Tuesday, August 4, 2009

KTBC TV Cuts "7 On Your Side" Reporter and Producer



in Austin

KTBC TV (Fox 7) is eliminating seven employees, including its high-profile “7 On Your Side” unit reporter Chris Coffey. Coffey’s contract had expired and was not renewed. A “7 On Your Side” producer was among the other six laid off, according to a Fox spokes person. KTBC is a Fox Network owned and operated TV station.

The remaining five Fox 7 workers included two graphic artists and three studio camera operators who worked in at the KTBC studio in downtown Austin at 10th and Brazos and were not part of “7 On Your Side”.

The layoffs were very hard decisions and a reflection of hard economic times. “The ‘7 on Your Side’ franchise is not going away,” the spokes person said. The station remains committed to investigative journalism. Future stories will be handled by general assignments reporters on the Fox 7 staff. I, myself, used to say that every reporter is an investigative reporter, but media must give them the freedom, time and resources to develop well-told stories.

Coffey had been the face of “7 on Your Side” since 2004. The Texas Associated Press Broadcasters awarded Coffey first place in “Beat Reporting” in 2008. Now, Mr. Coffey joins a long list of specialty reporters who must retool in a tight economy.

The KTBC layoffs come on the heels of a renewed commitment to investigative journalism by rival KXAN (NBC) with the hiring of Nanci Wilson from KEYE-TV’s (CBS) investigative unit. That team once consisted of Ms. Wilson, Keith Elkins and a producer/photographer. Mr. Elkins is now executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, and the producer/photographer, John Salazar, is now chief photographer at KEYE. As promised, KEYE has continued investigative reports, but not with the intensity and frequency they once had.

In a post written to coincide with Nanci Wilson’s official arrival at KXAN, having completed the requirements of the standard “no compete clause”, I said, “That sort of focused reporting comes with commitment and cost.” Fewer and few media are willing to embrace these challenges.

Marisa Guthrie wrote in the June 22, 2008 issue of Broadcasting and Cable magazine:

“Producers have felt the sting of contracting budgets and swelling corporate concern over the bottom line. Such conditions have been most inhospitable to reporters working on investigations requiring time and resources; these stories are often magnets for legal action.

“I think there's a huge need for that kind of investigative work, and it's clear there's less of it,” says Bill Buzenberg, executive director at the Center for Public Integrity, which specializes in investigations. “It's risky, it's expensive, it takes huge
resources and talent, and with much of the press owned by large corporations, I think there's a certain reluctance to do that.”

“There is a belief—and I don't know if it's because a consultant said so or what—that real investigations do not appeal to viewers,” says Walt Bogdanich, who produced the Day One piece
and is now at The New York Times, where he recently won his third Pulitzer Prize. “I think if you put faux investigative pieces on and package them as investigative, whether it's 'To Catch a Predator' or whatever, it ceases to be journalism and becomes voyeurism.”

Indeed, media research here indicates that perhaps the only people who care about so-called “watchdog” reports are the people who are directly affected. Stories that result in broad change, such as Ms. Wilson’s stories about “ghost voting” in the Texas House of Representatives while she was with KEYE, rise beyond “watchdog” to the level of investigative journalism.

Now, only the Austin American-Statesman has a marquee franchise that will take on individual problems. “Statesman Watch” is written by reporter Mark Lisheron.

“Rich Oppel, [former American-Statesman editor] is a vocal proponent of watchdog reporting focused on city hall, and when features similar to “Statesman Watch” started popping up in newspapers around the country, he insisted we start one, too. Lisheron has developed it into a worthwhile franchise,” says Fred Zipp, American-Statesman editor. “My impression is that it has developed decent name I.D. and a following among readers.”

News 8 (Time-Warner) is making an investigative unit a goal. “I am working to get one started perhaps next year,” said Kevin Benz, news director and acting station manager. “I believe it’s a key component of our community mission. We’re 10 years old now and I think we’ve got the chops to handle it.”

Viewers/readers/consumers/users of media always ask for more, not less, real investigative reporting instead of superficial, short sound-bite stories. “Big J” journalists in traditional media still strive for it despite economic odds. Alternative media such as blogs and efforts
www.austinpost.org and the promise of the Texas Tribune may be the places they will find it in the future.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Anonymous said...

I worked with Chris Coffey in Chamapign Il, He is a great journalist and will land on his feet.

Chris is a great person!
Shane Deitert

Chuck said...

Without competent, responsible investigative journalists, corruption can only flourish. In my market there is scant investigative journalism as all the major media outlets have laid-off or cutback. Now I read where AFTRA is dealing with the MMJ, the Multimedia Journalist who not only has to report news but they also have to shoot, handle audio and edit the packages as well.

I'm all for developing ways to save money and increase workflow efficiencies for TV news operations. But today's business model is less about serving the public convenience and necessity and more about making a profit by staff rollbacks and replacing experienced journalists with cheaper newbies.

If no one can take the time to connect the dots, then corruption will flourish. Today's TV News = fast food prepared by anxious people. News is fast becoming just another casualty by the misguided notion that money will be saved and tomorrow will be a better day.

Anonymous said...

I worked at a shop that proclaimed itself an "On Your Side" station. 3 PT and 1 FT talent, 1 exec prod, 1 assoc prod, and 2 photog positions were added to handle the newly created department. One of the PT'ers focused exclusively on consumer news and re-voiced the Consumer Reports franchise. The other 2 PT'ers and the FT'er did investigative pieces on govt. waste, corruption, rip-offs, etc.

These stories would take an enormous amount of time to research, investigate, produce, and edit before being run by a legal team and hitting the air. it took a lot of resources to make it happen.

They stuck with it for the first 18 months, then came word that the unit was taking up TOO much resources, and needed to turn stories faster. Then one of the PT'ers was taken away and moved to GA reporting. What started out as a strong committed project to deliver high quality, true investigative stories was de-balled into a unit one step barely above the regular reporting pool. The irony is the station still hangs it's hat on the "On Your Side" moniker, but no longer provides the tools to really get it done right.

Anonymous said...

Anyone ever notice how effective the threat, "I'm gonna call Channel so and so", use to be? News is in danger of losing that very positive watchdog role.
Why is FIA research, video stake outs, and dumpster rummaging any more expensive than any other coverage?
I suppose cultural pressure has made investigative journalism on par with hippies flipping cars over the war. It's just not "clean cut".
Guess what, there's still a LOT wrong out there...