Spending a day behind the scenes in a local TV station's newsroom is a lot like being on a Tilt-a-Whirl going at top speed and driven only by the news cycle. Things go very fast. Events blur into each other. You can't get off until the news itself decides to let you get off.
Later on, you can look back at your notes and dissect what happened, but the primary sensations are speed and motion. When you walk out the door, you're dizzy.
With the president on the road to impeachment and bombs dropping on Iraq right on top of the 5 p.m. newscast, the Tilt-a-Whirl was going even faster than usual.
The thrill is one thing. The effect this pace has on the news itself is another. In many ways, KSDK (Channel 5) is a best-case scenario for observing local news. The station has been winning the ratings war for most of the past decade. It's consistently presented the most balanced local newscast, the one least prone to leaning on violence and fluff.
The speed of the TV-news process and the dash to find visuals make for a fairly rigid equation: The faster you go, the less quality and balance you get. It's not so much a rush to judgment as a rush that often leaves news judgment by the wayside. Or, put in practical (and slightly ironic) terms, viewers get a much better camera view of a 4 p.m. breaking-news event from a distance -- at 10 p.m. rather than at 6 p.m.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Let's start at the beginning.
At 9:30 every morning, news staffers at Channel 5 gather around a large table at one end of KSDK's large, open newsroom. At that table, they hash out what you'll see on the early-evening newscasts, as well as much of what you'll see at 10 p.m.
Assistant news director Mike Shipley is on vacation today, so news-planning manager Ava Ehrlich helms the meeting, a banana and a huge plastic coffee mug in front of her.
Everyone at the table has a "situationer" and a "daily assignment sheet," put together by assignment-desk editor David Baldridge. Far from high-tech, the situationer is a stapled sheaf of paper that sums up the newsroom's available resources for the day. The daily assignment sheet is a quick take on the stories reporters are working on -- the potpourri from which the station picks its news coverage every day. Today they range from the W-1W Lambert Airport expansion and possible theft of city property to seasonal food and toy drives and choirs.
Reporter Randy Jackson is the first to pitch stories. He's been tipped off to what he calls a "sizeable" drug bust. He also pitches a local-angle piece on possible bombing of Iraq, focused on Air National Guard members based at Lambert Airport. "They patrolled the 36th parallel," says Jackson. "One of the pilots was the first to record a kill in the Gulf War."
Six o'clock producer Kelly Hatmaker tacks back to Jackson's drug-bust pitch and asks, "Can we get a ride-along?"
Jackson can't promise that. He's more insistent about the Iraq story: "It's visual," he argues. "It's local."
Like a big, unpredictable cloud, impeachment overshadows everything this morning. But other story pitches are offered. Reporter Jeff Fowler discusses the W-1W protesters singing carols at City Hall and notes that he hasn't done a Lambert-expansion update lately. The carolers are a visual hook, but Fowler urges caution in hyping that angle too much. "Don't make the focus of it them caroling," he says. "They do that every year."
Health reporter Kay Quinn talks about a feature she's doing on a method of dissolving fibroid tumors by blocking the arteries that feed their growth. Al Frank talks about a story he saw in the St. Peters Journal on the incinerator at Weldon Spring being shut down again. "That might be something we'll want," Ehrlich notes.
Mike Owens pitches a story he's checking out about workers at the Board of Election Commissioners stripping their building of valuable fixtures before moving into new digs. Everyone agrees that he should follow up on the lead.
Assignment-desk editor Baldridge interrupts with more impeachment info. Missouri's 9th District representative in Congress, Kenny Hulshof, is holding a press conference in Columbia. Meanwhile, 2nd Dis-continued on page
continued from page
trict Rep. Jim Talent's office says he'll be available at the airport this afternoon.
News director Tim Larson has quietly arrived and sits behind Ehrlich. He suggests that they put together a scorecard on how the delegation will vote. "It'll be interesting," he argues, "to see if anyone changes their mind at the last minute."
Quinn is ready to dash off to report her story, but Larson stops her. "How much of this can we shoot?" he asks. Quinn assures him that X-rays of the procedure will be sufficiently visual.
The meeting wraps up, but the producers linger to discuss the dent that impeachment coverage will make in the news over the next few days. "I have the distinct feeling that we're going to get blown out tomorrow," Larson predicts.
They also discuss how to localize impeachment and how to work in public opinion. The assignment sheet for the day holds two public-opinion-piece pitches, both submitted by Ehrlich, on how viewers see impeachment and the Middle East. Six o'clock producer Hatmaker pitches Larson on an actual viewer poll on the newscast. Larson is iffy on the notion.
"It's people's opinion," he says. "It's not scientific. Groups set their speed-dialers to vote and they vote 50 times in two hours. If you want to make a case for it, fine. The last time we did it was for a sports story, and it's better for sports stories. It doesn't do much for me."
By 11 a.m., the day is taking shape on an assignment board that sits squarely in the center of the newsroom. The board shows who's working on a story and the story's status. Camera crews are shooting the W-1W carolers and a few feel-good stories about hurricane victims and student food drives. A police scanner is assignment-desk editor Baldridge's soundtrack, and the phone is a permanent part of his ear as he scrambles to keep on top of the day's hubbub.
Among other things, Baldridge must ensure that cameras are in the right place at the right time. "In our media," he says, "if you don't have a picture, the story doesn't fly." Speed is of equal priority to everything else in TV news. "I need to get people there, get things right and get it on the air as fast as I can," says Baldridge. "You can't prioritize it -- one, two, three."
As an example, he cites KSDK's coverage of a 1997 Bi-State bus accident at the University of Missouri-St. Louis South MetroLink stop. "The accident happened at 8:45 a.m.," Baldridge recalls, "and we had a report on before 9:30 a.m. and two more updates before 10 a.m."
Today's scramble is to get a camera to the site of what may be an explosive device in South St. Louis. Baldridge sends a crew immediately, then monitors the situation on the scanner. Dynamite on the South Side may be today's local breaking-news story.
Jeff Fowler tells Baldridge that the Lambert-expansion story is a no-go. "W-1W's not happening," Fowler says. Not that he's moving far from the airport in switching assignments: He will now chase down local congressmen as they fly to Washington for the impeachment debate.
Asked why the W-1W story using carolers as a hook for an update didn't pan out, Fowler says the story has shifted now that the expansion has been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. He's looking at the pace of the buyouts and the impact of expansion on those whose properties aren't bought out.
"Them caroling makes no difference now," Fowler argues. "It'll be a voice-over, and they'll run it that way." His time today, he says, will be better spent pitching in on the runaway impeachment story. "I've got to focus on what's happening now," Fowler says. "They need me to have something on the air today."
Tim Larson attempts to explain the niche that each of his newscasts should fill. "I like to think of the 5 p.m. newscast as a snapshot of the day," he explains. "It should have a mix of national and international news with the local news. The 6 p.m. newscast is the newscast of record. At 10 p.m., I like to give viewers a wrap-up of the day, but I also want something that people are going to talk about at the water cooler the next day."
The time slot in which he decides to run a story, Larson adds, is also influenced by obvious competitive factors. "We're one of the few markets where TV breaks just as many stories as the newspaper," he argues. "If I run an (exclusive) story at 6, the paper will have it. If I hold it until 10, then I'm taking a chance someone else will have it."
Other factors also influence when a story runs, says 5 p.m. producer Sonya Potter as she prepares for a meeting to divvy up available stories between her newscast and Kelly Hatmaker's 6 o'clock segment. "It's a lot about who watches a newscast," says Potter. "Since I'm coming directly after Oprah, my show is predominantly women viewers." Stories such as Kay Quinn's health segment on fibroid tumors, Potter notes, are precisely the thing for her audience.
Potter and Hatmaker meet at the assignment board just before noon with Ava Ehrlich to choose stories. Speaking earlier in the day, Larson had said that this meeting yields what he calls "an occasional tug-of-war. Should we hold something until 6 or give it at 5?"
A polite but insistent disagreement develops immediately between Potter and Hatmaker. With a newscast led by NBC's nightly news, Hatmaker lobbies to snag impeachment and possible Iraq bombing features. Potter wants those stories for her newscast. Randy Jackson's prescient fighter-squadron story and Jeff Fowler's localized impeachment package are up for grabs. Ehrlich takes a black pen and starts scribbling on the assignment board as the producers slug it out.
Hatmaker seems satisfied at the end. He's got substantial pieces on all the main issues of the day. Potter complains to Ehrlich about the draw: "I have nothing that's exclusive to my show," she says.
By 1:30 p.m., the newsroom is buzzing. The dynamite scare appears to be a bust, though David Baldridge still hasn't heard from the crew he dispatched. The police "aren't letting them use cell phones," he explains. "So I'm sending a second crew down to see what the first one found out and then get to a pay phone." Baldridge is dubious, however. "Whatever it is," he says, "(the police) aren't worried about it."
Assignment-desk editor Ed Rich arrives to take over for Baldridge, who's manned the desk since 6 a.m. Baldridge gives Rich a quick rundown, then decides not to have a cameraman retrieve aerial footage of Weldon Spring. "Just pass on picking up that tape and come on in," Baldridge says to a cameraman who's on the phone with him.
Kelly Hatmaker briefs anchor Dan Gray on what he's planned for the 6 p.m. newscast, while Sonya Potter hammers away at a lead for the 5 o'clock newscast. "It's going to be an umbrella lead now," Potter says as NBC anchor Tom Brokaw comes on the tiny screen on her desk and explicitly links the now almost certain bombing of Iraq with politics. "Impeachment and Iraq."
The newscasts take shape on screens in front of Potter and Hatmaker. KSDK producers have software that allows them to check wires and slot various stories, effects and allotted time into a template. They divide the stories neatly between anchors for consistency and flow. "It's important," Potter quips, "not to give too many to one anchor."
Running down the newscast with the anchors who will read it is one of the more crucial processes. When Potter runs down her newscast with Gray and Karen Foss peering over her shoulder, the anchors offer numerous suggestions and questions.
Hatmaker does a similar rundown for 6 p.m. anchor Deanne Lane. He explains why he's placed a voice-over about highway-construction troubles before a voice-over on the dynamite scare in South St. Louis. "The tie here," Hatmaker says, "is that they shut down the highway, and they shut down the neighborhood."
The dynamite scare is finally declared a bust -- dowel rods wrapped in red paper, with an alarm clock attached. Baldridge tells Hatmaker that the camera crew got good footage of the hoax device. "You might want to run a voice-over," he suggests, "just to tell people what it was about."
Liza Singer, the 10 p.m. news producer, arrives and catches up on what's been happening before her newscast's production meeting at 3 p.m. Singer and Ed Rich herd those involved in the 10 p.m. newscast into Tim Larson's office to talk it out.
Iraq will be the lead story, and Singer wants the issue localized. Various suggestions are tossed out on how to do it and which experts to call in. "How about Harry Levins at the Post?" suggests Mike Owens. "It'd be good to get someone like that in the bag."
There is still local news to be discussed. Ruth Ezell wants to revisit a story she did weeks ago on problems with the city's issuance of support checks. There's a quick discussion on who's to blame for the snafu. "The trouble with the support story," continues Ezell, "is that I can't find the women. They'd had their phones disconnected and moved."
Rich pulls out a fax that might make for a 10 p.m. feature. It's a story about a man who'd placed angels on the houses in his neighborhood at Christmas for decades. After the man's incapacitation, neighbors and family pitched in to keep the angel tradition alive. "I thought this would be a wonderful holiday story," Rich says.
Ezell agrees: "I like warm-and-fuzzy."
As Singer's meeting breaks up, it becomes almost instantaneously moot. NBC is saying that the bombs are due to fall at any minute. Potter and Hatmaker revisit their tug-of-war earlier in the day, this time with more urgency.
"They're ramping up coverage," Hatmaker argues, pulling for more Iraq material in his newscast. "I don't want to look stupid."
Potter holds fast to her demands. "I still think we need to have something at 5," she says.
On the bank of televisions above the assignment desk, anti-aircraft fire is lighting up the night sky over Baghdad, but KSDK hasn't switched to the network feed yet.
"We're still on Jeopardy!" yells one staffer disconsolately.
Right before 4 p.m., news director Tim Larson gathers the staff in his office. In front of the crush of producers, anchors, reporters and other staffers, Larson starts to draft a game plan to switch the focus of tonight's newscasts. Hours of meticulous planning, shooting of video and reporting are flung overboard by a wave of breaking news.
The initial decision is where to send the station's cameras to get local reaction to the bombing. As you'd expect, the focus is on the visual -- even the self-referential.
Larson wonders out loud whether the cameras should be sent "somewhere like Circuit City, where people would be watching it."
Ed Rich says, "I want airport stuff. Security's going to get tight."
Eventually Larson settles on live remotes from Washington University and the airport. He sends Ezell -- now relieved of the warm-and-fuzzy angel story -- to the campus. "We're sending (cameraman Jim) Tuxbury right behind you," Larson promises.
Whether there will be a newscast at 5 p.m. is the next question. President Bill Clinton is certain to talk to the country in the next hour. Theories about NBC News coverage and how much local angle the station can cram into the 5 p.m. newscast are swatted about the room by nearly a dozen voices.
It's a storm that has Sonya Potter, with less than an hour to prepare now, looking quietly frustrated. Larson halts the cacophony and speaks directly to her. He puts his hands to his head like blinders to emphasize focus. "Go with the idea that you're going to go at 5 p.m.," Larson tells her. She darts from the room.
Larson approves producer Al Frank's idea to get a camera up the street to Union Station for local reaction. The office empties now, but Larson stops the profoundly pregnant Leisa Zigman -- who's done one live stand-up already today and has volunteered to do the airport remote -- as she's walking out.
"You don't have to do this, you know," Larson says.
"It's fine," Zigman says, smiling, as she glances at her belly. "It might move things around."
After the meeting, the newsroom cranks into high gear. Al Frank turns around the Union Station "man on the street" interviews in slightly more than a half-hour. Reporters race to get congressional reaction.
At her desk, Potter races the clock. Larson advises her on what to drop from her newscast if NBC's coverage runs over. "I'd like to get (weathercaster) Cindy Preszler in," Larson says. "If anyone has to drop, it's those guys." Larson points toward the sports office. "(The Blues) lost 7-3 last night."
Shortly before 5 p.m., Potter is in the control room with director Patricia Klein, ready to go. Clinton's speech is running into Potter's news slot. She kills off stories as Clinton speaks. It's a primer in TV-news priorities. Potter immediately eliminates a report on a teen who killed his classmates in Paducah, Ky., then items on hurricane victims and a food drive. A feature on migraines, a commercial break and sports are killed next.
As Clinton's speech ends at 5:15 p.m., KSDK decides to stay with NBC coverage. Potter kills the Kay Quinn fibroid-tumor story and the "Volunteer 5" segment. Weather is trimmed, and a package on police and the pope's visit is axed. At last Potter's newscast is whittled to nothing, and NBC goes to its nightly newscast.
"I'm 99 percent sure," Larson says, "that we'll go local at 6 p.m."
The 6 o'clock newscast is now devoted entirely to the breaking national news. Short sports and weather segments and the "Volunteer 5" feature also make the cut.
The assignments from Larson's war-room meeting have been carried out. Ruth Ezell's live remote finally comes off, as does Leisa Zigman's remote from the airport. Al Frank's Union Station piece is used. Jeff Fowler's package on impeachment makes the cut.
Throwing together local reaction to breaking news so quickly creates predictable problems with the newscast's balance and tone. Randy Jackson's feature strikes a strong militaristic chord, with a lead-in noting that "local warriors are ready to take the fight to Saddam." The airport yields good footage of viewers "glued to screens," but there is no security upgrade. The man-on-the-street interview subjects are in favor of bombing or uninformed, and the experts interviewed -- Washington University's Victor Le Vine (on tape) and St. Louis University's Jean-Robert Leguey-Feilleux -- are both in favor of air strikes. Equally unhelpful is the fact that Leguey-Feilleux answers two questions put to him by Deanne Lane and Dan Gray with "Hard to tell."
You get the sense, in watching the 6 p.m. newscast end, that you've just seen a news tornado, impressive in its speed and power but appalling in its random and undirected path.
True to Larson's view of the 10 p.m. newscast as a wrap-up, Liza Singer fashions it in two distinct blocks, first touching on the breaking news of the day, then cleaning up local news. In her plan, the W-1W carolers and dynamite scare each get an airing.
Before leaving for the day, Larson comes over to Singer's desk to help her shape the lead, which she's dedicated to Iraq and a nod to the now-postponed impeachment. "Should that be the lead?" Larson asks. "'Impeachment put off'?"
They mull it over, and Larson reconsiders: It's back to Iraq. As he leaves, Larson also tells Singer that he's giving the newscast an extra 10 minutes. Singer uses it to better balance views of the day's events. Local anti-bombing protesters make the newscast. A local Muslim family's reaction is included.
The political implications that Larson wanted to emphasize get an airing with a studio appearance by KSDK political analyst David Harpool. Shortly before air time, Harpool arrives to talk about the day's events with Dan Gray and Karen Foss, in preparation for the newscast. Their conversation ranges widely from the utility of bombing Iraq to the political implications for Clinton, and the anchors exchange some strong and well-informed opinions about both topics with Harpool during the 15 minutes before air time.
It's exactly the kind of biting, lively conversation that would make good television. Unfortunately, it's allotted only two minutes on tonight's newscast.