The good, the bad and the ugly of St. Louis TV news

Media guru Tripp Frohlichstein dreams of delivering a “State of the 2014 Local News” address to St. Louis’ three TV stations (he considers Channels 2 and 11 one station as they share facilities and people). This is his dream address:

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for taking the time to discuss the state of local news. There are times when the local media perform well and serve viewers in a meaningful way.  Unfortunately, there are too many times when the opposite is true.  So today, let’s look at the good, the bad and the ugly of local news in St. Louis.

Before we do, it is critical to remind you of the importance of what you do.  Despite the rise of the Internet as a source of news, Pew Research studies show people still rely on local television news more than any other source of information.  A study released on June 17 by the GfK market research group for Hearst Television finds, and I quote, “viewers have a high level of engagement and trust with local television news.”

Even young people cite the importance of local TV news.  Now, many of those people may not watch the news in the traditional way.  Instead of sitting down in front of the television at 6 o’clock and watching for a half-hour, they may pick and choose the stories they want by going to your station’s website or Facebook page.

Please keep this in mind during this presentation.  More importantly, remember this responsibility as you make your day to day decisions on what to cover, how to cover it, how you write it, who you hire and so on.  If you keep your audience’s reliance on your integrity and skills in mind perhaps, just perhaps, you can improve the product you deliver.

Let’s begin with some of the good when it comes to how you serve the viewers of the region. All of the local news stations have the ability to perform well when major news, affecting many people, is breaking.  Of particular note is bad weather.  Sure, some viewers get upset when you interrupt their favorite shows, but when lives may be on the line, it’s the right thing to do.  Moving the actual programs to one of your alternative digital channels is a good idea and should become standard practice.

One of the highlights of last year was the intense and challenging coverage required after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson.  All of the stations performed extremely well, though some of the Gannett reporters from out of town used by Channel 5 had problems as they were not as familiar as local reporters with the area.  The violence required reporters to put themselves in danger at times.  However, local viewers benefitted in the end with accurate information (a lot more so than many of the national networks) looking at the many different angles of the story ranging from the actual shooting, the grand jury verdict, the violence, the peaceful protestors and their attempts to stem the violence, the impact on surrounding communities as well as the city itself, and how the national media coverage portrayed us.  Despite some mistakes and not always being where they needed to be, most of the time, our local stations excelled as they covered those events.

I also admire some of the investigative work done by the local stations. Elliott Davis (2) continues to crank out example after example of government waste. Craig Cheatham (4) often has well researched, well thought-out investigative pieces.

You also boast some fine veteran anchors who do a quality job of presenting the news.  In local news, you not only want credibility but personality.  Mike Bush (5), Kelly Jackson (5), Kay Quinn (5), Steve Savard (4), Robin Smith (4), Mandy Murphey (2), Tom O’Neill (2), Dan Gray (2) and John Pertzborn (2) are some who immediately come to mind.  They have different styles but do their jobs well. After all, morning anchors need even more of a lighter touch than the (supposedly) more serious evening anchors.

There are some good reporters out there too, mostly veterans.  You have to admire Betsey Bruce, the venerable Channel 2 reporter who has been relegated to not exactly prime time yet continues to turn out solid, old-school journalism, covering stories fairly and professionally.  There are many other solid reporters such as Russel Kinsaul (4), Matt Sczesny (4), Roche Madden (2), Paul Shankman (2) and Andy Banker (2).  But there are not enough high quality reporters and we’ll get to that in the bad section.

Perhaps the greatest strength of local news in St. Louis is its weathercasters.  While most of the best reporters are veterans, there is a good mix of young and old when it comes to meteorological talent.  Dave Murray (2) and Cindy Preszler (5) have ruled the roost for a long time.  But also showing considerable talent are the entire Channel 5 and Channel 2 weather teams. At Channel 4, Kent Ehrhardt, Matt Chambers and Kristen Cornett all stand out.

Finally, in sports, it is again the veterans who stand out.  Perhaps the most unsung hero of the sports genre is Frank Cusumano, who consistently produces interesting pieces that go beyond the typical sports highlights and interviews. Renee Knott (5) has also established himself as has his colleague Katie Felts (5).  Doug Vaughn (4) and Maurice Drummond (4) are also solid sports contributors.

From the good, we turn to the bad.  Part of this is dictated by budget cuts that result in understaffed newsrooms and overworked, often rookie, reporters.

Gone are the days when a reporter was always accompanied by a camera person and sometimes even a sound technician.  Today’s reporters are so often what you call a “one man band.” Interviewees often complain reporters no longer spend much time preparing for their interviews.  And, because reporters often are rushed, mistakes seem more frequent.  Part of this may also be due to the younger less experienced reporter. St. Louis is often a reporter’s first job.  The result is viewers often get misinformation, as the mistakes reporters used to make learning their trade in smaller cities now happen here.  Be comfortable with corrections. Corrections make you look good.  It tells viewers we want to get it right. Instead of avoiding admitting a mistake, own up to it.  Your audience will appreciate it.

Our discussion of the bad must also include a disturbing penchant of self-promotion of station programming.  If “Great Day St. Louis” or “Show Me St. Louis” wants to feature these “features,” good for them.  But the half-hour and hour evening newscasts should be devoted to real local news, not interviewing the star of a show that airs on the station’s network.

Today, for the most part, the “beat reporter” in television is a thing of the past.  The real loser in this is the viewer who now gets less analysis of a variety of issues.  Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if a station were to take a true, in-depth look at the battle between county executive Charlie Dooley and the challenger for his job in the Democratic primary, Steve Stenger. It would be great if stations did in-depth interviews with both men, as well as those around them, to really understand what appears to be their deep-seated dislike of one another. Why not do in-depth reporting to examine the validity of each man’s claims?

Instead, we have too many short-form, easy-to-cover stories.  It is easy and efficient to cover fires, murders and meetings.  It is hard to cover government stories or the background leading to the meeting being covered.  But which of those has more impact on the largest number of people in the community?

Another thing to think about is how you use a live shot.  If something happened 8 hours ago, there is absolutely no need for a reporter to be standing in front of a building with nothing going on, to tell us it happened “here.”

Finally, the weather sometimes is not as dangerous and yet still gets over-covered.  Severe thunderstorms are part of living in St. Louis.  When tornadoes are spawned, cover them.  Otherwise, information at the bottom of the screen is all we need.

Finally, the ugly.  All the stations are guilty of trying to be first with a story. You folks at the stations think being first is important.  Maybe it is to you.  But to viewers, not so much.  So think about what viewers care about, not what you care about next time there is a major breaking story.

Related to this self-promotion is some of the overly dramatic writing and delivery by some of our anchors.  Channel 4’s Sharon Reed is at the top of the list, but by no means the only offender.  It sounds really important when you hear an anchor say “News Four has learned…”  But so has every other station because it was in a press release.  It’s not right to fool viewers.

Then there’s this one:  “Our investigation uncovered several lawsuits.”  Well, that’s not true.  You didn’t uncover them because lawsuits are not hidden.  You just found out about them.

Some of the promotion is also almost tasteless.  I wrote in the Gateway Journalism Review about Channel 4 running a promo around 6:20 in the evening warning people not to eat meat until they heard a story promised for 10 o’clock [Editor’s note: the author’s post ran on gatewayjr.org on March 14, 2014]. At dinnertime you are telling me to wait till 10 o’clock?  If it is that important, tell me now.  And when the story did air, it was a vague, very short 17 second story about a recall from the previous month.  This is not the way to treat viewers: in the interests of increasing your own ratings.  The same goes for a station promising to keep viewers updated on a story.  But you never hear another word.

Finally, the number of misspellings of on-air graphics has increased substantially.  How am I supposed to trust you if you can’t spell a name right or misspell basic words on a regular basis?  Either use your spell checkers or have someone proof those graphics before they are posted.

“The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,” ended with the Good winning, the Bad dead and the Ugly out of the picture.  I hope that happens here.  As I said at the beginning, people rely on what you do.  So as you go forward, please make your decisions less with “self” in mind and more with your viewers at heart.  I would argue that if you truly try to work that way, it will mean more trust, more viewers and, therefore, more advertising dollars.

Thank you.