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There’s no news in WCCO-TV’s ‘Goin’ to the Lake’ segments. So why does it often lead the news?

When a frothy segment like WCCO-TV’s ‘Goin’ to the Lake’ starts leading newscasts, one wonders if news is being served.

WCCO’s noon anchor Kim Johnson and forecaster Kylie Bearse visiting Richmond for River Lake Days, a medallion hunt and a yard sale.

Lord knows the late, venerated Dave Moore loved a good shtick. But you have to wonder what “The Old Man” of WCCO­-TV would think of the station’s commitment to its frothy, all­-but-­entirely ­news-­free​ “Goin’ to the Lake” segment​.

Even occasional viewers of the station’s newscasts, the early 5 and 6 p.m. shows in particular, have been struck not just by how often they’re treated to long (for TV) “reports” from on­-air personalities frolicking at some area resort or lakeside community, but how often what looks and sounds more like promotional barnstorming than reporting ​leads​ the newscast.

The bit has been running for several years now, with a winter interlude to remind/break the news to ’CCO’s audience that folks around here get outdoors in January, too. Now though the bit has a sponsor, Medica, the health insurance giant. What at first seemed just another fluffy lifestyle gimmick has clearly settled in as a signature element of ’CCO’s coverage.

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How fluffy is it? A recent jaunt up I­-94 to the Richmond­/Cold Spring area was covered by noon anchor Kim Johnson and forecaster Kylie Bearse. What we learned in not one but ​two​ separate segments is this: The people of Richmond are friendly and welcoming. The weather was great. There are cute dogs to pet and good food to eat. Also, you can buy the craziest stuff at yard sales.

Celebrating what’s good about Minnesota

To his credit, in an era where other news directors are reluctant if not outright prohibited from speaking to the media, ’CCO’s newsroom boss, Mike Caputa, returned my call, knowing the topic and correctly assuming the slant wasn’t going to be exactly favorable.

The boilerplate explanation for the amount of editorial “acreage” being given to “Goin’ to the Lake” is as follows: “We’re trying to celebrate what’s good about Minnesota, about our communities. And we get so much positive feedback from viewers [for doing it]. The popularity has increased over the years.”

Right. In what amounts to a modest windfall of free advertising for small towns like Richmond or nearby Cold Spring, it’s a Chamber of Commerce dream come true. And, like the neighborly 12­-day marathon interaction at the State Fair, it’s a win for the station(s) as their on-­air talent reaffirms their celebrity status by squeezing a few delighted locals into the same camera (or selfie) shot.

There’s no news there

We get all that. Self­-promotion has always been a critical part of the local TV news game. But how is it “news” in any shape or form, if “news” is even a consideration?

Caputa, who has been in the boss’s chair for roughly five years, insists “Goin’ to the Lake” was his idea, although there are opinions within ’CCO that former GM Brien Kennedy’s aggressive push for more positive Return On Investment had a lot to do with Caputa’s thinking. (Kennedy was promoted up to KYW­-TV, CBS’ Philadelphia affiliate, which is now running its own version of cheery, celebratory recreational segments. CBS owns both stations.)

In case you’re wondering, Caputa says, “We pick up the whole tab,” for the trips to the lake. This in response to several cynics, including yours truly, who have openly speculated that towns and resorts had to be “comping” ’CCO’s news stars in exchange for coverage that is so flattering.

Traditionally, what old-school news cranks preach is that “news,” by definition, is something ​new​, something involving change of some sort, an accident, a death, a hiring, a firing, a change of attitude or policy by public or political leaders, a technical advancement or failure, even a win or loss by the home team. The cliché being, “A thousand planes landing safely is not news. One plane crashing is.”

A thousand Midwesterners splashing in the refreshing clear summer water, petting dogs or giggling over goofy yard sale tchotchkes would seem to be the equivalent of the former, the thousand planes going about their business exactly as everyone expects.

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Service journalism taking over

What you sense in “Goin’ to the Lake” is the steady encroachment of what some call ​“Service Journalism” ​into the realm of actual journalism. “Service journalism,” a bedrock concept for city magazines and morning TV chat shows, is about enhancing consumerism. Where to shop and eat. What to buy. Like “Goin’ to the Lake,” such “reporting” invariably comes wrapped in a cheerful, upbeat tone, “The Best Of …” this or that. It is by conscious intent a stark contrast to news/journalism that makes people feel anxious or depressed. It’s a refuge from the worries of the world.

Also, the admonition to reporters that “You are not the story” is another standard from old-school cranks that has clearly been dismissed by “service” productions like, “Goin to the Lake,” where the reporters/anchors/personalities are absolutely essential to the intended effect of the piece. “We are here!” is an explicit component of the coverage.

“Listen,” says Caputa. “I hear complaints about it, sure. We get it from some viewers who say things like, ‘Dave Moore would never do something like this.’ But Dave did all sorts of different things, ​like ‘Bedtime NewZ’​ and … .”

But not within a newscast.

“No. But the complaints I hear most are from competitors. They know how popular this is. Is there a ‘shtick’ to it? I suppose. Is it news like politics and crime? No. But what we’re saying is that there are other stories to tell about life in our area. This is a way to tell those stories.”