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Katrina-Area TV Stations Still Reeling

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Thursday, March 9, 2006

Wanted: Reporters for "the Story of Their Lives"

Six months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, television stations on the Gulf Coast are still reeling, news directors from the area said today in a panel discussion in Washington. Some are operating with jury-rigged equipment and impaired staffing because of the lack of available housing for employees, they said.

Still, they said at the forum sponsored by the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, they are covering a story that has bonded the area's broadcast journalists and given them a renewed sense of purpose.

"It's a tough challenge for a journalist to actually tell the magnitude of the story," Anzio Williams, news director of WDSU-TV in New Orleans, said. "Journalism has a whole new meaning. People really understand that we're the lifeline."

"This is what journalism is all about," said Bob Noonan, news director of WGNO-TV in New Orleans. "Trying to get the word out. I love watching what they do every day. They get help from other reporters – Did you hear this? Did you hear that?' New Orleans is the place to be if you're a journalist."

"They'd come in from a story and they'd hug you and it was very natural," added Sandy Breland, vice president and news director of WWL-TV in New Orleans. "It's an invaluable bonding experience. One of the things we found was that people wanted to work -- they wouldn't take a day off."

But the conditions under which they are working still are trying. "There are two words – no permanence," said Gary Wordlaw, general manager of WUPL-TV in Metairie, La., which has no news department. "Living there is hard. People don't want to work – they have no place to live."

"All the stations were hit hard. We don't have a home," Noonan said. "We don't have a studio to go back to. We're kind of like the band of brothers."

Noonan described how his station got its signal on the air by putting a satellite device on its transmitter and sending the signal to Mobile, Ala., which sent it to Orlando, Fla., which sent it to Denver, headquarters of the satellite company. When it rained one night in Denver, the station lost its signal, he said.

Twelve people on the staff of WLOX-TV in Biloxi, Miss., "lost everything," said David Vincent, station manager and news director. Anchor Rebecca Powers spent three hours in the water. "She lost all her possessions. She didn't even have her own clothes. The water washed her home away." She wanted her cat back, and a few weeks later, it materialized, at one-third its former weight.

Some stations lost employees who could not abide the conditions. But the predicament played out both ways. WDSU-TV hired a woman whose husband came to New Orleans to help in the rebuilding process. Yet WGNO-TV lost a potential employee whose parents advised their daughter against leaving Tyler, Texas, for the devastated region. Noonan said a photographer who lost his apartment decided this was the time to leave the business. It's easier to recruit single people, Breland said.

Anchor John Snell of WVUE-TV said the conditions in the region also mean "the stations realize they have to pay people."

Williams, a black journalist, told Journal-isms that he might have the largest percentage of African Americans of any television station in New Orleans, counting three black male producers and five black male photographers. He said he has openings for a weekend anchor, a reporter, two producers, an assignment editor, a Web editor and a photographer.

The Gulf Coast is a place for "young people who have a lot of energy who realize this is the story of their lives," Snell said.

The session, attended by about 60 people at lunchtime in the National Press Club, was recorded by C-SPAN.

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D.C. Cuts Won't Affect Diversity Goals, Editor Says

The Washington Post's diversity goals are unaffected by the newspaper's decision to reduce its news staff by the equivalent of 80 full-time jobs, Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. told Journal-isms today.

Post executives announced to employees yesterday and today that the newspaper plans "voluntary retirement incentive programs in the News, Commercial, and Production Departments," as Publisher Bo Jones put it in a memo, to cope with "flattened" newspaper revenues and rising expenses. The paper is reducing its newsroom staff of 800 by the equivalent of 80 full-time jobs, Downie said – "equivalent" because the reduction includes part-timers. The shrinkage would be achieved through buyouts and attrition, without layoffs, he said.

Downie told Journal-isms that the paper will use three hiring criteria: whether the person has special expertise, whether the journalist is outstanding and is available because of downsizing at another news outlet, and whether the hiring would increase diversity -- not necessarily in that order, he said.

In fact, Downie noted, when the Post offered buyouts in December 2003, it increased its proportion of journalists of color because most of the 55 or so who took the buyouts were white. That group included black journalists William Raspberry, syndicated columnist; Michael E. Hill, 21-year editor of the Washington Post's TV Week Sunday magazine; and Cheryl G. Butler, director of recruiting and hiring. Buyouts were extended to people over age 55 who had been at the newspaper 10 years or more.

Last year, 28 of the paper's 58 hires were people of color, or 48 percent, Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman said. In comments released in February in response to a report from the newsroom's diversity committee, top editors said journalists of color comprised 23.5 percent of the staff.

However, the paper subscribes to the American Society of Newspaper Editors' goal of having the staff mirror the population in the circulation area. In the Washington area, the proportion of people of color is said to exceed 40 percent.

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Wendi Thomas Named Baltimore Sun Columnist

Wendi C. Thomas, a columnist at the Commercial Appeal in Memphis since 2003 who was shifted out of the Metro section last month as the paper prepared to zone editions, is leaving the paper for the Baltimore Sun, the Sun announced today.

Thomas, a member of the Trotter Group of African American columnists, replaces Michael Olesker, who left the paper in December after allegations of plagiarism.

Thomas told Journal-isms the Sun called before the Commercial Appeal moved her from the Metro section. "I didn't go looking for a job, and if the Sun hadn't called, I would have been here, content, for years and years. I'm excited to be moving to the East Coast and [to have] the opportunity to work with a roster of incredibly talented journalists," she added.

"I grew up here in Memphis, my parents are still here, and Memphis will always be home. The Commercial Appeal's editor, Chris Peck, took a chance hiring me to do a job I'd never done before, and I will always be grateful for that."

"Before joining The Commercial Appeal, Thomas was assistant features editor at The Charlotte Observer and previously worked as night editor there. She also has been an assistant metro editor and a regional reporter at The Tennessean in Nashville and a metro reporter and occasional columnist for The Indianapolis Star. She worked as an intern on the Metro desk at The Commercial Appeal during the summer of 1992," the Commercial Appeal said when it hired her.

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That Friendly Homeless Man Was J-School Grad

A friendly homeless man who had been "adopted" by neighbors on New York's Upper West Side was revealed after his death to have been a 1972 graduate of Columbia Journalism School and one of five African American students to integrate the white high school in Sylacauga, Ala.

Sam Willie Averiett Jr., 57, died on Feb. 3 after a heart attack. A neighbor, Ellen Pall, wrote about him Feb. 19 in the New York Observed weekly section of the New York Times, zoned for city readers, and Wayne Dawkins this week alerted Columbia Journalism School alumni in his Black Alumni Network newsletter.

"Sam, as we all knew, was a spare, self-contained figure of Dickensian singularity," Pall wrote. "In the last five or 10 years, he always appeared on our sidewalks wearing a suit and dress shoes, and wheeling behind him a hard-sided leather suitcase. The baseball hat some recalled him wearing years ago had been replaced by a series of berets and, more recently, a woolen cap molded by use to the shape of his head. Though he seldom made eye contact, he was remarkable for his nearly perpetual smile."

Other neighbors added their remembrances on the Art-Spirit.net Web site, which also features his photo and other material about him.

It is not clear what happened to Averiett over the years. At Columbia, the classbook said he had been a summer intern at the Washington Post. Pall, a freelance writer, told Journal-isms she continued to try to track down more of his background after her piece was published and verified that he had worked in the press office of ITT World Services in the early 1970s, as well as the Insurance Industry Institute. He apparently had schizophrenia and substance abuse problems, Pall said.

"I cried so yesterday," his sister, Shirley Buie of Birmingham, Ala., told Journal-isms today. "I just really took the time to think about what really happened. It's been bothering me. The jobs he had and the education. He had no business in the street. That is the mystery."

Buie said Averiett called her about four months ago, although she had not seen him in 35 years.

"My main purpose was to try to get him to Birmingham," she said. He was buried Feb. 11 in Sylacauga. The same day, 80 or 90 friends met in New York by his favorite bench on Riverside Drive to remember him.

Buie said she has received "just so many calls and letters" from people who knew him. She can be reached at 2320 Park Place N., Birmingham, Ala. 35203 or (205) 323-6555.

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Downsized Newsday Changes Assignments

Having undergone two major downsizings in the space of a year, Newsday yesterday announced assignment changes for many of its beat reporters, prompting suspicions that in one case the paper was retaliating for a reporter's union involvement.

Among the reporters of color who now have general assignment duties added to their primary responsibilities are Martin Evans and John Gonzales, who cover diversity issues; Denise Bonilla, who covered the town of Hempstead but now is to cover immigration and general assignment; and Herbert Lowe, immediate past president of the National Association of Black Journalists, who covers courts.

In addition, Nassau County reporter Monte Young, who has been a spokesman for the paper's black caucus, has been shifted from covering Nassau County government to night editing and general assignment; Wil Cruz, whose byline appears over a variety of general-assignment and crime stories, was moved to a 7:30 a.m. shift to assist in rewrite; Mira Lowe, who had been recruiting, will now become a deputy editor in the L.I. Life section; and Emi Endo, a county government reporter, has been shifted to covering the town of Hempstead.

Zachary Dowdy, a union leader who represented newsroom employees in the recently concluded contract talks, and a past president of the Boston Association of Black Journalists, will work night rewrite for three nights, and keep his criminal justice beat the other two days.

The New York Post's Keith Kelly today quoted one "insider" as saying of Dowdy's move, "A lot of people feel it is retaliatory."

Dowdy said it was "not clear yet" whether it was. Sandy Keenan, assistant managing editor for Long Island, told Journal-isms, "I'd rather not talk about things that are going on inside the newspaper."

Kelly also reported, "On Feb. 28, about 40 reporters huddled at the union's off-campus headquarters in Melville, L.I., to vent in a heated meeting that dragged on for nearly three hours.

"While Newsday Editor-in-Chief John Mancini was serving as a judge for the Pulitzer Prizes in Manhattan this week, back at the front reporters were seething – and anxious – over the sweeping new assignments."

Newsday announced in November 2004 it was eliminating about 100 jobs, or 3 percent of its work force, and last September said it would cut an additional 45 editorial positions.

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Oscar for S. African Film Inspires Continent

The Best Foreign Film Oscar for South Africa's "Tsotsi," about a Johannesburg shantytown thug, has inspired the entire African continent, Charlayne Hunter-Gault reported today on National Public Radio's "News and Notes."

"They're over the moon," Hunter-Gault told Farai Chideya. "When we talked once when 'Tsotsi' was nominated, I had not seen the film. I had subsequently seen it, and I was just as proud as everyone else in South Africa that it won, because it is a powerful film. And South Africans are so excited. The country has 11 official languages. It's still got the black/white divide and the rich and poor divide, and there aren't a lot of things that bring this country together. But this is one of them.

"Everybody in the country was elevated and uplifted by this win. And African filmmakers from Addis Ababa all the way to Nigeria and down to South Africa are saying that they want to tell their own stories, that they don't want to see themselves interpreted through the prism of Western eyes. And so I think that now with this 'Tsotsi' film out there, a lot of people will now go and see it, and we see the potential of the human story being successful not only in Africa but around the world."

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Short Takes

  • "Under pressure from President Jacques Chirac, the main French television channel, TF1, has appointed a black journalist as 'substitute' presenter," or anchor, "of the country's most-watched news bulletin," John Lichfield reported Wednesday in the London Independent. "From July, Harry Roselmack, 32, will become the first non-white person to present a prime-time, mainstream television news programme on France's most-watched channel, TF1."
  • "A former investigative reporter for WMAR-TV was arrested Tuesday night and charged with domestic aggravated assault, accused of throwing a kettle of hot water at his wife during an argument in their West Baltimore home, authorities said," Richard Irwin reported Thursday in the Baltimore Sun. "Darryn M. Moore, 41, a reporter for WTTG-TV in Washington, was released on his own recognizance shortly after he appeared before a District Court commissioner, authorities said." Moore was a police officer from 1986 to 1999, according to his bio.
  • "With at least two bids on the table, Knight Ridder's board of directors is scheduled to meet Sunday in New York to weigh offers in the possible sale of the San Jose newspaper company," Pete Carey reported today in the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News. "The company has received bids from McClatchy, the Sacramento newspaper chain that owns the Sacramento Bee, and a private equity consortium of Texas Pacific Group, Thomas H. Lee Partners, Hellman & Friedman, Bain Capital and Oak Hill Partners."
  • "A consortium of investors including Rhode Island-based Providence Equity Partners Inc. and Mexico's largest television broadcaster, Grupo Televisa, is considering bidding for Spanish-language media giant Univision Communications Inc., a person close to the situation said Thursday," Meg James reported in the Los Angeles Times today.
  • Spanish-language print and broadcast PSAs for next week, March 12-18, designated "Sunshine Week" for 2006, have been completed, Sunshine Week coordinator Debra Gersh Hernandez said today. The print ads are available on the Sunshine Week Web site. The radio ad has been posted on a special page. Instructions for downloading the TV ad are to be available on that page on Monday. "During Sunshine Week, participating daily and weekly newspapers, magazines, online sites, and radio and television broadcasters run editorials, op-ed columns, editorial cartoons, public forums, and news and feature stories that drive public discussion about why open government is important to everyone, not just to journalists," the site says.
  • Washington Times reporter Robert Redding, like other staffers told in January that "Employees are not to report on or publish anything concerning The Washington Times itself" on a blog, left the paper Feb. 3 after two-and-a-half years, Redding told the blog FishBowl D.C. Redding "dived head first into Redding Communications, Inc.," Patrick Gavin wrote.
  • "Starting March 10 (7-10 a.m. ET, 6-9 a.m. CT), Renán Almendárez Coello, better known as popular radio host El Cucuy, will appear intermittently on Telemundo's morning show Cada Día con María Antonieta," Nancy Ayala wrote today in Marketing y Medios. "While El Cucuy will engage in weekly Friday discussions about noteworthy topics in the Hispanic community with host María Antonieta Collins, she also will be a voice on his radio program – when someone is helming a different segment on the TV show or during commercials."
  • "I have never had an interest in being the anchor of the 'Evening News,' CBS News correspondent Ed Bradley told the Public Eye blog Thursday. "It's nice to do it on an occasional basis but I like the freedom that comes with doing stories for '60 Minutes' and the variety of stories I get to report. For me, anchoring was too much of being in the same place every day." He also said, "When I first started in New York at WCBS radio," where he worked from 1967 to 1971, "the assignment editor automatically assigned any story that had a minority in it to me. I objected to being typecast and told him if I didn't get a variety of stories -- as other reporters did -- then I would take it up with the news director."
  • "Sinclair Broadcasting has decided to pull the plug on its 10 p.m. newscast on WNYO-TV (Channel 49)," James Fink reported Wednesday in the Buffalo Business Journal. And, as Eric Deggans reported Wednesday in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, "Officials at Tampa WB affiliate WTTA-Ch. 38 said Tuesday they will dissolve the station's news department and discontinue its 10 p.m. newscast on March 31."
  • As Fox's FX channel debuted "Black. White.," a "reality" TV series in which two families are transformed with makeup into the other race to see how the world responds, Washington Post reporters Robert E. Pierre and Brigid Schulte sat down with a black family and a white family Wednesday night to watch, reporting the families' reactions for the Thursday paper.

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site BugMeNot.com provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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