The game plans have been practiced, and the St. Louis stations were trained and ready to work when the grand jury decision on the fatal shooting involving Officer Darren Wilson was set to come down at 9 p.m. local time. Local media has been a target of protesters in the past few months, including smashed windows on multiple stations’ live trucks and attempts at verbal intimidation, and the golden rule is safety.
“Our reporters have explicit instructions: if you’re in trouble, get away,” says Spencer Koch, KTVI-KPLR president and general manager. “We’re here to do coverage, not to create the headlines.”
Some station reporters have trained with local police on how to spot trouble, and how to move away from it safely. Local reporters are generally viewed with more respect than their national counterparts, but news execs there say the lines have blurred since the initial summer protests.
“Reporters as a whole are more targets now than in August,” believes Mark Pimentel, KMOV VP/general manager. “We were seen as Switzerland, as neutral, in August. But the more vocal and rougher protesters look at us as part of the establishment.”
Tribune’s pair, Meredith’s KMOV and Gannett’s KSDK are the news stations in St. Louis, going live before and after the verdict in the St. Louis suburb of Clayton. KMOV ran a one hour special at 7 p.m. Stations are using their second channels for network programming; KMOV planned to put CBS Evening News, ET and CBS prime on channel 4.2.
All are getting reinforcements from sister stations in their groups; KMOV, for one, has personnel and gear from stations in Kansas City, Nashville and Atlanta to help with the live coverage. Gannett of course has a giant pool of broadcast news gatherers to draw from, and is said to have brought in seasoned, elite reporters from other markets. Besides extra reporters, KPLR-KTVI has a WGN Chicago live truck at its service. Reporters will feed content to the whole of the massive group.
“That’s the power of the number of stations Tribune has,” says Koch. “We can cover this almost like a network.”
Protestors are massed both near the courthouse in Clayton and the site of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson six or seven miles away, giving the stations a range of areas to cover. Koch describes the KPLR-KTVI newsroom as “energetic and cautious; the adrenaline is flowing.”
Same goes at the Meredith station. “We’re ready to get this behind us,” says Pimentel. “We’ve had our plan for weeks and months, and now we’re here.”