“TV news stinks.”
A year ago, WXIA-TV News Director Ellen Crooke posted those provocative three words for a class of University of Georgia students. Local TV news tends to be “boring, repetitive, irrelevant and too depressing,” she told local blogger and former WAGA-TV news reporter Doug Richards, who she later hired. (Richards, a part-timer the past few months, has now gone full time at WXIA.)
Crooke, who came to Atlanta from Buffalo in 2008, ditched the often successful (yet often derided) “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality and has tried to make the station more user-friendly. And given the station’s position behind WAGA-TV and WSB-TV, taking risks is a prerogative.
“We at 11 Alive needed to distinguish ourselves from the pack,” Crooke said Friday by phone from Florida, where her daughter is at a gymnastics competition. “We’re trying to seek solutions, provide information people need now.”
She places editorial meetings online. She recently launched “Bull Fighters,” a focus on politics which includes former WAGA-TV sportscaster Jeff Hullinger, hired last month after eight years off local TV. She started a daily “Ways to Save” segment, led by Valerie Hoff. She’ll use significant chunks of the 11 p.m. news to focus on a single topic. She now has veteran anchor Brenda Wood doing an editorial “Last Word” on her 7 p.m. show, a feature abandoned by most local news networks decades ago.
Wood’s Thursday “Last Word” was about how WXIA’s red-light camera investigation led to national scrutiny in Congress this week. This is self serving, true, but at least it’s a worthy cause:
Our colleagues’ work could very well influence new traffic laws for the entire country. We’re proud because the investigation focused on an issue that affects the us all that could have life and death consequences. We’re proud because they made us aware of a safety issue few of us have even thought about and now thousands are talking about. We’re proud our investigation was presented to Congress. Local television is powerful enough to have far-reaching implications on how we live our lives both here and across the country. Local news can still be relevant, investigative and informative andit should be a catalyst in our community that makes a difference. That’s what journalism is all about.
On Thursday night’s 11 p.m. news, WXIA ran fewer, more in-depth stories than its three rivals, ignored national stories and provided time for Hullinger’s political piece, a Bill Liss ID theft story and nearly four minutes on a human-interest story about a Calhoun man who lost his face to cancer. It skipped minor crime-related stories other networks mentioned. (I watched all four 11 p.m. newscasts July 1. All led with the same story about the UGA athletic director and his DUI arrest. WSB-TV tallied the most crime/accident-related stories. WAGA fed the most national news. WGCL-TV crammed the most story items in 35 minutes.)
WXIA’s strategy has yet to bear major fruit in terms of ratings. The station remains ensconced in third place behind perennial leader ABC affiliate WSB-TV and Fox’s WAGA-TV.
Crooke did note that morning numbers have shown signs of life this spring. “Mornings usually come first,” she said, then later in the day. She said viewers tend to be most habitual with their evening news, where NBC is usually a weak third.
But the station is gaining notice among peers. On June 25, WXIA-TV won nine news-related Southeast Emmys, more than any other station. A week earlier, it won a national Edward R. Murrow award for investigative work following federal stimulus money.
Many on the largely veteran news staff extolled the energy and purpose Crooke has given the newsroom. “I’m excited by her vision and leadership,” said Wood, who has been with the station for 13 years.
Jaye Watson, 40, said she considered leaving the business a couple years ago, burned out by too many vacant house fires, hostage situations and murders du jour. Now that WXIA no longer chases every crime story, she’s given breathing room to work on stories she feels has more meaning such as school abuse of an autistic boy.
“Ellen shows us respect and is open to our ideas,” Watson said. “She’s a force.”
The fact she hired two hard-knuckle vets – Richards and Hullinger – indicates her priorities aren’t to keep costs to a minimum. “People are sick of seeing 12 year olds on the side of the road doing local news with no experience or background, no gravitas or edge to them. Doug Richards is this brilliant guy who feels exactly the same way.” (That’s why she has the guts to let him continue to write his popular “Live Apartment Fire” blog.)
Sure, some of Crooke’s efforts border on gimmicky. NeNe Leakes (right) of “Real Housewives of Atlanta” fame on sister station Bravo will be an entertainment correspondent later this summer for the morning show, with segments likely showing up on the reality show in the fall. And Crooke has an affinity for cutesy names such as Center for Investigative Action (CIA) for her investigative team and Commuter Dude for pothole chaser John Gerard.
Randi Shapiro, a 47-year-old recruiter at Recruiting Specialists Inc. from Woodstock, admires the station’s effort at substance, gimmicks or not. “I give them a lot of credit for trying to stand alone when it comes to news,” she said. Her favorite bit is the morning show’s uplifting Random Acts of Kindness.
WXIA’s general manager John Deushane, wearing a T-shirt and shorts last Thursday to cook hot dogs and burgers for staff in celebration of the Emmy wins, said he used to compete against Crooke in Buffalo, her former haunt and “hated her” when her station started beating his.
Now, three weeks into his job at WXIA, he’s thrilled to have Crooke on the same team.