Wednesday, December 31, 2008

TWC Clock is Ticking Toward Midnight


As we tick closer to midnight this New Year's Eve, it's looking more and more like there will be no more Viacom-produced programs on Time Warner Cable here or anywhere. As usual, with TWC it's all about money.

Viacom issued a statement this afternoon:

Statement From Viacom Regarding Renewal Negotiations With
Time Warner
NEW YORK, Dec. 31 /PRNewswire-FirstCall/ -- Time
Warner Cable's continued rhetoric and posturing is disappointing and
unproductive. We have made it clear that we welcome a credible and
meaningful discussion that respects our viewers and the value our
programming brings to Time Warner Cable. We remain
ready and willing to engage. It's time for serious talk - before the viewers
become the victims.

"Viewers become the victims." Hmmmm. They must be reading "NewsMcNabb". Of course, TWC says this empasse isn't their fault. Here's their official statement:

Statement from Glenn Britt, President & CEO, Time Warner Cable Re: Viacom’s threats to pull MTV Networks from Time Warner Cable customers, December 31, 2008

Christmas is over, but Viacom is still playing Scrooge, threatening to pull its MTV Networks off of Time Warner Cable at midnight tonight unless we ask our customers to pay exorbitant price increases. Viacom claims their demands equate to “pennies,” but that is misleading and insulting to our customers, from whom Viacom is trying to extort another $39 million annually – on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars our customers already pay to Viacom each year. That doesn’t sound like pennies to us.
Demanding that our customers pay so much more for these few networks would be
unreasonable in any economy, but it is particularly outrageous given the current
economic conditions.

We sympathize with the fact that Viacom’s advertising business is suffering and that their networks’ ratings have largely been declining. However, we can’t abide their attempt to make up their lost revenue on the backs of Time Warner Cable customers. We’ve negotiated in good faith and made several concessions to help reach a fair and reasonable deal. We’ve asked for an extension of the current contract while we continue to negotiate. But Viacom doesn’t appear to be interested in what’s fair and reasonable for American consumers – they’re only interested in propping up their sagging bottom
line, and they are poised to pull their networks from Time Warner Cable
customers tonight.

Huge price increases like what Viacom is demanding threaten the ultimate value of cable TV. Time Warner Cable is a retail distributor of products we purchase wholesale. Wholesale programming costs are rising dramatically every year, and, like all multichannel distributors, we have to pass on at least a portion of the increases to our customers. Viacom’s MTV Networks are just a few of the hundreds of channels we carry. If every channel demanded huge, double-digit increases like what Viacom is trying to force our customers to pay, it would be impossible to keep the price of cable reasonable for our customers.

Time Warner Cable has reached hundreds of distribution agreements with other networks. In fact, we currently have deals with every other cable programmer. The negotiations aren’t always easy, but we work hard to reach agreements that are fair to our customers and to both businesses.

We hope Viacom won’t pull the MTV Networks from Time Warner Cable customers, and we’ll negotiate up to the last possible minute and beyond. But ultimately, it is
Viacom’s decision. We implore them to join with us to reach a fair resolution or
grant an extension, and we hope they won’t carry through with their threat to
take their networks away from our customers tonight.

Some of the cable Networks affected: Comedy Central, MTV, MTV2, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick Too, Nicktoons, Noggin, Palladia HD, Spike, TV Land, VH1, VH1 Classic, Comedy Central, and BET.

(Suddenly, Blogger won't let me change formats. Sorry)

The Austin American-Statesman headlined the story in their afternoon
update, and there is a host of angry posts below it. Feel free to compose one here and copy it on the newspaper's page. To borrow the famous line from that great TV movie "Network", "I'm mad as hell, I'm not going to take it any more!" So, go to your windows, doors, and computers and start shouting your disdain for these robber barrons.

(C) Jim McNabb


Won't Get Fooled Again

The Continuing Saga of Time Warner Cable

Time Warner Cable is at it again. As usual, it is someone else’s fault, not theirs. If TWC can’t make a deal with media giant Viacom by midnight tonight, Viacom may pull its programming from the Time Warner, the nation’s second-largest cable provider. Is it right to call them a “provider” when they don’t or won’t “provide”?

Haven’t we heard this somewhere before? It seems like the third verse starting with LIN TV stations (KXAN and KNVA locally), continuing with the NFL network (Oh, there is a bowl game on NFL Network tonight which is unavailable to Time Warner subscribers.) Now, it is Viacom.

Negotiations are stalled. New Years Day, viewers looking for Nickelodeon, MTV, VH-1, Comedy Central, Spike, TV Land and BET will be out of luck, like those who would watch tonight’s bowl game. TWC wants it their way or no way. And, what do they want? More money, of course.

Again, who loses? The viewers/users/consumers of TWC. Unfortunately, there are few, if any viable alternatives for those of us who subscribe. Many of the subscribers, this writer included, opted for the “bundle” getting TV, Internet, and telephone service at a set-in-stone rate for two years. It is difficult to pull the plug when the wires are tangled. So, we accept the fact that we being screwed.

The viewers/users/consumers of TWC cable are getting less and less of what they paid for. When we signed up, we assumed (please see the earlier post on “Never Assume”) that we would get what we saw on their web site. I should have known better. When our two-year bundling contract concludes, I only hope that there are other good options like Grande or AT&T U-verse (despite its bad press). What is that old song by The Who? “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”

Oh yeah. Unless something happens in the negotiations, unless public opinion or something sways all of these greedy guys, Viacom included, the plug may be pulled at midnight tonight. Happy New Year!

© Jim McNabb

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry ... Happy ...

Do Local Journalists Believe in Christmas?

Despite the best (or perhaps the worst) efforts of Bill O’Reilly, the Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays debate has not bubbled over this year. Maybe it is a result of the times: The wars, the economy, personal issues. It just has not been an issue. According to Rasmussen Reports (, “… [W]hen consumers do their shopping, 69% prefer to be greeted with "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays.”

The O’Reillys of this world might refer to the United States as a “Christian Nation”. It is true that many of the protestant founders of this country fled here to escape religious persecution. Nowadays, according to Rasmussen Reports, “Forty-four percent (44%) of America's adults attend Christian church services at least twice a month, and 92% of these regular churchgoers believe the God of the Bible is the one true God.”

Research and experience tells me that media mirrors society. Certainly, Ike, Katrina, Rita, the Jarrell tornado, and the Memorial Day floods may shake a journalists’ faith. I should say here that my beliefs are well documented, thanks to Eileen Flynn at the Austin American-Statesman. She asked me to contribute to their “faith page” February 24, 2007. If you want to know more, go to and click “Faith” on the menu.

In that essay, I cited the ancient prophet Elijah standing on a mountain, witnessing the destructive winds, earthquakes, and fires of life, but Elijah knew that God was not in them. Elijah was witnessing news. He did encounter a force beyond himself, the “Other.” Elijah left the cave where he had been hiding with a plan. That plan had to do with his world. Perhaps Elijah gained perspective and knowledge beyond himself.

Many others, more than 2,000 years ago encountered the “Good News” or gospel of grace and justice through a man, called God’s son, Jesus. These followers of Jesus also gained perspective and knowledge beyond themselves. They were changed people. They were still dealers in purple cloth, tent makers, and even writers, but they had grasped something else that could make them whole. In this fragmented age, we all need to be whole too. So, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Christ (or the anointed which roughly means chosen, set apart and made holy).

Looking online at Austin media sites, readers can find the word “Christmas” although “holidays” seem to be written more often. Does this mean anything? Probably not. Are Austin web writers making an effort to be politically correct where possible? Possibly. Does this say anything about the news writers’ own personal believes or lack of beliefs? Probably not.

Knowing newsrooms over the decades, contrary to the preconceived notions of many in the audience, I can report that journalists do mirror society. Newsrooms here in Austin, one of the more pluralistic cities in the nation, are filled with believers. And, yes, their close-to-the-heart beliefs may provide an ethical and moral compass in their decision-making process. Does faith color the news? Does faith “slant”, “skew”, or “spin” the local news? I do not think so.

Every journalist may have formed an opinion about a political issue or candidate, but professionalism and dedication to truth-telling will win out. The same can be said of a journalist’s faith. Further, as I’ve noted in other blogs, the news goes through a thorough vetting process, and any possible prejudices are weeded out.

And in Austin, just as in society as a whole, there is a respect for another’s faith. It makes me joyous when I hear colleagues, regardless of their personal faiths, express with sincerity, “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” It is more than just a throw-away phrase said this time of the year. They really mean it. It comes from the heart.

My wish for you: Merry Christmas and highest hopes for 2009!

© Jim McNabb

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Halcyon Days Remembered

Halcyon Days Remembered

Once Upon a Time …

For a little while, a long time ago—about 25 years, actually—there were halcyon days, salad days at one of Austin’s TV stations. With great vision, courage, and no a small amount of money invested, KVUE TV enjoyed huge ratings and happy people in the 1980s. The news department led by Russ Stockton, who died within the past year, was largely unfettered, free to pursue any story almost anywhere, so long as it was about Central Texas. And, we flourished. Further, we became family.

As in all families, some people move on. But the amazing thing about this special group is that while some notables such as anchors Margie Reedy and Kate Kelly moved on, most of us are still here in Austin 25 years later. Many are still in “the business” like Robert Hadlock at KXAN and Judy Maggio Ron Oliveira at KEYE. Several other photojournalists are still here too. They are freelancers in business for themselves. Others of us stay connected because we are public information officers, like Dick Ellis with Leander ISD and Geoff Wool with the state, educators or public relations people. Michelle Cheney (Michelle Martin when she anchored) is an account manager for KLBJ Radio.

December 15th, more than 30 of us gathered for lunch. The stated reason was that one of the “family members”, photojournalist Kenny Kaplan, was coming to town after shooting the Cowboys/Giants game Sunday. Kaplan lives in New York now. But, the larger purpose may have been to catch up, spent time. Similar gatherings have happened a few other times over the years. But it came home to me how special this time was and, yes, how special Austin is.

First of all, although Austin is the 49th market, it has been and is a destination. It is not a way station where people spend time before jumping to a bigger market. Austin is always on various lists for being one of the best cities in the nation. So, it is a small wonder why people come here, and they stay here. I didn’t know these things when I came here in 1970 planning to spend five years and leave. I’m a quick study.

So, while I’m talking about KVUE in the 1980s, the same could be said of other stations, I am sure. I know the people who were with me at KXAN in the 1990s feel the same. It’s about being in the same place at the same time and together doing worthwhile and even extraordinary things together. The accomplishment of these goals (In the case of television news, being #1) drew the group even closer together. Current KVUE news director Frank Volpecilla also joined us for lunch, and thus, joined the family Monday celebrating “… the people; the place; the times hung in memory.”

It also came home to me how the business is changing. These relationships may not happen again. Why? Mass communications is changing, fragmenting, and reinventing. Across the nation, experienced anchors, are walking away from the desk. Some, baby boomers, are retiring. Others are gone when their contracts are not renewed. This shared history is vanishing from the newsrooms. It is not just the highly-paid anchors who are being supplanted by younger and lower-paid people. It is happening at all levels as owners seek ways to cut costs. Entire photography staffs are being shown the door as stations choose to use freelancers. Freelancers don’t get benefits, you know.

While this old model is broken, a new model may rise up to take its place, creating a new ethos. But for a couple of hours, about 30 of us laughed and hugged and talked about “the good old days.” They were good.

[1] John Holmes, Part VII, “Map of My Country”.
Here’s a link:

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"Citizen Journalism" Reax


Morse Code was big when I was a kid, so I learned it. No, I wasn’t around when Samuel Morse created it. It would have been “new media” at the turn of the 20th Century. By the middle of the century, if not before, kids discovered it to tap out messages during class to other kids who knew the code. It wasn’t “new media” but was it “social media”? Arguably, yes—right up there with the Twitter of today.

If the citizens of Illinois knew it, they might have been tapping S-O-S this past week. (That’s all that I remember in Morse Code now.) But, does that tapping, Twittering, and texting make those who spread the word of the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich journalists, so-called “citizen journalists”? So said several web sites this week again as journalism think-tanks touted the new media and encouraged traditional journalists to try it.

Try it. You’ll like it, they say. The previous post on “citizen journalism” generated immediate response from several news managers in Central Texas.

“There is no such thing as citizen journalism. It’s an oxymoron,” declared Frank Volpicella, KVUE-TV news director. “Maybe ‘citizen eyewitness’ is more like it. Shooting video of a spot news event does not make a citizen a journalist, anymore than me putting a band aid on my cut finger makes me a surgeon.”

Volpicella’s comments were echoed by others.

“I am reluctant to call these contributors, ‘Journalists’.” Says Bruce Whiteaker, former news director of KXAN TV. “I, too am more than a little snobbish about the BIG ‘J’ [Journalism],” Whiteaker continued.” “I enjoyed a 33-year career as a Broadcast Journalist. I EARNED that title, not by snapping pictures of the latest police chase, hotel fire or hail storm, but by devoting years to formal training in school and on the job.”

Suzanne Black, news director at KEYE TV sees potential for citizen participation in the process, but not the final product. “I love the idea of having viewers participate in the news process. In a time when television news numbers are slumping, it gives viewers ownership over the content and therefore a reason to watch,” Black says. “The danger, though, is citizen journalists are not trained in or bound to the code of ethics we follow. And while there is a vetting process in newsrooms to verify whether content is truthful and without bias, certain dangers exist.”

“Truthiness” is the term applied by Whiteaker. “We have to go with what we know to be accurate,” He says. “And that's where the vetting of the daily iPhone contributors is important. Who is to say that some of that footage of the Kevin Brown incident wasn't somehow ‘staged’ for dramatic purposes? I seem to recall video from Austin PD of a ‘re-enactment’ of an officer scuffling with a suspect who was shot during the melee. [The City of Austin settled a civil suit broad by the family of Daniel Rocha this past week.] And the legitimate news organizations labeled it as ‘re-enactment’ or ‘dramatization’. But the daily contribution of the average Joe on the street with a cell phone might not get that important treatment.

“I've concluded a better moniker is ‘citizen media’," says Ray Niekamp, assistant professor in journalism at Texas State University in San Marcos. “They don't do journalism, at least in terms of fact-checking, sourcing, transparency. In this Internet age, people are comfortable with oddball user names online. But when I see video from FunkyVideoMan5, I'm not going to blindly trust the information I'm getting there.”

So, how will the future handle this content contributed by ordinary citizens (or perhaps extraordinary citizens)? “Some commentators say the future of mainstream media will be as ‘organizers,’ taking all the stuff citizen journalists submit and putting it together in such a way that it makes sense,” Niekamp says. “But organizing has always been one function of the media. Now, they just have much more stuff to sort through.”

“Citizen journalism seems to be at its best when tackling a community issue that is missed or ignored by the mainstream media. That's when they gather information, check facts, and cite sources--and contribute something of value,” Niekamp continued. “But in cases of breaking news, citizen journalists are woefully unprepared to provide credible information.”

Morse Code gave way to voice transmissions on radio, but it didn’t die away. Morse Code still has usefulness. Users/consumers of information have always found ways to adapt to new media, while holding on to the good parts of “old media”. The traditional media models may not fit with the tastes of today’s consumers/users. No doubt the traditional media must modify their models or die away. Tuesday, the Detroit Free Press may announce that it is cutting back its daily home distribution, encouraging its readers to go online. I don’t think that is adapting. I think that is throwing in the traditional towel because of the economy.

“Bottom line, our business is changing and the burden is on us to find a way to use the content appropriately, without compromising the ideals of this profession.” concludes Suzanne Black. Black is acutely aware of the economic pressures if for no other reason, KEYE TV is owned by Cerberus, the same Cerberus that owns Chrysler.
So, we’re back to tapping S-O-S on the table top or reading the latest news in Jim’s life from Plaxo: “Jim is working on musical Christmas gifts."

© Jim McNabb, 2008

Saturday, December 6, 2008

They Wear White Hats

One of the Good Guys

Hays County Sheriff Allen Bridges was one of the good guys. Sheriff Allen Bridges collapsed and died at his home in the early morning hours of December 6th. He died quietly, suddenly alone. He was 62. With him died a philosophy of openness and honesty. He’d just come from a Brown Santa event. He was a good guy.

I first knew Allen Bridges when he was an Austin Police Officer. He was a good guy then too. He while enforcing the law, he had had evenness and equality. He reached out to the community. Surely, that is why he gravitated to community policing before it was a catch-phrase. He was a South Austinite. Perhaps that contributed to my high opinion of him. But, he also treated the media well, speaking calmly and accurately as the circumstances permitted. He was a good guy. He did a career with the Austin Police Department, but public service didn’t end there. Soon, he hooked up with the Hays County Sheriff’s Office when Don Montague was Sheriff. He’s a good guy too. These kinds of people seem to gravitate.

Sheriff Don Montague would talk to the media once you earned his trust. Once he trusted you, you might be allowed to go along on a drug bust—something that doesn’t happen much nowadays. I always knew that I was OK when I showed up at a crime scene and Sheriff Montague was there.

As PIO Allen Bridges did infuriate a few journalists, because he didn’t respond well to routine “beat checks”, but when the situations warranted, PIO and later Sheriff Bridges was always available.

I used to teach a continuing education seminar for the Texas Sheriffs’ Association on law enforcement/media relations. I believe that most of those present tolerated me, because it was a required part of their continuing education. Most of them, I am confident, went back home and handled things they way things had always been handled. Media was viewed with contempt and kept at arm’s length. I always told them that if a big story happened in their county, we would show up, and we wouldn’t go away until we’d told the story. Harruph! Most of them said. No one sat at my table at lunch on purpose.

These sheriffs—and there are many, many of them—need to take a look at Sheriff Bridges, one of the good guys. At the very least, they ought to do what Hays County did with Bridges’ appointment as PIO. In all fairness, John Foster fills that role well in Williamson County. What is almost amazing about John Foster, like Allen Bridges did, is that he returns phone calls!

Most sheriffs, however, hold on to information,saying only they will dispense it to the media, if at all. Information is power, after all. Their minions follow their orders beyond what is required. A reporter calls and asks about the brush fire, homicide, whatever, and the person on the phone says that only the sheriff will talk to the media, and where is the sheriff? He or she is at the scene. Where is the scene? “I can’t tell you that,” they say.

Curtis Weeks was one of the first Central Texas sheriff’s PIOs as far as I know. He volunteered, just started answering phones, for former Travis County Sheriff Doyne Bailey. Weeks had been a cinematographer for CBS and a free lance photographer for Austin TV stations in the 1970s. It may be that Curtis told the media too much at times, but it didn’t hurt anything. Besides, he was a loveable guy. He was one of the good guys.

The Travis County Sheriff’s Office does have an official public information officer. The successor to Curtis Weeks is Roger Wade. Further, Sheriff Greg Hamilton also encourages his supervisors to speak freely to the media.

Public Affairs Officer Eric Poteet of the Round Rock Police Department also is a good example. Officer Poteet may not provide information “on demand”, but he does say why if he can’t. Saying why is important. It’s being accessible, but it isn’t slamming the door on information like so many county sheriffs offices tend to do. Eric Poteet is one of the good guys.

There are lots of good guys in law enforcement. I haven’t scratched the surface. Over the years and even now there are genuine good guys and girls at the Austin Police Department, the Department of Public Safety and beyond. A reporter may have to earn their trust, but that is expected.

It is, however, important to notice when we lose a good guy. Sheriff Allen Bridges was a good guy.

© Jim McNabb, 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

November Sweeps 2008

Something for Everyone

The November Nielsen TV Sweeps ended right before Thanksgiving, and the results give all of the stations some reasons to be grateful. Nielsen and station researchers are still sorting out the demographics, but the basic results are somewhat surprising, but perhaps expected.

One might have thought that KXAN TV’s absence from Time-Warner Cable would have hurt their ratings—out of sight and out of mind for Central Texas news viewers. One might have thought that KVUE TV might be at a disadvantage with only one anchor on the set. One might have thought that KEYE TV would have taken a leap forward with news viewers supposedly sampling them while KXAN was off the cable and KVUE was in flux. What is true apparently is that Austin news viewers still want one thing, and it doesn’t matter who delivers it—The viewers/users/consumers of TV news want content.

Here is how the November, 2008 ratings are sorting out:

Morning—Fox wins early and KXAN wins late. KVUE comes in third both hours.
Midday—KVUE wins.
5 p.m.—KVUE wins.
6 p.m.—It is a virtual tie between KXAN and KVUE. If you round up the ratings to a 6 rating and 11 share. KXAN comes out on top in raw numbers including KXAM viewers in the Hill Country. KXAM TV is a full-power station operated by KXAN broadcasting from a tower near Llano. Nielsen adds those viewers to the ratings and calls them KXAN+. Naturally, Michael Fabac, KXAN news director, says his station is #1 at 6. “At 6 p.m. we split with KXAN,” says Frank Volpicella, KVUE news director. KEYE was a distant third.
10 p.m.—No splitting hairs here. KVUE is still #1. KEYE comes in a strong second. “It was no 3-way tie. There was definitely more of a spread,” says Suzanne Black, KEYE news director. KEYE considers the late news their newscast of record.

Over all, KVUE is still the #1 station even with only one prime time anchor on the set, although it was "very competitive," quoting Volpicella. Tyler Sieswerda will be joined by his new co-anchor Terri Gruca next Monday, Volpicella says. KXAN fared well winning 6 a.m. and 6 p.m (technically). KEYE can celebrate a clean #2 at 10 p.m.

The station researchers will sift the data determining their strong points and the all-important desired demographics. The ability of a station to reach a target audience is what sales reps want. In this economy those demographics become more important than ever.

One way to look at depressed advertising is the possibility that viewers may be seeing more content, but “Doing More With Less” was the topic of an earlier post.

© Jim McNabb, 2008

Monday, December 1, 2008

Is It the Truth?

Citizen Journalism?

For months, I have been contemplating a post about what people are calling “Citizen Journalism.” I held off, wanting to chew on it a little longer. The criminal carnage in Mumbai, India this past week created a new surge in posts, comments, stories, columns, and opinions about “citizen journalism” facilitated by “social media” such as Twitter.

I cannot deny the role of ordinary citizens who gave the world the first reports of what was happening at the Taj Hotel. There were pictures and video too. While all networks, save CNN and, eventually Fox of all media, seemed to have their heads somewhere else on the United States’ holiday weekend, the murderers were having their way on the other side of the world with possible international consequences. No Thanksgiving there.

So called “citizen journalism” is being hailed as a major component of the future of televised/telecast/broadcast/streamed news. The old media, of course, wants to incorporate the new media. It has always been that way. Further, the citizen users/consumers/viewers are constantly adopting and adapting, seeing usefulness in the new tools at their disposal. Shoot. One of the reasons I acquired the cell phone that I carry is that it has a real camera and it will shoot and send pictures and video. I admit it. Newsrooms always wish for pictures—any pictures, particularly if they are of startling events half of the way around the world or of the mob scene moments before the death of Kevin Brown after his confrontation with Austin Police officers.

In the Internet-enabled age, people have camera phones and digital video cameras everywhere. News media cannot be everywhere. But, are we ready to invite citizens into the newsroom? Are those pictures always worth a thousand words? Are we seeing and hearing what we think we are seeing and hearing? Do these images and sounds represent the “truth”. Sometimes. Maybe often.

The consuming flames at the Texas Governors’ Mansion on You Tube are most likely shots of the actual event. If professional media were not there with cameras, (and some were not when the mansion was ablaze) the media may gladly take the next best thing. Yes, pictures of hail stones sitting next to golf balls may well be hail stones the size of golf balls.

The media, however, must be circumspect and, perhaps, a little cynical. Journalists are taught to “qualify” their sources, making sure they really know what they are talking about. That need to verify also extends to the so-called citizen journalists and the content they may offer.

OK. I’ll say it. I’ll stop beating around the bush: Citizen journalism is not really journalism. Call me a snob, but I think it takes education, experience, and ethics to do this job right. Citizens may make a valuable content contribution. However, it is the legal and ethical use of information, images, and sound that requires seasoned, experienced professionals.

Yes, almost anything goes on the Internet, but it is not necessarily journalism. You Tube has independently-produced and home-produced pictures readily available, but is this journalism? I know people who take what they see on You Tube and call it “gospel”, but is it journalism. No. No, I don’t think so. On You Tube, and you can find a powerful two-part documentary on police violence in Austin. Producers relied on police cruiser video and their own crowd shots. It may be a documentary, but it is not day-to-day journalism.

So, what is a professional journalist to do when someone sends in email with video or pictures? (This has always bothered me.) Should these images be slapped online, on the air, or on a printed page? All commercial media want to be first. All media should stop, take a breath, ask whether we’ve become You Tube, and then qualify the source. Then, maybe, media may decide to use the content. There should be protocol in place for instances such as this applicable even in the cases of “breaking news”. Will some other medium or station be the first with the story? Maybe. Will that story be the truth? Maybe. Maybe not.

© Jim McNabb, 2008

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Journal of Thanksgiving


OK. I don’t know how professionally meaningful this post will be. I suppose for some journalist new to this market or for some journalism student, it might be useful. It’s going to be kind of like buying stocks for the long haul, not day-trading.

This Thanksgiving I feel very blessed. No, I don’t have a gig other than this blog, a mainly gratis PR/publicity effort, and my music. No, I don’t have much income, therefore. But, I feel very grateful, very thankful, and very blessed.

I came here in 1970 sick unto death of news. In Waco all I covered was dead people and civic club speakers. My creative drive was only satisfied by the scores of feature stories I dreamed up. Also, I got to use a very cool Bolex camera. (No zoom. It had a three lens turret.) So, when I got here, I sold time for KTBC AM and FM, and I got to know the Johnson family and all their friends in the business.

It didn’t take me long to figure it out, and by the end of 1971, I was back in broadcast journalism. Yes, there were ventures out of the business. Working for Bob Bullock was an adventure. Those who knew me in that era are aware of the wild ride. All the while, however, I becoming more and more an Austinite.

When I first came to town, Austin was the 100?+ market. Really. It really was. So, without moving in 38 ½ years, I’ve jumped to the 49th market. Saves on moving expenses.

More than that, however, it leads to roots. Many, if not most people in journalism do not get the opportunity to put down roots. It starts with having a real life beyond a virtual life only existing in a TV, radio, or newspaper newsroom. It means having friends in the real world, friends who don’t move. Oh, I have wonderful friends who have moved to the east and the west. I love them all. But, I can’t see them often. They, therefore, are an embellishment in life, but they cannot be part of the fabric of a life. Roots people are special. Journalists are fortunate to have roots friends.

Staying in one market also leads to a lifestyle. Maybe it is related to George Carlin’s treatise on “stuff”. Now, stuff isn’t terrifically important. I’m in awe of my friend Bruce Whiteaker and wife Shirley Whiteaker who eliminated their stuff and became mobile, able to respond quickly to the next opportunity or adventure. They are in Knoxville now. Stuff, however, becomes attached to the roots through association. You know, whenever you move from one place to another, your friends help you move your stuff. Or, you and your friends go places and do things together and you, thereby, accumulate mementos (aka “stuff”).

You see where this is going.

Anyway, after 38 years here, I may qualify as “Old Austin”. Research says most people watching TV haven’t been here for more than five years. So, I must be really, really “Old Austin”. I’m good with that.

More than “good”, I’m grateful. I’m grateful that the communications industry and the audience have tolerated me for these years. I’m thankful for my wife who is so supportive in so many ways literally. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to make a living—make a life—mainly in broadcast journalism for close to four decades in one place. That one place is a very, very special place too. My thanks to my undergraduate college roommate and Austinite Rick Bays for bringing me here in the first place back in the ‘60s. Little did I know back then …………………..

I give thanks, and I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.

(c) Jim McNabb

Monday, November 24, 2008

Just the Facts. Just the Facts

Covering Cops

“Homicide investigations are nowhere near as glamorous as depicted on a sterile television or movie screen,” said Austin Police detective David Fugitt in today’s Austin American-Statesman. I covered crime for a lot of years, and I couldn’t agree more. I covered so much crime that I avoid the CSI shows nowadays. I’ve seen enough of the real thing.

While looking for something else this morning, I found instead a newsletter entitled “The Citizen Bulletin”, published by the Austin Citizen Police Academy Alumni Association in the winter of 1989. What interests me is that the issues then and now are much the same. For example, there is a story “To Pursue or Not to Pursue”. I was covering crime for KVUE TV at the time, and they asked me to write a piece about the “Police Beat”. After nearly 20 years, it still holds up, although I’m editing it some for space:

“It takes a certain type of reporter to cover the police beat. For
some reason, most reporters choose to cover city hall, the legislature, even
general assignments, rather than pursuing the police beat. But for the
reporters who choose police and law enforcement, there is no better beat.

“There is always something going on,” said Lisa Koseoglu, who has
covered police for two years at KTBC. “There are so many
divisions—homicide, theft, narcotics. You can always find a story.”

And the stories are always about people. I have covered the
police beat for most of my 18 years in Austin. [Remember, this was written
in 1989.] If you cover some governmental body, you’re talking about stuffy
plans and programs, budgets and bureaucracy. But if you stumble on a story at the police department or any other law enforcement agency, it’s a report about people. It may be about bad people or bad things that have happened to good people, but because of the constant human element, the audience is interested in what you report.

But sometimes those stories can get to you. I recall several
events that got under my skin and trouble me—like the unsolved murder of Lauren McCarty in 1984—yet I had to report them.

According to John Harris, reporter for the American-Statesman,
“The ones where children were victims, or where involved in some tragic way, have bugged me at times, because I’ve got two small kids of my own. Harris has covered the police beat since mid-1987. He added, “A few times I’ve wondered how I might react if the victims had been my kids, especially when they’re things that could have happened to anybody.”
Koseoglu remembers them too. She said that “cases where a child is involved or (the victim is) someone to whom you can relate” bother her. But, does it affect the way she writes the story? “No, I don’t think so,” she said.

It affects me to an extent in that sometimes I am so outraged or
maddened by events that I think it shows up as a certain amount of passion in the way that I prepare the story. Frankly, I hope that I never lose those
feelings. I don’t want death and pain to become commonplace.

But personal feelings cannot color the truth. There are times when I cover a story where I have formed a strong personal opinion. I find that I work even harder on that story to present a fair and balanced report so no one could ever suspect my own convictions. I’m not writing a column, I’m writing news.

Some of the toughest stories to write have to do with police officers
who get into trouble. These kinds of stories don’t make you a popular
person around the police department; the important thing is to be fair.

“Police may think we’re down here for the fun of it,” Koseoglu said. “But it’s our job. We have to write the story.”

By the same token, Koseoglu believes that many people misunderstand the police and their priorities. “There is a common perception that the police are out to ‘get’ people,” she said. “They see officers on Mopac holding up a radar and think, ‘Don’t they have anything better to do?’ But it’s their jobs, too.”

Many times it is city politics that change police priorities, and these
changes can affect morale in the police department and their support in the
community. I’ve seen it many times over the years. Someone in city
hall gets concerned about speeding on Mopac, running red lights, or
prostitution. There will be a crackdown to solve the problem of the
day. After a few months of publicity generated by police and city hall
reporters, public opinion may change. All the while the media is being
wooed and used by sources on all sides. That’s when I become

Since this column was written there have been changes upon changes in the public information procedures at the Austin Police Department. When I first started covering cops in the early 1970s, I would go to the press office and sort through the crime calls and blue forms (arrest sheets) from overnight. Cops would come and go, carrying on conversation with the reporters. Nowadays, in the 21st Century, the flow of information is on one hand, open, and on the other hand, very controlled by the public information office. The “blue forms” are gone, and although I asked many times, the office wouldn’t let reporters see the “serious incident log” from overnight. It is difficult for police reporters not to go with the flow and wait for the next news release, page, or photo op planned by the public information office. The good crime reporters still look beyond the obvious for their stories. The PIOs sometimes don’t like it, probably because the chief may not like it. But, the PIOs are caught in the middle too. Sometimes the public information office is not a fun work place.
Back to the article:

There is one thing for sure: There will always be a demand for police
news. It was the staple of the earliest newspapers and an integral facet
of “breaking” broadcast news. It is the constant change that makes it an
enjoyable beat [except for the occasional death threats].

There is always a story, and that story is always about people.

© Jim McNabb

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I Hate It When You Say That!

More Banned Words and Other Atrocities

The South Austin sky was clear last night during the 6 o’clock news. Perfect weather for watching the space shuttle docked with the orbiting space station. It zoomed overhead at 17,000 miles per hour in what we call “space”. We incorporate “space” into terms like a “space walk” (Hold on to that tool bag.), and everyone understands.

“Space” however, is resulting in another outburst on the topic of “Banned Words …” Once again, it is driven by our friends in the play-by-play booth. How many times have you heard it since the beginning of football season—“He’s at his best when he’s operating ‘in space’.” Holy Smoke! T.O. is in “space”? Maybe T.O. is from outer space? Is T.O. an alien? Is he documented? Yes, he’s well-documented. This overused descriptive is now bleeding over to basketball.

Another now hackneyed phrase that keeps cropping up again and again comes from former colleague Nancy Miller Barton after my first screed on banned words. You’ve heard it: “We have reporters on the ground.” Holy Cow! Where else would they be—in space with T.O.?

Nancy also reminded me of my tirades on the subject of “whether or not”. What’s wrong with “whether or not”? It is redundant. All you need to say is “whether”, as in “I don’t know whether I’m using the English language well.” As in all good writing, economy of words is usually the goal, unless you happen to writing legislation.

Want another constantly-used redundancy? This one comes from another former colleague Shane Deitert, now managing editor of the Fox station in Little Rock: “ATM machine”.

Another reason why journalists should write the way that people talk is the constantly used question, “Where’s it at?” My mother was an elementary school teacher. This is one of the first things she pounded into my preschool brain. If I were to say, “Where’s it at?” My mom would answer, “Between the A and the T!” I came to hate dangled prepositions. All was well in our household if I were to ask simply, “Where is it?”

All these should be added to the newsroom white board as banned words and phrases. Want some more?

> “Fewer vs. Less.” Fewer people use this adjective properly nowadays; it is becoming less and less prevalent. These words are not interchangeable. Generally, use “less” with mass nouns and “fewer” with plural count nouns. For example, “less employment, fewer jobs.” (The Columbia Guide to Standard American English)

> “Farther” vs. “Further.” Again, these are not interchangeable. “Farther” pertains to distance and “further” has to do with depth of understanding or additional information. And, “father” is what I am, and my son grew weary with these examples as he grew up.

> “It’s” vs. “Its.” It’s is a contraction for “It is” while “Its” is a possessive pronoun. Most people know this. It’s a typo more often than not.

> And finally, “Lie” vs. “Lay”. Basically, living beings lie and inanimate objects lay. After that, one gets into verb tenses, and we do not want to go there.

Again, send me your peeves. And, as I said before, feel free to make a sentence out of as many of these atrocities as space permits. And, we all know that “space” is vast.

Now that I have vented again about use of our language, I may get back to local journalism next time.

© Jim McNabb, 2008

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Thank Your Photog

Love through the Lens

This time of the year makes me think of television news photographers or photojournalists. There is a noticeable difference between a “shooter” and a photojournalist. “I can make a “package” (AKA TV news story) out of a doorknob, former Austin photojournalist Gary Blankenship used to say. I believe that he could. The whole concept of a well-shot TV news story is to tell the story in pictures—No narration or reporter needed.

Some photojournalists are instinctive. It is like the camera is part of them. Rob Lee, Kenny Kaplan, Josh Stephen, and Mike “Choo-Choo” Stanberry can be counted among them in the lore of Austin news photographers. Put them in a “spot news” situation and the camera would see, hear, and possibly feel and smell. Rob is still around doing free-lance work. Kenny is back on the East Coast working in TV close to 24/7. Josh is also still in the business elsewhere, while giving tender care to his wife, a cancer patient. “Choo” is no longer alive. I think that sensory overload may have contributed to “Choo-Choo’s” early death.

Photojournalists are artists too. Look closely at the screen during a staged sit-down interview. Consider the lighting. The casual viewer might sense that something looks good or bad but not know why. But look at the lighting again. Look for shadow or lack of shadows. Look at colors created by gels chosen by the photographer. A great photog can create these scenes fast with ease. It’s the eyes. Former Austin news photographer and homegrown son Tyrone Wright used to say, “If you need to find something, find a photographer.” Ty is out of the business, happy in New Mexico. But, he was talking about the eyes, the attention to detail.

But why is it that I bring up photojournalists this time of the year? Well, it is about the approaching holidays. Some photojournalists have the special knack of helping us all see the world through their eyes, through their lenses.

It came natural to former KTBC TV chief photographer David N. Smith, and David first did it with a 16 mm Bell and Howell film camera. KXAN TV’s Jim Swift is more than the dean of Austin news reporters. Until only recently, he shot almost all of the video for his stories. He added the reporter’s track or narration to the stories as he edited—something that drove to madness news producers trying to time their shows. I would not be a bit surprised if Swift isn’t still shooting. Finally, a former KXAN chief photographer, Al Marabella had this uncanny ability to capture a moment of emotion with a camera.

Most every Thanksgiving, Al would head to the airport anticipating homecomings. Every year was different. It was perhaps easier at Robert Mueller Airport before 9-11. None of it was staged. Loved ones met each other at the gate shedding tears as they hugged each other closely like they’ve never hugged before. The faces, the faces! Some young, some old! Each greeting communicated messages of Thanksgiving and love that no words can express.

Man, that was good television.

(C) Jim McNabb

Saturday, November 15, 2008

"Local" is now Ethos

The New “Local”

“Local” takes on a new and enhanced meaning in this digital age. I chopped out a portion of the last post because it was straying off-topic slightly, and the blog was becoming too long. But, an avid reader, Pat, points out that “all politics is local.” This past election cycle certainly proved that, and the Internet was key to creating this national movement resulting in the election of our new president. Certainly, for a few of the debates and for election night, the country was tuned to television by the millions—A vast community. Viewers also cared about the down-ballot races in other states, because the parts mattered to the whole.

Sometimes sports can do the same thing. This past World Series did not deliver. But, the 2008 Olympics did, especially whenever Michael Phelps was in the pool. People still refer to the Dallas Cowboys as “America’s Team”. And, sportscasters will often refer to “Red Sox Nation”. Live television has the power to bring all kinds of people together. Is that phenomenon “local”? It depends on what one means by “local”.

Radio stations like Austin’s KGSR FM stream their programming on the Internet. Displaced Austinites and others are listening online around the world. Is this a part of the new “local”? KGSR’s web site invites you to become a part of the “KGSR Community”. What kind of community is this? Does this have to do with place, or is the geography of “local” changing? Meanwhile, KGSR FM2, the new so-called HD channel is playing all Austin artists—local programming to the extreme.

But, back to Pat’s comments: “I watch the hurricane reports for northern Florida, since my son lives there. That makes Florida kinda local for me!” I’ll admit that I picked Charlotte, North Carolina as a weather example in the previous post because I have friends and family there. So, yeah, I DO care about the weather in Charlotte, because I care about them. The Charlotte weather report is parked on my Internet service provider home page right next to Austin.

Technology is taking “local” to a new level.

“Local” in the digital age, I proposed in my master’s paper, is attached to ethos rather than place. Like-minded readers/viewers/listeners/users/consumers of programming are carving out their own niches, cultures, and virtual spaces through the Internet. They have agency as a part of what is coming to be known as the “active audience”.

This is not to say that the readers/viewers/listeners/users/consumers abandon the old media (Traditional TV, radio, and even newspapers); research says they do not, but they take what they may find in the traditional media and manipulate it in their own way using new media. So, in Austin, Texas or anywhere else there is Internet penetration, a reader/viewer/listener/user/consumer could be a member of several different spheres—some of them spatial and others virtual.

Word of the day: Ethos.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Local News Lives!

Local News
Simon and Garfunkel

There is a debate going on right now among members of the news media, academe, and others over whether we are seeing the death of local news. (Please see the previous blog “More or Less”.) Of course, there are others who are debating whether or when one of the three network newscasts will go dark. Still others believe all of the network news will morph into headlines, leaving the scraps for cable customers. If that becomes the case, can one really see some of the daily fare as true news? Take “The Daily Show” or “Countdown” for instance. Many viewers say they get their news—all the news they need—from The Daily Show. Even Paul Simon wrote, “I can get the news I need from the weather report.”

Well, Paul Simon’s assertion may fit my definition of local news. Sure, there is weather everywhere. Some of it is severe. Some of it was ordered up by the chamber of commerce. But the weather you care about is LOCAL, isn’t it? Is it going to rain here? When is it ever going to rain here? When is it going to freeze here? It is no small wonder that Jim Spencer and KXAN TV rule the ratings when storms are moving in.

Local news in its purest form may be defined as events or developments that interest or affect the greatest number of people in your audience on a specific day. Change any of these dynamics, and you change the definition of news, or what you thought was news may not be news any more. OK. I came up with definition when I was teaching. But, you can apply that rather academic definition on a good news day when making story choices.

What is news on a slow news day? The definition of news may be the answer to the question, “Who cares?” If nobody in your local audience cares, it isn’t news. How many times has a producer bellowed to a reporter, “Make me care!” when the reporter is sent back to revise a script. Another slow news day definition might be the answer to the question, “What are the people in your community talking about?” These all work.

The best philosophical answer to the question of what is news for me is simple: Truth.

When my son was in elementary school, he had to write a paper about his parents’ work. I was on the air then, so he knew what I did, but he had to ask me about my job. I told him that I had the best job in the world. I got to go to work and tell the truth every day. I still believe that.

With layers of promotions and various platforms, journalists are still in the business of truth telling.

Truth may not matter either, however. Perceptions of truth may be more powerful. (See the last presidential campaign.)

Neither truth nor perceptions matter, if they have no relationship to “place”, if they are not local. What happens in Charlotte, North Carolina doesn’t matter in Austin, unless there is some relationship, some connection. The storm in Charlotte, doesn’t matter in Austin. If, however, there is an upper level trough digging into the southwestern states that is going to drive arctic air into Austin this weekend, I care. I got the news that I needed from the weather report.

You could argue that you could get that same information from The Weather Channel or online. Yes, you could, but it is your local, trusted meteorologist who cares and makes you care.

Maybe the media and the users/consumers of their information should start viewing stories from the legislature and city council as having the same potential significance on our daily lives as the weather report. Nowadays, it is more difficult than ever to sort out the truth and its significance. Bailouts in the billions of dollars are beyond complex. But that bailout may be coming to a bank near you, perhaps a bank where you store your bucks. It may hit you and your readers/viewers/users/consumers like a blue norther. There is no disputing the local truth of a blue norther in Texas.

They’ll make you a believer in local news. And, that’s the truth.

© Jim McNabb, 2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More or Less

Doing More with Less

Startling. Startling is only one adjective that can be applied to the vast wasteland which is our news media nowadays. Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow in 1961 referred to television as a “vast wasteland” in a different context. It was harsh and possibly overstated then. In today’s economic climate, it is still harsh, but not overstated.

Look at what is happening in our local media, broadcast and print. All are being forced to do more with less.

Just this morning, I counseled a former colleague to hang on to a job, because good jobs are few. Another former colleague is leaving, rolling the dice, with the hope that one of two jobs will open up. In many ways, I did the much same thing when I left a perfectly good job at KEYE TV here in Austin in May, 2008, cocksure that a teaching position would mine within a few months. Didn’t happen. Cautious universities are doing more with less too.

TV people know about ParkerVision. ParkerVision sells live television production automation systems. Using ParkerVision, broadcasters cut personnel and operational costs out of news production with its robotic cameras. A studio used to need a live person behind every camera, plus a floor manager and somebody else running the teleprompter. With ParkerVision, the production department needs half of that crew or less. If, however, it is not programmed properly by the show producer and technical director, wrong or no video may show up on the air or it takes the wrong camera at the wrong time.

KXAN TV has used ParkerVision for years now, and it still shoots them in the foot at least once a week. It can make the production look sloppy. Even so, other local stations are looking at using it. Why? It’s doing more with less.

In all fairness, LIN TV stations must do more with less. LIN (TVL) stock is dragging the bottom at the lowest share price ever, trading at less than $2 a share, down from its high of around $26 only five years ago. There is no quick infusion of cash coming. So, they must do more with less.

General Motors (GM) and Chrysler Corporation are talking merger and asking the federal government for a hand-out. “As General Motors goes, so goes the nation” says the old saw. Things are not going so well right now. GM stock is below $3 a share, down from more than $32 per share last November. Cerberus Capital Management owns a majority of Chrysler along with Four Points Media. KEYE TV is part of Four Points Media. Since Cerberus is a private equity limited partnership, no financial information is available. But, KEYE has been forced into two highly visible personnel cuts. Doing more with less.

Belo Corporation (BLC) owns KVUE TV along with other TV stations and newspapers, notably the Dallas Morning News. “Faced with a weakening economy and a softening advertising market, Dallas-based broadcast company Belo Corp. said Wednesday [November 5, 2008] it would freeze hiring, cut staff in some markets and reduce other costs,” a Dallas Morning News story reported just last week. Belo stock is trading below $2 a share, falling from close to $30 per share about five years ago. These days, they’re doing more with less.

Of course, it’s old news that Cox Newspapers is trying to find a buyer for the Austin American-Statesman several of its other newspapers. It is startling (I’ve used that word before) that the American-Statesman has fewer reporters and photographers on duty during an average weekend than at least two of Austin Television newsrooms. As newspaper photographers respond to stories with several different cameras, including video, and a note pad, they’re doing more with less.

The Internet is becoming a vital and vigorous news medium in its own right as all of the local media channel stories, pictures and video online. Sure, new media is searchable, interactive, fun, and vast, but it also free. Shoot, this blog is free. It is doing more with less.

I’ll write a happy post next time.

Jim McNabb
© 2008

Thursday, November 6, 2008

You Decide. Time-Warner or NFL. Who's Right?


OK. We've been here before. Time Warner Cable asked us to believe that LIN TV, owners of KXAN TV, KXAM TV, and KNVA TV were the bad guys. They wanted to be compensated for the use of their free signal. Somehow, that issue was solved just in time for the sweeps.

Now, we are asked by Time Warner Cable to believe that the National Football League are the bad guys. I still think that TWC is wrong. Actually, they are both wrong.

Eight NFL games that used to be on free TV are no longer available, including the game tonight, Thursday, November 6, 2008, because the NFL has forgotten its fans. These greedy owners created a "network" of their own. They are so full of themselves that they think that the fans and TWC will do anything to see them play their silly games.

Make no mistake. I am a sports fan. I would watch the game tonight, if it were available. These owners and their minions are nuts for creating this so-called network. I hope they lose millions! Meantime, Time Warner wants to put the games in a higher tier where they can charge more for it. I hope they lose millions.

Yes, I guess I qualify as "old" at 61 years old. I can remember when the only NFL games were where the cameras were--The East Coast and neighboring areas. One of the coolest games I remember was one that I watch alone as a kid. The TV was black and white. It was the Chicago Bears Vs. the Detroit Lions. They played in the snow. You couldn't see the sidelines or end zone. On a disputed touchdown call, fans came out of the stands and players went into the stands fighting. It was horrible. It was great. It was free.

Now, we have owners in suits that cost more than my truck posturing with players with rings that cost more than my house, saying we can't watch their games unless we pay. Last year, outraged, I watched the Dallas Cowboys (I grew up in Dallas.) against Green Bay online. It was jerky, pixelized and ugly, but it was free. This time, Time-Warner said, no. We won't make a deal. From the TWC site:

"The NFL is waging a campaign to try mandate Time Warner Cable to carry the
NFL Network and force our customers to pay for expensive sports programming that they may not want.
Time Warner Cable’s position: We have offered to carry the NFL Network on a Sports Tier. Customers choosing to subscribe to the Sports Tier would have access to this programming at their choice. Customers choosing not to subscribe to the Sports Tier would not have to pay for this expensive programming.

"The NFL’s response: The NFL, however, is still insisting that the
network be placed on a broad-based tier, which would result higher costs for
customers who are not interested in NFLN. By refusing our offer, the NFL is
denying the public access to games that were once available on broadcast or
other more widely distributed networks.

"Time Warner’s last proposal: To put the interests of fans first, Time
Warner Cable submitted a new proposal to carry the NFL Network on a Sports Tier
or premium basis. This time, we proposed to make the NFLN games available to our
customers on a per-game basis, at a retail price set by the NFL, with 100% of
the revenue collected for this programming going to the NFL. While offering this
with no mark-up is far from ideal from our point of view, we are willing to take
this step to make sure no interested customer was unable to watch these games.
The NFL has rejected this offer too.

"NFLN appeals to only a small segment of our customers and it is highly
priced. We continue to believe that the most appropriate place for NFLN is on a
Sports Tier. When the NFL is willing to compromise, we will resume

Whatever ...

Who's right? Who's wrong? I don't know. It's all about money. That's why both sides have lawyers.

Who's screwed? You know that answer.

Jim McNabb
(C) 2008

Just the facts ...

Never Assume

I assume that I must have been given a check list of sorts when I was a student in college of things to do and things not to do in journalism. I assume that I must have made such a list and distributed it to journalism students when I was teaching in San Marcos at what was then Southwest Texas State. If I didn’t make the list and hand it out, I should have. Someday, I’ll sift through the box with all my syllabi, handouts, and lectures to find it. It would have to be a chilly day in the middle of winter to spend that much time in the attic. But, I assume that I prepared such a list.

It’s like a litany of “dos” and “don’ts” for kids in kindergarten. You know: Keep your hands to yourself. Don’t hit. Especially, don’t hit girls. Don’t bite. Do use your “inside voices”. Do wash your hands. I assume there a list for kids’ behavior, but I don’t remember getting one. I do, however, remember the rules, and they still apply.

This historic Tuesday, Election Night, all the anchors and reporters were doing their dead-level best to adhere to one of the rules on that list, “Never assume.” The networks had been burned before by exit polls. Assume nothing. “Overall, television struggled to avoid leaping to conclusions based on voluminous data. Anchors bit their tongues,” writes Joanne Ostrow, TV critic for the Denver Post. “It was another instance of TV knowing more than it was telling.” Maybe so, but it was an important time to employ the rule “Never assume”.

Even the campaigns were operating under the same rule. “It ain’t over till it’s over,” declared now vice-president-elect Joe Biden. Strangely, within the same hour McCain Senior Advisor Nicolle Wallace also exclaimed, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” One was cautious optimism. The other was holding out hope. But, it is safe to “never assume”.
Of course, all of this led to suspense followed by history in the making. (Is North Carolina still “too close to call”?) Never assume.

All of this on Election Night brought to mind an assumption I made, an assumption totally unrelated to the election. In an earlier post I talked about the November, 2008 sweeps and a battled of #1 anchor teams. I assumed that KVUE TV’s Tyler Sieswerda would be joined by new co-anchor Terri Gruca in time for the fray. I gave myself some wiggle-room when I wrote, “KVUE TV’s Tyler Sieswerda has been waiting for a new co-anchor. Terri Gruca should be settling in soon.” I didn’t say when, but I assumed it would be in time for sweeps.

Well, now the first week of sweeps is ending, Sieswerda is still flying solo at 6 and 10. Rats! So, I emailed friend Frank Volpicella, KVUE’s news director. “Terri Gruca starts on Dec 8th. However her first day on the air, will likely be Monday Dec 15th, Volpicella said.” Never assume.

Write it 500 times on the blackboard, “Never assume”.

Jim McNabb
© 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Looking for Local Election Returns

Local Election Returns?

No doubt most voters were transfixed on the outcome of the Presidential election and its ramifications. For the most part, so were your local media in Central Texas. What if you wanted to know the status of a LOCAL contest?

Well, you could stare at the screen of your favorite TV station, if you have one, and wait for them to scroll possibly stale data. If you missed it, you must keep on staring—Not very satisfying. Yes, the focus of the day was the historic election of Barack Obama. But, the down-ballot races are important too. Where are the returns for your state representative or county commissioner race?

Ah, go to the Internet. But all sites are not equal.

Far and away, showing why they won awards this year, was the best, the best of all media in Central Texas. KEYE TV.COM had one click to get to results leading you to a list of races. Simply click on the race and (BOOM! As John Madden would say) there were the latest results.

I sampled all during election night. I had three TVs going and my laptop. The Austin American-Statesman showed some results, not all. News 8 was about the same, relying on the Associated Press. Highly promoted had streaming video. I love Laura Skirde. It was interesting, but not immediately informative. I tried several times to access raw voting information, but I could not get in. Perhaps KXAN is so popular that their site was overwhelmed. I got little from them.

Meantime, KVUE TV’s site keeps asking if you’re a “member”. YES!!! But, I didn’t want to bother with their re-registration process. (I understand why they do it—Demographics and data—but I back away. KVUE TV needs to get over it and lose that part of their web site. There are better ways of gathering data about your users.) Perhaps the worst station for local results was KTBC TV.

Is the media better than the government? Yes. I tried Travis County’s site for local races and had less success. So, I suppose that the media gets a passing grade for trying. That’s interesting to me because the media gets its information from where? The government.

Bottom line: wins in this election cycle. I almost stopped writing there. No, I should give credit to the person who wraps her arms daily around, Sousa Williams. Well done.

Jim McNabb
(C) 2008

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Rev. Wright Returns Right Before Voting

Polemics or Politics

The stated purpose of this blog is to comment on communications more often than not in Central Texas. However, during this weekend before the general election when some nameless group calling itself The National Republican Trust predictably pulled out the preaching of The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, I was agitated. No, I was annoyed. Further, I felt compelled to pull out a little preaching of my own on the subject, first published in a different place earlier this year during the primaries. Preaching is communication. I went to church this weekend in Central Texas. So, it is OK to proceed.

When the media focuses on the preaching of The Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the discussion should be about “Pulpit Freedom,” not politics. One might think that a preachers’ prophetic, even apocalyptic prose from the pulpit is rooted in the reformation. Certainly, the freedom to preach one’s mind was one of the driving forces of the reformation. And over the ages, dynamic preachers have helped move a nation’s or a people’s social, ethical, and religious priorities.

But it was in the Age of Enlightenment that Voltaire, the 18th century French philosopher said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It was in that spirit that our forefathers drafted the First Amendment to our United States Constitution. This pulpit freedom is embraced by congregations from Anabaptists to Unitarians.

I am most familiar with modern day Baptist beliefs, which would include the polemics of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. Certainly, his words changed hearts and minds in both a religious and social context. And, yes, his rhetoric was often emotional and unsettling as well as inspirational. Arguably, preachers are supposed to make their congregants uncomfortable. Preachers are supposed to make their congregants think.
Preachers, pastors, priests, ministers, imams, rabbis and congregation leaders today have a responsibility to preach the truth. And, as the movie script said, sometimes we “can’t handle the truth.” News media snatching quotes with the goal of writing the truth are ill-equipped to interpret the whole of a homily delivered on a given Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. Usurped portions for use in political advertisements violate intent entirely in most cases. Sermon quotations out of context may or may not tell the whole of the truth.

Further, it cannot follow that every congregant present can be presumed to be persuaded by the sermon. I have shaken my head in disagreement and contemplated standing and leaving in some circumstances. Looking back, I wish that I had left a few church houses having been offended by some of the histrionics. By staying and listening, I heard the whole context, however. I still might not agree, but I knew what I needed to know when it came time to decide whether to return to that church.

So, no, it is not about whether candidate for President and Senator Barak Obama should be linked to words preached by The Reverend Jeremiah Wright. In this country Rev. Wright has those same First Amendment rights that journalists hold dear. Journalists call it “freedom of the press.” Preachers call it “pulpit freedom.” They are close kin.

Jim McNabb
© 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Just In Time for Sweeps or Halloween

The Return of KXAN
Just in Time for Sweeps

KXAN TV (NBC) and sister station KNVA (CW) are back on Time Warner Cable on their former channels.

KXAN TV’s owner, LIN TV, announced today that they had signed retransmission contracts with Time Warner Cable allowing them to carry LIN stations’ analogue and digital signals nationwide. LIN operates 17 stations in a dozen markets where Time Warner is the major cable TV carrier. This means that Lin's separate digital channels will also find homes in slots on TWC.

“We are pleased to have reached a fair market agreement with Time Warner Cable,” said LIN TV’s President and Chief Executive Officer Vincent L. Sadusky in the news release. “This agreement, which represents a mutually acceptable economic agreement between the parties, is further indication of the value of our television stations.”

That’s a big deal. LIN had been seeking compensation of some type. TWC had been trying to avoid setting a costly precedent in the settlement which could have far-reaching effect for future negotiations with other stations.

The bitter struggle laced with ugly assertions on both sides has been no doubt costly over the past month. And the repercussions of the stalemate may be felt in the November sweeps that start tomorrow, October 30th. The TV stations must have struggled with ad sales. LIN stock (TVL) had dropped from an initial purchase price of $22 to an all-time low of $2.02. The stock is up slightly. Meantime, angry TWC customers sought alternatives in droves. Satellite providers said they were installing as fast as they could in Austin. The same was true of Texas-based Grande Communications whose spokesman said, “We can’t build it fast enough.” The biggest winner may be AT&T’s U-verse, but it, like Grande, is not available everywhere in the market.

All of this is like a TV signal now—It’s here, and it’s gone (Unless you have a DVR).

The news now is that this coming November sweeps period may be the most interesting since 1995 when KTBC TV swapped networks with what became KEYE TV. Why? For the past month, many KXAN TV cable viewers have been sampling other local stations’ newscasts. The “soft” audience, those viewers who may not be died-in-the-wool KXAN devotees, may have found a new favorite. TV audiences in Austin are fickle, and the “no preference “group is larger here than in most cities. News viewing can be habitual. If something breaks the rhythm, people may stray and never come back. It happened in 1995. It was after the network switch that viewers found KXAN, making it #1.

KVUE TV’s Tyler Sieswerda has been waiting for a new co-anchor. Terri Gruca should be settling in soon. But, she is unknown to the Austin audience.

I’m thinking that the station that could benefit the most is KEYE TV. KEYE TV has been stable. Judy Maggio and Ron Oliveira have been rock steady. Meantime, Katie Couric may have found her voice with the Sarah Palin interviews. Further, the KEYE TV web site ( has been arguably the best in town.

But, this week, the stars aligned for LIN TV locally: Leslie Cook Rhode returned to anchor with Robert Hadlock after five years in Washington D.C. She seemed very much at home with friends Jim Spencer and Roger Wallace. KXAN also put up a new and truly improved web site ( as we foretold earlier this month. Now, KXAN is back on TWC.

So, my battle of the #1 anchor teams is set to begin just in time for Halloween. Trick or treat, indeed.

Jim McNabb
(C) 2008

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Banned Words

Banned Words and Other Things

I watched too many sports events this weekend. The misuse of the English language finally got to me. I am compelled to pull out and rework a screed I posted elsewhere earlier this year.

In a newsroom where I worked, there was an entire wall devoted to banned words and phrases—words or phrases that were over worked, misunderstood, obscure or otherwise. I think all journalists and critical-thinking individuals need to consider the words they use. Yes, the English language is evolving, but is that evolution moving toward clarity?

Look at what text-messaging is doing to our language. LOL.

As a reporter many years ago, I turned in a script to a producer. The producer changed some words violating basic rules of the “King’s English” that we may have been taught in elementary school. I am talking about the subject of a sentence agreeing with the verb in the sentence. Well, I would have none of it. I told him that I would not record the script because I did not want my voice, my signature, on something that was grammatically wrong. He protested saying, “Well, that’s the way that people talk!” I responded saying, “Those that know, notice. Those that do not know, do not notice.” The disagreement went all the way to the news director, and, yes, I won.

I am not saying that I am not guilty of using bad grammar or (more likely) misspelling something. I am saying that it is the responsibility of us in the media—print, web, and broadcast—to use good grammar and avoid trite, cliché, and other over-used words. We only promulgate and validate poor usage when we are lazy and choose to use these incorrect or tattered terms.

So, what set off this language explosion? What put me over the top this weekend? It was the broadcast of the World Series Game Sunday, October 26, 2008. Joe Buck will never hear of this posting or care, but I must get this out of my system. Play-by-play man Joe Buck said:

“We just had a chance to visit with his pitching coach, Jim Hickey, and we’ll play it for you …”

Later in the inning, he said again:

“We had a chance to talk with Jim Hickey, and well bring it to you...”

Later in the game, he said:

“I had a chance the last time I was here in Philadelphia …”

He finally got the usage right later:

Regarding B.J. Upton’s strike out, “He had a chance here in the 7ths inning …”

You get the point. Why not just say, “Why not say, I spoke with whomever?” Or, I visited wherever? The rest is useless, meaningless clutter.

For some reason sportscasters seem to be the worst. Troy Aikman used the hated and feared “I had a chance…” during a football game earlier in the day. This recurring phrase isn’t the only one that drives me nuts.

I shall list of a few that come to mind with some explanation:

> “Centered around” Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!! An argument or anything else cannot be center around something. It may be centered ON something, however.
> “Very unique” If it is unique, it cannot be more than unique.
> “Completely destroyed” If something is destroyed, it is complete.
> “The building suffered major damage…” People suffer; buildings cannot.
> “I would like to thank you for flying X airline.” Well, if you would like to do it, why not just say, “Thank you” and be done with it? (Very similar to “had a chance.”
> “A parent’s worst nightmare…” Fill in the blank.
> From sports: “We overcame adversity.” More often than not, adversity is synonymous with calamity. There is calamity in sports sometimes, but most of the time, it is a game. (I am a certified baseball fan, by the way.)
> From sports: “He went for the homerun with that pass.” The announcer, with a clearly limited vocabulary, mixed up his sports.
> From sports: “So, in that inning, we had one hit batsman…” Unless the announcer is doing play-by-play for cricket, the term in baseball is “batter.” (Yeah, I know that one is picky, but refer to “baseball” earlier.)
> Worn-out words: “Awesome” (Blame generations under 40 years old.) “Paradigm” (How many of us use that word in a conversation?) “Infrastructure” (See the previous question regarding “paradigm.” This one, by the way, was on the wall in the newsroom mentioned earlier.) “Person” (This is a cold term with little meaning. Are we talking about a man, woman, child, teenager, or whom?” (This was on the wall too.)
> From sports more often than not: “Shy” “He’s just shy of the first down marker.” Or, “He’s just shy of his 40th birthday.”
> “I’ve got” or “I have got to blah-blah-blah.” You got it. Now, now you have it.
> Passive instead of active voice when writing news copy. (One of my pet peeves.)

I could fill a book with these. There are many more. You know them. You may love them.

Post the terms, words, and phrases that drive you nuts. Or, you could try making a sentence out of all the terms listed above and post them. Perhaps the exercise will purge them from our brains!

(C) Jim McNabb, 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

It's Not Halloween, but It's Just as Scary!

Hold On To Your Remotes

It’s that time of the year again. No, I’m not talking about autumn. No, I’m not writing about Halloween, although it is similar. I’m talking about the fall sweeps for television! Usually, TV stations “front load” “sweeps stories” (notice all the jargon) before the sweeps begin hoping to entice likely viewers to their shows and newscasts for the coming month. Does it work? Sometimes.

Officially, the Nielsen fall sweeps month is the four weeks from October 30-November 26 this year. There is one BIG potential or perhaps probable problem with this year’s sweeps. It is the continuing stalemate between LIN TV/KXAN TV and Time Warner Cable.

Otherwise, this would/could be a really interesting rating period this year. Why? If KXAN TV and Time Warner can sort out their retransmission issues, it could be the battle of #1 anchor teams.

KVUE TV is the #1 station for broadcast news right now, but co-anchor Christine Haas bolted for a bigger market and, probably, a bigger pay check at the Belo station in Houston. (KVUE TV’s web site says she’s still there. Nope.) Now, relative newcomer Tyler Sieswerda will be paired with a genuine newcomer, Terri Gruca. She’s coming from a good station in Minneapolis. She is originally from North Carolina. It remains to be seen if Austinites will murmur, “She ain’t from around here.” She’ll have to win over her audience. Of course, she’s joining the team with meteorologist Mark Murray and sportscaster Mike Barnes, both of whom have been around a while. Murray may be embraced for his appreciation of the Austin music scene as much as he is for his weather acumen.

The potential battle begins here, however. KXAN TV will go into the November sweeps with the same team that took them to #1 earlier in the late 1990s—Robert Hadlock, Leslie Cook, Jim Spencer, and Roger Wallace. Leslie is to return to the air on KXAN this week. One problem: They aren’t on Time Warner Cable right now. Yes, there are many, many other ways to receive KXAN TV, but Austin remains one of the most wired cities in the nation. LIN TV may be trying to change that. (See earlier posts.) Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing them on the set together again. They have great chemistry. Yes, I did work there for 16 years as managing editor; but with them off the cable, I’m just glad I’m not in their sales department right now!

And don’t count out the other powerful and compelling anchors in town who have also been #1: Judy Maggio and Ron Oliveira at KEYE-TV. Judy and Ron were on top of the ratings mountain in the glory days of KVUE TV in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Since they teamed together again at KEYE, there has been constant growth in their following, particularly at 10 p.m., rising to #2 at 10 p.m. this year. Katie Couric and the CBS Evening News was a drag on the success of the early newscasts at 5 and 6 p.m., but Katie may have found her voice and audience during this election cycle with the interviews of Republican Party Vice Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin. Judy and Ron are pros and great people. And, yeah, I worked with them too. There is also appreciation for Susan Vessell, who is now the 5, 6, and 10 meteorologist promoted from the morning news, and sportscaster Bob Ballou.

I know that I’m not mentioning Fox and News 8, but their anchor team hasn’t been #1.

What I really, really hope is that the KXAN TV / Time Warner Cable issues are settled somehow before sweeps. Then, we can look beyond all the inane, vacuous sweeps stories that the stations will, no doubt, pull out of the can. It is true that reporters’ sweeps stories can make a difference however. I’ll allude to one continuing sweeps series. James Lynch, an anchor/reporter for KXAN TV in the ‘90s did a series on the “Cabbage Diet” (Remember the “Cabbage Diet”?) It was a roaring success.

That success seems to underscore what Austin news-watching audiences have professed over the years. They don’t care who delivers the news. They just want substance. They want content. The anchors don’t matter. But, if the anchors don’t matter, why do all of the TV stations’ consultants do research on the anchors assessing their recognition and popularity?

Similar to the coming election, the only research that matters are the Nielsen “overnights” and the final “book” analyzing what newscasts and shows worked and, maybe, why. The viewers will be voting with their remotes.

© Jim McNabb