WBFF reporter Kathleen Cairns said she must have been accompanied by the "guardian angel of journalism" when she stopped in Greektown on Monday. As the day - Clean Monday - marks the start of Lent in the Greek Orthodox calendar, the people she encountered there turned out to be in an especially welcoming mood as she was reporting a story.
But Cairns and her colleagues at the Baltimore Fox affiliate always are accompanied by a kind of professional guardian angel. The station embraces a philosophy that prizes strong, smart storytelling, an approach that carefully winnows footage for the images and sounds that will perfectly enhance the stories it puts on the air.
"Yeah, we get paid less," Cairns acknowledges. "But do I want to be in a chop shop where they slap together stuff that I'm not proud of? Or do I want to be in a place where I can do stories that count?"
Many people who work in the profession says the station's hourlong newscasts at 10 p.m. consistently are rewarding to watch. They say that viewers are less likely to be clobbered over the head with scary crime pieces or force-fed patronizing pap. WBFF was named top station in the country by the National Press Photographers Association in 1996, and was named third best in the group's most recent contest; the station has also won first-place awards in national competitions sponsored by Columbia University and the Radio-Television News Directors Association & Foundation.
"Visual storytelling is a lost art in many newsrooms because we as an industry are so consumed with just getting it on the air," says former WBAL news director Princell Hair, who now holds the same job at the CBS station in Los Angeles. "WBFF clearly placed a strong emphasis on visual storytelling. It showed. It's the niche they created for themselves in a very fragmented environment."
At rival WBAL (Channel 11), the high volume, high-intensity, quick hit approach has won many viewers over the years, seemingly trumping the more personality-centric news programs on WJZ (Channel 13), although that station also remains popular. (WMAR is, well, WMAR, but the station hasn't quite settled on what that means yet.) As a rule, television reporters often mistake themselves for the story, and viewers see far too much of them.
At WBFF, however, the story is paramount. On Monday, Cairns and cameraman Steven Weinstein illustrated a piece on the revitalization of Greektown based on these interesting nuggets: A neighborhood improvement group had hired off-duty police officers, with the commissioner's blessings. A consultant had come up with a new look for the heart of the commercial district. Crime is down markedly over the past six months. The group was thinking of incorporating a controversial computer imaging program that would check the faces of passers-by against databases of convicted felons.
For many stations, any one of those components could have served as its own story. But Cairns and Weinstein wove them together in a single day, for a piece that lasted a bit more than 2 minutes, 30 seconds - about twice the length of the average local television news story. They spent time Monday with John Avgerinos, owner of Greek Village, who eagerly was pulling fresh flatbreads from his ovens, much to Weinstein's delight.
Scott Livingston, the acting news director for WBFF and its sister station, WNUV (which runs a half-hour of news at 6:30 p.m.), is himself a former cameraman - one of just a scattering holding such positions at local news stations. He holds fast to a few key principles: stories should have beginnings, middles and ends. They should use natural sights and sounds instead of gimmicks or glitz. They should allow characters to develop well enough that viewers feel they know them. And, where possible, they should offer an unexpected wrinkle, or particularly evocative moment.
There are strongholds of such narrative techniques elsewhere, in Atlanta, Denver, Tampa and especially the Minneapolis-St. Paul market. It doesn't always lead to high ratings, and the stories often originate from the usual suspects - the police blotter, the morning paper, the news wires. But there is a clarity about their mission.
Technically, this storytelling approach seems simple enough. Livingston encourages the use of a tripod to set up a camera, allowing a steadier shot than that afforded by a camera on the shooter's shoulder. The station's crew often attaches a small remote microphone to people who are being interviewed, so they can continue their typical activities. More important is the world view that encourages photojournalists to seek out genuine moments, to frame pictures carefully, to reflect what they actually see and hear.