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KVOA STRIKES UP THE ONE-MAN NEWS BAND

In an apparent effort to produce more content while lowering costs, KVOA Channel 4 recently announced to its news department a major change that's a sign of the times in local news.

At this meeting, according to multiple sources, KVOA management mandated that most news-department personnel will be required to photograph and edit their own news stories. In other words, reporters will now shoot their own video, while photographers will have reporting responsibilities.

KVOA would not go into specifics publically about any of its intentions.

"The news business is changing rapidly. If we want to continue to be leaders and innovators in the industry, we need to adapt and make changes as well," said KVOA news director Kathleen Choal via e-mail. "Those changes will help News 4 to continue to provide the best local news content for all of our Southern Arizona viewers both on the air and on kvoa.com."

The recent model for local news has been pretty simple: The staff sits around the news-meeting table; someone may pluck ideas from the day's newspaper; and a reporter and photographer are assigned a specific story. The reporter handles the interviews and on-air voiceover material, while the photographer, and occasionally an editor, assist with the production of the news story, or package.

But under this new model for KVOA, it's a one-person show. The benefits are clear under this approach—which is perhaps the brainchild, according to sources, of national consulting firm AR&D. By combining responsibilities, the one-man-band model puts more bodies in the streets, thus theoretically providing more content, not just for KVOA's television newscasts, but for its Web site.

Now the downside: More news doesn't always mean better news. Reporters will be given crash courses in how to photograph and edit on the station's equipment. That's all well and good, but it's not a stretch to suggest that a photographer or editor with more experience might better be able to, for example, recognize superior shots to add to the visual impact of a piece. Meanwhile, in this so-called multimedia-journalist format, who's going to take the time to assist someone with a background as a photographer/editor to ask what might be more pertinent questions—you know, the sorts of things reporters are supposed to be trained to do?

Maybe the thought process is that the viewer won't really notice the difference, and perhaps KVOA can lure more viewers with "more" local news, thus changing the focus from quality to quantity.

In terms of job security, the new mandate potentially creates uncertainty on the reporting side. In the multimedia-journalist model, photographers and editors have a leg up, because they can handle the production side and put together pieces without needing to be on camera. They might not even have to voice segments; they can instead opt for sound bites and visual components. What happens if reporters struggle to make the transition? According to sources, KVOA wasn't clear on that point, even though the mandate on the one-man band approach was hammered home. Take from that what you will.

Perhaps coincidentally, KVOA has lost two reporters since the meeting. David Marino and Anthony Cabrera turned in their resignations within a week of each another. "After two great years at KVOA, I'm moving back home to California," said Cabrera via e-mail. "It's been a rewarding journey." (For Marino's comments, see last week's Media Watch.)

As someone who watches local news on a daily basis, it's my opinion that KVOA has been off its game for some time. It's a product that seems to lack an identity. It was the first station in the market—and so far remains the only station in the market—to fork out the money for a high-definition studio upgrade, yet when compared to KOLD Channel 13, it appears behind the curve in terms of its willingness to embrace technology that makes a difference to the viewer.

KOLD has staffing limitations too, but it seems to find a way to get more breaking video than its two chief competitors, KVOA and KGUN Channel 9. KVOA probably breaks more police and law-enforcement-related stories than its other two major multi-newscast competitors, yet appears more intent on focusing its efforts on segments like "Kristi's Kids," the "Green Team" and "Making a Difference." Those are nice, feel-good and potentially beneficial reports (although more often than not, the latter two are little more than business puff pieces decorated as news features). While KVOA focuses its energies there, Bud Foster is showing KOLD viewers what's going on politically in and around Southern Arizona.

Every station has spent boatloads of cash trying to improve its weather equipment, but KOLD's meteorology crew embraces the science behind it—and seems geeked out over science in general—and that helps to market the news product overall.

Perhaps the biggest issue at KVOA: Who are Channel 4's standout personalities? Is it the primetime anchor team, or is the casual viewer more aware of Guy Atchley and Jennifer Waddell at KGUN? That wasn't the issue during the Patty Weiss era.

KVOA has even undervalued the sports product. That's KMSB Channel 11's terrain, and Dave Silver has spent the last quarter-century as the sports guy at KGUN. KVOA abandoned its familiar face in that department, Dan Ryan, a couple of years ago.

On the streets, Sandy Rathbun and Lupita Murillo have been good reporters for quite some time, but Foster and KOLD counterpart Jim Becker come off as more seasoned and visible.

Then there's the marketing aspect: Self-promotion, even when it's annoying, is crucial. Take KOLD, for example. The station's personalities seem to be everywhere throughout the community. KVOA's personalities, by comparison, seem burdened to leave the confines of the studio.

As recently as five years ago, KVOA was the market's local-news juggernaut. It still competes, but the days of its stranglehold are a distant memory.

The impact and benefit of the one-man band approach remains to be seen. And if it's successful, at least in the eyes of upper management, how long will it be before the other stations follow suit?

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