Roto-Rooter News

KOLD-TV, Channel 13, Proves Crap Can Fly!

By Jeff Smith

THERE WAS A time in this business when all a reporter needed to cover a story was a pencil and a notepad. Of course that was a long time ago.

And of course I'm bound to make such observations, because I'm a very old guy and went to work in this business a long time ago. One day in early August of 1968 I was shown to a war-surplus steel desk at The Arizona Daily Star and given a fat black pencil with no eraser and a reporter's notebook. Good thing too, because I didn't really know how to type.

Smith The intervening three decades have changed much in the mechanics of journalism, seemingly, and today's state-of-the-art news gatherer has both much more to do and much less. No more graphic illustration of this can be seen than the example than ran across the bottom of Page 1B in the Star last Monday a week. The headline said, "KOLD copter to take coverage to new heights."

Next to the story was a photo illustration, courtesy of the TV station and the Star morgue, showing a zoomy helicopter hovering over the downtown Tucson skyline, with snow-clad Catalina Mountains looming what looked to be at about Pennington and Congress. Aren't 1,000 mm telephoto lenses wonderful? That's another thing we benighted scribes of the antedeluvian age didn't know we needed to cover the news.

Ah, but the TV chopper: Now Tucson truly can say it has entered the 20th century, newswise. And just in the nick of time.

Thirty years ago I and the boys (obscure, Steinbeckian allusion) were making do with tools but one faltering step ahead of jungle drums and chiseled stone. As time marched on we got bound carbon copies, offset printing, then computers, photocopier (the precursor of the fax), then laptops, cell-phones, e-mail. Television and radio got dermabrasion, soft-set hairspray, porcelain crowns, Grass Valley computer editing and graphics, truck-mounted satellite uplinks, wireless mikes, blue-screens for the weather guys, and the ultimate tool of breathless, taking- you- there- live- for- pictures- that- tell- you- nothing- that- couldn't- be- said- better- in- 25- words- or- less, the helicopter.

The Eye in the Sky. Skycam 13. Newscopter 69. Whatever.

It used to be when something truly huge happened, like the floods of '83, the local yokels would hire a chopper for the afternoon, shoot a lot of shakey footage out the door, and then hype the shit out of it all afternoon and evening before the news shows, and then re-run it during every succeeding ratings sweeps for several years. But now the one local news operation most desperate to be taken seriously, KOLD-TV, Channel 13, has written the big check, and with that simple penstroke has, as they say in sports, taken it to the next level.

The competition is either sneering or going Golly like Gomer Pyle. Either way they're jealous as all get-out. Channel 4 News Director Mick Jensen reportedly said his satellite truck was a better news-gathering tool than the chopper, but that the bird was a step forward, "especially for KOLD..." (snide putdown).

"There are a lot of other things I'd rather spend that kind of money on," Jensen told the Star, apropos of the estimated half-million bucks a year the chopper will cost. Me too. Like a pink Cadillac with a wet-bar and one of them keeno girls who can suck the chrome off a trailer-hitch. To paraphrase Willy Nelson. And have enough left over to hire 50 actual, reading-and-writing news reporters, at the rate the surviving honest newspapers pay the help.

Jensen, if jealous, was nonetheless au point when he observed of the chopper, "...but I think it's more promotional value than news-gathering value."

As was Channel 9 News Director Forrest Carr, who said of Channel 13, "They want to make a splash, and they're spending money like drunken sailors. They have altered the game and they are making everyone else react."

A bitch, ain't it?

And what did Channel 13's own news director say? Well you wouldn't expect her to damn the move with faint praise, a la Mick Jensen, nor reduce it to pace-setting profligacy, as did colleage Carr. Carolyn Kane, news director of KOLD, said the helicopter "is a tool that will help us tell better stories."

My ass. You want a tool that will help you tell better stories, get a library card and rotate your news crew in there for the afternoons to read books. Or you could hire me for a whole lot less, and I'll make some way-better stories than you can tape from way up in the air where people look like ants.

You want better stories, you got to get right next to folks, without helicopters, without cameras, without tape recorders, better yet without even pencils and notebooks to make them self-conscious or showy. Take along your ears and your interest and leave the high-tech hardware at home. You can jot down the stats and the high-points on your way back to the newsroom.

Because that ancient age I invoked in the lede...that time when a good reporter needed nothing more than a pencil and paper to cover a story?

It was yesterday, but it's also today and tomorrow.

That's the thing about time: It isn't linear and you can't put your finger on any beginning or end. TW

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