Local TV

Local News from the Beltway

News leaders maintain Washington bureaus even as stations slash costs 11/14/2008 07:00:00 PM Eastern



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John McCain and Barack Obama might have finally gotten a chance to breathe as darkness fell Nov. 4, but the day was just kicking into gear for Wendy Wilk.

The Washington bureau chief for the Hearst-Argyle stations, Wilk oversaw the 15-person bureau, including three reporters and two producers, as the crew cranked out a staggering 157 standup “hits” for two dozen Hearst-Argyle outlets. Viewers had myriad options for getting the latest electoral vote count for the presidential hopefuls, but Wilk and her gang offered detailed updates on congressional races and ballot measures affecting Hearst-Argyle stations from Orlando to Oklahoma City.

“We do national news for local newscasts,” Wilk says. “We're chasing lawmakers to get our stations what they can't get from NBC or CNN.”

NATIONAL LOOK AT LOCAL

In a broadcast economy that seems to get bleaker with each passing day, stations are tenaciously trimming anything deemed less than absolutely essential from their budgets. As stations increasingly focus their resources on the hyper-local, the notion of having a Beltway bureau a thousand miles away might be deemed a luxury by some. But station groups such as Belo, Cox and Dispatch see these bureaus as essential components to their local content strategy.

Furthermore, many believe a bad economy makes such a bureau that much more pertinent, as seasoned Capitol Hill reporters can break down the complexities of sticky bailout plans and update viewers on what their elected representatives are doing to get the economy moving forward. “They become more and more vital every day,” says Hearst-Argyle VP of News Brian Bracco.

WBNS Columbus President/General Manager Tom Griesdorn calls Washington Bureau Chief Tom Walker a “differentiator” when it comes to the news race in the No. 72 DMA. “We're the only one in Columbus with a bureau there, with a face-to-face relationship with our [congressional] delegates,” he says. “We can't out-network the networks, but we can localize every story to gauge the reaction back home.”

As has been seen in the newspaper industry, stations' Washington bureaus have shrunk over the decades, and will certainly lose more bodies in the coming months; broadcast executives say that the bureaus are hardly exempt from layoffs. But the Beltway reporters are making a strong case for their survival. Cox's bureau, for one, features 11 TV-only people, who served up around 70 live shots for the group's 15 stations on Election Day and the day after.

Across the street at the Fox News Channel headquarters, Doug Luzader fronts a three-person crew for the Fox O&Os. Dispatch Broadcast Group's Walker works not only for WBNS, but for sister station WTHR Indianapolis and cable's Ohio News Network as well. Tribune's two television reporters work out of the former Woodward & Lothrop department store on F Street alongside 40-plus reporters from the company's other media outlets, while Belo has two reporters, two photographers and a VJ a few blocks from the White House.

“It's an important part of our newsgathering every day,” says WVEC Norfolk News Director Rich Lebenson, who oversees Belo's bureau.

While the interminable election season has finally wrapped, the D.C. crews are hardly honing their solitaire skills until President-elect Obama takes his oath on Jan. 20. Luzader, for one, offers a new political package at 5 a.m. each weekday to the 16 Fox O&Os and eight affiliates for which he reports.

He also goes live on the partner stations and banters with the anchors, sometimes until noon. “He brings perspective on the national story of the day to stations for their morning shows,” says Fox Senior VP of News Operations Sharri Berg. “He's so ingrained with the stations that he can customize the report for each one.”

But while they're mostly focused on the local ramifications of news coming out of the capital—as well as building relationships with incoming congressmen from their stations' districts—the D.C. staffers are also gearing up for the Obama administration.

“It's not as quiet as you'd think,” says Cox Bureau Chief Heidi Wiedenbauer. “This inauguration is going to be huge—we're already knee-deep in preparation.”

E-mail comments to michael.malone@reedbusiness.com



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