Thursday, February 12, 2009

A NewsMcNabb Investigation

Nanci Wilson Switches Stations

One of Austin’s top investigative broadcast reporters is moving to a new TV station. Nanci Wilson, perhaps the backbone of the investigative unit at KEYE TV (CBS) is moving to KXAN TV (NBC) as soon as her contract’s six-month “non-compete” clause is satisfied. “It was a hard decision to leave KEYE because I truly like everyone who works there,” Wilson says. [I get that: I also enjoyed my opportunity to work with Judy Maggio and Ron Oliveira again while getting to know Suzanne Black, news director, and Sousa Williams, web executive producer, along with many, many others. Great people.]

But, Wilson is looking to the future. She’ll be heading up KXAN’s investigation team, “pretty much what I did for KEYE, but with more resources. I'm really excited about it,” She said.

I truly believe that broadcast journalism is in Nanci Wilson’s DNA. That wasn’t always my opinion, I admit. At KVUE in the mid-1980s we in the newsroom were skeptical. Nanci was an older-than-average “intern” for an ill-fated mid-day show. She was always dressed better than any of us. We would see Nanci’s red Mercedes convertible in the parking lot and wonder. But, Nanci paid her dues by going to a small market, Sherman, Texas, I think, and did what came naturally. Further, she seized the Internet as an investigative resource, and she learned the learned the vagaries of government and the criminal justice system. When she arrived back here in Austin, she had become a force.

Other media allude to stories about so-called “ghost voting” in the Texas House of Representatives. Let’s set the record straight. Other stories had been done in the past, but it was KEYE-TV’s Nanci Wilson and photojournalist John Salazar who pressed the issue. It wasn’t a one-shot “sweeps story”. Like a dog shaking a rag, she never let up. It’s still not resolved. There is work to be done, and I have no doubt that Nanci Wilson will follow “ghost voting” to its conclusion. That’s just one example, one instance where she has held government’s feet to the fire when the feet weren’t in their mouths.

Nanci and Keith Elkins, arguably the most experienced and best broadcast news Capitol reporter in town, spearheaded KEYE’s investigative unit along with John Salazar. Elkins is still in Austin freelancing and blogging, but he should be on the air. It is only because of the economy and KEYE’s owner, Cerberus, that he is gone. Cerberus, as you know, is the private equity firm that also owns the controlling interest in the Chrysler Corporation.

Now, Wilson and Elkins are gone from KEYE. Nanci’s loss is not lost on Suzanne Black, news director. “We valued Nanci as a person and as an investigator,” Black said. “But things change and people move on. We are not any less committed to holding governmental agencies and lawmakers accountable. We have several reporters on staff who are capable and interested in taking on some investigative responsibilities.” Indeed, Gregg Watson and Jason Wheeler have contributed investigative reports in the past. Further, it is my contention that every reporter is an “investigative reporter”. The only caveat is whether they are given the time and resources. Investigative reporting is an emphasis at KEYE, and Black says they are now searching for a reporter with investigative experience.

It is hard to replace reporters who have roots, contacts, and reputations built over time. That is why TV stations write “non-compete” clauses into the contracts. If a valued reporter goes across town, that reporter could take audience with them. Certainly, the reporter takes their experience and contacts with them.

I’ve often said that Austin is a “destination”, even though it’s the 49th market. Wilson will be working for her third station here. Ron Oliveira has worked for three (four, if you count the one in which he owned an interest, KNVA TV.) Judy Maggio has worked for two. Robert Hadlock has worked for two. Michelle Valles has worked for two. Bettie Cross has worked for two. Jim Bergamo has worked for two. Troy Kimmel worked for three. And, I worked for four. I may have left out somebody. This list doesn’t even count those who are behind the scenes.

It would seem that we have moved seamlessly from one station to another. Not so. Often these non-compete contracts stood in the way. I do not like “non-compete” contracts. I think that reporters and anchors should have the freedom to work where they please when they please. I think that these strictures are, well, wrong. In this age of free agency in sports, why is it still acceptable in journalism? If somebody is so good, a station should try to keep them. If they can’t, then that journalist should be able to put their talents to work immediately elsewhere. “Non-compete” has been challenged successful elsewhere. Exceptions are made from time to time, even in this market which would, to me, create a precedent for their deletion. The clause, however, is still part of the boilerplate contract for all, and almost without hesitation, reporters, anchors, and others sign them.

As a post-script, two things: KXAN News Director Michael Fabac also confirms that he has hired a new “multi-platform”, AKA “One-man-band” bureau reporter for the Hill Country. Current Hill Country reporter Erin Cargile will be moving into town. Fabac also says KXAN is “not following any O&O (Owned and Operated) model (such as what is happening at NBC stations that are moving to “one-man-band” staffs), however [KXAN is] “simply maximizing all resources and making sure our staff is trained to use all newsgathering tools.” So much for that rumor. One other observation: Local TV stations are actually hiring! Whoa.

© Jim McNabb, 2009

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