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American Journalism Review
From Birmingham to the World---in a Minute  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   April 1998

From Birmingham to the World---in a Minute   

An Alabama television station opts for very short news bursts.

By Patrick Rogers
Patrick Rogers is a reporter for Conus Communications, a broadcast news service in Washington, D.C.      

An Alabama television station opts for very short news bursts.

Got a minute? That's enough time to get Birmingham's local news. Take a minute more for statewide stories. And another 60 seconds will bring you the world.

At least that's what WIAT President and General Manager Eric Land hopes. The 46-year-old Land, who joined the city's failing CBS TV affiliate, then called WBMG, a year ago, engineered a station overhaul this winter after focusing on focus groups and market research.

Just before Christmas, Land let go of the bulk of the newsroom staff, including 21 anchors, reporters, producers and assignment editors. And he effectively canceled the news, scrapping the station's news lineup, which consisted of four broadcasts: 6 a.m. and 5:00, 6:00 and 10:00 p.m. until the February 5 relaunch.

The reason for the makeover was, you guessed it, ratings. WBMG didn't have any. "We found that our people were so closely identified with a poorly performing product that we had to create a new brand and start over again," says Land.

Witness the station's reincarnation: It has a new name, WIAT, just two half-hour — and essentially reporterless — news slots, a new set and a new fast-paced, jazzed-up format.

"The Daily News," as it's called, is broken down into "news minutes." It careens from the Alabama minute to the medical minute and the education minute, and then on to national and world news, also in a minute.

"Everything in these newscasts is there because people in focus groups told us that is what they wanted," says Land.

Besides demanding that the news speed from subject to subject, the focus groups must have also told Media General, the company that bought WBMG last January, that they didn't want to see reporters: The new newscasts have none.

Don Fitzpatrick, a TV news analyst who produces an online newsletter about broadcasting, says approaches as drastic as Land's are seldom used. "Extremely rare," says Fitzpatrick. "Stations switch affiliation, call letters and even channel numbers, but to kill everything, that's an act of desperation."

Land says yes, he was desperate to avoid any connection between WBMG and WIAT. "It was such a sea change that we felt that we did not want to be associated with any baggage of the past," he says.

During the 40-day news hiatus, would-be viewers saw only a ticking digital clock counting down to the relaunch. "There were more people tuning in to see that clock than the original newscast," says Land, who also managed news overhauls at WGRZ in Buffalo, New York, and WEYI in Flint, Michigan.

In the new news, viewers are taken for a slickly produced, high-speed ride through the day's events. "My initial reaction was, 'This looks like 'Headline News' gone local,' " says WIAT anchor Keith Cate, who left WMAR in Baltimore for the main anchor slot on both newscasts.

Cate says he soon realized that if the station were to make a splash with the relaunch and finally get some ratings, WIAT had no choice but to put on something different — different not only from what it aired before, but also from the traditional newscasts — news, weather, sports and, of course, on-camera reporters — aired by the market's other stations.

"People don't all gather around the TV and say, 'OK, we're all going to watch the news now.' They don't have time," says Cate. "This is news for busy people."

In lieu of reporters, the station uses field producers and what Land calls "photopor-ters" — photographers who gather and write stories — to cover the news. They shoot, write and edit packages. After tweaking the copy, the anchors read it. "Having been a reporter for 15 years, I had concerns," says Cate.

But the focus groups said speed counts. "People feel that when the anchors take time to introduce the reporter and the story it's a waste of time," Land says. "They wanted the story delivered right away."

As WIAT rebuilds its staff to former levels, Land says it will focus on grabbing viewers' attention during two news slots, at 5 and 10 p.m., instead of four. "We think we can be competitive in the evenings," says Land.



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