Pay per news

Whatever happened to the television teams you know and trust?

Veteran journalist Dennis Myers sits in a booth at Cozy’s Family Restaurant in Sparks. He orders the diet plate.

“I wish we’d scheduled this for a little later,” he says. “I just came from filing for unemployment, and I’m not in a very good mood.”

In his button-down shirt and gray, wire-rim glasses, Myers looks a bit rumpled, but then he always looks a bit rumpled. His fingernails and cuticles are gnawed to the quick, and there are Band-Aids covering some of them.

Be that as it may, at this moment he’s got a look in his eye that you’d have to know him to appreciate. It’s resolute. It’s the look he gets in his eye when he’s on a good story, or when someone disagrees with him and he knows he’s right.

Myers got his start in journalism in October 1966, writing a column from Reno High School for the Nevada State Journal. Except for a stint working for the state, reporting is pretty much all he’s done. He’s got a memory of Nevada events, politics and history that’s nearly unparalleled among northern Nevada journalists.

Even so, Myers finished what may be his last regular job in journalism on June 21, when he was fired by KOLO-TV News Channel 8. He’ll probably go the freelance route. It’ll be nice to have a little security for a change.

News Channel 8 has gone through some changes lately. More than a dozen familiar faces have left the station since it changed ownership in March 2001. Others who work at the station say in off-the-record interviews that they are flat-out terrified of losing their jobs. Allegations of unfair treatment of employees and “selling the news” have put the station and staff on the defensive. Even über-anchor Tad Dunbar declined to speak on the record about the atmosphere at the station. But Brent Boynton, news anchor and reporter, says the corporate changeover from Donrey Media Group to Smith Television didn’t change his job significantly.

“We’re a local station, but we are corporately owned,” he says. “When Donrey owned us, I didn’t see much of Donrey. I don’t see much of Smith, either.”

Boynton says his position in the late evening somewhat removes him from much of the office drama.

“I like being at the station,” he says. “I have no complaints. People seem happy there, but it’s hard to speak for everyone. It is true, though, that big changes generally affect morale.”

The fact is that the story of Channel 8, a station that regularly wins the ratings battle in the Reno area, is no worse than that of many media outlets, and it’s a better scenario than some. The growing pains that the station has gone through, though, make it an excellent example to illustrate the problems of the Reno journalism market, the struggles between advertising and editorial, and how news has changed across the country.

New journalism

Management at KOLO is unapologetic about the way the worm has turned. News Director Brad Brokaw (no relation to Tom) says some unpopular decisions have been made for the good of the station and the public. Brokaw joined the KOLO team in February.

“The changes that have happened under my watch, the changes that will continue to happen, are all done based on the long-term, long-range vision we have for the station,” he says.

It’s also true that journalism is a competitive business and reporters are often hired with one foot out the door. Myers, for instance, was fired in 1994 from Channel 2 after spending 16 years there. He did a stint here at the RN&R, where he also left under acrimonious circumstances. At Channel 8, he worked alongside others, like John Tyson and Ed Pearce, who’d been at Channel 2. When Kirk Frosdick was fired from Channel 8, he moved over to Channel 4. In a market this size—Reno is number 110 out of 210 in the Nielsen ratings—experience can open doors.

A feisty reporter with a nose for news—like Myers—is an anachronism in this day and age of corporate journalism. An anachronism, not a dinosaur, because there are enough principled, competent reporters left at television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines to refute any metaphors that suggest extinction. But they are getting rarer thanks to a corporate news culture that places profits over people, revenue over public service and paid advertisers over the uninformed public.

“You’ve got inflation in population outside the newsroom, the number of newscasts is growing, but the staff is staying the same size,” Myers says. “We’ve got less and less time to carefully craft our stories and get more information to the public in them. As a consequence, the public is getting not enough information from us, and in some cases they’re getting bad information.”

There are those who say Myers is wrong—wrong about a lot of things. There are factors in the world that require most media outlets to tighten their belts. And it’s arguable that, without corporate journalism, little journalism would be done. So, with the number of advertising dollars flat from 2001 (according to the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable, total U.S. spending for local and national advertising in 2002 will be up 2.1 percent from last year, at $236.2 billion), journalists are being laid off and fired around the country. Media outlets are looking for innovative ways to generate cash. Factor in that ad revenues were down 10 to 12 percent nationwide in 2000, and it’s almost possible to sympathize with those media moguls who suddenly have to park their jets on the tarmac instead of in the hangar.

But Myers says that the struggle to make money has left newsrooms operating with less experienced reporters who make less money; news decisions being made by people who are new to both journalism and to the Reno area; and a public shortchanged on information and distrustful of the people who provide it.

March 1, 2001, the day Channel 8 was taken over by Smith Television, is now known at the station as “Bloody Thursday.” On that day, 10 people, including General Manager Bill Hall, anchor Jennifer Burton, weatherman Dick Stoddard, reporter Kirk Frosdick, weekend anchor Jodee Kenney and reporter Erin Breen were fired. Stoddard was later brought back.

This was just a few days after the owner of Smith Television, Bob Smith, told the Reno News & Review he didn’t plan on any layoffs or major changes.

“It’s a pretty great station,” Smith said then. “When new owners come in, some people make changes. But if you’re asking if I want to change the direction of that station, I bought that station because it was going in the direction I wanted it to go into, and I was proud to be associated with it. If anything, I want to continue that tradition and find ways to help them continue that tradition.”

But the rifts between employees and employer continued. Half a dozen faces have recently left the station, from reporters to custodians to assistant news directors. Others shuffled jobs. Still others accepted less responsible positions or were forced to move, depending on whom you talk to.

Erin Breen was one of those who got the ax on Bloody Thursday. She works at KNPB Channel 5 now and writes a column for the Reno Gazette-Journal, and she has little good to say about the types of people who are being brought in to replace seasoned journalists like Myers and herself.

“These people are not working journalists,” she says. “These reporters who come in here are, ‘What’s on the press release, who do I have to get a sound bite from, and who’s doing my hair tonight?’ “

News flash

Finding a balance of editorial content to advertising content is always a delicate undertaking. There are lines that should not be crossed; for example, commercials (or advertisements in a print context) should be clearly delineated, and news content should be determined solely through editorial judgment. A controversial proposal put forth earlier this year by KOLO-TV to sell live broadcasts threatened to cross both those lines.

The allegation of “selling news” came about like this: A “one-sheet” outlining a “Friday Night Live” Sponsor Package was faxed—possibly by someone at the station —early in May to the media-watch Web site FTV,

A one-sheet is a proposal for an advertising promotion. FTV published a story based on the proposal. And what a proposal it was. For the low package price of $5,000, Channel 8 offered “live shots or video of the outside of your business (when possible); a live interview with a designated representative on site that evening; a pre-taped tour of your business; one taped feature story about an area of interest on your property; many live mentions from the anchors as to the location of the live newscast; and logo and audio mention in promotion of ‘Friday Night Live.’ “

Though KOLO managers say they never followed through with any sales using this offer, Broadcast & Cable picked up the story, writing its own version on May 6. The trade publication followed the story later that month with an editorial castigating KOLO and other stations for ethical breaches big enough to drive a van through. Copies of the Broadcast & Cable story were e-mailed around town, and more copies of the one-sheet appeared in media outlet fax machines. Sparks Tribune reporter Willie Albright broke the story locally on May 7.

This kind of offer is not unique, however, and other stations in town and around the nation are said to have actually gone through with offers like these. For example, WBBH-TV in Fort Myers, Fla., sent advertisers a flier similar to Channel 8’s that offered “a news story on you or your family and how they have impacted Southwest Florida, which will air in the Monday-Friday 5 p.m.-6 p.m. newscast.” That station aired the stories. The cost: $5,000.

The Broadcast & Cable editorial also took a shot at WSTM-TV in Syracuse, N.Y., which submitted a Top 10 list with its proposal for a contract to air New York State Lottery drawings. No. 2 on the list was, “Positive special-events news coverage of lottery events.” The station, ironically, said it was a joke.

Other stations in the Reno market also tread on slippery ethical slopes. For example, KRNV “Where News Comes First” Channel 4, also has a “Friday Night Live” promotion. Their flier offers “an incredible opportunity for your business to receive ‘LIVE’ commercials from your place of business. Each Friday from 5-8 p.m., KRNV News 4 will bring a live remote to your location, including five live 60-second commercials, prizes and other enticements to attract your best customers to join the fun.”

If there is a difference between the flier offered by Channel 4 and the one from Channel 8, it may only be a question of degree, but the degree is significant. KRNV boss Ralph Toddre, president and chief operating officer of Sunbelt Communications, says that there was, and is, no connection between the live commercials and the news. In other words, these live commercials only happened during clearly delineated commercial breaks.

“It’s like what radio stations do when they do live commercials, but it’s not part of the news,” he says. “It’s commercial time between 5 to 8 p.m., but it is in no way tied to any news coverage. We’re not doing any newscasts from anybody’s business. We’re not doing stories on the business within the newscast.”

The important thing about KOLO’s “selling the news” one-sheet, management at that station repeats, is that no news broadcasts were ever “sold.” Although some advertisers received copies of the proposal, the idea was shelved before it was ever acted on. (One source inside the newsroom says at least one, and possibly two, newscasts were sold, but this remains unsubstantiated.) Station management resents getting singled out for an ad campaign that never sold any news time. KOLO News Director Brokaw attributes the debacle to an overzealous ad salesperson who took the idea and ran with it without approval from above.

Even though the proposal specified that clients would not dictate any part of the newscast or content, and that the news director would have to approve any agreements, the damage had already been done. The questions cast shadows on other on-site KOLO broadcasts, like the week’s worth of coverage of the Reno Rodeo, during which anchors wore cowboy hats and other local news appeared to receive short shrift in favor of rodeo stories.

Journalists were outraged, and message boards on FTV and similar sites like and bled with complaints about management at local stations, complaints about viewers and complaints about the state of ethics in Reno. Those journalists aren’t the only ones who judge stations harshly for these ethical faux pas.

“That’s not journalism, that’s prostitution,” says Norman Solomon, a nationally syndicated columnist on media ethics and politics. “It’s so beyond the pale of anything that could be appropriately described as ‘news reporting.’ It’s beyond shameful. I can’t imagine any self-respecting journalist who would go along with that.”

Giving news anchors lines to promote businesses on the air goes way beyond the typical television news ethical quandaries.

“There are gray areas [in advertising], but this isn’t even a gray area,” Solomon says. “You would think it’s a no-brainer, but it raises the question: Are the people in charge of the news department journalists trying to navigate their way through a business atmosphere or are they business operatives trying to navigate their way through a journalistic pretense? It sounds like the latter in this case. I don’t know what it would matter [that the station says],'We only showed it to some advertisers.’ Who’s running the ship at that news operation would be the question—and what are their priorities? It’s a travesty. I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it.”

Other journalists were similarly astonished, as evidenced by the anonymous postings on the Internet message boards. Some pointed out that KOLO isn’t the only station that has considered innovative methods to reach new viewers and advertisers. KRNV Channel 4 ran a TV lottery; KTVN Channel 2 gives away DVDs. All gimmicks are intended to increase viewership in order to increase Nielsen ratings that, in turn, increase the amount that stations can charge for advertising. Some of the Internet messages, of course, escaped the lofty level of discussions of ethical dilemmas and became personal attacks on station management and the Reno TV news consumer.

“Truly, the days of great journalism are basically gone, due to corporate takeovers and bottom line economics. I don’t fault trying to make a profit, but doing it at the expense of your employees is, in my view, wrong,” posted a user named “renotog” on the TVSpy Watercooler board.

The days of Walter Cronkite credibility seem to have past. But then, what else can you say about a market in which reruns of The Simpsons routinely outperform the evening news? Doh!

News slants

The grousing of newsies aside, commercials on television and advertisements in newspapers are how ends get met. Promotions, like giveaways and contests, are de rigueur methods for growing viewers and raising money. Live remotes for radio stations happen every day.

It’s often easy for today’s sophisticated news consumer to spot bogus location shots or increased sponsor logos running before and after commercial breaks. Ads, when done correctly, are obviously ads, and few resent the fact that news programs have to make money.

Real sell-out news is much harder to spot, says Solomon. Sell-out news comes in many guises, including positive stories for advertisers, but these promotional pieces are decidedly less common than “censored” stories. For example, sell-out news may include stories that the viewer never sees because negative stories about advertisers never reach the TelePrompTer or morning editorial meetings. Sometimes, the devil is in the details— for example, when financial conflicts aren’t disclosed in news stories that do appear. For the record, KOLO-TV and the Reno News & Review have partnered up on sponsorships—like the current Rollin’ on the River concert series.

“It’s usually omission,” Solomon says. “Also, think of the ownership itself. General Electric owns NBC; General Electric may not have NBC doing a lot of tough stories on it. ABC is owned by Disney—whether owned and operated or maybe just an affiliate—which may be a disincentive to do tough stories about Disney as a corporation. And these corporations cast very large shadows.”

Ethical controversies like the one that hit Channel 8 hurt media outlets in several ways. If viewers begin to doubt the credibility of newscasters, they turn to another station. If advertisers feel they are getting shortchanged in the service rendered to them by the outlet, they may look for advertising opportunities elsewhere. Finally, if employees—the journalists who gather, report and disseminate the news—begin to feel their work is being undercut, an outlet may have a difficult time retaining and replacing employees.

“It has a very corrosive affect,” Solomon says. “It depends on the personalities and the situations and the approach of the journalists. It can make them cynical, it can make them angry, and it can make them go along to get along. It can make them quit. In some cases, it can make them more idealistic, because they’re confronted with just the opposite of idealism, and they have to vote with their feet or vote with their hearts and minds and decide where they want to go.”

Management, too, realizes this and gets understandably squeamish when questions are raised. For example, when KOLO General Manager Tim Perry heard that these issues were being raised about his station, he contacted Reno News & Review General Manager John Murphy, who then asked Editor Deidre Pike to have the reporter call him for clarifications. Perry declined to speak on the record. And other staffers at KOLO said they were told not to comment for this Reno News & Review story.

KOLO News Director Brokaw understands all these factors, and he says that there are many ways to increase advertising revenue without compromising the news product. He says it’s those methods that are going to return KOLO to dominance from the recent Nielsen setbacks.

“The better your news product is, the higher the ratings you can get,” he says. “Right now we’re in a ratings book, the sweeps period. We’re smack dab in the middle of the July sweeps. And that’s one of the four times in the year when viewers in our market measure how we stack up against all the other programming on the air. If you get a high rating from the viewers from Nielsen, then your sales department can charge more for the spots in your newscast.”

Another legitimate method is to increase the amount of time devoted to commercials in a given news hour. This is a temporary strategy, though. While it may increase profits in the short term, viewers are most likely to pick up the remote during commercial breaks, eventually decreasing numbers of viewers and starting the downward spiral.

“There is a trade-off,” Brokaw says. “There’s an old rule that you never want to have more than a third of your newscast be commercials, and even that’s too high. Striking a balance between content and ad time is always a challenge. It’s extremely tricky.”

For comparison’s sake, a profitable ratio for newspapers these days is considered to be 40 percent editorial content to 60 percent ads. (The RN&R runs about 45-55 in favor of ads.)

Brokaw says the firings from the news department since he came onboard have been mostly because the employees were a poor fit with the direction that he wanted the department to go. Contrary to rumors, the news staff has actually increased by “two or three” people since he took the news director job.

“I’m looking for a lot of Diane Sawyers and Charlie Gibsons,” says Brokaw. “They can go on PrimeTime Live; they can do This Week With David Brinkley; they can do Good Morning, America with tremendous success. They are tremendously versatile talents. What we had, and what we continue to have at this station, are people with a narrow focus and tremendously deep depths of knowledge about politics or education or health or the environment.

“But what we need are people who can feel as comfortable fronting a live shot about school vandalism as they do on the mountainside for a wildfire or at a meeting discussing the train trench. I think that as we looked at the staff, there were some people who just didn’t fit that bill. What we need is a lot of high-quality, interchangeable parts.”

Ironically, Brokaw also says the new team will likely move to a beat reporting system next month. This would mean each reporter would focus on a specific topic, like politics, education, health care or the environment.

Myers, for his part, says that it’s the individuality of reporters and anchors that make a newscast credible, informative and worth watching.

“One way to see how journalism is changing is to look at how the reporters are treated," he says. "There are no better reporters in this market than Ed Pearce, Jean Casarez, Terri Russell and Brent Boynton. They’re the ones who really know this community. They’re not here for a couple of years and then gone. Twenty years ago, such people were appreciated. Today, they’re given very little support. They’re listened to less and less by management, and it shows up in the news coverage the public gets. It’s a waste and a tragedy."