Making it news 

Tom Cochrun and Kevin Finch reinvent Channel 8

Tom Cochrun and Kevin Finch reinvent Channel 8
It’s 9:15 on a Tuesday morning in the middle of March. Last night, a cold weather clipper blew in from the northwest, dropping 3 inches of snow on the crocuses and daffodil shoots just poking up through thawed ground. Over at the Statehouse, the snow has added a soft patina to funeral preparations for Robert Orr, the former Indiana governor, whose flag-draped casket lies in state beneath the capitol’s rotunda.
Tom Cochrun
In a high-ceilinged conference room, lit from above like a star chamber, at WISH-TV on Meridian Street, Kevin Finch, the station’s assistant news director, writes “ORR FUNERAL” in black letters at the top of a white marker board. Television reporters, videographers and news editors, some in overcoats, others already in shirt sleeves, sit at a long table or lean against wood paneled walls as Jim Scott, the station’s assignment editor, reads down a list of breaking stories he has compiled. Randy Ollis, the early morning weatherman, comes in to say it’s still snowing at the airport but the worst is probably over. Finch, tall and bearded, has the bearing of an enthusiastic college prof. There’s a perpetual half-smile on his face and he has a tendency to season his remarks with puns on the names of classic rock-era bands and songs — Head East and Stop Making Sense — as much for his own amusement as for anyone who happens to be listening. It seems like a kind of mental jujitsu he uses to keep his thinking fresh. He’s been leading these daily meetings since August, when former anchorman and independent video producer Tom Cochrun asked Finch, a former producer and writer at NBC-affiliate WTHR, to join him in the task of reinventing the way local news is covered in Indianapolis. Local television news is an intensely competitive business. News directors, the people responsible for setting the course and managing local news operations, are under pressure to deliver a product that is not only journalistically sound but can attract eyeballs in the morning, at noon, at 11 o’clock at night and, in particular, between 5 and 6:30 in the evening. A local news shop usually costs between $5 million and $10 million a year to operate. It is also the key to a local station’s community identity. The local news is a distinct form of TV; because of its cost and focus, it’s a product that can’t be replicated on the Web or by any of the proliferating cable channels. Before Cochrun and Finch were hired to run the local news at WISH, they were preceded by a legend, Lee Giles. Giles took a job known in a lot of other markets for its combustibility and turned it into a kind of institution. He was news director at WISH for 35 years — a run spanning Lyndon Johnson and the second George Bush, the Beatles and Eminem, the war in Vietnam and the latest war in Iraq. Giles left Cochrun and Finch a rich, if challenging legacy. He not only redesigned and updated the station’s newsroom, he staffed it with a team of reporters and editors who have tended to bond with Indianapolis and establish ties and connections here. Personified by iconic anchorman Mike Ahern, WISH projected a strong sense of community, continuity and stability. But its coverage also began to seem formulaic. WISH’s grip on the market started slipping as rival WTHR became more aggressive. WISH has generally found itself running third at 5, running second behind WTHR at 6 and tilting with WTHR for first place at 11 p.m. Thanks to Bob Barker’s stupefying longevity at 11:30 in the morning, WISH leads at noon, but this raises another issue. WISH’s viewers have tended to trend older. Cochrun and Finch know their future depends on drawing a younger demographic to their newscasts.
Kevin Finch with reporter Bonnie Druker
Big Think guy
“My wife says this is the perfect job for me,” Tom Cochrun chuckles. “Watching four television sets at the same time — and I have a remote control!” The basset-eyed Cochrun still has that deep-throated anchorman’s voice he used to distinction over at Channel 13. Finch calls him a “Big Think guy.” Cochrun not only got himself hired to take Lee Giles’ place, he convinced WISH General Manager Scott Blumenthal to bring on Finch as well. But that was just the start. Cochrun didn’t want to simply inherit a news department. After spending several years successfully producing documentaries for the Discovery and Learning channels on cable, he also wanted to see if he could apply some of what he had learned about long-form video to local news formats, particularly between the hours of 5 and 6. Blumenthal gave him the go-ahead. “How do you tell a story that has meaning and significance in a world where people are coming and going?” Cochrun asks. “You do it in arcs. And you do it in five acts. So here we have an hour program that really translates to 47 minutes of content. We break that down into five acts and each act has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. You have to be able to transition people from one to another. That storytelling that I learned at Discovery and TLC really helps me understand the reality of the mindset people bring to the television. They’re not just coming in and sitting down and turning us on at 6 o’clock and watching us without any distractions or interruptions.” “This did not come from some other market,” Finch adds. “It’s not borrowed from Cleveland or Dallas. It didn’t come out of a handbook or some sort of e-mail newsletter. It was Tom’s idea. And then Stacey Thorne, our executive producer, started putting some meat to the bone of how it was going to show up on a daily basis.” Cochrun and Finch didn’t have a chance to test their ideas on a shake-down cruise. Their first month on the job was a trial by fire that served to establish a close, working rapport with the rest of the staff. “There was a neo-Nazi rally at the Statehouse followed by Larry Bird firing Isiah Thomas,” Finch recalls, “followed by a record one-day rainfall on Labor Day with massive flooding for several days, a presidential visit, the Dali Lama with Muhammad Ali in tow. The governor gets a stroke, the Sept. 11 second anniversary, the governor dies. That was within 30 days of our starting our experiment. So we all went through a lot together.”
Where it’s all happening
The newsroom at WISH is like a kind of amphitheater. Two tiers of desks surround an appropriately octagonal pedestal that serves as the nerve center for the assignment editor, Jim Scott. Scott sits there, surrounded by video monitors carrying local and national feeds, crackling squawk boxes, fax machines, radios, computers and assorted paging devices. The whole thing looks like some kind of mothership. Scott is the bridge between the world of unfolding events outside and what’s happening in the newsroom, which, thanks to Cochrun and Finch, has now also become part of the daily news broadcast. Another of Cochrun’s ideas has meant bringing the camera into the newsroom. “I also believe there’s a certain energy and authenticity that you get by being in the room where it’s all happening,” Cochrun says. “We thought, for the 5 o’clock show, it’s a perfect format because it gives us a chance to continue to work the story, to stage, if you will, some of the programming on the set.” At mid-morning, the snow has stopped outside. Inside, the newsroom is practically deserted. Most of the reporters are in the field, following stories that were identified during the morning meeting. Executive Producer Stacey Thorne is making sure everything is on track for the noon newscast when she gets an unexpected call from Marion, Ind. There’s an unconfirmed report that the Thomson electronics plant there, which specializes in manufacturing color-TV picture tubes, is going to shut down — today or possibly later in the week — which means that over 900 workers will lose their jobs. This will be a major hit to Marion and another in a continuing string of losses to the state’s manufacturing economy. A few minutes later, Jim Scott gets off the phone to announce that Thomson will be closing down today. There will be a formal announcement at 3 p.m. Reporter Tony Perkins is pulled off one story and sent to Marion. Eric Halvorson, one of the noon anchors, begins revising his script to include the Marion story. As the countdown to the noon newscast begins, Finch leans into the darkness of the station control room. Jim Shella, WISH’s Statehouse reporter, is live from the Orr funeral, where State Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard is eulogizing the former governor. Shella speaks with the kind of foghorn authority that seems to go with the political territory in Indiana. At the moment, he’s riffing flawlessly on Orr’s career, his last days, the personages in the room. When Shella is instructed to fill a little more time by the director, he does so without missing a beat until it’s time to cut to a commercial. On a monitor we can see that, in the Statehouse rotunda, they are getting ready to move the casket. Bagpipers play a dirge. Finch whispers to the director that he needs to speak to Shella when there’s a chance. Meanwhile, on air, Shella is describing the route of the funeral procession, naming the pall bearers and identifying notable attendees. As the casket is carried from the Statehouse, Shella notes that Orr was responsible for renovating that part of the building. “Good context,” Finch murmurs to himself. Then he says to the director, “You’ve got to let Jim get out gracefully.” “Wrap it up, Shella,” instructs the director. “We’ll have complete coverage … at 5 o’clock,” Shella immediately intones. Finch takes a microphone. He tells Shella that the Thomson plant in Marion is closing today, 900 jobs lost. “We need a reaction from Kernan or any other state officials,” he says. On air, Randy Ollis is recapping the weather situation.
Meteorologist Angela Buchman
The Oprah Factor
Although it wasn’t on Finch’s marker board at the beginning of the day, the Thomson closing has emerged as the probable lead for the 5 o’clock newscast — the program where Cochrun’s new ideas are most apparent. Local newscasts typically work with three 30-minute blocks of time between 5 and 6 o’clock. A station’s main anchors work the first and final half hours, with a younger anchor team taking the middle third. The most common problem with this format is that it’s difficult to come up with a strong lead story for the middle third, which also undermines that segment’s identity. Cochrun decided to scrap the 5:30 newscast in favor of a continuous, hour-long format. It begins with Mike Ahern standing in front of a Channel 8 graphic and announcing the top eight stories as if they were a table of contents. “Then we’re going to give you that information in various forms,” Finch says. “Some of it long-form because it needs to be, and some of it in shorter form with more information coming at 6 o’clock. Then we’re going to come back later, at 5:25, and we’re going to give you something a little more in-depth. And that’s not anything you’ll see at 6 o’clock. That’s exclusive content to that newscast so there are reasons to stick around.” Another consequence of going to a continuous hour of news has been the decision to drop the regularly scheduled sports block. The popularity, on cable, of sports coverage through networks like ESPN and Fox, plus the almost viral availability of sports information via the Internet, cell phones, pagers and PDAs, has led many local news operations to cut their sports departments altogether. Finch is quick to say this isn’t going to happen at WISH — in fact, they’re in the market for another sports reporter. But they have thought a lot about how to cover sports in this new media environment. Instead of a predictable sports block, WISH now peppers its newscast with sports-as-news. “There are a lot of angles,” Finch says, “and those are the kinds of things a lot of sports guys know because they’re so close to so many sources. They just don’t necessarily report it. We’re trying to urge them to report it — the stuff going on in the locker room.” This city’s decision to make sports a major engine for growth makes sports an important on-going theme, Finch adds. “There’s a theory that sporting events are the new town square. It’s one of the few things people have in common. If there’s a major sports event or team that everybody can get excited about, it cuts across a lot of socio-economic lines and different demographics. You treat it that way and it becomes less a sporting thing than an event for the town.” No matter what they try at 5 o’clock, there’s one thing Cochrun and Finch can do nothing about: the Oprah Factor. Just as Bob Barker’s popularity makes the noon newscast first in its class, the ratings juggernaut that is Oprah gives WTHR a powerful advantage at 5 p.m. “I don’t know that there’s a station in the country where Oprah’s on and that news department is not No. 1,” Cochrun admits. At the moment, his newscast is fronted by Ellen, which has attracted some younger viewers and lost some older ones. Cochrun is encouraged by the fact that WISH’s numbers have been increasing at quarter hour intervals between 5 and 6 — and by the arrival of the new Jane Pauley show in September. “She represents the best of Indiana broadcasting — and she’s a news person,” he says.
Gladiator meets Robocop
A little after 2 o’clock, the light goes on in the open alcove off the newsroom where Mike Ahern has his office. Ahern’s involvement with Channel 8 predates even Lee Giles. He is Indy’s equivalent of Cronkite. When Joe Kernan graduated to the governor’s job following the death of Frank O’Bannon, Cochrun moved Ahern out of the newsroom to the Statehouse to be a live witness to the transfer of power. “Hopefully, if you’ve been around a while, you bring a perspective to the mix,” Ahern says, adding it was time for a change at WISH. “We get accused of doing run-and-gun and to a certain extent … that’s because it’s easy,” Ahern says of complaints that the media dwells on negative stories. “It’s not so much that it’s titillating and sensational; the stuff happens and we go out and get it. That’s not as creative as going out and finding stories on your own. Going into the community and actually finding out what’s happening there rather than letting it come to you — this is a whole different concept.” “Bring me the sense of place,” Cochrun says. “Bring me the story. This is, first and last, a visual medium. We have to have strong and vivid cinematography. Then we have to tie it together — to make words and pictures match. The content we are looking at has to represent a broad spectrum … I think the more local we are, the more we reflect who we are, the better off we are.” On the other side of the newsroom, Shella is editing tape from the Orr funeral. Angela Buchman, a meteorologist who since coming to WISH has turned out to be one of the station’s most telegenic assets, is taping a weather spot warning that more snow is on the way. In Marion, police have surrounded the Thomson plant and the second shift has been told not to enter the building. Finch sits with reporter Bonnie Druker to review the script of her story about a school bus crash. There were 25 kids involved, but none were seriously hurt. Most days, anchor Eric Halvorson is the one on camera — and on his feet — when WISH broadcasts from the newsroom. Today is no exception. There will, however, be a new challenge. After setting up a two-shot with Druker for her school bus story, Halvorson needs to hustle down several steps, across the newsroom and into the conference room to take advantage of a large video screen there for the next segment. This means that heavy cables will have to snake their way successfully around desks and chairs — and that cameraman Bill Fisher will have to trundle across the same distance while carrying a camera apparatus that is as heavy as it is elaborate. One look at him and Druker calls out, “Gladiator meets Robocop!” Fisher is no sooner strapped into his gear than he is sweating profusely and needs to sit down. At 4:23, Halvorson begins blocking his moves. Druker takes her seat in front of the spot camera and an assistant brings Fisher a glass of water. Fisher gets up and starts plotting how he’ll manipulate the camera. Together, he, Halvorson and Druker talk camera set-ups and movement. Someone offers the helpful advice that they should all avoid falling down the stairs.
Sharing the process
In the last half hour before 5 o’clock, time stretches out and compresses. There seems to be plenty of time for last minute adjustments and touch-ups, yet seconds are ticking by and, suddenly, we’re counting down to being on the air. “Some days I’m amazed we can get it on,” Cochrun whispers. Finch has monitors in his office tuned to Channels 8, 6 and 13 so he can compare how WISH’s editorial judgment stacks up with the competition. WISH is the only station of the three to lead with the Thomson closing — images of stunned workers, some in tears, leaving the building in Marion. Channels 13 and 6 are both agog with the morning’s snowstorm. “We can stand on our journalistic principles and say this particular story has more lasting value than a late winter snow that melted right away,” Finch observes, “but viewers are very interested in snow. It’s a tough call.” At 5:03 WISH touches on the Orr funeral, with more coverage later. Channel 13 is covering a local drug bust. Channel 6 is still working the snow. At 5:04 Channel 6 deals with Orr. WISH covers the bus crash. At 5:06 Channel 13 chooses a fatal auto accident the night before in Shelbyville. At 5:07 WISH transitions into the morning snowstorm for two minutes. Then reports that the city is still in negotiations with the police union on a new contract. Finally, there is a story about the crowds downtown for a motivational conference featuring Peyton Manning and Rudy Giulianni — cut to commercials. Cochrun walks in, confounded about the other channels leading and sticking with the morning snowstorm. “I’m really hard-pressed to know what is the weather story at this time.” Barely remarked is the seeming ease with which the broadcast, in its first 10 minutes, was able to move from the newsroom to the conference room, to the studio and back. Eric Halvorson looks as pleased as he is relieved. “We’ve never made a move this big, from here to there,” he says. But the newsroom segments are still a work-in-progress. The space, on screen, looks vast and, too often, less like a beehive of activity than a rather sterile conference center. Its overhead fluorescent lights and colorless walls aren’t flattering. “We don’t know that this has solved all the problems that we have,” Finch says. “If viewers stop watching it in a few months then we’ll be sheepishly going back and looking for some other concept.” Cochrun shrugs. “Watching news is sort of like watching paint dry in many ways. But there are some stories that are absolutely fascinating. If you can allow the audience to share the process, I think we all benefit from that.”

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