Fast Forward

A day in the life of TV station KSDK leaves one observer gasping for breath as the need for speed vies with sound news judgment

Spending a day behind the scenes in a local TV station's newsroom is a lot like being on a Tilt-a-Whirl going at top speed and driven only by the news cycle. Things go very fast. Events blur into each other. You can't get off until the news itself decides to let you get off.

Later on, you can look back at your notes and dissect what happened, but the primary sensations are speed and motion. When you walk out the door, you're dizzy.

With the president on the road to impeachment and bombs dropping on Iraq right on top of the 5 p.m. newscast, the Tilt-a-Whirl was going even faster than usual.

The thrill is one thing. The effect this pace has on the news itself is another. In many ways, KSDK (Channel 5) is a best-case scenario for observing local news. The station has been winning the ratings war for most of the past decade. It's consistently presented the most balanced local newscast, the one least prone to leaning on violence and fluff.

The speed of the TV-news process and the dash to find visuals make for a fairly rigid equation: The faster you go, the less quality and balance you get. It's not so much a rush to judgment as a rush that often leaves news judgment by the wayside. Or, put in practical (and slightly ironic) terms, viewers get a much better camera view of a 4 p.m. breaking-news event from a distance -- at 10 p.m. rather than at 6 p.m.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Let's start at the beginning.

At 9:30 every morning, news staffers at Channel 5 gather around a large table at one end of KSDK's large, open newsroom. At that table, they hash out what you'll see on the early-evening newscasts, as well as much of what you'll see at 10 p.m.

Assistant news director Mike Shipley is on vacation today, so news-planning manager Ava Ehrlich helms the meeting, a banana and a huge plastic coffee mug in front of her.

Everyone at the table has a "situationer" and a "daily assignment sheet," put together by assignment-desk editor David Baldridge. Far from high-tech, the situationer is a stapled sheaf of paper that sums up the newsroom's available resources for the day. The daily assignment sheet is a quick take on the stories reporters are working on -- the potpourri from which the station picks its news coverage every day. Today they range from the W-1W Lambert Airport expansion and possible theft of city property to seasonal food and toy drives and choirs.

Reporter Randy Jackson is the first to pitch stories. He's been tipped off to what he calls a "sizeable" drug bust. He also pitches a local-angle piece on possible bombing of Iraq, focused on Air National Guard members based at Lambert Airport. "They patrolled the 36th parallel," says Jackson. "One of the pilots was the first to record a kill in the Gulf War."

Six o'clock producer Kelly Hatmaker tacks back to Jackson's drug-bust pitch and asks, "Can we get a ride-along?"

Jackson can't promise that. He's more insistent about the Iraq story: "It's visual," he argues. "It's local."

Like a big, unpredictable cloud, impeachment overshadows everything this morning. But other story pitches are offered. Reporter Jeff Fowler discusses the W-1W protesters singing carols at City Hall and notes that he hasn't done a Lambert-expansion update lately. The carolers are a visual hook, but Fowler urges caution in hyping that angle too much. "Don't make the focus of it them caroling," he says. "They do that every year."

Health reporter Kay Quinn talks about a feature she's doing on a method of dissolving fibroid tumors by blocking the arteries that feed their growth. Al Frank talks about a story he saw in the St. Peters Journal on the incinerator at Weldon Spring being shut down again. "That might be something we'll want," Ehrlich notes.

Mike Owens pitches a story he's checking out about workers at the Board of Election Commissioners stripping their building of valuable fixtures before moving into new digs. Everyone agrees that he should follow up on the lead.

Assignment-desk editor Baldridge interrupts with more impeachment info. Missouri's 9th District representative in Congress, Kenny Hulshof, is holding a press conference in Columbia. Meanwhile, 2nd Dis-continued on page

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trict Rep. Jim Talent's office says he'll be available at the airport this afternoon.

News director Tim Larson has quietly arrived and sits behind Ehrlich. He suggests that they put together a scorecard on how the delegation will vote. "It'll be interesting," he argues, "to see if anyone changes their mind at the last minute."

Quinn is ready to dash off to report her story, but Larson stops her. "How much of this can we shoot?" he asks. Quinn assures him that X-rays of the procedure will be sufficiently visual.

The meeting wraps up, but the producers linger to discuss the dent that impeachment coverage will make in the news over the next few days. "I have the distinct feeling that we're going to get blown out tomorrow," Larson predicts.

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