Chit Happens

Not so long ago, upstart Channel 15 aired the most inventive, substantial TV news ever seen in Arizona. Now, in a quest for better ratings, it's trying to be like all the rest.

It's a frustrating change for reporters. One reporter remembers Bob Rowe confronting him after he had done a Thanksgiving live shot to inform viewers that holiday traffic was heavy.

"He said to us, 'Why did we do that live shot? What was so newsworthy that we needed to stand out there and talk to people? . . . Why are we out there? Is it any surprise that it's busy?'

"Now contrast that with poor Bob Woodruff having to stand in front of Gammage Auditorium hours after [a Bill Clinton appearance] while behind him trash trucks are cleaning up the mess. You know. That, to me, is a clear indication of the difference."

Carl Lemon, a former photographer, says that reporters aren't the only ones affected by the new policies. "When you start doing live shots instead of shooting and editing packages, you're taken out of the loop. A live shot isn't nearly as creative as telling a story, meeting somebody, going through their life for a day, then going back and editing a story. When you're doing a live shot, your creative input is lessened. You just don't have the time."

Former producer Luke Funk says that KNXV's previous lack of live coverage forced it to do better reporting. "We didn't have a helicopter at that time, so we went down and covered news on the ground. And nine times out of 10, we got a better story than the other guys because we were down on the ground talking to people. . . . I won an award on a show I did last year on a car accident on the freeway and everyone else did their 30-second bits with their helicopters hovering overhead. We went down with a reporter, Tony Kovaleski, and found out that all of these people were having problems getting through to 911 on their cell phones so, bingo, we had a great lead story because we went down and covered it like a traditional news story."

The KNXV newscast from that night won an Associated Press award for newscast of the year.

"If we had had our helicopter there, we wouldn't have had the story," Funk says.

But Luke Funk is gone, and KNXV has since acquired a helicopter.

Many in KNXV's newsroom say they're still hurt by the way Kronley introduced change to the station. Like the day in September when Darya Folsom went home early.

People at Channel 15 had expected the station to bring in a new team of anchors to share responsibilities with Marc Bailey and Folsom, but no one expected Folsom to be treated the way she was. One afternoon the diminutive, energetic anchor was told that she would be replaced in the 10 and six o'clock broadcasts. Folsom would be relegated to the 5 p.m. news, and would return to reporting. With the demotion came a substantial cut in pay. Folsom was given the rest of the day off, and after she had left, the rest of the newsroom was told of the change. It felt like an execution, employees say.

No one was surprised that she left in December to rejoin Susan Sullivan in Washington, D.C.

Folsom was replaced by Robin Sewell, who more closely fits the typical newsreader-as-celebrity model. Sewell majored in theater arts at UCLA and tried, unsuccessfully, to make a career as an actress. She turned to television news in 1990, interning in Phoenix at then-CBS affiliate Channel 10. She's worked in several cities since then, most recently in Sacramento, where she met San Francisco mayor Willie Brown. Sewell regularly shows up on San Francisco society pages, accompanying Brown to public events.

A month after Folsom's demotion, weekend weather forecaster Janie Peterson was fired. Peterson says she still doesn't know why. Other employees wonder why, too.

Some also wonder why "Al's World" had to go. "That just mystifies me," Avila says. "Here you have someone who I still view as the best television feature reporter and one of the funniest guys in television, best writers, and he comes to News 15 and everyone recognizes his genius, and yet they put him through just a nightmare."

Al Feinberg's clever feature stories had seemed to provide a smart counterpoint to the investigative, hard news stories that were leading the broadcast. After his "Al's World" trademark was canned, however, Feinberg has seldom been seen on camera. Employees complain that Feinberg has been squandered, that it was insulting to see the talented writer and reporter relegated to writing copy for special reports read by anchors as if they had reported the stories themselves.

(Several employees say that Kronley has a clever line about feature stories that he uses to impress people with his purported hard-news style: "My idea of a feature is a rapist getting caught.")

Feinberg decided not to talk to New Times, and Kronley says Feinberg is appearing on camera now more often. For a time, Kronley says, Feinberg could not go on air for health reasons. Recently, viewers could catch him standing knee deep in snow reporting--live--that snow was falling in Flagstaff.

The dismissals and reassignments in September and October threw a pall over the newsroom. Even Kronley, in an October 4 memo to general manager Brad Nilsen, recognized that low morale had become a "threat." Since then, firings have given way to a steady stream of resignations as experienced employees take jobs elsewhere.

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