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Tuned In: WTAE news settling in under its new director

Thursday, October 28, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

WTAE news director Bob Longo has worked at the station less than two months, but Channel 4's strength was immediately obvious: Weather coverage.

Despite the homogeneity of the TV news market, Longo said WTAE stands out because of longtime meteorologist Joe DeNardo.

"When you talk about people in TV not being rocket scientists, you can't include him," Longo said. "He is a rocket scientist. He's a math whiz, a physicist and meteorologist and he gets it."

But even a mainstay like DeNardo can use something new to promote, so look for the station to unveil its latest forecasting toy -- I mean, tool -- next week.

Its name? Live Pinpoint Doppler with Snow Watch.

It serves the same purpose as New and Improved Tide with Fabric Softener: To reinvigorate the brand and give viewers another bit of eye candy when they're getting hysterical about winter storms.

"You can actually see snow," Longo promised.

But if weather is the station's heritage, the news department has been in flux, with a new male face popping up next to Sally Wiggin at the anchor desk with unusual frequency. That game of musical chairs has stopped, and Longo said there are no plans for changes in the near future. Instead he'll concentrate on carving out an identity for Action News.

"We need to be compelling, but we don't need to be screaming from the mountain all the time, beating our breasts and using adjectives too much like, 'You won't believe...,' " Longo said. "We don't have to do that. We also don't need to play it safe."

Longo emphasized storytelling, one of the in-house mandates for the news director who would succeed Tom Petner. Longo spoke of stories with movement and "using people to tell stories, not just officials; not over-relying on graphics; not over-relying on crime because that's easy to do.

"I don't want to be like WPXI; I also don't want to be like KDKA in a lot of respects," Longo said. "They're both solid organizations with their own missions, but when viewers tune to Action News, they should see compelling, people-oriented news."

He spoke of doing stories with "viewer benefit" and greater interactivity now that WTAE owner Hearst-Argyle Television has allied itself with the Internet Broadcasting System.

Already Longo has scored one coup, hiring away KDKA-TV's 11 p.m. newscast producer, Richard Cook. He joined WTAE earlier this month as the station's executive producer. Longo praised Cook's skill as a producer, knowledge of the area and experience with station branding. And, it doesn't hurt that he swiped Cook from a rival.

"That's always interesting no matter where you are, but that can't be the main reason for doing it," Longo said. "It's got to be that I'm mainly helping us, although hurting them always does help."

Longo joined WTAE from WKBW, the ABC affiliate in Buffalo, N.Y. In January's Project for Excellence in Journalism study WKBW received a B+ grade, while WTAE received an F-. In a January interview with The Buffalo News, Longo said he was happy with the grade, but he wasn't gloating because he said such studies lack the perspective of community interests. WTAE's poor showing didn't deter Longo, and earlier this week he called the study "seriously flawed."

With the departure of Liz Miles, Channel 4 is without a feature reporter. Longo said he'll fill her position with a general assignment news reporter.

Graphics will be tweaked in the future, and Longo said he's already emphasized the importance of correct spellings.

He's not a fan of sweeps ("the worst thing for the television industry") or contests tied to newscasts ("for here and now it's a necessary evil; in the long-term I'd like to see us come out of that business").

Now he's preparing for a baby boom that's about to hit the WTAE newsroom. Weekend anchor Shawn Yancy, morning anchor Melanie Shafer and consumer reporter Wendy Bell are all pregnant and due to give birth within the next few months.

GOT IT WRONG: Last Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. KDKA-TV incorrectly reported that escaped convict Terry McNelis had been captured. With almost a half-hour left in the newscast, the station never got a retraction on the air, and this from the station that boasts about getting the story and getting it right.

What went wrong?

KDKA news director Jeff Weissbart said KDKA received a tip that McNelis had been found and an officer at the Somerset State Police barracks confirmed the capture.

"At that point we put it on the air," Weissbart said.

About 45 minutes later, the station discovered someone had been picked up on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but it wasn't McNelis. Teases during prime time reported McNelis was still at large.

Channel 11 got a similar tip about McNelis on the turnpike, and WPXI's Rick Earle reported a "possible sighting" early in the station's 6 p.m. newscast. At 6:25 p.m. the station took a step back and said the turnpike suspect was not the escaped convict. Channel 11 led its late newscast with David Johnson reporting KDKA's inaccuracy.

WTAE received the same tip about a supposed McNelis capture, news director Bob Longo said, but the station couldn't confirm it and didn't report it.

So what does this all amount to? Besides a spitting contest between KDKA and WPXI?

Despite the competitive TV environment, it's better to get it right than to get it first.

KDKA would have better served viewers if it had aired a brief special report when it discovered McNelis was still on the loose. At least a crawl across the bottom of the screen was warranted. After all, the guy was considered dangerous.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com.

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