A look into the world of local TV news
By Adam Hunt | email@example.com
Growing up in England, local TV news was never on my radar. As Britain would comfortably fit inside Florida, there just isn’t a market for it in a country so small.
Instead, I was served national news on a daily basis by the BBC or Sky. Prim and polished anchors with non-regional accents were commonplace and hardly a Doppler radar could be seen.
Like most teens, I’d guffawed along with Will Ferrell’s whiskey-drinking, pants-free performance in Anchorman.
But when I came to America for college, I found myself seeing some truth in “The Legend of Ron Burgundy.”
The cheesiness that appears to infiltrate every nightly newscast. The painful on-screen banter. The inelegant transitions from brutal rapes to lighter fare. The pointless diet-pill-recall segments. The hair spray and boxy suits. The Eyewitness Cams and Doppler radars.
Local news was instantly recognizable and frighteningly similar in TV markets all over the U.S.
Eager to investigate this strange new phenomenon I did what any self-respecting student would do and dived headfirst into YouTube.
Who knew the veritable gold mine of hits my “funny news bloopers” search would uncover.
From Ernie Anastos instructing his weatherman to “keep fucking that chicken” on New York’s Fox 5 News, to Ken Bastida mistakenly telling Eyewitness News viewers in San Francisco that his co-anchor Dana King had been murdered and set on fire.
But after I had finished chuckling at these hilarious errors, I found myself wondering exactly what keeps people tuning in night after night.
“It’s simple – people love to feel connected to their local community,” says Sam Kouvaris, sports director at WJXT. “They want to hear about the issues that will affect them on a daily basis.”
Kouvaris should know. Having covering his beloved sports since 1981, he’s a veteran of local newscasts.
“I like to be as conversational and down-to-earth as possible when I’m on set – the majority of viewers like that. I’m someone they can relate to. I eat at the same restaurants as them, get stuck in the same traffic, send my kids to the same schools. There’s a certain connection and likeability that they just don’t have with someone on CNN or Fox News, for example.”
Kouvaris is cut from the same cloth as many local TV personalities. His wide smile and dulcet voice attract attention without demanding it. He’s an accomplished storyteller who is easily understood but compelling in equal measure.
When I broach the difficult subject of bloopers, Kouvaris lets out a booming laugh Chris Berman would be proud of.
“We all screw up. Sometimes people notice, other times you just roll with it. Live news is like a bucking bronco – either you ride it or it rides you. In the end, I think people appreciate that mistakes happen and it makes the whole thing a more genuine experience.”
Genuine. It’s one of Kouvaris’ go-to words. I scribble it hastily in my notebook. Local news is genuine when so much other TV is not.
WJXT and most other stations in America for that matter, are in pretty good shape. While the new media age and a tanking economy may have sent print media revenues spiraling, local TV news still represents good business.
According to a Pew Center study, 78 percent of Americans get their news from local stations. Clearly the so-called experts who have been long predicting the apocalypse for the traditional media world underestimated the draw of local news.
We may reach for our smartphones and iPads at every available opportunity, but one hand is still firmly clasped to the TV remote.
Where else, especially if the local paper has become a coupon mule or folded completely, can people learn about a food drive at the neighborhood church or how a bill will affect students in local schools?
WJXT Channel 4 News first signed-on the air in 1949 and is the oldest station serving the Jacksonville area. In fact, it was the first station in Florida to emerge outside Miami.
Unlike its rival stations in Jacksonville, WAWS and WTEV, WJXT has no affiliation to a national network such as Fox or CBS.
“It gives us more freedom,” said Sharon Siegel-Cohen, an executive producer at the station. “There’s less of a corporate influence on what we do so we feel like we can better serve what the community wants.”
WJXT broadcasts from an unspectacular building just off I-95. The numerous satellite dishes scattered around the place make it look like a rogue space station.
It’s just after 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon and I am here to get a behind-the-scenes look at local news.
The open-plan newsroom is a hive of activity. People rushing from desk to desk clutching sheets of paper. News clearly doesn’t broadcast itself. The seconds tick inexorably nearer to 5 p.m.
I am lead through to the studio. It is a cavernous room. More like a warehouse than the homey set viewers see every night. Cameras and wires are scattered all over the place and hot, bright lights shine down from every conceivable angle.
Anchors Mary Baer and Tom Wills are already in position behind the desk. The pair have over half a century of combined experience in charge of Jacksonville’s favorite newscast.
Wills sits quietly reading through his scripts, stopping only to say the occasional name or word out loud. His hair is dark and perfectly shaped. He has a gentle, soft-eyed way about him.
Baer suddenly sits up straight.
“I’ve forgotten my make-up,” she says, peering at her reflection in the glass table.
“That’s why I’m here,” jokes Wills. He reaches into his pocket and produces a small tin of foundation.
“Oh Tom, you’re a star,” says Baer. Both on and off camera they are a team. WJXT wouldn’t be the same without them.
One of the major selling points of local TV news in recent years has been accurate and timely weather coverage. At WJXT, chief meteorologist John Gaughan is in charge of watching the rainclouds on behalf of everyone from avid surfers to casual gardeners.
As he stands to stretch his legs, I notice he’s wearing a pair of green flip-flops. I later learn it is something of a trademark for Gaughan who prefers the casual look.
Just before the clock on the wall reaches 5 p.m. John Cermack leaps into action. He is the floor director and the man that keeps everything in check.
He is constantly barking orders to the anchors. Which of the three cameras to look at, when a commercial break is about to end – he has it all covered.
“It’s like landing an airplane,” says Cermack. Judging by the headset clamped to his ears, he could probably pass as an air traffic controller at most airports. “If you stay in control and anticipate what’s coming then it can be so easy, but if you lose focus it can unravel very quickly.”
Fortunately, I witness a smooth landing and the evening’s newscast airs without any hiccups.
If you handed a random person in the street a pen and a piece of paper and asked them to draw a female TV news reporter, they’d probably come up with something that closely resembles Jessica Clark.
With her flowing blonde hair, blue eyes and kindly smile, she’s made for TV. The kind of person you trust to give you all the latest on that five-car pileup on I-95 you heard about at work.
Like Kouvaris, Clark is a familiar face for Jacksonville viewers. She has anchored the First Coast News weekend broadcasts and covered stories from the station’s southern bureau since 2005.
Before that, Clark followed the well-trodden path of many news reporters in America.
Fresh out of college, she cut her teeth with a general assignment position in Dothan, Ala. – a small-market station.
From there she jumped to a bigger market and bigger news at WTVM in Columbus, Ga., before a stint in Fort Myers, Fla.
Her final stop in Jacksonville represented a move to the 47th largest TV market in the U.S. at just under 700,000 homes.
“I’m proud to have come this far,” Clark says. “News is a tough business, especially at smaller stations where you have to do more with less.”
In fact, the news business did get the better of Clark for a short while last year.
The sluggish economy forced First Coast News to cut back and developments in technology meant Clark had to become a multimedia journalist.
“A few years ago I would have at least a cameraman with me on every assignment,” she said. “Now that rarely happens. The reporter is expected to go out and shoot video, interview sources, edit material, report live and even post regular updates to Facebook and Twitter, all by themselves in one day.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Clark became overwhelmed.
“I was burnt out. I just never felt like I was digging deep enough into my stories and I found myself constantly thinking I could do better with more time or help.”
So after almost 20 years of dedicated reporting, Clark handed in her microphone and quit.
She quickly found a desk job for a large firm in Jacksonville.
But six months later, she was back at First Coast News.
“I realized news was in my blood,” she said. “I was comfortable and happy in my new job but I wasn’t fulfilled. I missed being in the know and talking to all sorts of people. There’s no substitute for news in that respect.”
Rob Armstrong is a veteran newsman. He covered everything from earthquakes to presidential elections in 25 years as a correspondent for CBS News and, later, taught journalism classes at Flagler College. He sees the news landscape shifting even more than it already has.
“At the network level, people just don’t feel the attraction to television news anymore,” he said. “There was a time when the only way to find out what was going on in America or abroad was to sit down and watch CBS or ABC every evening. Now you just go on Twitter or look at your smartphone and you have everything right there in an instant.”
Just like selling cars or insurance plans, news is a business. Driven by advertising revenue and measured by audience figures. But many news organizations have yet to find a way to generate profit in the Internet age.
Newspapers have already felt the full force of the online behemoth with many venerable bastions of news coverage such as the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer being forced to close.
But why is local TV news still bucking this trend?
“Local news stations were about the only news media outlets that actually figured out what was happening pretty quickly,” said Armstrong. “Before, people were loyal to a particular news outlet because of a lack of alternative options. But the Internet has now made people fickle and more critical of the news that is being presented to them. If they don’t feel an affinity to it, they will quickly find another source and never come back. The majority of local news stations realized this and still work tremendously hard to deliver content that serves their audience by getting to the heart of the community.”
All the staff at WJXT and other stations around the country are hoping viewers keep tuning in for a long time to come.