The Old-Fashioned Way
There's no hyping up or dumbing down at Wichita's KAKE-TV. Its thoughtful, straightforward approach to local news is attracting national plaudits.
By Mark Lisheron
Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron (email@example.com) is Austin bureau chief for Texas Watchdog, a government accountability news Web site.
JIM MILLER is getting increasingly furious with the Wichita Police Department.
Miller, a photographer for KAKE-TV, is helping to decide how the news station should follow up on a police chase from two nights before. A 43-year-old suspected shoplifter with a 24-year criminal record led a police squad on a car chase through busy Wichita streets. The suspect ran a red light at a busy intersection, and the car's front right wheel was wrenched off during the ensuing chase. The fleeing vehicle slammed into another car, killing two people.
Executive News Director Jim Turpin has just come from a review of the package of stories his news team put together in the immediate aftermath of the crash, which made the 10 p.m. Tuesday newscast and led every newscast on Wednesday.
This is a typical Turpin morning meeting with his staffÑequal parts pep rally and chatauqua, capped by the omnipresent ratings update. Turpin is particularly pleased with a re-creation of the chase, camera at tire level, following the 911 tape from beginning to fatal end.
"I thought we did some fabulous work. I thought we dominated the story," Turpin tells the gathered newsroom. "That re-creation of the chase; there was no reporter narration needed. That story told itself. We tell facts and let other people make judgments. We wanted to reserve judgment yesterday."
Turpin's praise of restraint doesn't satisfy Miller. The futility of these deaths is what angers him. Why did KAKE-TV go so easy on the Police Department, Miller wonders. "Don't get me wrong, this woman is responsible for the deaths of those two people, but with all her priors, why wasn't this woman in prison?" Miller asks, spoiling for a debate. "And what about the chase?" Was this, he wonders, "a life-and-death situation?"
"Let me be the devil's advocate here," Turpin says, making sure the meeting doesn't stray. "Will the public want us to do a ton more stuff, or will it want us to move on?"
"We hit them pretty hard yesterday," reporter Fred Blankenship answers.
The heat generated by the exchange leads to the assignment of reporter Chris Frank to tie up the loose ends in stories scheduled for the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts. Consumer reporter Deb Farris is localizing a national car seat recall that ran at the top of USA Today that morning. And Blankenship will follow volunteers who are checking one month later on victims of a tornado that killed six area people on May 3. VThe staff is animated. "I don't know if you've seen the new ratings book yet," Turpin shouts as the meeting breaks up. "We're No. 1 at 5. I'm really proud of every one of you. It's happening out there. We're playing our game, not theirs."
Turpin's game is deceptively simple, and he plays it like a gym rat. Wichita news for Wichitans. A strong weather team for a community in the heart of America's Tornado Alley. Consumer news. A newsroom environment where anchors, reporters, photographers and editors help decide the coverage. And lots of community outreach.
The formula has earned the station the Radio-Television News Directors Association's 1999 Edward R. Murrow Award for overall excellence for a television station in a small market. Earlier in the year, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, named KAKE-TV one of the four best local news stations in the country, along with WEHT-TV in Evansville, Indiana, WLKY-TV in Louisville and KARE-TV in Minneapolis.
"What's going on [at KAKE-TV and the others] is thoughtful, old fashioned and emphatically local," PEJ's report on local TV news said. "The formula is a straightforward approach to writing and reporting. None of these stations is dumbing down its news or hyping it up. Crime is not blown out of proportion, and technology is merely a tool, not an end in itself.
"Most important, viewers are treated like citizens rather than consumers. It's back-to-basics newscasting, and it's working."
In the two years since Turpin took over at KAKE-TV, the audience has grown slowly and steadily. A ratings behemoth in the 1950s and '60s in Wichita, the ABC affiliate had slipped by the 1980s and early '90s as far as to third place in a market ranked 65th out of 211 television markets nationwide. Now Channel 10 is a solid second.
In a way that print journalists seldom feel, television journalists are slaves to the four ratings periods, or "books," that dictate the advertising rates stations can command.
In a story titled "Quality Sells" for PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on June 1, Turpin told media reporter Terence Smith his news department generates about half of all the revenue and about 40 percent of the net profit for the entire television station.
"Newspapers make changes, but much more slowly," says Carl Gottlieb, who heads PEJ's local TV news project. "They are not immune to market pressures. But because of the four ratings periods, the volatile pressure to respond to ratings, the temptation to tamper is tremendous in TV. That's what makes the commitment by KAKE to quality so important."
The other successful alternative, the study ruefully concluded, is to head in the opposite direction, Gottlieb says. Newscasts dripping blood, with short and uncomplicated stories, did as well in the ratings as those that strove for quality, he says. Stations that could not decide which course to take foundered.
"It's like the New York Times and the New York Post," Gottlieb says. "Same city, two very different audiences. Each one knows exactly what it's going to get from the newspaper they buy."
O N THE WALL BEHIND the three television monitors Turpin uses to watch the three local newscasts simultaneously is a small poster bearing a quote from Hunter S. Thompson. "The TV business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs." At the bottom of the poster it says, "There's also a negative side." Neutralizing the venomous Gonzo with humor is pure Turpin, who could have written the rejoinder.
When resources and initiative dried up in Moline, Illinois, where he'd run a TV news operation for three-and-a-half years, a headhunter helped bring Turpin to Wichita. He brought with him a passel of ideas built around a simple theme. He came to a station that had built its reputation on solid Midwestern values of family and loyalty and tradition and lost its way a little bit, according to Steve South, KAKE vice president and station manager.
"Jim and I see eye to eye on what we need to do here," South says, in an office decorated with vintage television sets. "My grandfather lived in Wichita, and back then you didn't even need to change the channel. It was always on Channel 10. We're not reinventing anything here, but maybe we're going back to quality journalism.
"The other stations are saying to their audience, `Look at us, aren't we great?' For us it's, `Look at Wichita, aren't you great?' "
In a business often driven by egos, the distinction between looking inward or outward is important to Turpin. The morning news meeting has symbolism beyond deciding which stories should lead at 5 and 6 p.m. Throughout the day, Turpin returns to the same few themes. Input and teamwork are valued. Praise is lavished publicly and criticism parceled sparingly and in private. Success is measured by how well the story has been told, Turpin says.
"Of all the newsrooms I have ever worked in, this is the most devoid of egos," Turpin says. "I'll tell somebody when they've done something fantastic, but I'll be specific. If you say to someone, `Great newscast,' they'll know you didn't see it and you're just bullshitting them. The same with criticism. I don't think people in this business mind if the criticism is framed as a learning experience with the expectation that we will get better."
Few on the staff know Turpin's philosophy better than Fred Blankenship, a University of San Francisco graduate who came to KAKE-TV through the Chronicle Broadcasting Co. Minority Training Program. "Fred was very, very green, but man, I saw some potential there," Turpin says. "He listens, he learns, he's aggressive, but he has feeling. You can teach a lot, but you can never learn that human touch."
Blankenship and photojournalist David Stonebraker, or Stoney as everyone calls him, are on their way to meet with two volunteers going door-to-door in 96-degree heat looking for people who did not get the help they needed after the tornado. They find them on a block where the branches of the trees left standing have been stripped smooth, where tiny curls of roofing paper litter every lawn.
"What we hope for is to hook a mike on a `talker,' someone who will tell us what the story is about," says Blankenship as he helps unload Stoney's camera equipment. "We always try to start with the idea that the pictures and the people should tell the story. The best story is one where you might not even see me."
The reality is a little different, as Blankenship acts as a kind of stage manager to clear onlookers from a path between the women knocking on doors and Stoney's camera. People aren't home, the volunteers are perspiring, the camera shots are pedestrian. Blankenship decides to head back to a home with its aluminum siding tangled in the backyard where a man had told the volunteers he would rather not be on camera.
Blankenship changes Henry White's mind and something happens. White, holding the hand of his 7-year-old son, Tristin, surrounded by the devastation of his home, looks directly into the eyes of one of the volunteers, off camera, and says thank you. Badly as his home was hit, White tells Blankenship, he figured others had it worse than his family. He'd never thought to ask for help.
Supplied with the emotional center of the story, Blankenship and Stoney assemble a series of short interviews while giving viewers information about where to get help. On a ravaged Seneca Street on the way back to the station, Blankenship and Stoney are reasonably certain they got the story that emerged from the morning meeting.
"That meeting wasn't anything like it is sometimes," Stoney says. "You can say whatever you want. There have been shouting matches."
"Under Jim, any idea can be a good idea," Blankenship adds. "If you tell it like it is to him, he'll respect you for it. He critiques very hard but very fair."
"Jim is too modest," Stoney cuts in as they pull into the station parking lot. "I've worked for bad news directors. He can take every bit of credit for the success we've had. He's responsible."
I N A SOUND ROOM , Larry Hatteberg is manipulating a mouse, using a computer to piece together snippets of an interview with a couple from Peabody, Kansas, who practice sustainable agriculture. They are Hatteberg's People, two of hundreds that Hatteberg has profiled for three-minute segments that have aired the past 25 years during the 10 p.m. Sunday newscast. They have also become part of a generation testifying to how news stories should be done, Hatteberg says.
Hatteberg's people are Kansas people, ordinary people, his people. One of the last of an ancient television tribe proficient behind the camera, too, Hatteberg for more than a generation has shot the video, edited the words and tried to stay out of the way.
"Sometimes I write six lines of copy, sometimes I don't write a line. I let the people tell their stories," he says. "The stories are timeless. They comprise a story about the way people live here. This one contact with the community has been an important key in my life. They've been my saving grace."
The Peabody couple are truly Hatteberg's people. A retired vocational agriculture teacher and his wife, a retired teacher, using the methods of sustainable agriculture to get closer to the land. No more chemical fertilizers. Shallow rather than deeply plowed furrows in rows following the contours of the land to reduce soil erosion. Rotating crops, from corn one season to soybeans the next, replenishing the natural nutrients in the soil.
In the 37 years since he pestered KAKE-TV to hire him part-time in the film lab, the former news director and current anchor has seen all of the gimmicks and employed some of them. The herky-jerk of MTV and the leer of tabloid journalism have found their places on television, he says. None of it takes the place of the story told well with words and pictures.
Hatteberg heads upstairs to shoot promotional spots for the 5 p.m. news. He picks up a pair of scissors taped to a string attached to a full-length mirror, clips his sideburns carefully and straightens his black double-breasted blazer.
"It isn't enough to read stories on television. We have to be willing to tell stories, to make people laugh and to make them cry," Hatteberg says before the camera rolls. "It's what helps a station build a relationship with a community."
Another surefire way, one Turpin insisted on when he arrived in Wichita, was to showcase consumer news. While Blankenship is interviewing tornado victims, Deb Farris is trying to find a Wichita mother to react to a report that Cosco Arriva and Turnabout car seats have faulty handle locks. The federal Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled more than 650,000 of the seats after 29 children were injured.
Farris had been a general assignment reporter for KAKE when Turpin arrived. Stealing a tag used in several markets around the country, Turpin offered to make Farris a consumer crusader, with a segment called "KAKE On Your Side." "It started slow, and then it just took off," Farris says. "My phone rings 30 to 40 times a day. That's where almost every one of my ideas come from, from people who have been ripped off, people who have been treated unfairly. Or if we do a national story like the car seat thing, we make sure to localize it. If it's someone from Wichita reacting to it, it has more impact."
Both RTNDA and the Project for Excellence in Journalism singled out Farris' work as integral to the overall excellence at KAKE-TV. Judges for the Murrow award felt that the segments fit nicely into a philosophy of dedication to viewers, says Lucy Himstedt, one of the three judges and past RTNDA chairwoman.
"In the tape they sent to us, they had a lot of spot news, a grain elevator explosion and flooding," says Himstedt, vice president and general manager of WFIE-TV in Evansville, Indiana. "We all have the big disasters, but KAKE seemed to have a plan for how to pull these stories together keeping in mind interaction with the community. They found so many ways of telling their stories without being alarmist and without being intrusive."
W HAT SEEMS SO obvious to the national panels of judges is lost on Bob Curtright, media columnist for the Wichita Eagle, the largest newspaper in Kansas. How is it, Curtright wondered, that the Project for Excellence in Journalism gave KAKE-TV an A+ for its work and longtime ratings leader KWCH-TV, Channel 12, a D, and KSNW-TV, Channel 3, a C-?
In his 25 years in Wichita, Curtright says he has seen furious jockeying for ratings in an aggressive television news market. In a July 10 column Curtright told readers Channel 12 was still the champ, while Channel 10 was climbing, solidifying its hold on second place among viewers in metro Wichita. Channel 3, however, demonstrated the trust people have in its weather coverage when it won the ratings race on the night the tornado cut through Wichita.
"I don't think these awards are completely accurate," Curtright says. "All three of our stations do things well. If you watch them every night, I don't think you'll see a lot of differences. They all rely on stability and viewer loyalty."
A market the size of Wichita reduces the opportunity for differences, says Kevin Hager, an assistant professor of broadcast journalism at Wichita State University. Hager spent 15 years at Channel 12, the last year as executive producer, before starting to teach full time January 1. He continues to produce for the station in the summer.
"This isn't a small market, and it isn't a large market," Hager says. "So, we get all the bells and the whistles like the larger stations without getting the number of big stories they get. Perception in the market is very important, and right now KAKE is promoting themselves, making them look and sound like you have to pay attention. They're in an aggressive mode right now."
It is a mode causing Jim Tellus, the news director at Channel 3, to be much less circumspect than Hager. Not only are KAKE's awards meaningless, Tellus says, but they have forced everyone in the market to enter contests for marketing purposes. "It really pisses me off," he says.
Tellus isn't afraid to point out that his station won a Murrow award in 1998 for a documentary on the AIDS quilt making its way through Kansas. Tellus says the station missed the deadline for entering the RTNDA award competition for 1999.
Judges probably did not see the KAKE newscast in which an anchor used bull and bear beanie babies to help explain the stock market, or the one in which a reporter used a pizza to explain how a school budget pie might be divided, Tellus says. Or when it put an 18-month-old baby in a plastic tube to illustrate how it was possible for the boy they called Jesse to get himself wedged into a well, he says.
"That's not journalism. Those are circus acts," Tellus says. "This is what Jim Turpin does to shake things up. They really talk down to viewers with all these props, and it's so frustrating that this same station gets all the accolades. It is very hard to say anything without sounding like sour grapes."
And those aren't the only gimmicks KAKE has tried. During the last ratings sweeps period, the station gave away $500 a night to the viewers with KAKE bumper stickers on their cars who called to say they had heard their license plate numbers read on the air. The newscast regularly gives away movie passes, causing telephones throughout the newsroom to light up and ring long after the winner has been announced. And Turpin, having dug in the cruel and shallow money trench, unearthed sponsorship from the local Papa John's Pizza for a feature popular in other markets, Friday football flights. Beginning this fall, a KAKE helicopter will fly over and then land at the stadiums of high schools hosting key football games, while news anchors meet fans and dole out promotional goodies.
"It isn't journalism. It's fun, and people will love it," Turpin says. "We do light features because people watch them. The giveaways are very popular, as you can tell by the phones ringing off the walls. It doesn't mean you forget about what you're supposed to be doing."
A T 4:59 P.M. TURPIN is sitting in front of his three TVs, his tassel loafers kicked off, wiggling his stocking toes. The voiceover pronounces KAKE "the leader in quality news," and the next shot shows a doll spilling out from a child car seat. The 5 p.m. newscast is heavily weighted with national disasters: a 15-year-old who murdered an 8-year-old in Florida; a train derailing in Eagle Lake, Texas; a plane's emergency landing in Bermuda. ###
Farris has decided to do her report live, outside and near the station. The other stations are airing car seat stories at the same time. "It just doesn't work," Turpin says, as the wind buffets Farris' microphone, ruffles her script and blows hair into her eyes.
Chris Frank follows with a live shot outside the Sedgwick County jail, pointing to where Gloria Dupree, the driver in the fatal police chase, presumably sat behind bars. Frank uses graphics to highlight Dupree's remarkable rap sheet. And he promises to answer even more questions in a follow-up report at 6 p.m. "He had good stuff but it was way too long," Turpin says. "It's the kind of story that has great information but doesn't lend itself to television too well."
Blankenship's story on the tornado volunteers is one of the centerpieces of an almost entirely local 6 p.m. newscast, led by Frank's update. At airtime, Blankenship has failed to appear for his live shot outside Henry White's home. Instead, the story opens with video footage of the aftermath of the May 3 tornado and follows with the filmed portion of the story.
"Where's Fred?" Turpin calls out to the producers in the newsroom. "He got lost," someone yells back. "Missing a live shot is unforgivable," Turpin says evenly. "When Fred comes in, I'm going to really hammer him."
At 6:08 p.m. Blankenship is on the phone apologizing. Forgiveness is in the tone of Turpin's voice. "Good employees, hell, you don't have to hammer them. They're already hammering themselves harder than I ever could. Fred is still learning. He'll never do that again. If he does, we'll both have a problem."
Farris stops by Turpin's door after a healthy self-hammering. "We should have done it in the studio," Farris says, the doll in the car seat on the floor next to her. "But, you know, I'm not scared to go to Jim and say I screwed up. Jim is a teacher. Two years ago I wouldn't have thought to use the car seat. I wouldn't have tried it outside. These are things he wants us to do. To be proud of our work and learn from our mistakes."
At 6:29 p.m. Turpin gathers up his things to head home for babysitting duty with his 6-month-old son, Lucas. He accepts the evening's newscasts with equanimity, leaving his criticism behind in the office. He'll need it tomorrow for a teaching tool at the morning news meeting.
"Some news directors manage by intimidation and control," Turpin says. "When you give space to creative people, they are going to make mistakes. I just cannot accept people being afraid to fail. If you never fail, you never succeed admirably."