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Documentary recounts one station's struggle to do justice to local news and to win ratings

Sunday, October 07, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- It's the No. 1 source of news for many Americans, yet local TV news is also one of the most derided segments of the media.

The five-hour PBS documentary "Local News ... One Station Fights the Odds" (10 p.m. Tuesdays, WQED/WQEX) seeks to show how reporters, producers and executives at one station do their jobs.

Filmed throughout 1999 at WCNC, the Belo-owned NBC affiliate in Charlotte, N.C., the program chronicles the highs and lows at a station struggling to escape from third place in the Nielsen ratings.

"Local News" purports to follow a station experimenting in "quality news," but the series concentrates more on the day-to-day work of producing TV news than it does on an overriding philosophy.

At the July Television Critics Association press tour, one of the station's reporters and a former anchor spoke of the dificulty of doing quality journalism.

"There is a constant struggle between the challenge of doing good journalism and, unfortunately for producers and managers, good TV," said Sterlin Benson Webber, education reporter/weekend anchor. "They're trying to decide what the viewer wants. ... They know that viewers tune out whenever they hear lots of sensationalism sometimes, and blood and guts, but at the same time they know there's a certain level of intrigue with those stories.

"Those stories are easy to produce," Benson Webber continued. "Breaking news is much easier to cover than good, sound investigative reporting."

Alicia Booth, a former evening news anchor with WCNC who's now at WOIO/WUAB in Cleveland, said she frequently hears criticism from local news viewers.

"When I'm at public appearances, I always get the criticism of flash and trash," Booth said. "It's hard to deal with it because I agree with them. What I tell them is, 'Please, help us fix the problem. Please call the station and say, 'I don't like this.' "

Unless people complain and tune out, nothing will change.

"The cheap thrill is a lot less expensive -- the breaking news, the fires, the murders," Booth said. "You have to work so much harder at the quality news. You can't do the quick turn. Every day I come in at 3 p.m. and I do a story, live, at 10 and 11 p.m. That's the way it works.

"Rarely do you have the opportunity to develop a story. Given the opportunity -- and that's what WCNC is trying to do -- to really develop a story and provide good quality, you've got to have resources and you've got to have time. And that's completely antithetical to the direction that local news is going in terms of staffing and budgets."

Booth said she hopes viewers who watch "Local News" will see what reporters go through and understand that reporters sometimes agree with their criticism.

"Competition can be a good thing, but it's sometimes bad," she said. "It's all about who's first."

Despite the pressures, Booth takes her role as gatekeeper seriously.

"We feel an incredible responsibility when we're sitting there begging people to go on TV," she said. "It gets harder and harder every day -- that we're going to protect them, and we are going to convey what they feel and not just the eight-second sound bite that's the most entertaining -- because you know when you bring it back to the station, the promo people want to pull that out and completely change the context of the story.

"I feel I have to be so protective of those people because they don't have a voice in the newsroom when everybody's fighting to spice it up and juice it up and sex it up."

But having a voice extends only so far. The policies of many stations -- including Pittsburgh's KDKA and WPGH -- require their reporters to interview others but don't allow their on-air talent to be interviewed. Booth disagrees with that management tactic.

"It's kind of ridiculous that we ask people every day to trust us with what they have to say to us," Booth said. "It's hard to swallow, but it's something that we have to do. ... We do work for other people, and you have to pick your battles."

For on-air talent, those battles often involve fighting against market research, public perception and the "suggestions" of consultants.

Booth was demoted from anchor to reporter at WCNC, and her contract was not renewed because of research.

"They offered to show me the research, but I decided it was not in my best interest emotionally [to see it]," Booth said. "[The decision] was definitely research-driven. They made clear it was not work ethic or level of ability."

This all came about after Belo bought the station.

"Belo wanted to completely change the image of the station," Booth said. "We all knew it was inevitable. You have a new owner and you start seeing changes from the top, and talent is always the first to go."

Notes from consultants can be helpful to reporters and anchors who are just starting out, but Booth, like most reporters, started at a small station that couldn't afford consultants.

"The one thing that you try to do is to be yourself. That's what everyone has told me over the years. Don't try to be Diane Sawyer or Katie Couric, be yourself," Booth said. "And so you struggle for over a decade to learn to be yourself, and then somebody comes in and says, 'No, no, no, no. No. Yourself is not good enough. You should be like this.'"

Consultants expressed concern about Benson Webber's age and weight.

"I was mortified," Benson Webber said. "I spent $20,000 a year on journalism school. I should have gone to beauty school. ... Certainly we're a visual medium. And we understood that going in. But I didn't go to journalism school to worry about whether I was the perfect image for the camera. I did have to learn that harsh reality in the workplace."

Benson Webber's contract was recently renewed.

That any station would allow production of "Local News" is a little miracle in itself.

"We visited seven stations around the country. The farthest north was Boston, the farthest south was Charlotte," said executive producer Calvin Skaggs. "All of these stations were interested in what we were setting out to do. We were looking for a station that was trying to lift the level of journalism in its community and do better local news. Oddly enough, four of those stations we visited opened the door to us and we chose to do one."

The resulting program elicited a mixed review from Stuart Powell, former regional manager of Pittsburgh's WPGH/WCWB, who became general manager of WCNC after the "Local News" cameras finished filming.

"It's an interesting piece," Powell said. "For me, it was particularly interesting to see the station at different stages of its evolution."

But he's not as fond of parts of the program that detail the termination of an older, black female reporter. That segment doesn't show the station's reasons for the decision because Belo has a policy against commenting on personnel matters.

"There's a lot in the special we don't like, probably because it is not totally accurate," Powell said. "Then again, documentaries are not required to be quite as factual from a chronology standpoint as news is. They can take things and edit them together to further whatever the point is they were trying to make."

For instance, Powell said news director Keith Connors is depicted as mostly somber throughout "Local News."

"He's a really funny guy, and you don't see any of that in this special," Powell said. "I love the original premise: Can a station using really solid journalistic principles compete? If a little piece of the concept comes across, we'll all be a little better for it."

Skaggs said that's why he thinks Belo agreed to participate in "Local News."

"They believe they were trying to do the right thing and that nationally news should be better," Skaggs said. "Maybe this would be one small brick in the foundation to help do so."

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