NBC’s Los Angeles affiliate discovers that the keys to prize-winning TV journalism are not big budgets, but encouraging enterprising reporters and giving them time to tell their stories.
When journalists refer to explosive stories, they’re usually speaking metaphorically. But when television news producer Frank Snepp went apartment hunting in Los Angeles four years ago, he came upon one story where the usage was decidedly literal.
Snepp’s investigation of safety issues in Playa Vista, an extremely lucrative commercial and residential development in Los Angeles, ultimately garnered a 2006 Peabody Award for Snepp, reporter Paul Moyer and their team at KNBC.
More important, KNBC’s Burning Questions series alerted viewers to an extremely dangerous blend of flammable gases bubbling beneath Playa Vista’s surface, a danger compounded by the fact that the complex is situated on an earthquake-prone flood plane with considerable oil deposits directly below it.
Add to that lethal mix accusations of developer negligence, city agencies looking the other way and untold millions of dollars on the line, and you’ve got the metaphorical explosiveness in there, too.
“It is a quintessential Los Angeles story,ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Snepp says. “It’s got big politics, big money, ambitious land developers. It’s all about California.”
But behind the story, it’s also all about how a story like this gets made in a 21st century local newsroom, the kind of place where a two-minute package is pushing the time envelope and long-form reporting has gone the way of fedoras with press cards tucked into the bands.
The first segment of Burning Questions, which aired on May 25, 2005, lasted over nine minutes. It was laden with scientific data, dense legal accusations and abstract implications. It had the added disadvantage of two highly uncooperative but vital sources. “From the beginning, the developer was not only uncooperative but hostile,ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Snepp says. “And the city became equally intransigent.ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â
So, to sum it up: No on-air confrontations with important sources, lots of complicated science and plenty of legalese. Not exactly a formula for captivating television. And yet, Burning Questions, which was conceived as a one-time report, has spawned three follow-up reports with more in sight. It has provoked a record number of e-mails and letters. And it has raised the possibility of more long and difficult stories on the local news, particularly since the series hasn’t taken a single extra dime from the news budget.
“This was not a burden on the newsroom to do this kind of reporting,ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â says News Director Bob Long, who notes that the work required for series like these is labor-intensive but manageable and certainly within normal budget constraints.
This is partly because of the impetus of producers like Snepp, who started doing initial research when he was working at a competing Los Angeles station. The news director there was skeptical and the story languished, but when he arrived at KNBC he found a news climate that was more receptive to the investigation’s possibilities.
KNBC has an in-house investigative division, but Snepp isn’t part of that particular team. His own work takes him regularly between spot news and longer pieces.
“You’ve got to know that the man who’s working on it will deliver the goods, and then let him move at his own pace,ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Snepp says. “I would take time off to concentrate exclusively on this, then I would go back to spot news.ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â
In the case of Burning Questions, that pace took about a year of rigorous investigation before the first report aired.
Once the work was finished, there was the hurdle of its length. Snepp didn’t want to carve the report into two- or three-minute blocks. “The viewer had to have a sense of the totality,ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â he says.
There, too, he had support from the very top of the station. General Manager Paula Madison told Snepp and Long not to worry about the story’s length. “This is the kind of story where you want to be as comprehensive as you can, and you want to satisfy as many questions in the public’s mind as you can,ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â she says.
Madison notes that there aren’t nearly as many risks in doing long-form reporting as many station managers and news directors perceive there to be. She says that national news magazine shows like Dateline illustrate that viewers are receptive to longer stories.
But in-depth journalism needs to be encouraged, she says. “If you have the content, let good enterprise stories take precedence over what’s in the daybook,ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â she says. Any newsroom can set up a value proposition for reporters, she says, by moving exclusive enterprise stories and their reporters and producers up to the top of the class.
“No one got into journalism to get along quietly and work for a pension,ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â Long says. “I think any newsroom in the country is capable of doing serious journalism if they are so inclined.ÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¢ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â‚¬Å¡Ã‚Â¬Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â