash, but when you have a story like this playing out overseas, I’d argue that you need to count on your network more than ever. They have the resources and expertise. We count on them to help supplement our coverage of the war.
Frank Volpicella: Our goal is to bring the local angle to our viewers with whatever tie there is to what’s going on overseas. We’re the state capital, we’ve got the University of Texas here, the president was the governor of Texas, and a lot of people who worked for George Bush as governor are now working for him in Washington. A lot of those folks are helping make policy decisions that affect our nation’s path, so it’s very much a local story for us.
KVUE is owned by Belo, which has a bureau in Washington covering events at the White House and the Pentagon; several reporters from other Belo stations, specifically Dallas’ WFAA, are embedded with the U.S. military. They’ve been our correspondents over there providing stories on Texas servicemen and women on the front line.
The largest military base in the country is at Fort Hood in Killeen, about 90 miles north of Austin. That’s where we’ve had pretty much around-the-clock coverage; that’s where servicemen and women now on the front lines have been trained.
TVWeek: What are the key issues in your market right now? How are you dealing with coverage?
Mr. Chapuis: What’s important in San Francisco recently is the war and, more specifically, anti-war [protests]. [On March 20] we had 1,600 people arrested in San Francisco alone. That’s more than any other single day in history, even more than the protests in the ’60s.
So that’s been rather newsworthy, and it’s had challenges attached to it. These aren’t always organized groups. Some are splinter groups with different agendas, some are passive, some are anarchists. It’s very fluid, but we’ve done well with it.
Overall, I’d say jobs and the economy are probably the biggest issues facing the San Francisco Bay markets. We took a pretty big hit here with the dot-com industry going dot-bust and the aftereffects of that felt over the last two years.
Ms. High-Bassalik: The key issues in our market are probably similar to those in most markets today: personal safety, i.e. terrorism, crime and politics. In South Florida, we’re finding so many of the terrorists have either come through here or lived here for a period of time, so that’s on the forefront of people’s minds.
Breaking news is also a very large component of what we do. That can be any kind of issue, but there tends to be a lot of it in South Florida. We’ll break into WBFS [the UPN station] if it’s a large story affecting a lot of people, but we’re more likely to break into [CBS owned-and-operated] WFOR programming because we want people to view FOR as a news station. BFS does an hour of news at 10 p.m., but people view it as an entertainment station.
The stations share resources: FOR now has a reporter in Iraq and one in Washington, and both get used on BFS. FOR also has an investigative reporter who stays on top of terrorism, Miami being a major port. She did a great story on coupon fraud and how organizations are using it to fund terrorist attacks.
Ms. McRae: The issues are war and the economy. How is the war affecting the local economy through the threat of bioterrorism and terrorism? How we can keep safe locally? We’re doing stories about safety in our schools and public places.
The threat of war and bioterrorism is ongoing. We have the Hanford nuclear power plant about a 21/2-hour drive from here [Spokane]. And we have Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River-that’s a pretty big target for terrorists. But we’ve had no threats there or here locally.
We have a checklist we go through in the newscast every single day, especially now that we’re at war, of all these different places-the airport, the federal building, Hanford, the dam. We go through and say, `No change, no change, no change,’ or, `Here’s how they’ve added extra security.’
We have Fairchild Air Force Base here, the largest refueling Air Force base in the country. So there are a lot of local stories generated through Fairchild. We have a list of experts set up, retired generals and local economists to come in on a moment’s notice and talk to us.
Mr. Pratt: We have three big issues on our plate right now: education, crime and the war in Iraq.
South Carolina, I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone, has a serious issue with the quality of education people receive in public schools. It’s one of the issues we’ve identified that viewers are specifically interested in learning about from local news, so we’ve had to make some adjustments in our resources.
We now have two reporters working on the education beat. This deployment of resources has paid off in the early phase.
Crime is another issue in our market. We have a full-time person assigned to that beat who specifically seeks out those stories, maintains contacts in the local community and looks for unique story ideas and some solutions-based stories as well.
Like any other station, we cover the
nuts-and-bolts of a crime story, but we also try to keep an eye on trends, certain kinds of patterns in crime, the people who live around it. We try to get their message out so local leaders understand how the quality of life of these people has been affected.
The third big issue is the war. Charleston has the Charleston Air Force Base with its fleet of C-17s, air transport planes. We’ve invited military people into our building to hold a seminar for our reporters and producers so they know the language, the proper procedures, what kind of cooperation to expect when they call looking for information [so that] when the military says we can’t tell you these things or give you access to these particular areas, our people will be in a better position to tell viewers they may not get answers to some of these questions.
Mr. Volpicella: Certainly the key issues right now are the events in the Middle East, the events overseas. There is really no story bigger than the war with Iraq. We are touching as many local angles as we can; it is certainly a story that touches anyone in our market.
We are identifying any and every local angle we can tie into. In addition, because we are owned by Belo, which has a bureau in Washington, we share the resources of Belo stations, which have embedded crews with the U.S. military. That gives us a distinction no one else in the market has.
The other big story we’re following on a daily basis is the Texas Legislature, which is in session. It meets every two years for about six months.
TVWeek: What are the key issues facing news directors right now?
Mr. Chapuis: This isn’t brain surgery. This is pretty simple. You go out and cover local news, and you put it on TV. You try to tell good, strong, compelling local stories every day.
The challenge of news directors and news departments is to stay focused on going out and doing the job of covering good stories and telling them well without being distracted by superfluous things.
Ms. High-Bassalik: Getting younger people to pay attention and care about the news and keeping people from going over to cable. We’re finding a lot of older viewers are discovering cable for the first time, and that hurts your news product because older viewers tend to watch the news.
On WBFS, our demographics are younger, and that’s great because if we can get young people in the tent now watching news, they will eventually become WFOR viewers.
Ms. McRae: The obvious issue is war and how it all plays out, which has a direct effect on budgets and staffing. There was a direct link there with 9/11. When 9/11 happened, advertisers went away, and it affected our budget. When your bottom line is affected, the amount of people you have working for you is affected. There’s a domino effect.
After the war is over, even if the economy comes back in full, we’re not going to see a surge of general managers come to news directors and say, `OK, you guys can go hire the five people you’ve been living without for the last two years.’ That’s just not going to happen. The environment we’re working in right now is here to stay.
To be successful you have to find a way to continue to deliver great product to your viewer with the amount of staffing and budget you have right now. Those who do that will be successful. Those who can’t will probably get out of the business.
Mr. Pratt: One of the things that’s popped onto our radar screen is changing technology. We have moved to putting our [high-definition TV] signal on the air in recent weeks.
That’s taken a tremendous amount of money and also the time and energy of our engineering department. While they’re working on the digital transmitter, we don’t have access to them for projects inside the building for the news department.
We’ve recently upgraded our editing system to a Grass Valley NewsEdit nonlinear system and are playing our clips back off Grass Valley Profiles instead of videotape. It has meant a tremendous effort in training people-people who have been doing things the same way in some cases for 20 years.
Changing technologies and keeping up with them on a small-market budget takes a lot of attention to detail. If you’re going to spend the kind of capital money it takes to keep pace with emerging technology, you’d better have a good plan in place.
Mr. Volpicella: I think more than budget, more than anything else, the erosion of viewership is my biggest challenge. People who criticize television news say it’s because we’re no longer relevant to our viewers, and I disagree completely.
There are so many more choices out there: 24-hour news seven days a week, the Internet, satellite-so many ways viewers can get their news rather than sitting down at the traditional news times of 5, 6 or 10 o’clock.