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November 19, 2008

Where did all the gumshoes go?

Andy Rooney said on “60 Minutes” Sunday that people still read newspapers to find out if what they saw on TV the night before is true. Maybe that’s the case for Andy’s generation. But, of course, he’s 89.

In reality, many of us are ditching newspapers and turning off the television, instead seeking out news on the Internet, on our schedule, even if that online news comes from the same mainstream media sources we’re choosing to forgo. It’s not the reporting we’re abandoning, but the delivery mechanism.

Unfortunately, the premise for this column is that changes (i.e. cutbacks) in the media business have created a shortage of in-depth reporting. Gone are the days when TV stations had the luxury of employing investigators who spent weeks chasing a story, and when daily newspapers had special investigative divisions.

But let’s hold off on all the gloom and doom. Sure, everybody’s trying to do more with less, but that doesn’t mean the days of investigative journalism are over. In fact, long after media companies stop printing newspapers, the demand for solid reporting will continue to grow.

There’s still plenty of competition for stories among TV reporters in the mainstream media — it’s just that it seems like they limit their investigative work to Sweeps months, like November.

Television stations will do almost anything to get attention for their work during sweeps, and one of the best ways to do so is to sell sex. So this week, WAVE-TV is promoting a series on why men fall asleep after sex. We all know this, too, but it gives the station an opportunity to show a man and woman asleep in bed in promos.

What’s worse, a station in Los Angeles garnered national industry attention when it produced a story on a business that is in the business of Betty beautification. I’m not going to explain it, other than to say it has to do with “personal” grooming.

So there’s a lot of silly stuff that gets on the air during sweeps, stuff that’s titillating and easy to promote. WLKY-TV promoted a story about a 500-pound man and a cure for hiccups. There also was a segment on age progression.

On the other hand, there are a handful of veteran TV reporters here who use local knowledge, a web of contacts and solid reporting skills to produce compelling journalism. They plan their sweeps work more than a week ahead of time, and in turn report stories that make a difference.

When Fox 41 came up with a new branding campaign touting its dedication to journalism, there were some snickers around town. The station has churned out some content that flopped, and it would be a stretch to call some of its stories journalism.

But Fox 41’s Dick Irby is one of those local TV news veterans regularly producing solid work. Currently, he’s doing a three-part series involving the city’s planning and zoning board, and his stories have exposed wrongdoing.

In one investigation, he uncovered that a city public works employee skirted the rules when building his own soccer complex in the East End, and in another he found that a local car dealer ignored the rules regarding preserving a historic property. That one got him physically attacked by the subject of the story, which made for even more compelling must-see TV.

Irby said he started working on the planning and zoning stories back in the summer. But these days, that kind of planning is rare. 

It’s safe to say that for the eight months out of the year that aren’t sweeps, TV journalists spend their time reacting to the news — following police scanners for crime stories, waiting around City Hall, responding to tips from viewers. There’s no time, or motivation, to really dig into something that can’t be turned around in a day. But during sweeps, the stations get proactive. Reporters are required to come up with sweeps-worthy ideas that might create a buzz.

In reality, though, sweeps are much less important than they once were. Louisville is a metered market, meaning TV executives can pull ratings numbers for any time period they choose, not just during sweeps.

Try as they might, sweeps stunts often don’t boost ratings. WHAS-TV rules at 5 and 6 p.m.; WLKY is No. 1 at 11 p.m.; Fox 41 comes in first at 10 p.m. (granted, with little competition at that time slot). WAVE is competitive, but never first in any time period.

And in three months, the stunts will start all over again.

 

Rick Redding writes about local politics and media on his website thevillevoice.com 

Tagged: On Media |