Local news blues

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 24, 2009

Trouble was, as the story duly noted, tasers are illegal in Rhode Island. So the station loaded up a van of women and drove into Connecticut for a sit-down with "taser consultant" Brenda Brostek.

The taser party was manufactured, Hummel said. And the consultant was ABC6 sales director Mike Brostek's wife. "At that point," Hummel said, "I was sick to my stomach."

"It was a dumb story," Doerr acknowledged. "We shouldn't have done it."

But Hummel's critique, he suggested, is out of date. The station, he said, has long since toned down any tabloid tendencies. "I think a year ago, when Jim left, we were still trying to find our brand," he said.

And the brand the station has settled upon is, in some respects, the ultimate rejoinder to charges that WLNE is turning out some sort of generic product: there is a heavy dose of political commentary from Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci, Jr., the quintessential Rhode Island character. And the sheer volume of newscasts suggests a commitment to all things local: 34 hours of news per week — more than double what the station was airing a year ago.

Of course, Cianci's barbed commentary is not exactly down-the-middle journalism; he has a barely concealed disdain for the current mayor of Providence. And with a trimmed-down staff, the station's local newscast is relying heavily on a national feed from ABC — running stories out of Chicago and Washington.

Moreover, the local coverage that makes it on air is a back-to-the-basics collection of hard news, with little in the way of context or features.

But the work, says news director B. J. Finnell, is quality stuff for a lean operation. "I think you're seeing a more focused product," he said.

news2 main
WLNE's B.J. Finnell 


WLNE, of course, is not the only station deploying its resources more selectively these days.

A "more focused product" means one station showing up for a story that used to draw three. It means more single-anchor newscasts. Less weekend reporting. Reporters shooting their own footage. And greater pressure to produce — two, even three stories a day.

"In the old days, you'd fight to get your minute-30 [-second story] on the air," said Rappleye, the political reporter at WJAR. "Now they want you to get four fucking things on the air."

And that, Rappleye said, means reporters don't have time to get both sides on many stories. "We look at each other just appalled at what passes for objectivity now," he said.

But if every local outlet is feeling the crunch, CBS affiliate WPRI and its sister station, Fox affiliate WNAC, have not endured the same cuts as their competitors.

The stations, which share the same news operation, have lost some staff in recent months, for certain. Management recently asked employees to participate in a voluntary program of unpaid vacation days.

And there is reason for long-term concern: a recent report from BIA Financial, a market research firm in Chantilly, Virginia, found that WPRI took the biggest first-quarter advertising hit of any station in the market, with WNAC close behind.

But LIN Television, the East Providence company that owns WPRI, WNAC and 25 other stations across the country, is not bogged down by the newspaper holdings that have been such a drag on other large media companies.

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Related: News worth paying for?, The Journal gets a facelift, Fourth-estate follies, 2009 edition, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Media, University of Rhode Island, Tom Rosenstiel,  More more >
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