Hard work, poor news

If the contretemps over Washoe Schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez has done nothing else, it has gotten area television stations back to covering the school board.

Until recent events, it was a rare school board meeting when television cameras were present. And when something sexy did get them into the board meeting room, they were starting from zero. By missing all those other meetings, they brought no body of knowledge or institutional memory to the story of the day.

The television stations will be covering the school board when there is conflict, but otherwise it will be a rare occasion when they show up. Part of the reason for this is that television hates BOPSAT stories, stories that feature a “bunch of people sitting around talking.” They say they cover legislatures or city councils or school board by going out and showing how the actions of those bodies affect real people. But because they don’t put in the time at the meetings, the “real people” pieces are routinely inaccurate.

This will surprise readers, but this is not the fault of television reporters, not, at least, in this market. There was a time when the television stations here had three newscasts (5:30, 6:30 and 11) and enough staffers to handle the workload. Their ownership had a more local orientation and considerable respect for the mission of news.

Today, there is a newscast every time we turn around. Unfortunately, the current absentee owners have not even come close to increasing the staffing levels according to the demands made by those increased newscasts. Over those same decades, the population of the Truckee Meadows grew by leaps and bounds 123 percent from 1980 to 2010). So the existing workers were loaded down with more and more work, and the newscasts became more and more shallow. News beats were discontinued because covering them responsibly would have eaten up too much time. Live shots on pedestrian, banal stories filled time but provided little information compared to thoughtfully produced, well crafted taped and packaged reports. As the size of the staffs effectively shrank with growing population and increased duties, journalists had to produce numerous versions of the same stories for different newscasts, slicing the material thinner and thinner for each newscast. And as recession-driven cuts reduced the actual numbers of staffers, the stations found ways to cover stories without actual reporters or photographers. How many times have we seen short, barebones “reports” read by studio anchors with computer generated maps to show locations as the only video?

Six months from now, things will be back to normal at the school board and on other beats around the valley. Each story will be covered like a traffic accident—today’s information, no background or depth, no familiarity with the real issues. The journalists will probably be different, since the workload grinds up so many and drives them to find other markets or careers. And whatever sexy story pulls a reporter and photographer into the school board meeting, those journalists once again will probably have to come up to speed on who those people sitting around the table are, and learn the issue before them then and there instead of bringing any level of knowledge into the room with them.

It’s a problem caused elsewhere, so don’t blame the locals. That’s the level of responsibility to the public today’s television station owners feel.