Dave Helling has narrowly escaped the suck zone.
In the last hour, the KCTV Channel 5 anchor has scrambled to cover a meeting at the Capitol in Jefferson City and fended off a tow truck driver who threatened to impound Channel 5’s illegally parked SUV. He has spliced sound bites on a glitch-prone editing machine and waited helplessly while Greg “Mundo” Mundkowsky, the satellite-truck wizard, crawled around frantically switching wires and turning knobs to fix a transmitter that wasn’t doing what it was supposed to — beam Helling’s voice and image up to a satellite 23,000 miles above the equator and back down to a dish in Johnson County. In the suck zone, everything goes wrong while seconds race toward the deadline for broadcast.
Helling misses his cue for the 5 p.m. newscast. But at ten minutes after the hour, Mundo pushes the right button and gets the transmitter working again. Helling puts together a live dispatch to close out the broadcast. Now he can work at a normal pace. He calls producer Becky Schieber, who sits at a desk in Channel 5’s Fairway newsroom, and dictates an introduction for his next live report, which she types into the script for the 6 p.m. show.
“City officials are ecstatic about reaction to taxpayer support for the Truman Sports Complex,” Helling says in a TV-news tone, though he is off the air. “Some lawmakers not from our area aren’t so sure. The state legislature held its first hearing today on plans to spend more than 300 million taxpayer dollars for upgrades at Arrowhead and Kauffman stadiums.” He pauses to allow Schieber’s typing to catch up. “Dave Helling is freezing his ass off in Jefferson City for a stupid live shot. And he joins us now for more. Dave, how fuckin’ cold is it?”
Extremely fuckin’ cold. It’s just past sunset in late February, and the temperature at the state Capitol cowers just below 20 degrees. Helling buttons his overcoat against the lip-splitting wind and steps out of the satellite truck to stand before a camera aimed at the Capitol steps and dome. Waiting for his cue, he leans over and eyes his reflection in the camera’s lens. He licks his fingers and tames a cowlick in his boyish hair. His teeth are clenched, braced against the frozen gusts. Through a tiny earphone he hears his cue and begins effortlessly reciting the news. At the end of his spiel, technicians in Channel 5’s studio flip switches, and viewers watch sound bites from people Helling interviewed earlier in the day. While Helling waits for another cue to close out his 90-second report, a thin bead of mucus collects at the corner of his nose. He shudders, thinking, “I’d better wrap this up, or I’m going to have a big loogie running down my face.”
Helling’s report from Jefferson City is no big scoop —just a handful of Kansas City’s power brokers trying to convince a bunch of pols that debt is actually “new money” and that rich sports-team owners need welfare to survive. Any nightside reporter working his way up the broadcast-news hierarchy could have suffered through the assignment. But for Helling it was an opportunity to hone his competitive edge.
Between interviews, newsmakers took him aside and whispered story tips in his ear, leads that will eventually crystallize into exclusive reports. Though Helling and his colleagues at Channel 5 have been Kansas City’s second most popular — and, in turn, second most profitable — news team for more than a decade, grueling days like this make Helling feel a tad superior to Larry Moore, Helling’s affable counterpart at the perennially top-ranked station, KMBC Channel 9. “The reality is that if you went and sat with Larry tonight, you wouldn’t be real busy,” Helling says with all the diplomacy he can muster.
“Three-hundred-forty-four stories and counting.”
Channel 5’s latest glitzy promotion touts wolf-eyed, news-junkie anchors who “don’t just read the news …they cover it!”
This “Anchors Who Report” blitz appears to be an innovative new image for the station — something it clearly needs. As second dog in this TV news market, the station earns less money than its nemesis, Channel 9. A lot less. The mere 1 percent or 2 percent difference in ratings points between the two stations costs Channel 5 several hundred dollars for each 30-second ad — several million dollars a year. So Channel 5 executives have launched an all-out effort to be number one.
Meredith Corporation, the Des Moines-based company that owns Channel 5, has a new president of its broadcast division who, unlike some of his predecessors, actually has TV news experience. The station also has a zealous new general manager who intends to take it to the top of Kansas City’s market by 2005. Longtime staffers say they’ve seen more changes during the last several months than they have in decades.
“Anchors Who Report” is just one of the changes, but it isn’t Channel 5’s new image. The station doesn’t have one.
A local TV station’s image typically boils down to a single slogan. Kansas City’s stations offer “Coverage You Can Count On” (Channel 9); “Kansas City In-Depth” (KSHB Channel 41); “Working 4 You” (WDAF Channel 4); and until recently, Channel 5’s “News That Makes a Difference.” Station executives agonize over these slogans. They pay consultants hundreds of thousands of dollars to help develop them. They toil for hours in meetings, arguing at times over the merits of one word. They recruit carefully selected “average” viewers to form focus groups and scrutinize the phrases as if they’re possible titles for a new Jim Carrey movie. But for all that, audiences tend to ignore slogans. “There are slogans in every market,” says Channel 5 executive producer Shawn Bohs. “But they mean nothing.”
Just about everyone at Channel 5 agrees that the station’s last “branding” effort — “News That Makes a Difference” — was a failure. It took three years and bags and bags of money to come up with those four words. In 1998, Channel 5 began working with a consulting company to make a run for number one in Kansas City. The consultants told their clients to keep doing the things that made the station number two. They pointed to the station’s strengths — Stan Cramer’s face-slapping “Call for Action” exposés, Anne Peterson’s earnest “Family Health” reports, the community-minded “Education First” series, spots that groomed citizens to become “Crime Stoppers” — and said the station could claim a niche by delivering news viewers could actually put to use, news that could change lives. For example, they said, if an infant in Raytown burns to death because of a faulty space heater, the station could report the story like everyone else but produce a companion piece about how to detect a flawed space heater. “It got kind of strange at times,” Bohs admits. “We were always riding that fine line of, ‘Are we reporting the news, or are we advocates?'”
While Channel 5 wrestled with this question, things began to unravel at the station. In January 2001, anchor Tracy Townsend left for a higher-profile job in Chicago. Then, facing recession, Meredith Corporation, which owns eleven other stations nationwide (as well as Better Homes and Gardens magazine), offered an early-retirement buyout. While the station’s old-timers pondered the option, uncertainty enveloped the staff. No one was sure who they would be working with by year’s end.
A handful of Channel 5 stalwarts eventually said goodbye, among them the station’s two best-known personalities: Cramer and anchor Wendall Anschutz. Then the station’s top boss, general manager John Rose, stepped down. Amid the turmoil, “News That Makes a Difference” withered. In the vacuum, then-news director Don North quickly devised the “Anchors Who Report” campaign. It wasn’t difficult. Because of the station’s small staff, its anchors were already gathering stories regularly.
Rose’s departure made room for Kirk Black (no relation to veteran Channel 5 reporter Reed Black). He had briefly piloted a Meredith station that wasn’t quite number one in Flint, Michigan. (Before that, he ran WIBW Channel 13 in Topeka.) Black is young, in his mid-thirties, and his ascent in the TV business has been uncannily swift. He speaks a salesman’s fast rap and shakes hands with a perfected squeeze. Before he even claimed his desk at Channel 5, he buried himself in data about his new station. “The facts indicated we had, over the last five or six years, lost a fairly sizable chunk of our news audience … in key demographics,” he says. “Our profit margins had declined, and revenue share remained about flat. Those were the facts. The hard part, of course, was finding out why.”
For the first few months Black roamed the office, asking his new employees why they thought the station was losing. Some expressed frustration about a laissez-faire attitude that had afflicted the entire news operation. There seemed to be a contentment with being in second place. When mistakes happened — which was often — managers tended to shrug them off as they would a shanked drive on the seventeenth tee. In fact, Channel 5 has long been known as “the country club station,” partly because of its location on what was once a driving range but mostly because of its reputation for being comfortable.
Black immediately sought to change the station’s culture. The words “number one” appeared more frequently in daily memos. He encouraged the news team to hold more formal editorial meetings. He invited workers from all departments to join him for weekly breakfast meetings. “It’s democracy,” he says. “We hashed it out. We spent hours talking about this stuff.”
Yet staffers can be exiled from Black’s democracy. “Everybody’s not a ‘can’t-be-replaced’ player on a team,” Black says. “Those teams don’t exist. I’m replaceable. Everybody’s replaceable at some point. You have to go into it looking at all of your players and deciding [who are] ‘gotta haves,’ ‘hate to lose,’ ‘OK to lose’ and ‘goodbye.’
“I don’t have [Channel 9’s Bryan] Busby. I don’t have Larry Moore,” Black continues. “If I was [Channel 9 general manager] Wayne Godsey, I would probably say that [big-name] talent is everything. Well, I don’t have those guys. So if I make it all about talent, I’m setting myself up for failure.”
Black killed “News That Makes a Difference.” He asked his new staffers if they thought they could live up to the slogan; to a person, they said no. He insists that the station will never again waste three years on a meaningless sentence. “People watch because you did a good job covering the ice storm, or people watch because you broke three stories today that nobody else did.”
Yet some of Black’s ballsiest changes might ultimately be superficial. Last December, the station started a 4:30 a.m. newscast, a half hour earlier than the other stations in town. He says he didn’t use any consultants to make the decision. “We said, ‘You know what, let’s be even more aggressive.’ We looked at the number of viewers [watching at] at 4:30 and found there were more than we thought.” The move is already getting results. In mid-February, Channel 5’s morning show beat Channel 9’s for the first time in years. More recently, the station has added a 4:30 p.m. newscast (also the earliest in Kansas City) and a traffic reporter who runs a network of live cameras positioned around the city.
But Black says his most significant step was hiring a new news director.
On April 1, Regent Ducas took over as the new leader of the Channel 5 newsroom, replacing Don North. Ducas was an assistant news director at Detroit’s WDIV Channel 4 — “one of NBC’s top-performing major-market affiliates” for more than a decade, according to Mediaweek magazine. Like Black, Ducas, 37, was a fast riser. Before Detroit, he worked in Miami, which he calls “the best news market in the country; great breaking news, instant coverage.” He talks like Black, too. “I’m a very passionate person,” he says. “High Type-A. High energy. You can’t help but feel that urgency when I come into a room.”
It’s a Wednesday in Kansas City. In the suburbs, frustrated residents organize to tame a recent wave of crime that has hit their peaceful neighborhood. In Wyandotte County, a publicity-hungry district attorney deposes witnesses for his investigation of a high-school plagiarism controversy that’s become national news. The Missouri River flows into downtown at its lowest level in months. Federal officials descend on the city, inspecting houses damaged by the worst ice storm in decades. A revered general steps off a plane at KCI. Morticians prepare a longtime civil servant for burial. Flocks of geese plague a quiet Northland community. And in a cramped conference room, a dozen Channel 5 reporters, editors and producers discuss how to compress the day into a few half-hour newscasts.
Reporters toss out story ideas. One says the superintendent of the embattled Kansas City, Missouri, school district is willing to talk on camera about his contract negotiations. Another says that half of all cardiac-arrest victims never survive the ride to the hospital. Near the head of the table, a producer hurriedly lists the ideas in bright blue ink on a dry-erase board.
After a reporter offers an update on the trial of an alleged teen-age murderer, the conferees fall into a rambling discussion about the psyches of teens.
Brenda Poor, sitting at the head of the table, impatiently taps her pen. As Channel 5’s daytime assignment editor, she leads the meeting. Her goal is to keep the pace quick and the discussion focused. She also has to quickly sift through the flotsam of ideas to find the most newsworthy nuggets. After a minute or so, she barks, “All right!” and the story ideas start flowing again. A reporter asks, “Have we done anything lately about this Internet surcharge? They want to tack a five-cent charge on e-mail.” Poor shoots down the idea. “That’s like an urban legend,” she says. “It’s been going around for years.”
Poor doesn’t have the final say on what will go in the evening broadcasts, but she holds a lot of sway. Today she’s pushing the “Maize follow.” On Monday, anchor and reporter Dana Wright scooped everyone in town with a story about Sergeant Bob Maize, a twenty-year veteran of the Kansas City Police Department who was suspended without pay and is being investigated by the FBI for possible mishandling of federal funds. “That’s a story we broke,” Poor says, urging continued coverage. “We need to own it.”
This is exactly the competitive drive Channel 5 executives sought when they stole Poor from Channel 9. Poor attributes her old station’s continued success to its former news director, Brian Bracco. “He really instilled in us a desire to become number one,” Poor says. “He was very involved, very intense. He treated us like a second family. He would pump us up. If we missed a story, he’d be the first on the phone yelling at us for falling through. When we’d break a big story, he’d be the first one jumping up and down, pumping his fist in the air.”
When she got a call from Channel 5, she said she was happy at Channel 9. But, she added, she’d be willing to listen. By then Bracco had advanced within Hearst-Argyle Television, the corporation that owns Channel 9, and some of the thrill had dissipated. Poor had been there for almost fifteen years. She was tired of working in the basement of the Lyric Theatre, tired of the dearth of parking around Channel 9’s downtown studios. As her new suitors rambled excitedly about all the changes they wanted to make, she decided she needed a new challenge.
Wayne Godsey, Channel 9’s president and general manager, says he’s not particularly threatened by Channel 5. “I don’t take any competitor for granted,” he says. “I expect them to try to knock us off. But at the same time, I’m highly confident of our people and our track record.”
Godsey says his research shows that Channel 9 is number one because viewers believe the station does a better job of covering hard news and that it owns major stories. They also say Channel 9 has the city’s most recognizable on-camera broadcasters.
That success is remarkable considering ABC’s poor prime-time ratings. For example, on Tuesday nights, Channel 5 has Judging Amy, the top-rated show at 9 p.m. But at 10, people switch to Channel 9 for news. Channel 4 has also sporadically beaten Channel 5 at 10 p.m. by a point or less.
Regarding Channel 5’s new 4:30 p.m. show, Godsey says, “Our preliminary analysis indicates that they’re probably doing no better than the show that was previously in that time period [the syndicated game show Jeopardy] and that their five o’clock numbers may actually be going down.”
But station execs aren’t paying much attention to the last ratings “sweeps” period (which dictates advertising rates); in February, the Olympics kept viewers tuned to Channel 41, and thousands of people couldn’t even watch TV because their power had been knocked out by the ice storm. Last November’s sweeps numbers showed a solid Channel 9 lead over Channel 5, though Channel 5 appeared to be gaining in the 6 p.m. slot.
When Poor joined Channel 5’s staff in January, she immediately saw why the station had a chronic case of second place. “It’s more relaxed here,” she says glibly. “I think that can be bad sometimes.” She says her new staff of reporters isn’t as intense about the job; they curse less. Once at Channel 9, Poor slammed down her phone and shouted, “Stupid fucking bastard!” She looked up and saw a troop of Boy Scouts staring back at her. From then on, coworkers warned her before tours passed through the newsroom.
After the morning news meeting, Poor takes her place at the assignment desk, which everyone calls “the nerve center of the newsroom.” It sits on a platform overlooking a wide room cluttered with banks of TV monitors and desks buried in piles of notebooks, government documents and old videotapes. Small offices, some stuffed with edit bays, others housing obsessively neat anchors, border the newsroom. Arrayed on the desk before Poor are ten police and fire scanners squawking simultaneously. “You just get used to it,” Poor says of the constant clatter. At Channel 9, she once heard her mother’s address amid all the tinny voices. She called the fire department, then her mom, telling her, “Don’t panic, but your apartment building is on fire.”
On top of listening to the garble, she fields a constant barrage of phone calls, monitors a fax machine she says “just keeps reproducing” and updates the story list with new leads and bits of information gleaned from constant phone interviews. Her memory-bank of phone numbers could fill a small-town directory. She has eighteen years of experience in the Kansas City news market, fifteen of them at the city’s top TV station.
General manager Kirk Black calls Poor’s hiring the second-most-important change at Channel 5 (after the hiring of the new news director, Ducas). “Brenda is very important,” he says. “And not just because she’s from Channel 9 — although it’s nice because she was with a winner.” Executive producer Shawn Bohs adds, “Brenda is the guts of the news operation. If you try to lay any bullshit on her, she’s going to see right through it.”
This particular Wednesday is quiet — no newsworthy emergencies scream across the scanners. So Poor has time to update her database of court cases Channel 5 is tracking. It drives her crazy when the station makes top news out of an early development in a crime — such as an arrest or the filing of charges — only to miss out when a conviction or acquittal comes through. Before she came to Channel 5, most staffers agree that the news team’s habitually missing big stories contributed to the station’s annual second-place finish in the ratings. Poor’s list reads like a roll-call for the worst of Kansas City: shooting … shooting … kidnap … rape… murder … murder … rape … rape … brutal rape … arson … shot his neighbor … child abuse and assault … hit-and-run with a child on a bike … indecent exposure to a child … child molestation … he did crude things with a six-year-old child … rape, sodomy and other gross things … cut her head off, dumped the body into the river.
Channel 5 runs at least one crime story in almost every newscast. “But that’s the nature of the business,” Poor says. “We report the good and the bad. People think we report more of the bad, but I think that’s just because bad news makes more of an impression.”
John Liebnitz, the Channel 5 planning editor who helped lure Poor away from Channel 9, overhears her comments. “I like teacher sex stories,” he says, only half joking. “I think those are extremely high-interest stories. We have a lot of kids that watch.”
He acknowledges the timeworn criticism of TV’s “If it bleeds, it leads” mantra. But he says it cuts both ways: When the station runs crime stories, people complain; when it doesn’t, they still gripe. “We want stories that make people stand up. Which would make you stand up and listen? A story about the budget? Or a story about a teacher having sexual relations with a student?”
After a recent 6 p.m. newscast, executive producer Bohs gathers the staff for its daily debriefing. “We are television,” he says bluntly. “We’re just kind of raising awareness. You know, reading the headlines. Reporting just what’s really important and then moving on.”
Most TV news stories get less than 90 seconds of airtime. That doesn’t give reporters a lot of room to explore the complexities of a news development. Take, for example, this assignment handed to reporter Reed Black midway through that Wednesday morning.
During the morning meeting, producers and editors had spooned through a thin gruel of story ideas to find a lead for the evening broadcasts. When the meeting adjourned, the top candidate was a localized version of the Olympics figure-skating controversy; a reporter had tracked down a couple of skating judges who live in the metro area. Poor was less than thrilled about the idea. “We’re not the Olympic station,” she complained. It was already an old story. But worse, it could direct viewers to Channel 5’s competitors at Channel 41.
Lead stories are critical. Ratings are measured in fifteen-minute blocks. If a station can keep viewers glued to its show for five minutes, it will get credit for having them the entire fifteen minutes. The front end of newscasts must be packed with compelling local stories to keep viewers away from other stations.
An hour after the discouraging editorial meeting, Liebnitz rushes to Poor’s desk saying he has scored an on-camera interview with Nick Tomasic, the Wyandotte County district attorney investigating the controversy in the Piper school district. A month earlier, a teacher at Piper High School had failed two dozen students for plagiarizing an assignment. In a closed-door meeting, the school board voted to overturn her decision. Channel 5 broke the story on January 25 — responding to a viewer tip, Poor had assigned the story to reporter Betsy Webster, who had pulled it together for the 10 p.m. broadcast. Four days later, The Kansas City Star‘s version of the story was picked up by national wire services. An interview with Tomasic is a small development, but it is also Poor’s chance to maintain ownership of the story. Within seconds, she and Liebnitz pull Reed Black from the figure-skating story and send him with a photographer to downtown Kansas City, Kansas.
Black’s interview is scheduled for 1 p.m. At the back door, he greets Ronen Kadosh, a photographer from Israel with a wavy ponytail. The two pile into a blue Crown Victoria with a CB antenna affixed to the trunk and no Channel 5 logo decals. “Everybody think we police,” Ronen says. “All the time, people scared from us.”
Their first stop is an Overland Park Borders bookstore. The Piper story made The New York Times today; Black runs in to buy a copy. “Sure enough,” Black says, sliding into the car and slapping the fat paper down on his lap as they head to Wyandotte County, “front page, below the fold.”
Ronen parks outside the courthouse, and the two schlep the camera, the tripod and a bag of lighting equipment to the DA’s office. The waiting room is dingy brown, with splotchy, worn carpet. Black leans against a wall and scans the Times article. “A company from Florida called asking for a list of names wanting to know whom never to hire,” he reads aloud, laughing. “A neighbor school displayed a sign saying, ‘If you want your grade changed, go to Piper.'”
A girl in the waiting room overhears him. She tells Black that she attends Piper High, that she had a class with the teacher at the center of the controversy. She blushes when Black asks her if she’ll stick around for an interview.
In Tomasic’s office, the interview goes quickly. Tomasic sits upright, his fingers laced together in front of him on his desk. He explains that he can’t force the school board to change its ruling. All he can do is prosecute an open-meetings violation.
The Piper student is waiting in the lobby, but just as Ronen and Black greet her, she is called to an assistant DA’s office to deal with a ticket. She agrees to meet them just outside the courthouse’s main entrance. As Ronen and Black pass the time smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk, a man pulls up in a rusty red pickup. He hands Black a thick book about a shadow government’s conspiracy to poison the public with tainted jet exhaust. He points to the sky, which is crisscrossed with thin white plumes. “See,” he says, “they’re everywhere.” Black politely accepts the book and rolls his eyes after the man leaves.
The teen arrives. Her name is Ashlie Stolte. She’s a junior. Ronen aims his camera, and Black peppers her with questions. Afterward, Black needs some more shots of Ashlie, images to break up the boring head shots. He tells her to go inside the courthouse and walk out past the camera. She emerges with a silly smile. After a few steps she takes a breath and apes a regal, true-life expression. Black asks for one more take.
Black and Ronen move to the other side of the building to shoot teases — short talking segments that run before commercial breaks to keep viewers’ fingers off their remote controls. “If we shoot them, [producers] don’t use them,” Black complains. “If we don’t shoot them, they go, ‘Did you get teases?'”
The two climb back into the car. A little more than an hour has passed. Black whips out his cell phone and calls the principal at Piper and the superintendent’s office. He holds the phone away from his ear while the superintendent’s secretary declines to comment. So far, he’s not excited about the story. Tomasic’s morning deposition is hardly a startling development. He doesn’t think Ashlie’s comments are interesting. The biggest news, he believes, is embedded in the Times article, which cites an unnamed source’s saying that the principal and a large number of teachers intend to resign at the end of the year. He doubts he’ll get anyone to confirm this on the record. “It appears everyone has clammed up,” he says.
He could stake out the school, try to shove the camera in the faces of teachers as they head to their cars. But broadcast time is just a couple of hours away. He has to go back to the studio to log and edit his footage early because he is scheduled to do a live shot outside the courthouse for the 5 and 6 p.m. newscasts.
Live reports convey the sense of urgency that producers and news directors crave. But though the story seems flashier, it’s actually weaker because the live shot eats up time that could be used for reporting — just so Black can stand in front of a lifeless building. Black downplays the Tomasic and Ashlie interviews and makes the thrust of his story basically: “Check it out! People in New York have noticed Kansas City!” The anonymously sourced Times information, Black later admits with a shrug, “could be complete bullshit.”
No matter how hard they hit the street, Channel 5’s news-hunting anchors still can end up producing stories that, like many TV news stories, are superficial — or fake.
Anchor Russell Kinsaul is working a post-ice-storm story. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials are assessing the storm’s damage, conducting property inspections to determine who might qualify for federal aid. Today the feds have agreed to let print and TV journalists tag along.
Kinsaul looks custom-made for anchoring: hair neatly gelled back from his forehead; a precise, hawkish nose; small, sincere eyes. He likes Channel 5’s “Anchors Who Report” game plan. “I love to dig up information,” he says. “If I weren’t doing this, I’d probably be a reference librarian.”
Kinsaul is expected to produce one story a day. “I feel guilty if I don’t have one,” he says. “The real fun is being out there where things happen.” He has hustled to get stories for 25 years, having started in the business at age 16, when he had no aspirations for a TV career. Back then, he wanted to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force. But he needed a part-time job. After two years of hauling equipment and chasing stories in his hometown of Ardmore, Oklahoma, he discovered his calling. “My goal was to be the man who replaced the man who replaced Walter Cronkite,” he says.
Kinsaul parks in front of a boxy white house facing a wooded ravine. Across the front lawn lies a massive sycamore branch downed during the ice storm. Below it are the crushed remains of a fence, a lamp post and a compact car. Mike Mahoney, Channel 9’s top bloodhound, is already on the scene. Ken Higginbotham, a government flak in a FEMA jacket, lays out the ground rules: For privacy reasons, the reporters can’t talk with the homeowner; though there are two government spokespeople on the scene, one refuses to be interviewed on camera. In the distance, the spokesperson is talking to a writer from the Kansas City Kansan. Mahoney is apoplectic: “She only talks to scribblers?!”
Higginbotham tries to calm him. “Come on, Mike,” he says. “We got this set up for you. We try to make it good for you.” FEMA flew Higginbotham in from Los Angeles; prior to that, he had worked at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. He says that FEMA employees “kind of cherry pick” to find a home for media opportunities, but this one has not been prescreened. “We didn’t check it out first,” he says. “This is a real inspection.”
The press entourage slowly moves into the house. At the head of the throng is the inspector, Derrick Taylor, who wears a purple FEMA hat. The home’s owner, LaTosha Fradieu, walks beside him, pointing out damage. She’s dressed as if she’s heading for church, in a purple pantsuit with gold embroidery on the lapels.
The crowd shuffles back outside, and the photographers shoot the fallen limb. Fradieu’s daughter climbs around on its branches. The Kansan reporter, Ben Embry, pulls Fradieu aside and asks what she thinks about “all this TV stuff.”
“It’s weird,” she says, laughing. She confesses that Taylor came out a couple of days earlier to conduct a complete inspection.
Embry’s eyes widen. “So this is for the media?” he hoots. “So this is a farce?”
Upon hearing this, Taylor concedes that he’s already visited the house, but only for a mock inspection. “This is the real deal,” he says.
Kinsaul isn’t happy about the phoniness of the event he’s covering, but he admits there’s not a lot he can do about it. “That’s something we have to weigh,” he says. “But when it’s a matter of getting access, what are you going to do?”
As assignments go, this one stinks. Even without the underlying fraudulence, Kinsaul has little choice but to shill for the government’s agenda. He knows it, and his skepticism is roused. He wonders if FEMA bureaucrats have some secret incentive to encourage a lot of people to apply for emergency grants. “Because in reality, not a lot of people actually get aid,” he says after getting back in the car to travel across town for another shoot at a FEMA office.
Kinsaul pulls out his cell phone and dials a CBS affiliate in Oklahoma, where another wicked ice storm hit a couple of years ago. He asks a reporter there if people had inflated expectations about the amount of aid they would receive, whether people were ultimately frustrated. The reporter says that was indeed the case.
By 5 p.m., Kinsaul’s report is as balanced as he can make it. He warns viewers of the high likelihood they won’t qualify for funds but says they’ll never know if they don’t apply. From FEMA’s Web site, he has retrieved financial statistics on the cleanup effort in Oklahoma and discovered that out of the $122 million government dollars spent there, only $11 million went to individuals. The rest went to local governments and the private companies that were contracted to help.
Kinsaul sprinkles his report with references to his own hard work — “I tagged along….” and “I learned….” and “Sources tell me….” He doesn’t mention that the bulk of the story’s images came from a staged inspection.
Just outside the city manager’s office on the 29th floor of City Hall, councilwoman Bonnie Sue Cooper pulls Dave Helling aside, places a hand on his forearm and whispers, “You missed it this morning.”
“What’d I miss?”
She tells him about the scandal: A parks board member has spent city money to mass-mail a postcard urging people to protest a development north of the river that the planning department has recommended for approval. The board member, Sandra Aust, runs a nonprofit that opposes the proposed housing development. “We’ve got a copy of the card,” Cooper says.
Helling came to City Hall with two stories in mind: one about plans to use tax dollars to raze the beloved Park Lane apartment building on the Plaza to make way for a downtown law firm and another about the city’s cleanup efforts after the ice storm. The postcard debacle becomes story number three. The city council’s weekly business meeting is about to begin in the city manager’s wide, sumptuous office. Helling is in his element. “I love working this meeting,” he says. “It’s more relaxed, and I can pull people aside and pump them for information.”
He’s almost hyperactive. Whenever he is momentarily without someone to talk to, he jams his hand in the pocket of his charcoal-gray suit and loudly jangles a handful of loose change. Helling leans against a wall near the head of a long conference table, where a quorum of council members sits with Mayor Kay Barnes and City Manager Bob Collins in high-backed black leather chairs. They all face a map propped up on an easel and listen to Mark McHenry, deputy director of the parks department, explain the city’s progress in its ice-storm cleanup. The map is covered with blotches of bright pink indicating where cleanup crews have been. “I’d like to see that pink area move more toward my district,” Riley complains. “Because we’re just getting raked through the coals.”
Helling scribbles a few notes. Only one other TV news camera is in the room, from Channel 4, Helling’s old employer. None of the marquee anchors for Channel 5’s competitors is present.
“This is the hottest room in America,” he says, unbuttoning his coat. Helling began his reporting career in 1977 at a radio station in Hastings, Nebraska. After four months there, he jumped to TV, working for a chain of stations in the Cornhusker State. A couple of years later he landed at a station in Wichita, which opened a Washington bureau shortly after he arrived. He scored the federal government beat, which he trolled through the early ’80s until he stepped up to the larger Kansas City market by taking a job at Channel 4. In early 1999, Channel 5 lured him away with a reported 50 percent pay increase. He says he’s never regretted leaving the station where he built his reputation as one of the city’s top political reporters. “Not for one minute. It was kind of a weird situation [at Channel 4]. There’s no encouragement to do your best there. They threaten you to do your best.”
He signed on as a weekend anchor and reporter. When Wendall Anschutz accepted the early-retirement plan last June, then-news director Don North asked Helling how he’d feel about a weekday anchor spot. Helling said he’d be happy to listen, but he was skeptical. “My greatest value is as a reporter,” he says. “I’ve worked too hard to throw that away.”
When North’s query became a solid offer — sweetened with a salary increase (“It wasn’t much,” Helling says) — Helling agreed, on two conditions: that he would be able to keep reporting and that he would not have to trade his tiny newsroom desk for an office. “My goal is to be the best reporter I can be,” he says. “If anchoring helps, that’s good. And it does help. People recognize me. They send in more tips. And I make more money. But I’m not going to give up eighteen years of reporting experience just so I can sit on a set and say, ‘Hey! It sure was cold today!'”
As the business meeting drones on, Helling pulls council members and his camera man out into the 29th-floor lobby and interviews them by the light of a north-facing window. After wrapping a short Q&A with Jim Rowland about the Park Lane apartments (“In my mind, it’s beyond logic and beyond comprehension that we would give the same tax incentives on the Plaza as we would downtown,” Rowland says), Helling chats with the councilman about how cavalierly tax breaks are awarded in Kansas City. “Nobody cares about it,” Helling complains. “You raise a big stink about it and — fffft! — it goes right through.” During off-camera exchanges like this, Helling seems to fancy himself the thirteenth city councilman. He has the power brokers’ respect, if not always their affection.
The council members and the mayor move down to the council’s 26th floor chambers, a high-ceilinged room with art-deco designs carved into dark wood paneling. The audience is packed with young Americorps volunteers and Kansas City Muslims who have come to receive honorary resolutions from Mayor Kay Barnes. Helling grabs councilman Paul Danaher for a quick interview about the political postcard taxpayers unwittingly paid to have mailed. Danaher hands Helling a copy of the card. It’s covered with “return to sender” stamps. “That’s the way we found out about it,” Danaher scoffs. “It came back to City Hall.”
The card reads: “Your presence is urgently needed to show opposition to the rezoning of the Ficker House Farm.” Below the inscription are official Kansas City and Parks Department logos. The camera man aims his camera and Helling sticks his mic in Danaher’s face. “It’s outrageous!” the pol fumes. “It’s a real problem to use the power of the government for this.”
Helling ducks into the pressroom, which is also on the 26th floor. The room is as brown as a spent cigarette filter. Lynn Horsley, a reporter for the Star, sits typing on a computer at one of the three bulky metal desks that cram the space. The council meeting drones on a TV monitor on a long table stacked with documents and boxes of files.
The two reporters are cordial to one another, but the competition between them is fierce — at least in Helling’s mind. He steps out of the pressroom and confides, “I am obsessed with not getting beat — especially by The Star.” He’s already wondering what stories Horsley will have in the morning paper. He assumes Horsley has the postcard story, though he hasn’t asked her. “If [council members are] pulling me to the side and telling me about the flier, The Star knows it too,” he says. “But if I run it tonight, they probably won’t do anything with it. They have an annoying habit of downplaying our news.”
Helling and others at Channel 5 are convinced that editors at The Star watch all the nightly newscasts in the city, then plan their pages accordingly. If a story plays high on TV, the theory goes, the editors will bury the story deep in the morning newspaper or not run it at all. For example, Dana Wright’s recent story about a Kansas City cop who was suspended without pay was the top story on Channel 5’s newscast, but it didn’t show up in The Star until several days later — and only as a brief. Wright’s sources told her the paper was chasing the story, which makes Helling even more suspicious. “Do you think if they had it on their own, they’d have run it as a brief?” he asks, incredulous. “No.” He shakes his head. “That stuff annoys the crap out of me.”
“I’m surprised to hear that,” says Steve Shirk, managing editor for news at The Star, denying Helling’s allegations. “The significance of the story dictates the play we give it, not what TV does.”
Helling concedes that he’s guilty of his own charge: “My biggest fault is, I won’t do stories that were in the paper. It’s like I have an allergic reaction.”
Back in the newsroom, Helling works the phones. He learns what was discussed in executive session at City Hall: The U.S. Justice Department is cracking down on the city because it denied a permit to a group home in South Kansas City. That’s story number four.
He dials Terry Dobson, director of the parks department, and kicks his feet up on his desk while the phone rings. Dobson answers and says he’s in the middle of dinner. Helling apologizes but presses on. He finds out that the postcard mailing cost taxpayers less than $50 — hardly a Watergate-level scandal.
Helling keeps Dobson on the line for a few more questions. “You know what I heard today?” he asks. “FEMA wants to rebid the Asplundh contract [to remove ice-storm tree debris]. They don’t want the work paid out hourly.” Dobson confirms it, explaining that city officials will have to hustle over the weekend to reopen the bids. Story number five.
Before letting Dobson get back to his dinner, Helling slips back into thirteenth-councilman mode. “Here’s a tip,” he says. “And I don’t give out tips often. Especially not for free. What Kansas City needs is a Million Tree March. Plant a million trees in metro Kansas City.”
He hangs up and strides to the producer’s desk. “Tell me what you think of this,” he says, then lays out the basics of the rebid story. It would make a smart installment in the station’s continuing ice-storm coverage. An attentive viewer could draw a connection to Kinsaul’s report a day earlier that most of the government’s money will go to contractors whom, Helling now knows, have incentive to work slowly and run up the bill.
“What about this Barnes Islam thing?” the producer asks.
“Oh phhh!” Helling scoffs. “Yank that out!”
He stalks the newsroom, full of energy. He stands at a panel of TVs, watching all of Kansas City’s 6 p.m. newscasts simultaneously. He paces among the desks and monitors and scanners, gobbling snacks he takes from producer April Samp’s desk. During a commercial break, he flashes on an idea and races over to executive producer Shawn Bohs’ office. “Here’s the thought of the day,” he says. “Why can’t we make a cluster buster a news story?”
A “cluster buster” is a brief break between commercials during which a Channel 5 anchor teases upcoming stories. Bohs likes the idea: “Let’s do it. Right on!”
Minutes later, Helling spots a mistake on the broadcast and yells from across the newsroom toward Bohs’ office: “Argh! Shawn! That’s not the stylebook for us.”
If the assignment desk is the nerve center of Channel 5’s newsroom, Helling is its adrenal gland. His colleagues revere him as a TV-news equivalent of Michael Jordan. “This man is in a groove,” Bohs exclaimed at a recent story meeting after Helling busted out a handful of new story ideas. “Do not stop his momentum. Every night he’s just rockin’.”
But Helling believes the entire newsroom will need to be charged with this kind of intensity if Channel 5 is ever going to be number one. “Ultimately, if you compete just on style, I don’t think you’re going to win,” Helling says. “You have to have substance. That’s why the whole ‘Anchors Who Report’ thing is not some gimmick.”
But Helling harbors insecurities about his abilities as an anchor. “Frankly, I’m not very skilled at it,” he says. He fumbles his lines once or twice a night, something that at times has weighed heavily on him. When he first started anchoring, he would lie awake at night beating himself up, saying, “I can’t do this! I’m horrible!” His wife, Teri Schaefer, who also reports for Channel 5, says that stress sometimes causes him to talk in his sleep, that she has sat up and carried on entire conversations with him about work.
“There’s no question I want to succeed, but it’s not like I sat around all the time dreaming of anchor stardom,” Helling says. He knows returning to full-time reporting is always a possibility. “The minute the wind blows, you’re out,” says one Channel 5 reporter who was once on track to become an anchor.
In the coming months, Channel 5 executives will pay consultants to gather viewers in rooms lined with one-way mirrors to watch tapes of Helling. Ken Bauer, promotion manager for the station, says the consultants might ask the focus groups “if they think [Helling’s] too aggressive.” If they do, he says, “we might ask him to soften up.”
This is “a weird hypothetical,” Helling says.
“If they came to me and said, ‘Well, you know, being tough on the mayor is not necessarily what Kansas City wants in an anchor,’ then Channel 5 would have some choices, and I would have some choices, and I would have to decide how I’d want to proceed,” he says. “But it’s hard to believe that Kansas Citians are sitting around going, ‘You know, what we really like in our anchors are crappy reporters and people who really don’t know what’s going on and are completely clueless.’ I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Yet it appears this is exactly what’s happening, judging from the success of Channel 9, where Kansas City’s most popular broadcaster stays warm and dry all night in the newsroom. And regardless of how many good stories Helling gets, he still has to deal with consultants. But, he says, they’re harmless and easily appeased. “I had a consultant come by recently and say to me, ‘You know what? I wouldn’t change a thing. But get rid of your yellow ties. We need brighter ties.’ So I went out and bought a couple brighter ties. I mean, that’s fine. OK, my ties are crap. I don’t pay a lot of attention to it, but if you say so.”
Channel 5 executives believe the look and feel of local news is changing. Amid the deluge of media choices offered on cable and the Internet, they’re betting that news-hungry personalities like Helling will be the new face of TV news. Still, general manager Kirk Black says becoming number one takes time — his goal is for the station to be number one in three years. And it might take that long to beat Channel 9.
Helling’s 10 p.m. newscast caps a day that began at City Hall. Out of the five stories Helling unearthed during the day, he can run only three. He delays the tree cleanup story until tomorrow, when he can get some good new shots of the mess. He likes the postcard story, but he has to spike it. “You can have too many stories about City Hall if you’re not careful,” he explains. That leaves Councilman Rowland’s move to squash the Park Lane development before it begins, the rebid for the Asplundh contract and the U.S. Justice Department’s concerns about a rejected group home in the Southland. These last two he bundles into a single story, which commences with a scorching lead: “Kansas City is in serious hot water tonight with two parts of the federal government crying foul.” Full of references to Helling’s reporting (“I’ve learned that….”; “Sources tell me….”), the stories are concise and tough.
The next morning, Helling learns that the newscast finished third behind Channel 9 and his old colleagues at Channel 4. Neither of those stations’ anchors spent their afternoons tromping around City Hall.
And to make matters worse, when he opens his morning paper he finds that The Star‘s lone City Hall story is the one he chose not to run.