KTCA's NewsNight Minnesota
Under this newscast's slick surface, producers removed the pathology of TV news
Originally published in Current, Dec. 18, 1995
By Steve Behrens
When a producer tries to do things differently, and spends millions on a program, it's encouraging to hear that a statistical researcher somewhere is able to document a big difference.
That happened in September  for KTCA, Twin Cities, whose four-nights-a-week news program scored lowest among 100 local newscasts nationwide in the Mayhem Index, the percentage of newscast time given over to news about crime, disaster and war in a sample program. The measurement was invented by a Denver group, Rocky Mountain Media Watch.
NewsNight scored exactly zero, compared to an average of 42 percent on the 100 stations surveyed. (The bloodiest newscast was on commercial WLKY-TV in Louisville.)
Nineteen months ago, when KTCA put NewsNight Minnesota on the air, the station had set out to score low on murder follow-ups, though nobody had heard of the Mayhem Index at that point.
''We deliberately do not spend so much of our time chasing ambulances,'' says Bill Hanley, KTCA's v.p. of news and public affairs. It's not only an expensive use of staff time, he explains, but also questionable in value.
Though the show, aired between 7 and 7:30, Monday through Thursday, looks like a stylish commercial newscast, it uses its time the way Jim Lehrer's NewsHour does, dashing through the headlines, airing minimal field footage and seldom zooming in on bodybags or house fires.
The producers decided they would not be curious about routine apartment fires or muggings, but would look into things that people are not paying attention to, says Ken Stone, the show's executive producer for the past year. Reporters have done such stories as a human-scale profile of a Black Muslim minister, an expose of a long-secret 1953 Army biological warfare experiment in Minneapolis, and a report on scandalous housing conditions in a low-income trailer camp.
Down to earth
This year, for another example, NewsNight Minnesota returned again and again to a garden in a low-income Minneapolis community. Instead of joining the TV competition to horrify viewers with redundant stories about the climbing murder rate, reporter/producer Daniel Bergin looked at the cooperative garden as one neighborhood's attempt to build community and literally stake out a place for productive values in the face of crime.
From planting to harvest, Bergin visited the garden, where Thai-, Norwegian- and African-American neighbors bent over their plots, saved money on groceries and taught their kids something amazing about what grows out of dirt.
The harvest report shows kids excitedly pulling big stubby carrots out of the soil. A garden organizer remarks, ''I like it, too, that fun and work aren't opposite things.''
''It's interesting to see,'' Stone remarks, ''a story about something that happens all the time, but is not talked about.'' Not on TV anyway.
The result clearly is not for everybody. NewsNight Minnesota averaged a 3 rating for the first time during a week in October, according to Tom Holter, director of programming. Commercial stations' 6 p.m. newscasts are getting ratings of 8 to 14.
But NewsNight's audience is substantial, and growing. That 3 rating was more than twice the 1.2 average that Jim Lehrer's national NewsHour earned on KTCA as lead-in to NewsNight. And audiences for the local program are up 15 percent from last year, Holter says.
''The program, audience-wise, is doing for my money significantly better than what I was expecting,'' says Hanley.
It wasn't Hanley's money that put the show on, of course, but he and the staff and KTCA President Jack Willis did bet a lot on their newscast.
Hanley recalls that Willis, when he first came to town in 1990, asked him, ''Why don't you guys do a nightly news program?'' Willis wanted KTCA to be the channel where viewers could go, any night of the week, to learn what was being said about the day's hot issue in the state.
Willis--who helped create excitement over The 51st State, a strong local news program he produced two decades ago at WNET, New York--remains an advocate of local production. ''That's what we really have to offer,'' he says. ''Otherwise, we're just pass-throughs.''
In an age when national networks can operate economically by sending programs straight down the satellite/cable hookup and into homes, it's an expensive anachronism to have pass-through organizations in 200 cities if they do nothing but propagate national programs.
''Five years from now,'' as Hanley quotes Willis, ''there's not going to be a good, solid reason for these public television stations to exist if they don't do local programming.''
With NewsNight in the first half-hour of primetime, KTCA is devoting 16 to 18 percent of its primetime to local programming; Willis' goal is 20 percent. The station is also building its presence in national production, but primarily as a way of paying for local production.
The manager had an idea of what NewsNight should be. It would give its audience a ''bottom/up'' look at issues from the viewpoint of individual Minnesotans rather than the typical ''top/down'' view dominated by officials and policy wonks who talk to reporters. And it would cover underreported communities--not only ethnic minorities but also the rural areas that Twin Cities people call ''greater Minnesota.''
KTCA carries the cost for four other Minnesota stations to air the show; most use it at 10 or 10:30 in the evening. KTCA's sister station in Twin Cities, KTCI, repeats it at 9 p.m.
Breakout from prevailing economics
Launching the program required KTCA to escape the usual economics of local programming. Without the ad revenue and big audience shares of commercial newscasts, TV producers simply can't mount even a relatively inexpensive news show like NewsNight Minnesota.
''Whatever the new media is going to be,'' Willis predicts, ''nobody is going to be servicing the local community. The problem is the expense.''
Hanley says the show is costing KTCA $2.5 million a year, on top of the budget for a relatively active local production portfolio. The station assigns five reporters to the show, along with occasional moonlighting producers from other KTCA departments, two fulltime videographers, and several outstate stringers who file stories on Hi-8 videotape--only a fraction of the reporting staff of 15 or 20 fielded by commercial stations in town, according to Hanley.
The costs are ''well beyond the capacity to support through normal vehicles,'' says Hanley. Underwriting at normal rates can't carry the load, agrees Beth Schoeppler, KTCA's senior manager of corporate and foundation relations. Even if she could sell out NewsNight's entire inventory of credits at the same price charged for the long-established weekly show Almanac, KTCA would bring in just $750,000-900,000--well short of the annual cost of $2.5 million.
So Channel 2 mounted the Power of 2 campaign, raising $6 million from foundations and other big donors to carry most of the cost of a three-year NewsNight tryout (and an additional $2.5 million, so far, for other productions).
Whenever Hanley tells his counterparts from other stations that KTCA raised $6 million for just one local show, he says, ''they virtually pass out.''
Only a few public TV stations have weeknightly series. Chicago's WTTW, Los Angeles' KCET and North Carolina's UNC-TV have talk or magazine-style series; the New Jersey and Oklahoma networks have nightly news programs; Boston's WGBH dropped its Ten O'Clock News in 1991 and now carries a nightly talk show.
Approaching the two-year point in the three-year NewsNight tryout, has the show succeeded?
''I think we've done it,'' replies Willis. ''I feel very good about the program.''
Will the foundations that put up big hunks of the money come back with more, or will they expect KTCA to find continuation funding elsewhere, as foundations often do?
''The foundations that support us recognize that this is an expensive venture and not something we can do entirely on our own,'' Willis says.
One reason KTCA had this fundraising success is that the Twin Cities are famous for civic-minded corporations and foundations, and another is the not-unrelated quality of broadcast journalism in Twin Cities, Hanley observes. Viewers there know that a good local newscast can be done because they've actually seen them.
''This community was used to an extremely high quality of local news product,'' says Hanley. WCCO and other local commercial stations once provided some of the best local TV newscasts in the country, but tabloid news techniques grabbed the ratings and standards tumbled.
To launch its show, KTCA hired an almost Cronkitian local figure, Ron Handberg, a novelist and retired g.m. of WCCO, who had led its news department during the glory days. Hanley, Handberg and KTCA production manager Christine Maloney hid away for a long day, two years ago, showing Handberg the budgets and plans before he agreed to sign on. When Hanley told staffers that he had snagged Handberg to start up the show, they broke out in applause.
Handberg produced and coanchored the show until last December, when he bowed out, as previously planned; his deputy, Stone, took over in both roles. The other anchor also changed this fall. TV veteran Carolyn Brookter, a part-timer with a corporate day job, cut back her moonlighting, and KTCA brought in Kathy Wurzer, who also cohosts its weekly Almanac public affairs show and was previously the lead political reporter for Minnesota Public Radio.
Out with TV pathology
The NewsNight idea is to take what's useful and comfortable about the all-American newscast and dispense with the pathology. The show does the weather, for example, because Minnesotans are obsessed with it, though NewsNight gives only 10 seconds to the forecast instead of several minutes.
The anchors, perhaps incidentally, are nice-looking young folks. Flattering them only slightly, Stone and Wurzer could be described as younger versions of Kevin Kline and Diane Sawyer. And the set is a big, swoopy azure-and-ocher space that looks like something from Star Trek, especially in the reverse shot peeking over the anchor's shoulder at a big electronically inserted picture of an interview subject where you'd expect to see a belligerent Klingon.
''The one shot I'm still self-conscious about is the reverse shot,'' admits Hanley. When he showed a tape of NewsNight to producers from other stations, everybody laughed at the set-up. ''I knew we had to do some modifications. It's still awkward. In a program that does emphasize its naturalness, it's the one shot that looks unnatural.''
Producers recently moved one of the anchors, usually Stone, into a newsroom upstairs, where he anchors and does interviews in shirtsleeves, while Wurzer presides on the set, where she does the longer group interviews. One reason, says Hanley, was to ''avoid the awkward moments that require anchors to talk to each other.''
The show avoids inane patter, but doesn't flaunt its alternativeness. ''They've embraced a lot of commercial television techniques to the point when some people criticize them for not being different enough,'' says Noel Holston, Minneapolis Star-Tribune TV critic.
He likes the show anyway. The show works hard to bring in commentators with unusual viewpoints, Holston says. ''They have shown me things about ethnic neighborhoods that I have never seen anyplace else. NewsNight is a very good program. It's frequently intriguing as well as just good-for-you.''
The problem is that many viewers can't abide the low stimulation levels of responsible journalism. ''The fact is that county commission meetings and debating public policy can be boring,'' says Holston. ''Television conditions us to want things to be entertaining.''
Burl Gilyard, media columnist with the Twin Cities Reader, says NewsNight is a thoughtful show, not condescending, but wishes it would move faster, spring more surprises, and seem more distinct from commercial TV newscasts. ''One thing I hear a lot is people are just not watching it, and when they do, they're bored.
Paul Klite, an activist researcher who worked on the study that gave NewsNight a low Mayhem Index, says most TV journalism is trapped in a profit race, continually raising the emotional level of TV news to keep viewers tuned in and aroused for commercials.
Klite's survey not only gave NewsNight the lowest Mayhem Index of any sampled newscast, but also the lowest Pavlov Index, based on levels of fluff, commercialism and manipulation as well as violence. ''Here's a station that's making an attempt to give an alternative, and my hat's off to them.''
As John Carman of the San Francisco Chronicle reported, ''By far, the lowest Pavlov Index rating for mayhem and fluff went to KTCA-TV in Minneapolis-St. Paul. No wonder. It's a PBS station with its own nightly newscast.''
Instead of exciting viewers with redundant murder-rate stories, Bergin visited and revisited a cooperative garden--one neighborhood's attempt to literally stake out a place for productive values in the face of crime.
To Current's home page
Earlier commentary: Jack Willis, the KTCA president who backed the nightly news show, explains why local production is an important niche for public TV, 1992.
Later news: In public TV, where nightly local news programs are an exceptional effort, a dozen stations are producing them (as of September 1997) and the number is growing slowly.
Web page revised Sept. 27, 1997
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