Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too: We Have to Stamp Out Stigma (Part 4 of 4)

Ken Barlow is a meteorologist in Minneapolis-St. Paul on KSTP.  I have never met him.  Though he doesn’t know it, he is a hero to me.

Five years ago, Amy Carlson Gustafson detailed the day when Ken was emceeing activities concurrent to a walk for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  Here is just a snippet of what Gustafson wrote in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press:

“He knew the time was right to share his own battle with mental illness. He believed these folks — many holding ‘End Stigma’ signs — could understand what the popular KSTP-TV meteorologist was going through.

“When I was standing up there, I was thinking, these people came here to end the stigma of mental illness, and I’m up here living one — I’m afraid of this stigma,” Barlow said during an interview in a Minneapolis coffee shop near KSTP. “I thought as I was on that stage two weeks ago, I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m not going to be ashamed. Two million people have this in the country, and millions of others deal with depression and other forms of mental illness. I’m not alone.”

Ken Barlow was 50 at the time.  Five years earlier, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  He would be the first to tell you that depression, which is not one size fits all, does not necessarily mean one is bipolar.  In fact, a small percentage of those who have depression have the dramatic mood swings that are classified as bipolar.

Ken is a hero to me because he has a large, captive audience in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  For him to reveal his struggles with depression in front of 4,000 people at that walk took a major step of faith and courage.

I shared in a previous installment of this series how I don’t feel my similar public revelation is significantly courageous because my father, who battled depression for his final 42 years, paved the way for me.  He began speaking out about his emotional illness in the 1990’s at a time when the stigma still loomed larger than today.

This blog series is not intended in any way to suggest that everyone who goes into journalism, especially the highly-intense world of television news, will experience depression or a related mental illness.

Despite its challenges and mentally-draining demands, a huge majority of those in a TV newsroom will never contract depression.  

What this series is designed to do is to open the eyes of corporate and local managements who often are too obsessed with the bottom line that emotional illness can and probably already has struck in your newsroom and you may not even know it.

Telling my own story in Part 3 is a call to any journalist who has experienced the lows of depression that it’s okay.  You don’t have to be afraid of it.  You don’t have to avoid seeking help for an illness that requires treatment in the same manner as dealing with the flu or pneumonia.  You don’t have to be reluctant to take medication to help you become whole again, even if you are on the meds for an extended period.   You are also not alone.  If you have a supervisor who even dares suggest you are not mentally tough if you have depression, then that person is speaking out of utter ignorance.  You have people who are speaking up in order to break down the remaining stigmas attached to depression.  I and the Ken Barlows of the world have your back.

Let’s examine a few things about the work and demands of journalists that make people who pursue that career vulnerable to emotional illness:

Constant Exposure to Death and Destruction

Reporters who are on a regular crime beat are going to face scene after scene of bad things happening to good and bad people.  At times, this can be gruesome.  Repeated exposure to the ugly side of life cannot help but affect one’s emotions unless one is inhuman.  Forty years ago, covering four of the seven murders of a serial killer in Columbus, Ga., had its effect on me.  After a few weeks of what became an eight-month saga, one began to shudder every time a police monitor would sound.  If a reporter does not have a personal diversion or hobby, constant witnessing and detailing murders, weather-related tragedies, or physical abuse can make one vulnerable to depression.

Time and Deadline Demands

We felt these in the 1970’s when local news was, at most, one hour in the early evening and 30 minutes in a huge number of cities.  Scrambling to deliver reports live, having to change and adapt lineups at the eleventh hour or even during newscasts, battling one’s competition for story breaks, and now having to do two and three hours of afternoon and early evening news in markets that realistically do not generate that much original news (and in many instances with no extra personnel to handle news expansions) is not how much of the rest of the world functions.  We either know that or soon realize it when we enter the profession.  Speed and deadlines are part of the job.  Yet, often the end result is a difficulty in winding down at the end of the day (or evening) because of the whirlwind on which one constantly is.  I visited with a journalist recently from a station that doubled its news time but only added one producer to handle the load.  Over lunch, I noticed the person’s hand literally shaking.  Nerves had built to that point because of stress and overwork.  None of these represent a path to strong emotional health.

Newsroom Conflicts

Conflicts are not unique to newsrooms.  One will find them in any profession.  However, because of the deadline pressures and—at times—ego battles over story assignments, story placement, or personalities, those conflicts can erupt into stress-inducing disputes that are rarely healthy.  Sometimes, they become loud and public. Trust me, I’ve seen many of them over the years.  When I was a news director, I periodically had to mediate them or break them up.  Regardless of your line of work, conflict environments often create apprehension or anxiety about going to your office.   Ongoing and unresolved conflicts are definite toll-takers.

Erratic Sleep Patterns

Again, this is one of these intangibles that go with the territory.  Sleep deprivation is one catalyst for depression.  For many news anchors and news personnel who work the late shift, namely the traditional 10 or 11 o’clock broadcasts, a challenge is to wind down after the news.  When I anchored at 11, I rarely could drop off to sleep before 1 a.m.  Too much cranks in the mind for too long during the day and night to immediately relax.  If anchors—male or female—have children, an early wakeup may offer the only opportunity to have any meaningful time with their families.  That often means abbreviated sleep.

Add to that the irregular sleep schedules for people who work the morning shifts.  When local television found a profit center before sunrise and gradually eased early morning news back to 4 a.m. starts, that meant producers and editors for the early morning began entering for their shifts as the late news team departed.  That means unnatural, erratic sleep hours that often are inconsistent.  

As Dr. Joanne Stephenson says, “Lack of sleep, inconsistent sleep, or unconventional sleeping schedules can play havoc with your emotional health.”

Inconsiderate or Abusive Bosses

Sure, they’re everywhere in any profession.  This is not to besmirch many good news directors who are fair and considerate with their staffs.  However, take a poll and you will know doubt find the most significant cause of turnover on news staffs is the cantankerous boss who appears to have a doctoral degree from the University of Unpleasantness.  If one has such a boss, the wear and tear on your emotions can mount.

The Superman Complex

If you will recall in Part 3, that’s what I was described as having when I tried to make up the deficit of personnel I had in Jackson by doing the work of the people I did not have, in addition to my own job.  Another type of Superman Complex is addiction to the newsroom.  At least one or two in every shop, especially single people, seem to be perpetually in the building.  Often, that is at the expense of any degree of personal life.  They become so consumed by work that they have no diversions.  Keep that up long enough and even a young, energetic reporter can be worn down.

Insecurity

I well remember my former co-anchor Kathy Pepino telling me, “This is the most insecure business you can be in, but most people are in it because they love it.”  Yet, insecurity is increasingly surfacing with media chain consolidations.  Look at the number of general managers already being replaced by the Nexstar-Media General merger.  Never have I seen as many news practitioners, including many competent veterans who have invested in communities, accept buyouts or take retirements as in the past 18 months.  In many instances, these have nothing to do with the abilities of the journalists.  Their parent companies simply want to pay less money.  When one is in the midst of an “am I going to be next?” environment, enter insecurity.  If that hangs on for an extended period, you are a candidate for a mood swing.

Relationship or Marriage Stresses

At the 1984 RTNDA convention in San Antonio, I attended a session on television news stresses on marriages.  The late Dr. Joyce Brothers was a member of the panel.  So was a veteran news director who had become a general manager.  His marriage ultimately broke up because of his intense focus as a news manager.  In the audience were a few wives of active news directors.  One of them stood and poured out her heart to Dr. Brothers about her husband:  “What do I do when I’ve been home all day, the kids have been acting up, we have a plumbing problem and one of the kids has come down with bronchitis?  He comes home, I want to have his attention and he wants me to tell it all to him in a minute and a half.”  The room roared, in no small part because some of the news directors in that seminar suddenly saw themselves in the woman’s description.

A special person is necessary to be a journalist’s spouse.  Not only is the reporter, anchor, producer or videographer on call 24/7 for breaking news stories, the requests to emcee events or participate in charity activities or judge competitions mount—all in the name of community service and promoting the station’s brand.  When too many of those demands pile up, spouses or significant others can feel alone or abandoned.  Cracks in the ointment of a relationship are personal.  One’s emotional health can be in serious jeopardy.

Alcohol or Drugs

In a previous part of this series, I detailed what appeared to be frequent ill effects from alcohol excesses affecting a few members of my staff.  As it is, alcohol is a depressant.  Yet, I worked with people whose after hours passion was to hit a bar.  A few turned to drugs.  A combination of the two can be lethal.  We have sadly seen a string of on-air journalists show up on TV Spy or TV Newser, as well as their local newspapers, arrested on DUI charges.  In addition to career jeopardy and personal embarrassment, habitual drug or alcohol abuse can lead to self-induced depression.

Professional Danger and Risks

We are indeed living in an age where broadcast journalists are more at risk than in previous decades.  The murder on live morning television of Alison Parker and Adam Ward of WDBJ in Roanoke, Va., was a wake up call for the entire profession.  Yet, I am not certain that we still don’t have some corporate managements operating with the idea “that can’t happen here.”  Meteorologist Patrick Crawford was shot on the parking lot of KCEN in Waco-Temple.  San Diego sportscaster Kyle Kraska was shot several times outside his home.  All of these were in 2015.

You cannot stop doing your job.  However, every journalist who goes out on a live shot has to be far more aware of his or her surroundings.  With some, that can lead to at least mild anxiety.  The relationship between anxiety and depression is closer than that of third cousins.

The laundry list could go on.  These are ten of the most significant elements that can be a trigger for depression for journalists.  Realistically, if one experiences up to four of these on a consistent basis, he or she could be a candidate for emotional struggles.

Twenty-six years ago when I had my first bout with depression, the only time this was discussed within a television newsroom was when a reporter was assigned a multi-part series (remember those?) on the subject.  People on news staffs who had the symptoms suffered in silence.  Gabriel Arana quoted a 16-year-old study that estimated up to 20 percent of journalists suffer from some form of depression during their careers.

Fortunately, the industry is doing a better job of responding to the problem.  A majority of employers in television news are now providing insurance coverage that includes visits for psychological counseling.  That was not true when I was still in the profession.  Since this blog series first appeared, I have been contacted by two journalists who told me their companies do not offer such coverage.

During the Orlando nightclub massacre last summer, at least two stations (and possibly others) brought in mental health counselors who were available for reporters and videographers who faced trauma or difficulty decompressing.  I have been told since then that stations in larger metropolitan markets exercise the same practice.  That is not necessarily true in the bottom 100 markets.

More news directors today are recognizing the need to provide reasonable down time for staff members when catastrophic coverage is required.  You can be a marathon man or woman but you have to realize a diminishing return mentally and emotionally once you go past 12 hours.  A fresh team is far more valuable than an exhausted one.

So what do I suggest are additional resources the industry should consider to help deal with potential emotional struggles that can lead to depression or related illnesses?   Consider these:

Keeping a certified psychologist on retainer

When a potential catastrophic event such as a hurricane, tornado, earthquake or mass violence breaks out, have an agreement where a counselor can come to the station to help the staff debrief and decompress.  In some instances, psychology faculty members from local universities could be utilized for little cost.  Some actually may offer themselves for community service that could be highly valuable support at tenure time.

Saturday seminars with a psychologist

Once and possibly twice a year, schedule a 60-to-120 minute session for the staff with a psychologist for a session of group therapy.  Sure, you’ll have your naysayers who scoff at it but they’ve probably been vaccinated with lemon juice.  No pressure and none of the kind of story analysis as employed when the news consultant comes for a visit.  I will wager a newsroom will function better mentally and emotionally with an opportunity to open up about tough days on the job with a counselor.  The staff will likely have a better road map to better cope with day-to-day challenges.

Making certain insurance coverage includes mental health visits

My university and many others offer five free visits to Pathways for counseling.  Some television stations offer similar plans but not all.  If employees know they can go in privacy for help, valuable preventive maintenance can be performed.  

Requiring managers, including news directors, to have training for mental health issues

If the research is true and 20 percent of journalists suffer from depression, the likelihood is that at least a few staff members will experience it.  At the very least, they could experience some form of post-traumatic stress disorder if they have to cover violent crimes or catastrophic events.  Sensitivity was once considered a sign of weakness in the rough-and-tumble mental toughness world of television news.  In today’s culture, insensitivity or a callous attitude toward depression is a black mark on anyone in management in any profession.

In developing this blog series, the idea was not to suggest I have all the answers.  Far from it.  All I can do is reflect my own experience with an emotional illness that usually requires medication, counseling and patience in order to recover.  One does not need a PhD to determine that the highly-charged, multiple deadline-driven, stress-induced culture of television news makes its practitioners at least vulnerable for depression at some point.

My personal mission is twofold:  to be a catalyst to stamp out the stigma of depression and to help save lives.  The only way we can achieve those is to have an open dialogue.  Ken Barlow was willing to speak up and tell his story.  I can guarantee that because he is a popular public figure, his impact in being transparent has resulted in more people than he knows seeking help.  

I may no longer be a daily practitioner of journalism in a television station.  Regardless, I still care deeply about the profession and its journalists.  As a broadcast educator who has experienced the lows of depression both in and out of the industry, I am sending young people into the field.  I still encounter younger producers and reporters in person and online who seek career advice.  I tell them all to try to enjoy the journey, despite its pitfalls and struggles.

I close with a personal note to any journalist, either broadcast, print or digital.  You are in a rewarding and honorable but stressful profession.  Those stresses, if not managed well, can lead to symptoms of emotional illness or depression.  I hope you never face it.  However, if you are diagnosed, immediately seek help.  If you are prescribed medication, take it and take it all until your doctor says you can cycle off.  Remember, some people have to take medication for the rest of their lives to combat heart ailments.  What’s the difference?  Your heart and your emotions have a reasonably strong connection.  Finally, be patient with yourself.  Recovering from depression is no quick fix.  Listen to your counselor and follow his or her direction.  God gave us psychologists and psychiatrists as well as medical doctors because all are necessary to treat the whole person.  Don’t run from depression because you fear stigma from people who do not understand the illness.  Stigma usually results from ignorance.  You only have one you.

As I tell every group I address:  you can’t get well if you don’t get help.

Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too (Part 3: My Own Story)

Ten years ago, sharing this story would have been difficult.  Today, opening up about my personal bouts with depression over the past 26 years is essential. We don’t have a data base of exact…

Source: Yes, Depression Happens in the TV Newsroom, Too (Part 3: My Own Story)

Active or Retired: We All Feel the Pain of Roanoke

AllIn my years as an active daily broadcast journalist, I was physically threatened three times.  One of those threats came from a man who made infamous history this summer—-Louisiana theater shooter Rusty Houser, who erupted at me via phone after he called a bizarre news conference in Columbus, Ga., 36 years ago.

In the ’70s, deranged or disturbed people were not randomly shooting innocent victims.  Yet, one learns early in a journalism career that the celebrity factor that accompanies appearing regularly on local television does carry with it a degree of vulnerability to danger.

A friend and colleague, Dave Stanton, was left with a crippling injury in the summer of 1977 when an out-of-control protester drove a car through a crowd marching about agricultural concerns in President Carter’s hometown of Plains, Ga.  Dave and CBS correspondent Betsy Aaron were the most seriously hurt.  Had the car swerved a few feet to the right, either or both of them could have been killed.

The moment I was alerted via email Wednesday of the senseless and brutal killing of reporter Allison Parker and videographer Adam Ward by former WDBJ employee Vester Flanagan, I realized several things:

—-In an earlier era, I probably encountered at least four and possibly a half-dozen situations of newsroom employee dismissals that led to inflamed emotions.  Had we been living in a period where random acts of violence had been more prevalent, we could have seen a similar incident.

—-All of us, whether active or retired in the journalism profession, share in the pain of the newsroom of WDBJ.   We didn’t work with Allison or Adam, but we have all worked with people like them who were young, vibrant, energetic and hard-working.  They had such promise for a huge future.  Had any of us seen colleagues like Allison or Adam suddenly snuffed out by a despicable act, our emotions would be overflowing with grief.

—-My former general manager Bob Lee is a retired GM of WDBJ.  No doubt he is feeling a sense of concern as if he were still the man at the helm.

However, the most vivid emotion I had Wednesday morning was of a news team who knew, worked with and loved these young victims.  The people left behind faced the near-insurmountable task of having to “go on with the show” while their hearts were breaking.

If you are not in television news—-and most people are not—-picture yourself having to be the one who delivers the news of a loved one’s death to a friend or a fellow family member.  Imagine working as part of an office staff in any profession and suddenly learning that a co-worker has been abruptly cut down in the prime of life.  In Jackson, Tn., where I live, a local bank staff faced that tragedy last spring when a gunman entered their building and shot and killed a former girlfriend who worked there.

If violent tragedy happens in a bank, a church, or an investment trading business—-and we have seen those occurrences in all of these locations in recent years, the victims and the staffs become the news.

What happened at WDBJ, the victims and the staff are not just the news.  Emotions of grief are no different to broadcasters or journalists than with anyone else in any walk of life.  I have no doubt that the WDBJ news staff had moments Wednesday and today in which they wished they could put up an on-air sign at news time that reads CLOSED IN THE MEMORY OF OUR FRIENDS ALLISON AND ADAM.

You don’t have that luxury in TV news.  Those grief-stricken people had to tell the most difficult story of their careers, the story of how their colleagues are no longer there to cover their next story, to participate in community public service events, or to see how far their careers would take them.

I have watched online today the courageous faces of WDBJ journalists fighting back tears, some successfully and some not.  I saw the outstretched hands of three anchors clinging to each other for support.  When anchor Kim McBroom said, “We’re going to try to get through this,” any of us who have ever worked in a newsroom were sending out collective hands of support.

As we have learned from social media posts, Allison and Adam also had personal relationships with people within the newsroom that will never have a chance to see a future or perhaps even a long life together.

I remarked today to a lifelong friend and former colleague Phil Scoggins of WRBL in Columbus a phrase that has become a cliche:  “We’re living in a different day.”  I added, “There but for the grace of God, it could have been any of us at any time.”

As a believer and a man of faith, I have prayed for the families and closest friends of Allison and Adam and their many co-workers who will have to press on despite cups running over with grief and having to deal with the inexplicable.  A large fraternity and sorority of fellow journalists they don’t even know are doing the same.

At some point in the future, circumstances will be right for people to once again laugh and relax in the WDBJ newsroom.  Right now, they don’t know when or what will trigger a return to normal.

Normal is something that will happen on the outside.  Inwardly, for a circle of colleagues who only try to tell stories about what happens in their Virginia community, normal will never be the same.

Depression: Yes, It Happens in the Newsroom Part I

In the summer of 2014, Robin Williams took his own life.  In the days that followed, we learned that a contributing factor was depression.

That set off the usual mad dash of journalists across the nation scrambling to find every local psychologist or psychiatrist to bring perspective on emotional illness.

That helped.  For three, possibly four weeks, we had a whirlwind of national and local conversation on the subject many still want to keep in the closet.  When that ended, television news put the topic back in the storage cabinet for a while.

Full disclosure:  I have had a serious bout with clinical depression not once but three times.  The first time happened in 1991 when I was a television news director—-not in a megamarket but in Jackson, Tn.  The second time was in 2010 while supervising a daily student cable newscast as professor of broadcast journalism at Union University.  In each instance, I needed at least six months before I resumed feeling like me.  Bout three was in 2014, a few months after the death of my father.  I spent 100 days in my hometown of Waycross, Ga., in 2013 looking after both of my parents during his ordeal.

I don’t make my experience the icebreaker of conversations with people I have never previously met.  Likewise, I do not run from an open dialogue about an illness suffered by nearly a tenth of Americans.  Those of us who have encountered depression not only can but must talk about it in an effort to help others who have it and don’t understand it.

When one is in a higher-profile profession such as television news, your on-air face and personality are what viewers see.  Their stereotyped vision of a communicator who visits in their home virtually every night filters out the reality that television newscasters are real people, too.  Journalists have bills to pay, experience challenges at home, lose loved ones and are exposed firsthand to the same types of negative news viewers often detest.

Psychological studies tell us younger people are increasingly vulnerable to depression, particularly in high-demand, high-stress professions.  Here are a few other key facts:

—-Women are more likely to have depression than men.

—-Vulnerability to depression increases with age, according to WebMD.com.

—-Mayo Clinic tells us one in five will experience some form of the disorder by the time they are 25.

Small-to-medium market news departments are populated heavily by men and women in the 22-28 age bracket.  Most of them are full of idealistic career goals, competitive fuel and boundless energy.

Still, look at the numbers: one in five young adults are likely to have experienced some form of depression by the age of 25.  Television news is a profession that can play right into the vulnerabilities.

In the mid-1980s, I flew back from the Radio-Television News Directors Association with a colleague from a much larger neighboring market.  He attended one of the same seminars as did I on stresses the newsroom brings to one’s personal life.  That session included a whirlwind, throw-on-the-dartboard exchange about depression.  Thirty years ago, the subject of emotional illness was largely compartmentalized.

“That was an interesting session,” my colleague said, “but in my newsroom or in television news in general, there’s just no room for someone with depression or any kind of emotional illness.”

I said, “Would it interest you that my father has battled depression off and on for 14 years—and he’s a minister?  I submit to you that the demands of administering a church, satisfying the sometimes fickle nature of a congregation and being on call around-the-clock in times of illness, death, or church members’ crises is every bit as stressful as running a TV newsroom.”

My friend admitted he had never pondered that contrast but I am fairly certain he didn’t buy into it.  I wonder what he thinks today.

My colleague at Union University, Dr. Joanne Stephenson, offers a weekly “Dr. Joanne” segment on our daily cable newscast “Jackson 24/7” produced by journalism students.  Dr. Joanne was a huge catalyst for my recovery from depression five years ago.  She says the newsroom can be a breeding ground for depression even in well-adjusted people.

“You have all the ingredients:  multiple deadlines, uneven schedules, frequently on call, competitive pressures, lack of sleep, difficult bosses, and repeated exposure to tragedy,” Dr. Joanne says.  “Even the best of us would struggle to maintain a balance in our lives to avoid tipping the scales toward depression.”

I am typically not a fan of The Huffington Post, but that online service offered a solid five-part series in May, “A Mental Health Epidemic in the Newsroom.”

Dr. Elana Newman of the University of Tulsa discussed journalistic stresses in the opening segment of that series.  “Almost all journalists are exposed to traumatic-stress experiences,” Dr. Newman said.  She included reporters who are among the first on the scene for automobile accidents, shootings, train derailments or other occurrences that potentially lead to critical injuries or death.

Here is another revealing irony by Gabriel Arana, who authored The HuffPost story:  “Journalists are notoriously reluctant to divulge information about themselves.”  Arana quoted from three different research studies that indicated:

—-85 percent of journalists encounter some form of work-related trauma

—-Up to 20 percent of journalists experience depression

—-Instances of nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia and anxiety occur frequently enough in journalists to take a toll.

Both of my bouts with clinical depression were largely triggered by exhaustion.  Read the textbooks about a typical Type A personality and fill in the blank with my name.  I inherited an intense work drive gene from my father.  I have a tendency to go at a pace that, candidly, is unrealistic for one individual.

In each instance, I saw the warning signs of a breakdown but was mired in that mistaken belief that I could “work myself” out of it.  I could not—-and paid the price.

I will detail more about the first bout in a later vignette.  In 2010, depression came on from a monster amount of overwork in supervising a five-a-week student newscast that can only replicate, not duplicate, the actual TV newsroom.  I failed to remind myself that I have students only for four hours a week, not 40.  Typically, they are carrying academic loads that include four other courses, all of which have a variety of demands.  Exhaustion set in and so did depression.

At the end of a noon broadcast in March 2010, Dr. Joanne waited until the students all left, looked me in the eye and said, “This……..is an intervention.”  I knew that had to happen.  I just did not know when.  Thankfully, Dr. Joanne was in the studio for an interview segment that day and pulled the trigger.  I asked how she knew I was in depression.  “I could see it in your eyes,” she said.  “You’ve been headed down this path for more than a month.”

I am an example of what happens when a journalism supervisor or administrator does what an old colleague at WRBL in Columbus, Ga., H.K. Johnston, once observed:  “Burnin’ the candle at both ends and runnin’ outta wick.”

Yet, the rank-and-file, those young, fresh out of college or three-to-six-year veteran reporters, producers and videographers are the ones on the firing line every day.  They are the ones who receive the 3 a.m. calls to cover an overnight fire or shooting.  They are the ones regularly exposed to crime or other tragedy.  They are the ones who have to find their niche in a competitive environment of egos and career-climbers.  They are the ones who encounter bosses who are sometimes under such stress to deliver ratings and performance that they neglect to get to know or understand their employees as people.

Managements of every television station in America ought to be paying attention.  The scenario I outlined in the previous paragraph and those earlier research statistics suggest the odds are at least one to three people in their newsrooms could be dealing with at least short-term depression or trauma disorders.

Before I left daily television news in the 1990s, not one station I worked for offered a specifically designated reference for counseling from a psychologist or a psychiatrist.  Some stations provided insurance that covered emotional illness; some didn’t.

Arana detailed the story of John McCusker, a New Orleans photojournalist who lost his home in Hurricane Katrina but continued to cover the destruction day after day.  The grind and exposure to the disaster took its toll.  McCusker was diagnosed with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder.  As in many cases with journalists and the vast non-news public, he was reluctant to admit he was ill.

“I didn’t feel I could show weakness because there were so many brave people showing strength around me,” McCusker told Arana in the HuffPost. “There is an element of not wanting to be vulnerable, wanting to project strength.”

One of my own observations about the television news industry is its parallel to my perceptions of those in college and pro football.  So much emphasis is perpetuated on being mentally tough that admitting to depression or any form of emotional illness is unfortunately regarded as a sign of weakness.

“There’s this notion you’ve got to be tough,” McCusker told Arana. “You’re a human being — don’t forget that. No one’s expecting you to be anything more or less than that.”

Dr. Joanne frequently debunks the weakness theory or the fear factor of admitting a need for help because of a still-existing stigma attached to depression.

“You wouldn’t try to do your own surgery on a broken leg.  You wouldn’t try to deal with an abscessed tooth yourself,” she says.  “We’ve got to get over this ridiculous notion that depression or any other emotional illness is any different than a physical illness.  Depression is often caused by things related to physical illness.”

One of the issues is a failure of broadcast managements, as well as some in other fields, to recognize the emotional toll television news takes on even the strongest staff members.

Only two of the stations for which I worked over the years offered a membership at a YMCA (in the era before fitness centers began to emerge on every corner).  At least in those instances, opportunities were available for physical exercise that is a strong antidote to stress.

Never was a local psychologist contracted for an in-house seminar to aid staffs on other countermeasures to reduce tension and stress that lead to depression.  Such a move may actually save companies money in employee illnesses and absences.

In my succeeding vignettes, I will share more of my own journey with depression during my years as a broadcast journalist and a journalism professor.  I will also approach depression from the perspective of young broadcasters, from mistakes managements make in recognizing warning signs of and possible interventions for emotional illness, and proposals to the entire industry on how to deal with a real illness that affects more people in television than anyone cares to admit.

Robin Williams died from the extreme ravages of emotional depression.  We talked about mental illness for a short while because he was Robin Williams.

We should not need the death of an international celebrity to have an intelligent, sensitive and open dialogue about emotional illness—-including its potential impact on television newsrooms.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Coping with Tragedy: Yes, Viewers, Newscasters Do Have a Heart

I have never set foot in Missoula, Montana, though people have told me the country is beautiful there.

I had a loose connection with Missoula 35 years ago.  The company that purchased WTVM in Columbus, Ga., where I was an anchor and reporter, was headquartered in Missoula.  The new owners did not enter the building wearing cowboy hats.  One had a distinct accent when he talked about “how we do things in Muntenna.”

Other than its geography, life in Missoula may be comparable to that in Jackson, Tn., where I have lived for the past 25 years.  Both cities have populations of slightly fewer than 70,000.  Both are located along fairly large rivers.   Health care and education provide the largest sources of employment in each town.

One significant difference between the two is in violent crime:  two years ago, Missoula had one murder.  Jackson had 11.  Rare is the night when Missoula television news leads with a homicide.

The evening of May 6, one of those rare evenings developed.  Only not of the ilk imagined in the worst nightmares of anyone working in the newsroom at KTMF.

For those who have never worked in a television newsroom, the police monitor is the equivalent of a living person.  Reporters, producers and videographers commit numerical crime investigation codes to memory.  Assignment editors, arguably the most stressed individuals in any news operation, often have one ear peeled to the monitor while dispatching crews to a scene.

Two weeks ago on a Wednesday evening, if events unfolded as they typically do, a call ensued on the police radio at KTMF.  The street address was 314 Brooks Street.

Missoula is currently the 165th largest television market in America.  Only 45 markets are smaller.  Cities the size of Missoula have a touch of Mayberry.  People tend to know more people.  A trip to a Walmart takes less than 15 minutes.  Television newscasters are not just local celebrities.  They become members of the family.   The average Joe and Mabel feels comfortable approaching an anchor or reporter by first name in Albertsons or Safeway.

In a television market the size of Missoula, the newsroom is frequently populated by young journalists in their first jobs, all hoping to climb a ladder they hope will take them to the big-time or at least the medium-time.  Some members of the anchor team are people who have chosen to make their homes in a smaller city because their spouses and children have a comfort with the landscape.

When journalists are in their twenties, few have dealt with death.  The percentages of them who have lost a parent or immediate family member are small.  In Missoula, since murders are so infrequent, deaths reported on KTMF usually involve prominent citizens or past political leaders who pass from natural causes or bouts with cancer.

I was not in the newsroom at KTMF on May 6.  However, I have little doubt more than one voice was hushed if the words “314 Brooks Street” rang a bell.

That was the address of KTMF news director Kalee Scolatti.  Kalee was the exception to the rule of most people her age in television news.  In reading news accounts in the last two weeks, I learned that Kalee was a graduate with honors of the University of Montana in 2005.  She went to work for one of the local television stations after graduation.  Stories tell of her work in production that eventually segued into the newsroom and culminated in the role as KTMF’s chief news officer.

Kalee pursued a career track that I often tell my students at Union University is an admirable one.  She stayed home.  I told a group recently, “You don’t have to go to New York or Chicago to be a success in broadcast news.  Wherever your journey takes you, you may find the town that becomes home for you and it may be a smaller town.  You won’t make as much money as you will in a larger market, but as long as you work hard and you’re happy, you can be an equal servant to your community in Panama City as one is in Philadelphia.”

No news directors, no anchors, no producers, no journalists worth their credentials ever harbor a desire to become the story.  Some viewers don’t like us because we often have to report unpleasant occurrences.  Some hold grudges because an investigative light is often cast on political or other community leaders involved in wrongdoing.  Those alleged perpetrators have friends.  Friends are often loyal even when their pals are guilty of malfeasance.

Even still, in the Missoulas, the Jacksons, the Dothans or the Macons of the world, viewers tend to look on television newscasters as people they would love to ask over for supper.  Carol Goldsmith of WYFF in Greenville, S.C., is one such news anchor.  Former WYFF producer Michelle Baker once told me, “Women love Carol because they know she is a mother and she connects with other moms.”

Kalee Scolatti was a mother of three.   In reading some painful narratives during recent days, we learned that Kalee was having a troubled personal life.  Her husband was no longer in the home.  Yet, no one could have foreseen the events of May 6.

In the last decade, news reports on domestic violence have become a standard.  They were even before the sordid stories unfolding from the National Football League last year.  Some cities were slow to answer the bell because small towns are supposed to be immune from such things.  Yet, in 2015, one might suspect even Mayberry might house a couple of domestic abusers.

Last fall, my students—-whose daily newscast Jackson 24/7 is a staple of local cable—-engaged in a week-long emphasis on domestic violence in West Tennessee.  They learned as much as they reported and interviewed.  They learned domestic abuse cuts across every racial and cultural boundary, every age bracket, and every occupation.  Sometimes, the results end in tragedy.

In February 2014, those same students were forced to deal with an incident that will forever remain with them.  Some of them were barely 20 or 21.

Union University does not have the enrollment of The University of Montana.  Union is a private Southern Baptist institution, not a state school.  For more than a century, students have referred to “the Union bubble,” an imaginary shield that they sometimes mistakenly believe shields them from the real world beyond campus.

Violent crime does not happen at Union University.  At least it did not until the morning of February 12, 2014.  A music major with a healthy set of friends was found dead of a bullet wound in her car on the parking lot of a building across from the main Union campus.  Olivia Greenlee was to have graduated the following May.  She was engaged to marry fellow Union student Charlie Pittman last August 9.

Three days after Olivia’s body was found, Pittman was charged with her first degree murder.  He has pleaded innocent.  A judge has given him a final deadline of June 8 to change that plea.  If Pittman maintains innocence, his trial is scheduled to begin September 27.

Paigh Lytle and Kelsey Graeter were the anchor team for the noon edition of Jackson 24-7 the morning after Greenlee was found dead.  As was the case with many Union students, Paigh and Kelsey knew one or both of the two young people involved in the tragedy.

At the time, investigators still had not ruled Greenlee’s death a homicide.  Outgoing Union president David Dockery agreed to appear with Paigh and Kelsey on that noon newscast.  When he met me in the hall before entering the studio, I knew from the expression on his face that Union was about encounter a first and not one that would be included in the school’s future public relations materials.

Paigh and Kelsey appeared shaken but asked the difficult questions of Dockery.  To his credit, he answered every one of them, most of them without the typical p.r. spin one might expect of someone in his position.

When the broadcast was over, Paigh and Kelsey were both emotionally over-wrought.  Both had to leave to compose themselves.  When they returned, we had a discussion about a painful lesson they had just learned.  If you pursue journalism for a career, at some point you will likely have to report a story that challenges everything that is within you because you are acquainted with or are friends with the central figure or figures involved.  One simply does not expect that to happen as a junior in college.  Regardless of where Paigh or Kelsey or their Jackson 24-7 colleagues ultimately land, their world was forever changed.  The Union bubble had burst.

The culture in any young television newsroom is often comparable to that of people in any profession who have to work as a team.  Because most of the reporters are under 30, they have an emotional sense of invincibility.  Regardless of the menu of any given day’s news, some espirit de corps is required to deliver the nightly output.  Some days, people like the news director; other days, people would like to wish the news director into a cornfield, a la the classic Billy Mumy episode of Twilight Zone.

I was not in the newsroom at KTMF or one of those in the news car that drove to 314 Brooks Street May 6.  I do know that the sense of detachment that occurs from covering many tragedies all too quickly evaporated.  Once word spread via phone or texts to others in the newsroom and those who were already home for the evening, the culture of KTMF was forever changed.

Kalee Scolatti and a family friend, Anthony Dupras, were dead.  As we learned from police reports in the days that followed, Kalee’s estranged husband entered the home.  At some point, she called Dupras, whom she had frequently referred to as a brother.  Investigators say the evidence indicated when Dupras arrived, Nicholas Scolatti took out a handgun and shot Kalee, Dupras and himself.  Nick Scolatti died two days later.  The Scolattis left behind three daughters.  Dupras had two sons.

How the anchors of KTMF managed to deliver the news to Missoula that night I will never know.  Active news directors aren’t supposed to die, much less become the victims of an alleged murder.

We live in a vastly different world than the one in which I became a rookie reporter in the mid-1970s.  Seven years ago, Anne Pressly—a reporter-anchor for KATV in Little Rock—was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered in her apartment.  Last December, Patrick Crawford—a morning weathercaster at KCEN in Waco, Tx., was shot three times on the station parking lot.  He survived.  In February, San Diego sportscaster Kyle Kraska was shot ten times through the back window of his car.  A month later, Kraska miraculously returned to his job at KFMB CBS 8.

Within a day and a half, the story of Kalee Scolatti’s untimely death was in The New York Daily News, The Los Angeles Times, and the U.K.’s The Daily Mail and The Guardian.  Missoula rarely is the locale of news outside of Montana.

Often, viewers mistakenly are of the opinion that broadcast journalists have no heart and no soul.  They are moreso of that mind of network newscasters, but the adversarial relationships occasionally filter down to the local level.  As one of my former students and long-time WBBJ anchor Keli McAlister told a gathering at Union last year, “There’s no textbook that prepares you for the first time you take a phone call from an angry viewer.”

Having been on the working journalist side and in an administrative role for 19 years, I am acutely aware of the emotions of a newsroom.  People on a news staff have bills to pay, have to deal with frozen pipes and stopped-up toilets, have worries about children, struggle to determine how to finance college for those same kids, battle illnesses, experience depression (a subject for an upcoming blog entry) and deal with deaths in the family.

When a fellow staff member, whether the boss or a peer, not only dies but is apparently murdered, one does not simply put on the game face and report the facts.  Once I read the story of Kalee’s death, I knew hearts were breaking in the KTMF newsroom.  Those hearts would not mend in a matter of days.

Union is a Christian university.  We believe in God.  We believe in prayer.  I told my students of the tragedy in Missoula.  I asked them all to pray for everyone in the KTMF newsroom, as well as the families affected by the tragedy.  They did.  As I told them, “You want to be where they are soon.  Just as we experienced with the sad story of Olivia and Charlie last year, those people are hurting.  They don’t know you but they need to know others are thinking of them.”

I knew no one on the KTMF staff, but I reached out via e-mail to the first anchor on the station website, Angela Marshall.  I shared the story of what we experienced 15 months earlier and the emotional stress for Paigh and Kelsey.  Here is an excerpt of my communication:

 “Unfortunately, times come when you have to tell unpleasant stories to a waiting audience even if your heart is breaking inside. I know many questions will continue to be asked that end up with that one-word question “why?” in the next days and weeks concerning Kalee’s death. 

         The answers may not come to the emotions of your team as quickly as the answers will for police investigators.  You can’t just turn off the pain and the grief inside, all the while having to maintain a sense of professionalism to your audience.

        Just know that one who has sat in your seats for many years and has been teaching a sense of journalistic and personal values to college students for 23 years is thinking of all of you and has you in my prayers.  My students likewise offered a prayer for your entire news team after our broadcast today.”

A few hours later, I heard from David Winter, Angela’s co-anchor:

“I left the business for about 20 years and recently rejoined the Fourth Estate,” he wrote.  “Having reported last in San Francisco before leaving the business, I was exposed to a lot of crime reporting.  Now that I have “retired” to Montana… and for the most part to the anchor desk… it was unusual circumstances that led me to be the one on the scene when I learned my friend and news director had been killed.”

David offered me something to pass along to my students.  “As painful as this story was to report… EVERY tragedy that we cover is just as painful for the people on whom we are reporting,” he wrote.  “Disassociation with the stories and the people we cover is often used as a defense-mechanism to protect our own feelings.  But too much disassociation can lead to callousness, and a disservice to our stories, their subjects, our viewers, and perhaps most importantly to ourselves and our personal relationships.”

How right he is.  An occasional rogue reporter views tragedy as a stepping stone to the next big job.  Most I know, thankfully, have a breaking point because they do have a heart for the people who are victims of murders, fires, or domestic violence.  That’s not a loss of objectivity.  That’s being a human being.

As I write this, KTMF’s online page now offers stories on an upcoming school bond vote in Missoula, students in Bozeman who are building wheelchairs for children in Mexico, and a clinic which serves people who cannot afford proper dental care.  The world and Missoula have had to move forward.

Yet, still on the “Most Popular” bar is a link to Remembering Kalee Scolatti.  A video remains with a montage of the good memories of Kalee and what she meant to her station, her colleagues and her friends.

Eventually, Remembering Kalee Scolatti will disappear from that website.  Yet, the memories of Kalee will never go away from the hearts and minds of the people who work for KTMF.  After the night of May 6, the lives of those who make television and report news every night to Missoula and its neighboring cities and counties will indeed never be the same.

The Sweeps: Calling All Psychologists

When you are a wide-eyed college journalism senior, as I was in 1976, you have three things in your sights:  1) finishing all-night final projects; 2) making certain not to sleep through any of your finals; and 3) landing a job, preferably in your chosen field.

Nearly 40 years ago, college communications textbooks contained nothing about The Sweeps.

Most of us thought sweeps were guys who did what Dick Van Dyke’s character Bert did in “Mary Poppins.”  Sweeps were also four-game victory strings on a weekend homestand for the New York Yankees.

My first experience with The Sweeps in a television newsroom made me realize the concept of continuing education was a novel one.

October 30, reporters, anchors, producers, videographers, news directors and general managers in local stations from Glendive to Atlanta entered into a quarterly 28-day ritual.  Those four weeks test the patience of the most adjusted of humans.  At times, people yell and throw things.  Other times, people yell and want to throw other people.  In tense moments, people yell and actually do throw other people.

In extreme cases, the collective result of that month can mean the difference in one’s employment.  If things turn sour, some of the aforementioned practitioners could end up as the equivalent of what is about to happen to Brady Hoke at The University of Michigan.

Such is the journey known as The Sweeps.

THE SWEEPS:  A BRIEF PRIMER

The origin of “the sweeps” dates to the 1950s when two ratings service companies, Nielsen and Arbitron—-one of which has vanished from the practice, engaged in a “sweep” of local television markets for four weeks four times a year to determine the viewing habits of an often-fickle public.

Television sweeps have more flaws than faces with pockmarks.  The whole concept is remarkably silly but persists because the advertising community and broadcast managers continue to agree to it, or spin the argument that they cannot develop anything better.

For an industry on which the flow of advertising dollars and the job status of thousands of people ride, sending a paper booklet called a diary to a few hundred homes and accepting the validity of hand-written records of program-watching is mind-boggling.

WHEN THE SWEEPS GO ASTRAY

More than 30 years ago, my managers at WSAV in Savannah, Ga., actually traveled to Florida to physically view the diaries.  This was shortly after the February 1983 sweep in which ABC carried the blockbuster miniseries “The Winds of War” and CBS aired the two-and-a-half hour finale of “M*A*S*H.”

WSAV had not received the anticipated boost in ratings from the ABC multi-night drama.  Management was more than curious as to why.

At the time, Nielsen awarded credit for viewership on the basis of the call letters registered on the diary.  On more than a scattered few of the booklets, a viewer listed “The Winds of War” but credit was given to the CBS affiliate because that diary-keeper wrote WTOC as the station he or she was watching.

Management suggested, in a paraphrased emotion, “We’ve got a bunch of idiots filling out these things.”  Yeah?  After further review, the painful reality could have rested in the failure to market the station call letters successfully to viewers.

The system, to be honest, has been refined in the last 20 years.  The largest markets in America are electronically sampled on a daily basis.  Yet, the continued emphasis on a quartet of four-week sampling is still ridiculous.

With bluetooth and sensor technology, the television industry has the capability to measure the viewing patterns of virtually every human in front of a screen in the United States every second of every day.  Perhaps that will eventually happen, but the gut feeling (something not exercised in the broadcast industry often these days) is in the year 2050, television managers, advertisers and ratings service companies will continue to put their eggs in November, February, May and July.

THE SWEEPS:  MY FIRST EXPERIENCE

My maiden voyage with The Sweeps was with a practice that is now a dinosaur in television news departments.  My first news director, Dick McMichael, at WRBL in Columbus, called me in to instruct me in “how to do a five-part series….it’s a proven winner in television.  You’ve gotta do one for February.”

Only the people who were interviewed in “Growing Up Is Hard to Do” remember it.  Not even I remember much about it and I am one of those blessed with a memory many others wish was not one of my personal gifts.  The concept was to profile teenagers both as individuals and in a group as to the struggles of growing up in the rough-and-tumble world of the 1970s.

What Dick wanted was for me to find the dregs of teen life for at least one or two parts of that five-episode monument.  The term “gang” did not have the context it does today.  They were not an active element in Columbus, Ga., in the day.  When you tell high school principals or guidance counselors what you’re doing with a project such as this and ask, “Don’t give me your straight-A students,” they comply.  They give you their A-minus students.

When the rating “book,” as the ratings report is called, for The Sweeps in February was delivered, I discovered something interesting. The week in which “Growing Up Is Hard to Do” aired, “TV3 Eyewitness News” actually scored one rating point higher than the previous seven-day period.  Definitely the reason was because of my wonderful reporting.  None of the other news stories in Columbus during those five evenings had as much impact as my visits with high school kids.

WHEN “THE WHAMMY” INTERCEDES DURING THE SWEEPS

To all of you who are current producers, reporters, anchors or administrators in television news—-if you think you have it rough during The Sweeps, I sincerely hope the following mini-chapter will lighten your load and your mood.  Feel free to laugh, cry, commiserate or send sympathy cards.

The most ridiculous and insipid sweeps “stunt” (another glossary term for a gimmick you would not try at any other time of year or wish on your grumpy uncle at a family reunion) in which I was ever involved nearly forced me to voluntarily leave the profession.

The man responsible is one whom I have never forgiven and never intend to see, speak to, or associate with for whatever days I have remaining on Earth.  His name, which I unabashedly reveal, is Ed Bewley.  Ed was indeed the epitome of The Whammy, the old animated character that cost you whatever bankroll you had amassed on the CBS game show “Press Your Luck.”

I had been spirited away from WRBL to the enemy trooops—-the ABC station WTVM a few blocks up the street on Wynnton Road.

While still at WRBL, I had my first encounter with The Whammy—-my moniker for news consultants.  Telcom Associates, one of the lesser-grade advisory groups, was hired to modernize the look of WRBL News, redo the set, give us a new and exciting name (“Eyewitness News,” what a renaissance title) and make us look more hip (something that was next to impossible to do in a station where “the WRBL image” was more institutional than the Supreme Court).

Dick sent us a memo that read, in short, “Telcom is not coming in with a broom.  They’re here to help.”  I wanted to ask, “But, Dick, if they’re basically going to tell us what to do during The Sweeps, how can they do that without a broom?”  Dick would not have appreciated my brand of humor (he does now, as I thoroughly enjoy lunches with him on my return visits to Columbus).

Five-part series, you say?  Yes, that went the way of the prime time entertainment miniseries.  No one would do “Roots” today.  The five-parter gave way to the three-parter, then the two-night series, then the one night special report touted by promos such as:  “Is glass in the food of your child’s school cafeteria?  An I-Team special report at 11.”

WTVM employed what was considered the crown jewel of consultants—Frank N. Magid and Associates.  I had read the mini-biography of Mr. Magid and why he started his business to tell TV news departments what to do.  I never did learn the first name of his partner Associates.

Occasionally, some of Mr. Magid’s Associates decided they could do what he did better than he did.  So, they proceeded to break away from the exciting city of Marion, Iowa, and start their own news advisory firms.

Ed Bewley formed “Ed Bewley Consults,” which sounded like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” or “The Bee Says,” that talking toy with a string Mattel released in the 1960s.

Ed Bewley Consults begat The Media Associates which begat Audience Research and Development, known today by people who speak such languages as “AR&D,” or by people really in the know as “ARD.”

HEADED FOR THE PROMISED LAND:  “ON LOCATION”

In January 1978, Ed crafted an idea that had to come from a government agency.  Only official Washington could have developed such an inefficient, complex idea that was destined for failure.

The four members of our anchor team—-news director Kathy Pepino, the world’s most dangerous weathercaster Mitzi Oxford, and our sports director were called in for a motivational session about this monster project that was going to propel us to the Promised Land in the February sweeps.  We were leading the ratings at 11 o’clock but in the Eastern time zone, early evening was where the premium advertising revenue tree was harvested.  We trailed by a full 10 rating points at 7 p.m., where we went head to head with WRBL.

This transformational event in Columbus television history bore the exciting name of “On Location.”  Not even Kathy exhibited unbridled enthusiasm when she introduced the project to us.

The game plan:  WTVM would rent a large Winnebago.  For six weeks, Kathy, Mitzi, the sports director and I were to prowl the hinterlands, shoring up the audience base of 15 rural counties in West Georgia and East Alabama surrounding Columbus.  We would be literally “on location” from Monday through Thursday every week from January 15 until February 28.  The assignment, should we decide to accept it, was a combination gladhanding, backslapping excursion combined with story gathering in each town.

To navigate all of this, we would have to leave each morning between 7:30 and 8 a.m. and not arrive back in Columbus until 4 p.m.  Oh yes, we were still expected to do the 7 and 11 p.m. news every night.  After all, this was The Sweeps.

Do the math.  Four days of each week, we would be pulling 16-hour shifts plus a regular eight-hour day on Fridays.  Unless Jethro Bodine is calculating, that adds up to 70-hour work weeks for six consecutive weeks.  Perfectly normal in the television news business.

This all may sound like a glorious opportunity to engage our audience, a term which was yet to be invented.  However, I challenge you to look at those dates again:  January 15 through February 28.  Mind you, Columbus, Ga., does not have the same first-of-the-year weather as Toronto or Anchorage but neither is it South Florida.  The temperatures in midwinter can still test one’s stamina.

My internal reaction, which I did not immediately express aloud, was Georgia winters had a history of being both cold and wet.

Mitzi, one of the most delightful people you will ever meet, was rarely as diplomatic as was I.  She asked without hesitation:  “Kathy, why aren’t we doing this in April and May when it’s warm, people are out doing things and you have so many community events?  We’re all going to get sick.”

Ms. Oxford, a year younger than I, had no idea how clairvoyant she was.  Or perhaps she did.

THE GRAND VISION

Ed’s original vision was for us to speak at civic clubs, community organizations, or schools, visit industries, and do interviews with the local radio personalities.  In addition, we were expected to develop two or three stories in each town and air them on the same night in which we visited.  Mind you, this was in the days before live trucks in a city the size of Columbus.  Promos would tout, “Action 9 News….ON LOCATION in Eufaula….tonight at 7!,” in the grand scheme of Ed’s big picture.

Common sense, not often a prevailing trait among local television executives or News Whammies, finally surfaced.  WTVM only had one video editing station.  We had four other reporters who would be toiling away at the station scrambling to commandeer time to edit the real news in Columbus and other cities where the Winnebago was not invading.  Some editors were fast.  Others were akin to the horse that trails the rear in the Kentucky Derby.

“Kathy, there is absolutely no way we can come back at 4 or 4:30, knock our people out of turn in the edit bay and air these stories on the same night.  We only have one down day every week and we’re going to be exhausted,” I semi-boldly pleaded.

Seeing another opening, Mitzi added, “Explain to me how I am going to have time to find my soundbites, edit a story and prepare my weather for 7 o’clock.”  Oh yes, this was in an era where another gimmick had Mitzi doing the weather outside, rain or shine, on a patio set behind the WTVM garage.

Kathy conceded the logistics required a sensible compromise.  “Ed said we have to do this and Lynn agreed to it, so we’re going to have to do it….but I have another meeting about this and I will bring all of this up.”

Lynn, by the way, was our general manager Lynn Avery.  Three years earlier, Lynn had upset the applecart both inside the station and in many parts of the city.  He fired the station’s long-time anchor Al Fleming.  Soon exiting were veteran weathercaster Penny Leigh and sports director Jim Koger in favor of a youth movement.

Our team was actually Act II of Lynn’s plan.  Fleming’s first successor Tony Windsor left for Jacksonville, Fla.  Penny’s replacement Rich Baumann departed for private business.  A heavyweight personality, sports director Gary Hogan, found greener pastures in Little Rock.

How the second configuration came to be is for another blogpost.  Kathy later confided to me over a greasy supper at Captain D’s next door to WTVM that she did not like the entire idea of “On Location,” but Ed had convinced Lynn that “if we execute it right, we’ll be number one.”  Kathy was inwardly nervous.  This was her first shot at being a news director.  If the Winnebago project failed, she could easily become the fall lady.  So could the rest of us.

THE SWEEPS:  SIX WEEKS OF SHEER EXHAUSTION

Kathy negotiated a compromise.  We would be given a one-week lead time to edit our stories from each city.  In each of our goodwill stops, we would reinforce to viewers the specific night the pieces would air.

The other key piece to the puzzle:  I would have to drive the van.  Mind you, this was not a small crankout camper.  This was a full-fledged motor home of the ilk as a grand prize in the showcase of “The Price Is Right.”  I had never remotely driven anything larger than a 1967 Chrysler Newport Custom.

When that Winnebago was delivered to the station parking lot, I gasped.  When I managed to drag myself to Lynn Avery’s office to ask why I would be the chauffeur, he didn’t mince words.  “Ray’s had a couple of accidents and I don’t trust him with it,” he said.

Ray?  That was our sports director, Ray Bewley.  If the last name sounds familiar, he was the younger brother of the architect of “On Location.”  Ray was and still is one of the most easygoing, affable guys you will ever meet.  In my view, he was the 180-degree opposite of his brother.  If a fire was moving down a hall, Ray would just walk past it and say, “That’s not so bad.”  I always thought Ed spoke like a research project.  I used to joke that Ed probably wouldn’t decide which foot to put on the floor first in the morning if he didn’t consult a focus group.

One other tidbit:  because I was the driver, I was mandated to travel all 24 days of the project.  To provide some respite for the others, Thursdays were designated as a day of rotation.  One Thursday, only Kathy and I would go.  The next Thursday, Ray and I would tag team.  The following Thursday, the woman who could have been one of my relatives, Mitzi, and I would grace the tour stop.

I was given a list of battleground cities that were key to our ratings performance.  My additional assignment was to spend my mornings at home lining up the personal appearances.  I logged more than 40 phone calls but somehow, we had bookings everywhere from Auburn to Opelika to Cuthbert to Americus to Plains to Hatchechubbee.

I deliberately made our final stop Callaway Gardens, the tourism showplace in Pine Mountain, Ga.  I figured whether “On Location” was a gamechanger or a bust, the four of us were entitled to one day in a spectacular locale.

Here’s something else about driving a huge Winnebago in the winter.  Those things take forever to heat.  The dealer from whom the station leased the motor home told me I would need an hour to warm the vehicle for comfort.  That meant if we were leaving out of Columbus at 8 a.m., I had to be in the parking lot at seven to fire the engine.

Remember what I feared about the weather?  Sure enough, that first morning the temperature was 34 degrees at departure time and the skies were anything but blue.  We encountered the first of 16 days of rain during the six-week excursion.  On none of those days of what seemed to be ceaseless showers did the temperature reach 50 for a high.

January 15, 1978, the four of us and production photographer Steve Curry felt like the passengers on the S.S. Minnow.  If memory serves me correct, we were so giddy toward the end of “On Location,” we actually sang the opening theme from “Gilligan’s Island” as we headed out of the city limits of Columbus.

Our first stop was Auburn, a 45-minute drive from WTVM.  The next morning, we hit neighboring city Opelika.  The newspaper which serves the two cities is The Opelika-Auburn News.  However, you were told immediately that the two cities had their own identity.  Opelika was Opelika.  Auburn was Auburn.  “We are NOT Opelika-Auburn,” declared the Auburn Chamber of Commerce director.

In Opelika, we encountered our first indication that this would not all be goodwill.  Our host was a rather imposing man, Henry Stern.  Kathy and Mitzi were retrieving their purses to leave the Winnebago.  “Come, come!” Henry shouted.  “Industry is waiting!”  About a half-hour later, Henry gave us a laundry list of items about which we were not to discuss before a civic club.  That kind of instruction smacks of censorship to any journalist.  We all agreed outside of Henry’s view that we would not adhere to any of his restrictions.  Mitzi looked at me and said, “How did you get us hooked up with this guy?  Are you sure his name isn’t Stern Henry?”

In Americus, only seven miles from the boyhood home of President Jimmy Carter, the four of us were asked to participate in a panel discussion at the local high school.  We soon discovered this was an unexpected trap.  This was not just a student audience.  A group of parents appeared and they were hotter than a July afternoon at the news media.

Less than a year earlier, my former station, WRBL, did a controversial report on a young teacher who was accused of physically abusing a child in her class.  The parents called the reporter, Jack Kendrick—a good friend and colleague who had moved on to Mobile.  They produced pictures which revealed raw spots on the child from where she was allegedly excessively spanked.  The teacher and her attorney refused to talk.  Almost everyone clammed up until the principal finally agreed to speak a week later to WRBL in the interest of presenting a balancing side to the story.

The teacher was, by all accounts, loved in the community.  She had the full support of the principal and the superintendent.  In the subsequent trial, she was exonerated by a jury.  Yet, the experience left her so shaken she left Americus.

Mind you, this was not WTVM’s story.  The station did cover the trial.  Nonetheless, people in Americus—a town of 14,000—were hot at anything remotely resembling a reporter.  So, we absorbed the punishment for a rival’s journalism.  We never received a thank you note from our friends at WRBL.

Three weeks into “On Location,” we had our first casualty.  Mitzi, worn down from marathon days and nights, coughed her way through an 11:15 weathercast.  The next day, she was diagnosed with pleurisy.  She was on the disabled list for four days.

The next week, Kathy was stricken with quasi-pneumonia.  Her doctor said she didn’t have it but may as well have.  Kathy went on the Missing in Action list for three days.

During Week 5, I was in the middle of the Monday night 7 o’clock broadcast.  Suddenly, my mouth moved and only a whisper came out.  I sounded more like Redd Foxx pitching to a reporter’s package.  I handed the copy to Kathy and told her I had the clammiest feeling.  If she would finish the stories in that block, perhaps I would have enough for the second segment.  That was wishful thinking that would not be fulfilled.  By 7:30, I knew I was running a temperature.  The reading was 102.3.  I was out from 11 and for the next two days.

Lynn was becoming increasingly irritable that his anchor team was dropping like flies during The Sweeps.  This is the same man who once came down to the newsroom when one of our team members developed laryngitis and was incapacitated.  He stuck his face right in front of Mitzi and shouted, “I’ve never missed a day of work or a day of school in my life and I don’t expect any of you to.  Do you understand that?”  Mitzi calmly responded, “Yes, Lynn.”  He wasn’t through.  “I said, ‘Do you UNDERSTAND THAT?'” For a moment I thought he was impersonating Frank Sutton’s Sergeant Carter on “Gomer Pyle, USMC.”  Mitzi, answering as if she was a platoon member, yelled, “YES, LYNN!”

One of the funnier moments came in the final week.  On the previous Thursday, Ray and I were the twosome in Eufaula, Ala.  He said, “Well, you know, I’m the only trouper out of all of us.  I haven’t missed a day.”  Four nights later, Ray reported the happy news that he had a temperature of 102.  We did not see him until Wednesday.

THE VERDICT OF “ON LOCATION” DURING THE SWEEPS

We managed to air all of our stories one week after we visited each town.  Some of us came in early on Friday to edit, though we craved sleep.  Occasionally, we would drop in on a weekend afternoon and piece them together.

If you want to have a real gauge on whether what you are presenting in a newscast is compelling, ask your production crew.  They are not focused as journalists.  They have a critical job to do but they watch a news broadcast far more as a conventional viewer does.

My barometers at WTVM were our two top directors, Spencer Cleaveland and Ron Luker.  Three weeks into “On Location,” Spencer called me off after an 11 o’clock newscast and asked, “Why are y’all doing this?”  I asked what he meant.  “I mean all of these soft, warm and fuzzy stories in all of these towns,” Spencer said.  “This looks like PM Magazine, not news.”  A couple of days later, Ron echoed Spencer’s evaluation.  “Steve, I like what you bring to the table with us,” Ron said, “but this is all fluff.  It’s like things we’d do on the morning show.  They may think this is going to bring up the ratings…..but I don’t know.”

That was a red flag to me.  Those two guys were equals as team members, even though they didn’t work in the newsroom.  I confided in our producer and my good friend Cliff Windham.  If anyone was a rah-rah cheerleader, it was Cliff.  He just did not sense a groundswell of enthusiasm for “On Location.”

After six weeks, 1,800 miles on the road and four casualties, “On Location” was mercifully over.  Only in the final two days did the temperature ever rise above 55 degrees.  Mitzi did research and determined January and February 1978 were the coldest of those two months in 12 years.  We kept scratching our heads as to why we could not have postponed this to the spring.  Ed’s argument was because February has the largest number of television viewers.  He was right about that.  Had he looked into the eyes of the worn out anchor team, perhaps he would have realized something different.

The Book, in those days, arrived at each television station exactly three weeks after the final night of The Sweeps.  The Book resembled a small magazine but it was like a detailed version of the report card we all received every six or nine weeks when we were in school.

The optimist in me naively wanted to believe “On Location” would turn the tide at 7 o’clock.  If it did, it would likely mean I would be taken seriously as a lead anchor at the perilously young age of 23.  The realist in me kept hearing the voices of Spencer and Ron.  People in my church kept telling me how much they enjoyed the features.  They all knew me.  They were not the gauge of the community at large.

On a Thursday at 12 noon, I received a call from Cliff.  He was not prone to call me unless we had an emergency situation.  “Steve, The Book is in,” Cliff said, almost milking drama except his voice—unless he was pulling a surprise—did not suggest victory.  “From what I am told, we did our worst ever at six o’clock since the Action 9 News format has been in place.”

Two hours later, I was in Kathy’s office.  She showed me the results.  We had fallen from 10 points behind to 12 points down at seven.  We still had a slim lead at 11 but that was not what Lynn spent thousands of dollars to achieve.

No one was fired but word filtered down that blame was being assigned.  Kathy told us Ed expressed to Lynn that the execution of the project was all wrong.  Mind you, a news consultant has never accepted responsibility, to my knowledge, of failure.  Either the talent is wrong, the presentation is wrong, or the execution is wrong.  Anything to get another contract.

Within a few months, however, change came.  Kathy lost the news director stripes but continued as the lead co-anchor for another year.  Ray, perhaps sensing a tidal wave at hand, transitioned to a role as marketing director for Callaway Gardens.  Mitzi, who rang the bell with viewers, continued on weather but we soon moved her out of that outdoor environment after she was nearly struck by lightning when a vicious thunderstorm erupted a minute before one of her forecasts.

I was ushered in and told I was not mature enough to compete in the lead role as anchor.  The station wanted me to continue as a reporter, which I did for the next four years.  In retrospect, I do not disagree with the assessment.  I was going against two veteran heavyweights twice my age in a city with an older demographic population that valued experience.  Even though I had lived in Columbus in my childhood years, I did not have the professional experience, nor the connection with enough of the community to be a genuine competitor.  Five to seven years later, maybe.  Not at 23.

THE SWEEPS:  EPILOG

The Winnebago went back to the dealership the day after “On Location” was finished.  We finally returned to a traditional sleep schedule and revived our energy levels.  Mitzi came in to the edit suite—actually a converted closet—a week later and said something that allowed me to find a slim silver lining out of what was a physically and emotionally debilitating experience that did not end well.

“You know, I know we’re all exhausted and we don’t want to see another motorhome any time soon,” she said, “but if there’s one thing I enjoyed, it was being around you. You’re a good guy.”  I had only worked with my colleagues barely seven months.  When I came to work at WTVM, they only knew me as that Sunday night anchor on the other station.  When you travel for six weeks to a cornucopia of small towns and spend 72 hours a week with them, you either come away with relationships torn to shreds or you bond.  Thankfully, we bonded.

I have maintained a lifelong friendship with Kathy and Mitzi.  In the 36 years since “On Location,” I have only seen Ray at an Action 9 News reunion we staged in 1998 but he was the same affable guy he always was.

Four decades later, I still look at “On Location” for what it was—a gimmick.  It was one of the excesses that leads to justifiable criticism of television news.

In my opinion—and at age 60, I feel robust and uninhibited in expressing it—it was also a distraction.  We were removed from the function of reporting genuine news that made a difference in all of those communities.  Instead, we aired a travelogue.  We shook many hands and made hundreds of brief acquaintances but did that result in throngs of people making WTVM their appointment station for news?  In a word, no.

The real rainbow appeared two years later.  With a change in general managers and a commitment to serious journalism that challenged the establishment and some of the excesses, including some government corruption, in Columbus, viewers began slowly migrating to us.  After a calculated error in management by WRBL in 1980, WTVM toppled the long-dominant leader in the market.

The Sweeps are an anachronistic animal that creates pressure on TV news departments to artificially hype stories and presentations they do not necessarily offer in non-sweeps months.  Yeah, yeah, you can go to MediaPost.com or Broadcasting and Cable and read the pontificating thoughts of news and station executives who will defend to the death the value of The Sweeps.  So be it.  The same arguments will continue to be made years after I and the current generation of journalists are gone.

However, if you are employed in a television news department and are feeling added stress during the month of November, just remember this:  you don’t have to drive a Winnebago through backroads and barren country highways at 7 a.m. in the morning in the midst of frigid temperatures.  You don’t have to smile and wave at people who begin to look alike over six weeks.  More than likely, you won’t contract pleurisy or pneumonia.  You probably have to deal with The Whammy but it wasn’t the same Whammy we experienced 36 years ago.

The Whammy?  Oh, he was finally shown the door the following year.  Kathy’s successor managed that in a him-or-me showdown.  I suppose he was out of gimmicks to execute his grand vision for Columbus television news.  I went my way.  He went his.  We are both better off for it.

If The Sweeps get to you in your newsroom, don’t worry.  The Old TV News Coach will be glad to refer you to a good psychologist in your town.