Here’s a story that ran through my mind this week when I heard that two veteran on-air reporters got the axe from WJZ’s “Eyewitness News.”
One night in the station’s newsroom, not long before I ended my years there, I watched a young reporter deliver a story about something called the Maryland state’s attorney’s office.
It was a pretty good story, except for one remarkable fact: No such office exists.
There’s a Baltimore state’s attorney’s office, and various county state’s attorney’s offices. There’s a Maryland attorney general’s office.
But, nope, there is no Maryland state’s attorney’s office, even though at that precise moment we were happily airing quite a lengthy story about one.
So I turned to the executive producer and assistant news director and said, “You know, of course, that there’s no such thing as a Maryland state’s attorney’s office.”
And these two newsroom executives, not much older than the reporter herself, looked at each other and said, simultaneously, “There isn’t?”
At this point, it dawned on me: these were the two people who edited the story before it went on the air. And maybe they knew TV production, but they didn’t know much about the community they were covering.
Such distinctions fly through all newsrooms, by the score, every day.
And I offer this as a tiny example of why it’s so sad to see the curtain fall now on Pat Warren and Mike Schuh, two veteran “Eyewitness News” reporters, who spent more than the last quarter-century around here covering everything from statehouse politics to street crime to the schools.
A newsroom needs such people who know the simple stuff, such as that there’s no Maryland state’s attorney’s office. And these people are vanishing from newsrooms such as WJZ’s at a very unhealthy pace.
Unhealthy for them, and thus unhealthy for viewers.
Warren and Schuh are just part of a pattern. They were axed in the latest round of media panic, manifesting itself across the entire CBS corporate landscape. That network is cutting costs wherever they can, as viewers and advertisers spread themselves ever thinner.
Typical corporate thinking: We’re losing our audience, so how do we respond? The geniuses who look at nothing but budgets say, “Let’s get rid of the savviest, most experienced people (and their salaries), and keep the kids who will work cheap.”
It’s the precise opposite of the philosophy that once made WJZ a TV powerhouse.
In the heyday of the Jerry Turner/Al Sanders domination, the station drew more viewers than all of its competition, combined.
The secret of those triumphant days? Management held onto their anchors and reporters. They understood htat viewers didn’t want strangers coming into their homes, they wanted familiar faces, people they came to know across years and years.
People who could find City Hall without needing a GPS.
People who, because they’d been here for a while, actually knew how to find a story, actually knew who the important public players were and the offbeat characters, and some municipal history for some texture.
Now unless I’m forgetting somebody, I think the only veteran on-air people left at WJZ, who actually go back to the station’s days of complete dominance, are Bob Turk and Marty Bass — two guys who do the weather. (Denise Koch got her anchor position after Jerry Turner died.)
Pat Warren and Mike Schuh knew the Baltimore area through sheer rugged experience. Newsrooms need such people.
But we’re seeing such people vanish from TV newsrooms in the same manner as newspaper offices (with the decimated Baltimore Sun bracing itself for more cuts this summer).
And now WJZ loses two veterans, and who’s left who knows there’s no such thing as a Maryland state’s attorney’s office?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Tonight at Six: A Daily Show Masquerading as Local TV News” (Apprentice House) and “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).