Chalice Aforethought

Local media gear up for the arrival of the pope

Jan 6, 1999 at 4:00 am
Just by watching local television news alone, you'd know that Pope John Paul II is on his way to St. Louis in late January. It seems that just about every move in the preparation for the pontiff's visit has been captured on video and shown to whet viewer appetites. It's a pre-hype feeling that leads to moments like the one I experienced in the newsroom at KSDK (Channel 5) a few weeks back ("Fast Forward," RFT, Dec. 23), when a lighthearted discussion of whether to do a piece on a group of nuns finishing banners for the papal visit ensued when a press release offering a video shoot was sent to the station.

Real news intruded that day in the form of bombs on Iraq and a postponed Clinton-impeachment vote. But the day is fast approaching when the pope's visit to St. Louis will make real news, not just filler stories on felt banners and papal-souvenir sales. Are local media prepared for His Holiness?

Judging from a random survey of local media late last week, they're getting there. Local television has pooled its resources to provide pictures of the pope's St. Louis visit to the world. Local radio news is planning wall-to-wall coverage for those who aren't near a television. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch will be hoping to repeat its McGwire circulation magic by obtaining imprimaturs and nihil obstats for each edition (just kidding).

In fact, if you want to know just what St. Louis media will look like from Sunday, Jan. 24-Thursday, Jan. 28, try this on for size: "All Pope, All the Time."

In fact, some local news directors say that the biggest headaches haven't been the incredible logistic complications thrown up by broadcasting a worldwide news event. After all, they're on their home turf. It's been the numbers.

"You can't sell the pope," says KMOX (1120 AM) news director John Butler, pointing out the obvious tackiness of trying to do so. He says that local media will probably be approaching larger corporations to tastefully underwrite some coverage.

"We've budgeted it in the '99 budget," says KDNL (Channel 30) news director Jeff Alan. "We do have an unknown here, however, in that we don't know what reimbursement we're getting from the pool."

The pool that Alan refers to is the assignment that each local TV station has taken on in conjunction with the pope's visit. Rather than have four cameras each from five different news stations, each station is taking a stop on the pope's tour and providing pictures for all the other news outlets -- local, national and international. Alan explains that each station will be reimbursed by other stations that pick up the feed, thus minimizing costs somewhat. In KDNL's case, Alan says, the assignment is the Wednesday, Jan. 27, prayer service at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis.

Butler says that KMOX coverage of the pope's visit will be starting even earlier than the day before Pope John Paul II's arrival in St. Louis. KMOX is sending NewsMakers host and veteran international correspondent Charles Jaco to Rome to file reports and then travel with the pope to Mexico City (the first stop on his tour) and then from Mexico City back to St. Louis.

"It's a massive amount of resources," says Butler, noting that CBS Radio will also be sending in correspondents to cover the visit. The decision to send Jaco jet-setting with the pope, however, is part of Butler's plan to "keep the coverage local" by having a familiar news voice leading up to the papal visit.

An emphasis on local coverage is also what sources at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch say that the city's daily newspaper has planned for the pope's visit. One staffer chuckled when I asked whether the paper was going to turn into the Pope-Dispatch in the days before and during the visit. Referring to recent restructuring at the paper into "teams," this staffer says, "Everybody's on the (pope) team."

Another Post-Dispatch insider tells the RFT that the paper plans a bevy of special sections over the days before and during the pope's visit, much along the lines of the special Sunday-edition looks at other religious beliefs in the St. Louis area that have been running since autumn. Among the activities that the paper will look at are interfaith perspectives on the papal visit, a look at Contemporary Productions' preparations for papal events, souvenir vendors and catering. The paper will also solicit and print reader messages to the pope. (Perhaps he'll read them on the flight back to Rome.)

At bottom, says KDNL's Alan, media coverage may hinge on one thing that the media and even the pontiff can't control. "The weather will play a big factor in the coverage," Alan says. "It will affect everything from the turnout to the logistics.