Mike and Aaron….and a Newsroom with Broken Hearts

No one anywhere at any time in the next few days or even weeks can say something to ease the pain being felt in a newsroom in Greenville, S.C.  WYFF is a place with which I have at least a token familiarity.

WYFF News 4 LogoMemorial Day is like most holiday observances.  In a TV newsroom, assignment editors scramble to develop a working menu of stories.  While retail stores are usually thriving with people, government offices are closed, schools are out and public servants are taking the final day of the weekend off with their families.

The typical roster includes retail sales compared to year-ago Memorial Day weekend totals, patriotic events, gas prices and holiday weekend travel, holiday festivals, crime or major holiday accidents, and weather-related stories (usually with increasing heat as June approaches or when heavy rains put a damper on Memorial Day cookouts).

The weather was a significant part of news coverage on this Memorial Day.  Subtropical storm Alberto came inland in the Panama City area Monday and began its ascent toward Alabama.  Gulf Coast stations, Dothan, Birmingham, Montgomery and Huntsville were all monitoring the progress closely.  The Carolinas, likewise, were hit with pelting rains that went all the way up the Mid-Atlantic coast and created flooding in Virginia and Maryland.

No one in any newsroom anticipates a holiday will leave a staff heartbroken.  Monday, at WYFF, tragedy struck.

Mike McCormick 2Mike McCormick was an 11-year veteran at the Upstate South Carolina station.  He started his career at WYFF as a reporter in the station’s Spartanburg bureau.  In recent years, he became a weekend anchor.  I never met Mike but I occasionally exchanged conversation with him on Twitter when interesting weekend stories developed.

Aaron SmeltzerAaron Smeltzer was a talented videographer who joined the WYFF staff earlier this year.  As happens when anyone signs on at a new television station, a few weeks are needed to become part of the culture.  From all reports, Aaron had done just that.

Both men were 36.  They were in the prime of their careers.  McCormick, in particular, was a well-known face and voice to viewers in Greenville-Spartanburg-Asheville.

Monday morning, their assignment was to report on the impact of heavy rains in the lower portion of Western North Carolina.  They stopped to interview the fire chief of the small village of Tryon, NC.  As is routine, they packed up their gear and were headed either back to the station or to another interview.

One of the offshoots of continuous showers is softening of the soil around even the oldest trees.  I had personal experience with that approximately 10 years ago.  A huge oak tree suddenly collapsed and crashed in my front yard during torrential rains.  Thankfully, the tree fell away from my home.

No more than ten minutes after they left Tryon, a nightmare occurred at mid-morning.  Aaron and Mike were traveling when a huge tree, softened at the roots by the constant downpours, fell and struck their SUV.  They likely never saw it coming and had no time to react.  Both men, with so much ahead of them, were killed.

I have no idea what the instant reaction was like in the WYFF newsroom.  I wasn’t there.  Yet, I know firsthand what the emotions are like when one has to report on the tragic death of a personal friend.  I can surmise tears flowed from even the most stalwart men and women on the WYFF team.  Mike and Aaron were two of their own.  They were not supposed to be the lead story of the evening news on Channel 4 Monday night.

Michael CarolI had no doubt the voices and the emotions would be heavy from WYFF veteran anchors Michael Cogdill and Carol Goldsmith Monday night.  I have known Michael for 33 years.  He was a rookie reporter with WECT in Wilmington, NC, when I was news director at the opposition at WWAY.  I badly wanted to hire him away.  At that time, managements in Wilmington did not smile on “stealing” on-air journalists.  Michael’s wife-to-be Jill Kremer interned with us at WWAY.

Carol is the epitome of professionalism.  She has connected so well with women in the Piedmont area of South Carolina because she is a mom.  When I served my fellowship at WYFF, she told me some interesting stories about her early days as a reporter while covering the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.

I observed how Carol was always ready to answer the bell regardless of the story.   I well remember a Fourth of July that was your typical “slow” news day.  In the final hour before news time at 5, not one but two major breaking stories developed.  A fire erupted in an apartment complex that left more than 20 people without a place to stay.  Almost simultaneously, a Greyhound bus accident on I-85 near Anderson SC forced first responders to set up a triage on the interstate as traffic was backed up for miles.

That day, the WYFF news team was a machine.  No sign of panic evolved. Tim WallerNo worries surfaced in having to rearrange what appeared to be a routine holiday lineup.  Carol and 5:30 anchor Tim Waller, who was subbing for Michael on the holiday, were cool and reassuring to viewers in the midst of what could have been two tragedies.

The difference Monday:  Mike and Aaron were part of the family.  Imagine attending a family reunion one day and receiving word the next morning that two of your relatives are gone.  Mike and Aaron were in that newsroom early Monday morning.  They will never return.

Someone has to do the obituary.  Someone has to decide what to say about two colleagues, who to offer tributes and how to treat the kind of story that is not taught in college textbooks.

Michael and Carol had to tell their viewers that a regular guest in their homes would no longer be dropping in during the early evening or pre-bedtime hours.  They had to give people a frame of reference about another member of the WYFF family they never saw but who was integral to every story he shot and edited.

Earlier in the day, I posted on our local West Tennessee Today Facebook news page a sentence that reflects how I would fell if I were back calling the shots in a newsroom.  “When tragedy strikes a TV newsroom,” I wrote, “the news has to go on but hearts are breaking.”

In TV news, you take a lot of brickbats from viewers who hate the media and feel no one in a newsroom has a heart.  Trust me, hearts are more than heavy in Greenville and will be for a while.

Michael and Carol and the reporting staff will have to go on detailing routine stories.  Meteorologist John Cessarich will be keeping viewers updated on the aftermath of a storm called Alberto and the local weather.  People are already gearing up for the hopeful fortunes of Clemson and South Carolina in football this fall.

Yet, for days, weeks, even months, things will happen that will bring back the memory of two men in their mid-thirties who were brothers in a special family.  New people will be hired to fill their slots on the roster—but they can never take the places of Mike and Aaron.

Memorial Day 2018 will be remembered for years by the men and women who work for WYFF.  In TV news, you cannot put up a sign that reads Pardon Us While We Grieve.  The news will continue on Tuesday and beyond on Channel 4.

In an era when some who act out of misguided emotion attempt to minimize the sincerity of those who offer thoughts and prayers, the outpouring the WYFF family is feeling today is from people who genuinely are offering prayers for the two men’s families and the staff.  A news team is in many people’s homes more than some in their real families.

My father was a minister and his gift was knowing the right things to say to families who were in the midst of grieving, especially in times of sudden tragedies.  I remember many times in eulogies he turned to Psalm 147:3, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Aaron MikeThat healing will not come tomorrow, this week, or probably next.  For those of you who live in the Greenville area and regularly watch WYFF, remember that a lot of people you see on Channel 4 in the days ahead are hurting inside.  They may not know you personally.  However, you know them.  Offer a prayer for them.  Be a family to them at a time when they need it most.

God bless and comfort the WYFF news team, the entire station staff and the families of Mike McCormick and Aaron Smeltzer.

WYFF 11 p.m. newscast Monday, May 28     

http://www.wyff4.com/article/wyff-news-4-remembers-anchor-photojournalist-who-were-tragically-killed-in-crash/20946162

 

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A Story in Courage and Perseverance: Dave Jordan Returns to Work at WITN

Only two weeks earlier on Tuesday, August 22, Dave’s boss suddenly died.  She was not only his boss, she was his wife.  Stephanie Shoop, at the tender age of 46, was news director of WITN where Dave Jordan is the prime time co-anchor.  One day, she was wife, mother of two, and a respected leader of a television newsroom.  The next day, with no warning, Stephanie slipped away.

 

Dave’s co-anchor Lynnette Taylor told viewers of the loss in an emotional moment at the end of the August 22 early evening newscast.

In a previous blogpost, I wrote of how sadness can pervade a newsroom in a fashion that critics of journalism can never believe. It happens in moments when the unthinkable happens. The constant buzz that is usually the hallmark of a television news operation suddenly becomes as quiet as a public library.  What brings on the uncommon calm typically is in that rare instance when someone whose face and personality are as familiar as a member of one’s family is suddenly gone.  The stark reality strikes that the someone in question will never return.

My father was a minister for 65 of his 87 years.  Often, he told me that the most difficult times were when he had to reach out to a family who just experienced a sudden and unexpected loss.  

Stephanie Ann Shoop was a native Pennsylvanian.  In 1995, she married a man named David Giordano who grew up in the small Pennsylvania town of Sheffield.  Dave made his way to Eastern North Carolina 20 years ago after a brief stop in a small West Virginia market.  In 1998, Stephanie joined WITN as a newscast producer—a job that is frequently rewarding because the producer shapes a half-hour of news much as a sculptor does a bust.  Three years later, she became news director; in reality, her promotion made Stephanie her husband’s professional superior.

Husband-wife pairs can be an emotional boon or a periodic headache for management.  Some corporations have specific policies against spouses working for the same television station, or at least in the same department with the same boss.

In the mid-1980’s in Wilmington, N.C., I had two couples who worked for me at WWAY.  They could not have been more pleasant or more professional.  One husband was my chief photographer.  His wife was in production.  The other couple were my 11 o’clock anchors.  Richard and Jill Rogers were an immediate hit when I hired them away from WSAV in Savannah, Ga.  Richard also did the 6:00 news.  They were equally gracious off the air.  Jill did not stay in news over the long haul.  Richard is still active as the lead anchor at WRDW in Augusta, Ga.

On the other hand, I had another spouse combo in another city which I will not name.  They were not difficult people.  Yet, I often came away with a stomach ache in dealing with them.  They never grasped that their performance evaluations were as individuals, not as a couple.  One of the twosome was a reasonably good journalist.  The other spouse should have either been on PM Magazine or in an allied field.  I will leave my comments at that.  Regardless, had I cause to call the weaker performer of the two in for a conference, I knew the other would be appearing at my office door shortly after.  At least a half-dozen times, I had to issue the reminder, “I can’t talk to you about this at all.  You are two individuals on the corporate payroll.  I like you both personally, but I cannot discuss anything about a conversation with an employee with another employee even if you are married.”

ShoopsFrom all accounts, that was never a problem with the Jordans.  In her obituary, this was one description of Stephanie:  “She treated each and every employee and co-worker like her own and made them family.”

To stay in a city such as Washington, N.C., for nearly 20 years, one has to love it.  Dave and Stephanie apparently made a real home there.  Here’s what you may not realize:  Washington is part of Greenville-Washington-New Bern, one of those challenging animals of television known as the hyphenated market.  Each city’s viewers are typically jealous of their own local news and are not crazy about seeing many stories about the other two cities on their station’s newscast.  Here is something else you may not know:  the estimated population of Washington, N.C., as of 2016, was 9,801.  That may be the smallest city in America to have its own television station.  

What may not be an understatement is to say Washington may be the Mayberry of television cities.  In a town of fewer than 10,000 people, everybody tends to know everybody—or at least that is the way it seems.  If I lived there, I would probably see people who would light up if they saw their anchorman in a local restaurant.  “There’s Dave,” I’m sure they would say.  When you are in a viewer’s living room or den every night, you become a member of the family, especially in a small town.

Stephanie was not a household name in the community except to her close friends.  News directors, unless you are like this old guy was when I held that job and did commentaries three nights a week, are typically unseen and unfamiliar to the general public.  Yet, she found her fulfillment as the guiding hand of WITN News.  Over the years, she no doubt saw dozens of young journalists come and go.  At 46, her news staff was likely like an extension of her own two children.  Sometimes, a news director has to make unpopular decisions.  At times, you have to hand out discipline.  On occasion, you have to let people go—-truly never a pleasant decision even if the person being axed was not one who would be missed.  When you are in a leadership position for 16 years, you no doubt will have some people who decide they don’t like you.  However, my perception is those were few and far between in Stephanie Shoop’s world.

Even if you have occasional dysfunction—and every newsroom does at some point—a TV news operation becomes a family.  The morning of August 22, the head of the family at WITN News was snatched away in the twinkling of an eye.

I found a couple of tributes on Stephanie’s Facebook page that are worth sharing.  Here is one from a retired colleague, Steve Crabtree:

Prayers from here that our Heavenly Father wraps family, friends, news staff and other co-workers in His warm embrace giving each His comfort, peace and understanding. Stephanie was the consummate news professional and a gracious, compassionate, passionate and empathetic human being. She was dedicated to excellence in all she did and loved her family as well as her TV family with all of her heart. I respected few news directors in the U.S. more than her and feel blessed God allowed our paths to cross. My heart goes out to each of you! With love, Steve Crabtree; WVLT-TV VP/News, Retired; Knoxville TN

This one from Bill DiNicola tugged at me because I had the same emotions about a couple of the people for whom I have worked over the years:

It’s really hard to find the words… and fight back the tears long enough to write this. She was an amazing news director — but an even better mom, we all knew her as both. I am where I am now and more importantly I am who I am because of Stephanie Shoop — She was my News Mom, she was our News mom – she raised us right, she took in kids often for their first job, and turned us into well-rounded compassionate hardworking journalists, and she did it with love. You were the best possible example of a leader I could have hoped for. You let me get on the anchor desk when I weighed 500 lbs — who does that!?!? Like everyone in the WITN family, we were not ready for this. But because you were in our lives we will find the strength together. Dave, David and Grace — we’re here for you.

I can think of no finer tribute than for Stephanie to be called one’s News Mom.  That says to me—and should to many others—that she was much more than a news director.  One is not handed a label as Bill presented to Stephanie without being one who truly cares about people.

Shoop JordanWithout question, I hope Bill’s words were among many to help sustain Dave and the Jordans’ two children David and Grace.  A family, whether in television news or in any aspect of life, is a rallying center in times of sadness and deep tragedy.

Labor Day morning, I scanned TV Spy and saw that Dave Jordan—a man I have never met—was returning to work Tuesday.  He told reporter Stephanie Siegel:  “I’ve gone back to the station to visit as part of the healing process.”

In the same e-mail, here is how he reflected on his wife of 22 years:

“Stephanie was simply the most amazing person I have ever known and is deeply missed. Stephanie was also a very strong and determined person, and we are all drawing our strength from that. We all plan to do our best to pickup and carry on, as we know she would be telling us to do just that.”

Emotions are not one size fits all.  A sudden loss can send some people into an extended tailspin that requires a longer period of adjustment and grief before returning into the workplace.  Another family I knew lost their son on a Sunday afternoon in a skiing accident at a lake in South Georgia.  The next Sunday, three days after the teen’s funeral, the family was back at the lake.  “If we didn’t do this now, it would take us a lot longer to get on with life,” Bewick Murray, the father, said.  Everyone is emotionally different.

When I read that Dave was returning to the air Tuesday night, I had to log on to WITN.com.  I was not watching out of a viewer’s curiosity but as a member of the broadcast journalism fraternity.  I have not experienced the specific type of loss as has Dave Jordan, his children and the WITN family; yet, on the same day as Stephanie’s death, I received a call informing me of the death of my last living uncle, only six days after the passing of my oldest uncle.

Lynnette and DaveDave did his job with the same professionalism as he has for more than two decades in Eastern North Carolina.  At a designated moment in the six o’clock newscast, co-anchor Lynnette Taylor turned to Dave to share what was on his heart.  Here is an excerpt:

 

“I’m not going to pretend this is easy.  But I’ve reached a new reality in my life and it’s going to be that way for me and for our two children.

Family, friends, all of the viewers that have reached out with comments and cards….it’s amazing at a time like this how comments can lift you up.  I am grateful to all of you who have reached out to us. I want you to know that I’ll continue to need those because it’s going to be a journey.”
Dignity in a time of deep difficulty—that was the personification of Dave Jordan Tuesday night.
No doubt, many of those comments of encouragement and condolences have come from people Dave has never met.  I will add one of my own:  Dave, I’ve done the job you do and the job Stephanie did.  You don’t know me…..but if you need me, The Old TV News Coach is here.  May God continue to bless and comfort you and your family.
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