War Coverage Tightens Belts

May 19, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The president has declared an end to combat, the troops are coming home and local reporters have returned to their stations.
But for many of the local broadcasters that took the bold and expensive step of sending local talent to cover the war in Iraq there’s a new challenge to be faced: the tough task of belt-tightening.
Stations from Nashville’s WTVF-TV to Miami’s WFOR-TV to Chicago’s WMAQ-TV will be watching news budgets a little more closely in the coming months.
Landmark Communications-owned WTVF, a CBS affiliate, and the other stations in the country’s 30th-largest market sent crews to the Middle East because the 101st Airborne, which played a large role in the war, is stationed in nearby Fort Campbell.
A WTVF reporter and photographer were in Iraq for five weeks, and the station estimates the total cost for the coverage will be about $30,000. That expense was minimized by an innovative technology solution that enabled the crew to e-mail packages home.
Still, that $30,000-of which $11,000 went to special insurance-has to be extracted from the news budget through the rest of the year, said station News Director Mike Cutler.
“During the downturn we’ve gotten used to trimming and trimming and trimming,” Mr. Cutler said. “The challenge for me and other news directors is we’ve gotten used to trimming and holding that cost, but now we’re getting close to the bone.”
Granted, $30,000 is a small portion of the station’s overall news budget. But when 80 percent of the news budget is allocated to personnel, there’s not a lot of wiggle room. “We’ll look at every news event and every item in the budget and question it more thoroughly and whether we really need to spend it,” he said.
The station will curb the use of its helicopter, especially if footage from the ground is just as good. In addition, WTVF probably won’t send a crew to every away football game played by Nashville’s NFL team, the Tennessee Titans.
Similarly, the station will probably rely on other CBS affiliates for coverage of away football games played by the University of Tennessee. If the team has a great season, though, the station will be obligated to cover more away games.
Mr. Cutler is turning to other affiliates for some news coverage too. In early May, when Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen spoke at East Tennessee State University, five hours from Nashville, WTVF used video from Media General-owned WJHL-TV, the CBS affiliate in Johnson City, Tenn. Sending a crew from Nashville would have required a minimum of 10 hours of travel time, which means the overtime clock would have started running two hours before the crew could even begin to cover the story.
WTVF will also cut back on attending conferences and will send two instead of three reporters to an investigative reporters and editors conference this year. In addition, any job openings at the station may remain vacant for a few months before they’re filled.
WFOR, CBS’s owned-and-operated station in Miami, faces a similar crunch. The station sent reporter Mike Kirsch to the Middle East for three months at about $100,000. When WFOR made the decision in January, a stationwide initiative was implemented to watch costs more closely and still cover the news, General Manager Michael Colleran said.
Specifically, the news department is clamping down on overtime and flying the helicopter, but it’s also looking at other opportunities to save money, said News Director Shannon High-Bassalik.
“Sometimes there are these little things, like do we need to shoot the extraneous voice-over? Do we really need a photog in overtime to shoot a weather picture as opposed to taking a shot from a live camera?” she asked. “Sometimes we’ll launch a chopper for a gas leak that’s not even confirmed. So now we’ll ask, where is the gas leak? If it’s an abandoned area where no one is affected, you send a photog. If it’s in a school, you send the chopper.”
She said she also scrutinizes cellphone and pager bills and examines whether there might be better cellphone plans and rates. “I try to look at where else to cut, because I don’t want news to suffer,” she said.
Meanwhile, stations that were able to share resources aren’t in as much of a bind. Chicago’s NBC O&O WMAQ sent reporter Phil Rogers to the Middle East and was largely responsible for salary and some travel costs. But NBC News Channel picked up most of the satellite costs, since Mr. Rogers reported for News Channel as well. That allowed the station to cover the war in a budget-conscious way, said Frank Whittaker, VP of news for WMAQ.
“There is nothing we are cutting out right now because of the coverage. Every time an out-of-town trip comes up, we’ll look at it, and if it’s on the bubble, [we may not go],” he said. “We all have a budget and have to live within it. We have not specifically said we can’t cover something because we went to Kuwait.”
WPTV, Scripps-Howard Broadcasting Co.’s NBC affiliate in West Palm Beach, Fla., sent reporter Tim Malloy to cover the conflict for about seven weeks. The expense was bearable for the station in the 40th market because the costs were shared by the corporate parent and the other eight Scripps stations that carry news. Mr. Malloy essentially served as a pool reporter for the Scripps stations and did generic and custom live shots for them.
“We spent some money but not enough [to] prevent us from traveling or covering other stories,” said Bill Peterson, WPTV’s general manager.
The cost for WPTV will be [about $20,000] and the expense will come out of the news-gathering discretionary budget. “We’ll be able to absorb the cost in the existing news operation expenses and it is quite possible … that year-to-date the news department will still not be overbudget,” Mr. Peterson said.
What it gets down to, said Brad Kalbfeld, deputy director and managing editor for the broadcast division of the Associated Press, is that the job of a news director is in part the job of a very crafty budget manager. “If you’re a prudent financial manager, you should be in a position to make it through the rest of the year without too much pain,” he said.