News Outlets Set Up Shop in Big Easy

Sep 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

In TV news, it’s important to be first, and NBC News was the first to declare it had formally established a bureau in New Orleans within WDSU-TV, the scrappy Hearst-Argyle-owned NBC affiliate that operated without electricity until last Tuesday.

Hours later CNN announced that it found space in downtown New Orleans, where it will establish a bureau. It was not clear when CNN will begin moving its equipment into the space, which, a spokeswoman said, is not attached to a TV facility.

Both NBC News and CNN have made clear they want to dominate stories on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina-a subject that encompasses everything from evacuees and other victims of the storm to how governmental agencies failed and how the city will be rebuilt.

Other national TV news organizations said that they have so many people in the region for the long term that they have de facto bureaus there.

“We’re here for the long haul,” said a spokeswoman for CBS News, which once had a bureau in the Big Easy.

“Fox News Channel will have an increased presence there for the foreseeable future,” a spokeswoman said. “Calling it a ‘bureau’ is just a formality.”

Even before Katrina hit, “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams had lodged himself at the Superdome, which would prove to be ground zero for news coverage as the powerful storm ripped open the roof and then as the levees broke, flooding some 80 percent of the city. “Nightly” doubled to an hour on three nights since Katrina, and those newscasts were picked up by NBC-affiliated stations reaching some 80 percent of the country. Although all network newscasts gained audience post-Katrina, “Nightly” outpaced its competitors in week-to-week rate of growth, according to Nielsen Media Research.

CNN has seen some days on which its audience is approximately half the size of first-ranked Fox News Channel’s instead of a third.

“The long-term stories that have been uncovered by all this are monumental,” said Steve Capus, acting president of NBC News.

Mr. Capus named Southeast chief Frieda Morris, whom Mr. Capus called “one of our all-stars,” the New Orleans bureau chief and said a deputy would run the Southeast bureau in Atlanta. The first correspondent assigned to the new bureau is Martin Savidge, whose work there since the hurricane slammed the Gulf Coast has won praise inside NBC News.

Senior investigative correspondent Lisa Meyers will work out of the bureau as she follows up on stories such as how those responsible for the levees were spending time and money before the levees broke.

Mr. Williams, for whom this could be a crucial and career-defining story, is just seven months into his assignment as Tom Brokaw’s successor on “Nightly News,” while his competition at ABC’s “World News Tonight” and “CBS Evening News” are operating with interim anchors.

Ties to News Orleans

Mr. Capus’ ties are longstanding with New Orleans station WDSU, the future site of the NBC News bureau, whose building sustained minimal damage but whose transmitter was flooded and still is out of commission. He executive produced former NBC News Channel series “NBC Nightside,” whose founding anchor Kim Hindrew is married to WDSU President and General Manager Mason Granger.

Though Ms. Hindrew no longer works in the business, she stepped in to serve a spell on NBC-affiliated WDSU’s anchor desk Labor Day while other local journalists took breathers.

After webcasting for several days, WDSU began broadcasting on the transmitter and channel occupied by Paxon’s WPXL-TV, WDSU’s former joint sales agreement partner. WDSU operated on generator power until electricity was restored to the station last Tuesday.

Mr. Granger said some of the space allotted to NBC News once was occupied by WPXL-TV staff. There also is space available, said the executive, who has been shuttling between WDSU and sister station WAPT-TV in Jackson, Miss. “Our normal complement of people still are not here” in New Orleans.