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From AJR,   February/March 2006

TV News Online   

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


The police chase breaks out at 2:20 p.m., just as Jim Thompson, KHOU-TV's Web site manager, is saying, "Our bread and butter is immediacy, breaking news, delivering content as it happens."

On cue, both Channel 11, a CBS affiliate, and its partner, KHOU.com, go straight to live chase video from the station's helicopter. Web Deputy Editor Michelle Homer streams it online, while KHOU reporters provide TV voice-over. The chase runs live for more than an hour until its dramatic end. The runaway driver crashes into a car occupied by a grandmother, mother and 8-month-old girl. As cameras roll and police close in, the mother leaps from her car and pounds furiously on the offending vehicle.

With about 350,000 unique visitors a month and a full-time staff of four, Belo-owned KHOU.com is smaller than its Houston Chronicle competitor. But it aggressively tracks local news, especially stories with hot video.

The KHOU newsroom resembles a small newspaper, with reporters' desks lining one side. The room is dominated by a power triangle: the TV assignment desk, the TV producers' pod and the Web pod, which benefits from the proximity. "Anyone who has worked in a newsroom knows," Thompson says, "that about 50 percent of what you get you overhear."

The police chase electrifies the room. All four assignment desk editors are simultaneously barking into phones and pounding keyboards. A news meeting comes to a standstill as Executive News Director Keith Connors follows the action. Thompson's group staffs the Web site six days a week, changing the lead story at least every three hours or so. The set-up is similar to newspaper sites, but far more preoccupied with video.

"If on TV we don't get video, we don't have a story," Thompson, 38, says. "So whenever a story breaks, our team is out the door. And that plays great for the Web site."

The Web also lends itself to footage that might not suit TV, Thompson says. "We don't want it to be a polished TV stand-up. We want it to be rough and raw. We want you the viewer to know what's it's like to be there. Sometimes it's not going to be pretty, but it's going to be the fastest, most accurate news you can get."

Connors plans to double the Web staff this year. "To be in this game, you have to get in totally," he says. "We are not wading in the kiddie pool. We need to jump totally in."

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