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Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2007 08:08 am

On the cheap

Ex-TV reporters cite demand for quantity over quality

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Glenn McEntyre

After years of reporting the daily ins and outs of such cities as Rockford, Ill.; Mobile, Ala.; and Kansas City, Mo., former WICS (Channel 20) reporter/anchor Mark Thoma says, he cracked in Cleveland.

One night, just like any other on the job, Thoma received word that a house was burning out of control in a rough section of the city. Armed with a microphone and a notebook, he grabbed his photographer and headed out to get the story. As he joined the firefighters and reporters on the scene, he discovered the horror of the situation.

A 3-year-old boy, in the care of his grandmother, had been killed in the fire, which he accidentally set while playing with matches in an upstairs bedroom. The boy’s mother came home amid the chaos and learned that her son was dead.

Thoma, the father of a 3-year-old himself, watched as the city’s reporters and cameramen descended on the hysterical, sobbing mother and hammered her with questions. He made a choice.

“I said no,” Thoma says. “I did not want to stick my microphone in this lady’s face and ask her what she feels like right now.”

He returned to the station empty-handed and was immediately confronted by his news director, who wanted to know why all of the other news stations had up-close-and-personal shots of the crying woman and their station had nothing. Thoma had a simple answer: He was no longer interested in doing that kind of story.

“To intrude on someone’s worst moment in their entire life, quite possibly, is immoral and dishonest — and yet that’s what TV news directors think viewers want to see,” he says. “I refused to do it.”

Thoma isn’t the first to criticize television news for putting viewer ratings ahead of journalistic integrity. As more and more news stations are swallowed by big conglomerates and competition with the Internet increases, reporters are being pushed to think about the bottom line.

Sinclair Broadcast Group, one of the largest broadcasting companies in the country, owns WICS and 56 other television stations in 35 markets. The third-quarter financial losses reported by the company at the end of October will likely increase pressure on a company that most analysts agree is already lean.

Calls to current WICS news director Deana Reece for comment went unanswered, but former WICS staffers report struggles caused by the industry’s instability, from smaller salaries and fewer resources to increased demand for quantity over quality.

Increasingly in the television-news business, veterans with higher salaries are being weeded out in favor of entry-level reporters. Although this helps news stations balance their budgets, some say it also damages the credibility and professionalism of the newsroom.

“The thing is, it’s hard to see a 22-year-old kid telling me what’s going to happen in Springfield in political news when they haven’t been here for 22 minutes,” says Tony Thompson, a 23-year veteran photojournalist who recently left WICS.

Thompson, who signed on at the news station right out of college, says he’s seen his fair share of people come and go. He answered to six different news directors and four general managers and worked with countless other cameramen and reporters. Like most in the business, he attributes the constant turnover to salary issues. Thompson recently received his first paycheck for part-time work with Insight Media in Springfield and says it was only $200 less than his last full-time check from WICS after more than two decades of service.

For some, the pay is a bargain in a midsize market such as Springfield, No. 82 of 210 markets across the country. Glenn McEntyre worked the assignment desk for a Cincinnati news station for four years before coming to the capital city, taking a required step down from market No. 33. Like most young reporters, McEntyre understood that he would have to start small to get on-air time; also like most young reporters, he knew that he wouldn’t be in Springfield for long.

When he arrived at WICS, McEntyre says, his boss was candid, telling him that most younger hires come in to get the experience they need before moving on to bigger and better-paying jobs in larger markets. Anchors can make a decent living in Springfield, he says, but for the most part reporters are forced to either move up or, in many cases, take state jobs.

“So many people at Channel 20 who got out of the business and went to work for the state government doubled their salary,” he says. “There is a huge misconception that TV pays well when it really doesn’t.”

McEntyre has since taken an anchor position in Columbus, a move for which he has planned his entire career. Reflecting on his job in Springfield, he says he’s grateful for the lessons he learned while working with a smaller budget and older equipment.

In larger markets, photographers edit their own tape, removing a large burden from the reporters, and news trucks often contain equipment that reporters can use to write their stories instead of returning to the station to meet deadlines. In Springfield, McEntyre says, reporters don’t have those luxuries.

One of McEntyre’s biggest challenges at WICS was covering City Council at 6 p.m. on Tuesday nights. If a meeting ran long, he was forced to race back to the news station, log his sound bites and interviews, write the story, edit his tape, and then drive back out to City Hall for a live report on the 10 p.m. newscast. He laughs when he admits that speed zones on Cook Street were usually no obstacle.

“You learn to do more with less,” McEntyre says. “You have to be resourceful and have to learn how to crank it out in less-than-ideal circumstances.”

As cameras and equipment get smaller and less expensive, the television-news business is demonstrating a trend called “one-man banding.” News directors are looking to hire employees with multitasking experience, those who can both report and photograph the news. They would argue that it’s more cost-efficient, because it’s one person doing the job of two, but others say quality is being tossed out the window.

Nathan Mihelich, who now works as the director of communications with the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, was hired by WICS as one of these one-man bands. He says he wanted to report stories that he felt really mattered to people in Springfield but often found himself being pushed in other directions. Last year he was working on a timely story about Ameren and its contributions to local politicians when local electric rates were skyrocketing — but because he was a combo reporter/photographer he was sent by the news director on other assignments that he calls “trivial and time-filling.”

“I couldn’t focus on research, because they had me shoot a car wreck that no one was injured in or report on a fire in someone’s garage,” Mihelich says.

Mihelich will teach a new television-production course at Benedictine University/Springfield College in the spring, and he says he will use his experiences at WICS and other news stations to teach students about the value of investigative reporting, the importance of quality rather than quantity, and how to turn a story into a presentable piece that people care about and may act upon.

Reporters say that these days quality is almost always sacrificed to cost cuts and time constraints in the television-news industry. They are sometimes asked to write and edit three or four stories a day, each usually required to fit in the space of one minute, 15 seconds, or one minute, 30 seconds. They focus much of their attention on press releases or news conferences and aren’t given much time to devote to investigative stories.

“How much research can I put into them if I am basically given an hour or two to throw a story together?” Thoma says. “I’m going to go with the first person that will talk with me on camera, and I’m going to try to spin that story around them.”

Thoma now calls himself a cynic.

He was forced out of television news when WICS didn’t renew his contract, and he says that he plans never to return. He’s done everything from giving up three-quarters of his salary to follow his dream to changing his hair color from gray to black to satisfy news directors — but, as he contends, he knew from the beginning that it was all part of the business.

“What everybody who goes into TV hopes to become is the next Dan Rather or the next Anderson Cooper,” Thoma says. “Everybody wants to be the next big thing — but unfortunately there’s only one Mick Jagger in the Rolling Stones, and the odds that you’re going to replace him are slim to none. “But you roll the dice and you take that
gamble.”

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com

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