What KSTP’s hiring of Paul McEnroe says about the state of local TV news

Paul McEnroe
Star Tribune
Paul McEnroe

The morning after my previous pieceon Strib reporter Paul McEnroe signing on with KSTP-­TV was published, the station’s news director, Anne Wittenborg, called, apologetic about not getting back to me in time for the story. “I was buried in budgets,” she explained.

For the record, Wittenborg, a Marshall native who is fairly new to KSTP’s news director chair (stepping up this past May), confirmed McEnroe’s understanding of his role at the station, which is to provide veteran news judgment to routine coverage as well as give the station something it hasn’t really had in a while — an impactful investigative unit.

“There’s no quota on Paul,” she said. “With his sources and experience, we think his presence will be valuable on many different levels. We don’t expect everything he does to be a big, four ­minute blockbuster.” Four minutes being a kind of “Lawrence of Arabia” epic in modern TV news.

Wittenborg and KSTP — the metro area’s only locally­-owned TV news outlet — deserve credit for being smart enough to lure in someone like McEnroe. He’s a big presence, the sort of character with very specific ideas of how to do serious journalism. But what KSTP is also conceding, implicitly, is that the local TV news game, as presently played both in Minnesota and across the country, is in serious need of rethinking and reinvigorating.

Wittenborg reiterates what McEnroe told me, that he will be able to concentrate on “long and deep” stories with a social justice focus. Skeptical viewers will be watching closely for how much the TV version will compare with the newspaper iteration of such stories. But the mere act of declaring your intention sometimes has the effect of bolstering your determination.

The sad fact is that for too many (i.e. most) TV stations “investigative reporting” circa 2015 is defined as anything that takes four phone calls, a Google search and some promo hype. Budgets are of course a key determination in allocating resources — or not — for investigative projects. Another is audience research, which has a bad habit of describing news shows’ target audience, “soccer moms,” as being mostly interested in stories about keeping their family safe, stories that allow them to feel good about their community, and stories that keep them current with trends in dining and fashion. Those two factors combined place a premium on quick hit pieces a reporter and a photographer can crank out in an afternoon.

A second fact is that TV is still the primary source for a majority of news consumers, and probably will remain so for years to come, onslaught from the internet withstanding.

In his testimonial for McEnroe, Strib editor Rene Sanchez made a point of touting recent longform investigative work done by his staff, specifically the recent four­-part series on farm safety. The series had everything you want in “long and deep” reporting, and the Strib team deserves all due credit for both effort and execution. But it was a damned daunting read. The sheer acreage of newsprint presented precisely the challenge that many news consumers turn to TV to avoid: personal effort.

In his study, Story­Based Inquiry: A manual for investigative journalists​” Mark Lee Hunter defines investigative journalism by contrasting it with “conventional” journalism: 

Investigative journalism involves exposing to the public matters that are concealed – either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances that obscure understanding. It requires using both secret and open sources and documents.

Conventional news reporting depends largely and sometimes entirely on materials provided by others (such as police, governments, companies, etc.); it is fundamentally reactive, if not passive. Investigative reporting, in contrast, depends on material gathered or generated through the reporter’s own initiative (which is why it is often called “enterprise reporting”).  

Conventional news reporting aims to create an objective image of the world as it is. Investigative reporting uses objectively true material – that is, facts that any reasonable observer would agree are true – toward the subjective goal of reforming the world. That is not a license to lie in a good cause. It is a responsibility, to learn the truth so that the world can change.

Other reporters and academics have their variations on that, but among the fundamental criteria for something to qualify as “investigative” in what we’ll call “the genuine sense” is that the subject matter be broadly substantial. Exposes of crooked microwave repair shops — or the all-­time classic: KSTP’s mid­-90s pixelated tour de force on topless housecleaners — do not qualify. What McEnroe has the potential to bring to KSTP is a committed focus on the big stuff: those institutions and characters who have influence over the lives and well ­being of thousands.

There are plenty of people skeptical that McEnroe’s presence will be transformative to the culture at KSTP. More than a few are betting he’ll be driven to frustrated exhaustion by the standardized superficialities of the local TV news game. And having watched this shtick for 25 years, 60 cents of my dollar is on that outcome. But given the audience TV news reaches, I’m still hoping the ship of silliness can be steered into deeper seas.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Bob Collins on 11/06/2015 - 03:08 pm.

    Pointergate

    I wonder if McEnroe would’ve stood up and said, “hey….ummmmm….” before the Pointergate story was aired.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 11/07/2015 - 02:23 am.

      Hey, KSTP and MPD folks doubled down on the mayoral gang signs; I don’t think anyone could have dissuaded them. It is showbiz after all.

      If McEnroe gets any airtime he might get snapped up by the national network as grabbing locals capable of something akin to serious journalism has always been the pattern (probably won’t happen as he’s not young or good looking enough anymore).

      I remember a segment from when I was a kid where local TV news folks explained how they went about their work: they picked their stories from the newspaper, a few questions to ask the talking heads, a few locations to film for the day, and pieced their head shots back and front plus the visuals they based their newspaper picks on together, and presented their widgets, er… stories to the news director for the broadcast. I doubt things have changed much.

      I guess news stories, good or bad, are like drugs: people get addicted as stories touch the reward center of the brain, so folks tune in again and again rather than take the trouble to read something more complete. Even that is harder to find as print news trims coverage more and more.

  2. Submitted by Alan Muller on 11/07/2015 - 08:11 am.

    Terminology…..

    Perhaps I’m being cynical here, but sounds as if “investigative journalism” is being defined to mean what used to be called “journalism.” And “conventional news reporting” is passive regurgitation.

    Or perhaps it has ever been so?

  3. Submitted by Mary McCarthy on 11/07/2015 - 08:29 am.

    McEnroe

    It’s true that “investigative reporting” seldom conforms to that textbook definition, nor are outworn records cases often easy to grasp in less than the sheer “acreage of newsprint” comprising those reports on farm safety.
    I am wishing Mr. McEnroe well, however, as he departs on this new challenge in his career, because I think we could all be the better for it. I expect McEnroe’s work to be original journalism—enterprised, serious stories that may well be very difficult to tell on the magic screen. I have no doubt his experience will be helpful in the newsroom, but KSTP will also need to assign the print guy a talented producer. After all, he will need to translate his work into an electronic format which conveys information effectively to those who do not have a chance to go back and re-read the story’s last paragraph.

  4. Submitted by Jim Million on 11/07/2015 - 09:45 am.

    Investigate What?

    Just give me the N-E-W-S, please, and weather, of course.

  5. Submitted by Jon Austin on 11/07/2015 - 09:56 am.

    A view from the trenches…

    As someone who works frequently with “investigative reporters” the standard described by Mr. Hunter seems to be more of an ideal than a reality.

    Much – most? – of what passes for investigative journalism these days is the largely unexamined repackaging of somebody else’s narrative – often a plaintiff or some other advocate with a financial or business motive – rather than true “enterprise reporting.” This approach to what is an important function of the media is cost-effective, fills the “news hole,” protects the news organization from legal actions or too much scrutiny (“We’re just reporting what’s in the public record”) and can be done by reporters of any level of experience and judgement as long as they can convey the necessary range of outrage needed for social media promotion. It doesn’t, however, meet the standards set forth by Mr. Hunter and his co-authors (see page 9 of their study if you want a cheat sheet to benchmark the quality of the next investigative report you read).

    In fairness, though, the authors wrote their 2009 study (published by UNESCO) as a “how to” manual for nascent reporters in the Middle East rather than as a survey of the state of the profession so it’s allowed to be aspirational. (Your link is broken, by the way, but interested parties can read the whole report via Google Books.)

    There are some exceptions to my generally discouraging experience with investigative reporters, including Mr. McEnroe, and I wish him well in the new gig. Unfortunately, like Mr. Lambert, I’ve also “watched this shtick for 25 years” and I too am not overwhelmingly optimistic.

  6. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 11/07/2015 - 12:04 pm.

    Substantive news stories

    I watch mainstream news at night for the weather with the sound muted. Stops me from frightening the cat and dog with my groans for the trivial “news” they choose to air. Car crash, especially if someone dies, especially if it’s a mother and kids? First item. Backyard fire out of control? Big play, lots of lights and noise. Police heroes. Sick or injured or disabled kid dying, soldiering on, making an unlikely recovery — whatever. “Good question” — invariably trivial, mindless question about — I don’t know because if I have the TV on at all it’s muted because it’s so irritating. Actually, I seldom watch WCCO at all because the “news” seems to be the most trivial of the local stations.
    Meanwhile, elections are held with no or few results given; wars are fought; troops are sent off to ongoing wars (although there’ll be a big story about soldiers coming home and reuniting with family); the economy tanks; thousands more jobs are added — you will watch in vain.
    It’s enough to want to make your put your foot through the screen.

  7. Submitted by joe smith on 11/09/2015 - 08:45 am.

    Great, there will be stories with a “social justice” bias. How about the news, then sports and finish with weather, keep your focus on the news not how it makes folks feel.

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