Local news blues

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 24, 2009

But these sorts of technical issues work themselves out in time. And the meteorologist in Columbus, if an unfamiliar face, had little trouble tracking the local weather. The broader concern, for those at the station, is a diminished capacity for in-depth stories.

Jim Taricani, the station's long-serving investigative reporter, is still uncovering some mischief: last year, he reported on a supervisor collecting pay for bogus overtime shifts at the state's youth detention facility.

But he is doing more general assignment reporting, these days. Even the occasional movie review. And while he used to spend a month or two off-air chasing the crooked and corrupt with a dedicated team of two producers and a cameraman, Taricani now gets a week or two for an in-depth story and nothing approaching the staffing of the past.

"The I-Team," he said, "is like the me team. It's just me."

Lisa Churchville, president and general manager of WJAR, is the first to acknowledge that something real has been lost. And she has no illusions about a full return to form. "I don't think we would ever rebuild the organization we had two years ago," she said.

But Churchville does not mourn it all. The viewer, she said, will probably not miss what she calls the "contrived live" shot — the reporter standing outside a darkened courthouse where a jury decided, seven hours previous, to convict the latest high-profile murderer.

And the station, she notes, still has substantial strengths. Beat reporters are increasingly rare in television news and Channel 10 has a medical reporter on staff. A political reporter. Even an ombudsman.

Most important of all, WJAR still claims a strong lead in the ratings.

The management at ABC6 does not have it quite so good. The CBS Distribution lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court last week, suggests a station in financial trouble.

The suit claims owners Global Broad-casting — a two-man outfit split between Rhode Island and California — owe almost $2.2 million in past-due licensing fees for Dr. Phil, Inside Edition, Rachael Ray, The Insider, and Entertainment Tonight. The station, which had already shed two of the shows in recent months, stopped airing the other three a couple of weeks ago. And CBS is seeking an additional $2.8 million for Global Broad-casting's alleged failure to take the contracts to full term.

Vice president and general manager Steve Doerr declined to comment on the lawsuit, with the matter pending before the courts. But he did respond to attacks on the station's journalistic integrity from Hummel, the reporter who was the face of ABC6's "You Paid For It" segment for years.

Hummel left WLNE in July, complaining that the station was drifting into tabloid journalism — using words like "scumbag" on air and practically convicting accused killer Nicholas Gianquitti in a tease for a story, well before the jury had issued a verdict.

In a recent interview, he went a step further — charging management with pursuing a cookie-cutter newscast bent on replicating the flashiest stories from other markets. "They fell into this formula of, if it works in Cleveland, it works in Cranston," he said.

Hummel said the most egregious example was a story that ran in May 2008, focused on a trend that was, according to the script, "sweeping the nation" — women gathering in living rooms to buy tasers for self-defense, in a sort of aggressive update on the Tupperware party.

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