Stations in Denver and Minneapolis are coming up with innovative ways to cover the political conventions on what are often limited budgets.
The executives say it's both a banner time and a tough one to cover an event of this magnitude: On one hand, never before has there been such an array of media platforms on which to engage the audience. On the other, the sorry state of the broadcasting economy means stations are forced to create all that content with light staffs.
At Gannett's KUSA Denver, salespeople will drive the shuttle bus from the newsroom to the Pepsi Center, the Democratic Party convention venue, and are being trained to write stories. “In some ways, they're people who've always stood in the periphery of news,” says VP/News Director Patti Dennis. “Now that they get to participate, they're like kids having candy for the first time.”
The Fox O&Os will tap videojournalists, blogging delegates and, of course, the star power at Fox News Channel to provide a wide range of material. “We'll make sure nothing gets left on the floor,” says Shari Berg, senior VP of news operations at Fox Television Stations.
Indeed, stations are trotting out every last bell and whistle for the big show. In Denver, KDVR anchors will report from the balcony of a dermatologist's office located right outside the security zone that the station has taken over for the convention. KCNC has partnered not only with the public broadcast station KBDI to better cover the Democratic convention from Aug. 25-28, but also has a deal with Scripps daily Rocky Mountain News for interactive features such as user polls. Constructing an outdoor set with views of both the Pepsi Center and the Rocky Mountains, KCNC enjoys the perks of being owned by CBS, which means Early Show host Harry Smith popping up on its morning news, and commentary from Katie Couric. “The access we get is fantastic,” says VP/General Manager Walt DeHaven. “It's great to be able to just pick up the phone and talk to everyone in New York.”
KUSA is also tag-teaming with a high-profile corporate sibling, Gannett's USA Today, on a comprehensive photo gallery. KUSA will air its weekly call-in political program Your Show each evening of the convention at 6:30, is pairing producers from its Metromix nightlife site with reporters from newsmagazine Extra for celebrity news, and will program its MyNetworkTV affiliate KTVD with expanded coverage.
Dennis says the convention is an even taller order than the Pope's visit in 1993, which featured 36 hours of live coverage. “Some people stayed here for two straight nights, sleeping on beanbag chairs,” she recalls.
A FAIR-LY BIG CHALLENGE
Staffers in Minneapolis-St. Paul have it even tougher as the Republican convention rolls in Sept. 1, because the GOP comes marching in just as the 12-day Minnesota State Fair ends. “It's a crazy time, not just for the staff to cover, but to physically get our equipment from one venue to the next,” says WCCO VP/General Manager Susan Adams Loyd, whose station builds a broadcast facility at the fair each year. “It's a Rubik's Cube that takes a lot of detailed planning.”
Twin Cities stations are also tapping a range of media to cover the event. Hubbard's KSTP is offering an archive of its At Issue political program on KSTP.com. KARE will lean on its St. Paul bureau at the Science Museum, which President/General Manager John Remes says is “an extremely nice advantage” over the competition.
Fox-owned KMSP will use the live-blogging platform Twitter to transmit reports, while Fox will send a three-person Web crew to both conventions to shoot and upload videos for the rest of the station group. “They'll be somewhat raw, somewhat edgy,” says WJBK Detroit Senior Web Producer Dennis Kraniak, who's leading the Web team. “We'll try to lift the curtain and see what's going on behind the scenes.”
Many stations are covering the gigantic events without extra work force. KSTP, for one, has instituted a no-time-off policy for the duration of both the fair and the convention.
Despite the heavy cost of covering the conventions, stations typically don't see a windfall in local advertising. Managers hope the coverage boosts their news brand, and hope to at least break even financially. “I can't look at one advertiser and say they're spending more,” DeHaven says. “But the challenges other markets are seeing, we've seen none of that.”
While the conventions are a national—and global—news story, they're a local news story for those who must contend with the influx of thousands disrupting their commutes and overall way of life.
“Important things are going on in the arena,” says WCCO News Director Scott Libin, “but for most of our viewers, the story is what's going on outside the arena.”
As much as they live for news events such as this, several station managers look forward to taking a big deep breath once the circus has packed up and rolled out of town. “I can't wait until Aug. 29,” says KUSA's Dennis, “and we can say it's over and we did a good job.”