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Newsmakers

Small Stations Go Big During Breaking News

By Jonathan Kuperberg
First published in Broadcasting & Cable

Deep roots in local communities help news teams deliver when national news hits their markets

ImageWhen a gunman opened fire Oct. 1 in a classroom at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., KVAL had only two reporters in the rural town. ABC affiliate KEZI had just one. The vast majority of staff and resources for the two Eugene stations, as well as others in the closest TV market (DMA No. 120), were 72 miles north.

They sent staff to the hospital and blood bank in addition to the school, while reporters on their own had TVU backpacks and sent content back. The stations dealt with rumors and national media requests, not to mention the aftermath of a tragedy in their backyard, but they nonetheless produced wall-to-wall coverage.

"One thing we do not have is a small-market attitude here," said JR Jackson, KVAL Eugene general manager. "We don’t think of ourselves as a small-market team."

During a breaking news story, small-market stations may not have 100 producers on scene or dozens of satellite trucks, said Mike Boring, KEZI Eugene general manager, but they do have teams that are family-oriented. People go the extra mile, whether it be sales people bringing lunch to the newsroom and making calls or the morning anchor who was still reporting late in the evening Oct. 1 despite a 5 a.m. broadcast that morning and another one the next morning.

"We bring excellence every day and execute as if we were on the national stage every day," Boring said. He added that the Heartland Media-owned station’s goal is to always be ingrained in the fabric of the community.

"It's about knowing the community and the people in it and having the right resources so when something like this happens, you have the trust of viewers and the trust of authorities and strong relationships," he said. "All of that happens long before incidents like this happen, so when a tragedy happens we have all of that built up so we're able to execute to the very best of our ability for the viewers."

They know the feeling at KWCH in Wichita, Kan. (DMA No. 65). The station won a 2015 Edward R. Murrow Award earlier this year for its breaking news coverage of a plane crash last October. Down several crews covering the World Series in Kansas City and located farther away from the airport than the other station, the Schurz-owned CBS affiliate initially scrambled a bit and had to use the tower cam for early footage.

But the staff, experienced from covering breaking weather news like tornados, rallied, with everyone, from the general manager to the receptionists, pitching in to produce several full days of coverage. The host of a local sales show, who happened to be a pilot, did newscasts for three days. Two crews looked for names of victims on social media while the investigation unit dug through records, tracing back the sale of the plane from the tail number.

"We were continually looking forward," said Brian Gregory, news director at KWCH. He advises other smaller-market stations, when covering big breaking news stories, to "go big, get as many people as you can and just get them going there."

KRGV, the ABC affiliate in the Rio Grande Valley in far south Texas (DMA No. 86), earned an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for its coverage of a gun battle last year in La Joya.

As reports of an "officer down" and possible cartel or gang connections emerged, KRGV sent its closest reporter and photographer, followed by a second crew and then even more staff. Reporters back at the station tracked down information on the shooter and victims, and looked at maps to evaluate safety at the scene.

At one point, according to Jenny Martinez, KRGV news director, police directed news crews into nearby homes for their own safety. One KRGV photographer got trapped outside but managed to capture video of officers on the hunt for a possibly escaped suspect.

"Sometimes personnel is so limited, we don’t feel we can afford to send more than one crew. Send them!" Martinez said. "That one extra body might mean the difference between adequate and outstanding results."

First published in Broadcasting & Cable on 10/12/2015