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Special Skills Required for Early Morning Newscasts

By Ben L. Kaufman · January 7th, 2009 · On Second Thought
For years, I worked late nights on morning papers and a wire service. I awakened late and went to the office in the afternoon. I could always party after work, especially in Rome or London.

Later, I started at 6 a.m. at the late, great Minneapolis Star, an afternoon paper with deadlines before noon. Instead of partying on the Via Veneto or in Soho, I pooped out by 10 p.m. Since then, I’ve had a special appreciation for colleagues who welcome the dawn already at work.

WVXU (91.7 FM) News Director Maryanne Zeleznik has done nothing else. Monday through Friday, she cheerily announces it’s a minute before 5 a.m. and leads into NPR’s Morning Edition and local programming.

No spouse or roommate could be so chipper, and she doesn’t flag audibly during the next five hours. It’s not the perkiness of an ingenue but the confident sound of a village Wise Woman who enjoys her special knowledge and role.

“You are the first voice they hear,” she says,

Alone in the studio, she does it all, including headlines for sister station, WGUC (90.9 FM).

“I get in between 4:10 and 4:20 every day,” Zeleznik says.

Habitual sleep deprivation began at Miami University. She wanted to be a journalist and only a broadcasting class was open. Zeleznik drew the 5:30 a.m. internship; there was no competition. She loved it.

“I got to get on the air,” she says. “I was on the air a lot.”

Zeleznik also fell in love with news, with public radio and began her adult life out of synch with just about everyone else.

Her first post-Miami job was in an Illinois county seat radio station. ”I got there about 5,” she says.

It was a small station in a rural county seat, central to community life. Turning on lights, control board and transmitter was a heavy obligation, not least because people expected their clock radios to awaken them.

Zeleznik’s next job established her as a force in Greater Cincinnati broadcasting: 20 years at WNKU (89.7 FM) and the early shift. Again.

“I found that I really liked mornings,” not least because the “morning drive is when everybody listens.” Yes, she has an ego. She wants people to value what she and her station say.

At WNKU, she also sold stories to NPR and began regular conversations with local political reporters to provide context that no other local broadcaster attempted.

She brought that approach to VXU when she crossed the river to become news director after Xavier University sold the station to Cincinnati Public Radio in 2005. Impact Cincinnati at 9:20 a.m. Thursdays resumes and expands those conversation with news makers, reporters and interpreters.

Today, she has three full-time colleagues who are host/reporters. If the hiring freeze thaws, she hopes to replace reporter Katie Orr, who left for public radio in San Diego.

Unlike TV on-air talent, Zeleznik is a virtual unknown if face-time is the measure. Few people recognize her … until she speaks. Then, listeners typically respond as if encountering an old, if rarely, seen friend.

Sometimes the voice doesn’t click. Zeleznik recalls a party when a woman asked what she did. The answer left her interrogator star-struck and speechless. Zeleznik laughs; she doesn’t perceive a star quality in her on-air role, but she is aware of how swiftly her voice triggers familiar associations. She likes it.

Home life is third shift upside down.

Zeleznik gets home about 1 p.m. On a typical day, she’ll pick up her daughter from elementary school, catch a short nap and get on with life. Her husband takes their daughter to school most mornings, but when he’s traveling on business a sleepover sitter handles the family morning routine after Zeleznik is already on the air.

Zeleznik gets to bed by 10 or 11 p.m. “I’m always sleep deprived.” Having a 6-year-old at home means the two- and three-hour naps that once sustained her are a hazy, distant memory; an hour is a big deal now.

After a quarter century of predawn starts and news, it’s still fresh every day.

“I love to be the first to know what going on,” she says. “I wasn’t a news junkie until I got involved.”

Curmudgeon Notes

• A recent, opaque Enquirer clarification clarified nothing, raised ethical questions that it failed to answer and drew unwanted national attention. Its Christmas Wish List solicits donations for local individuals or families whose needs are outlined in sympathetic profiles. The Enquirer selects subjects from deserving poor submitted by one or more social service agencies. A recent story featuring William Holbrook, 70, said he survives in dire poverty with serious health problems in a vandalized Northern Kentucky trailer. I skipped the story — I hated writing Wish List stories when I was a reporter — but cincinnatibeacon.com called my attention to it. The printed clarification said, in part, that “The Enquirer has since discovered that Holbrook is a registered child sex offender in Kentucky.”

Poynter Institute national online blogger Jim Romenesko picked up cincinantibeacon.com’s post about the clarification. The clarification — which I couldn’t find on The Enquirer’s almost impenetrable web site — doesn’t describe his offense, when it was committed or whether Holbrook lives in that dilapidated trailer because sex offender residency laws ban him from affordable, decent housing near postoperative care for recent open heart surgery. Rather, the clarification suggests he’s not among the deserving poor.

I don’t know when or how the paper learned about Holbrook’s record, but the clarification smacks more of CYA than any service to readers. And that invites further questions:

* Would Holbrook have been excluded if The Enquirer had known of his conviction?
* Should impoverished sex offenders be mired in such living conditions when the news media know of them?
* What about criminals who served time for other offenses?
* Who benefits from the clarification, which invites further vigilante violence?
* Should nominating agencies on whom the paper relies alert The Enquirer to Wish List candidates’ convictions?
* Are the agencies already expected to do this and which convictions put subjects beyond the pale? Sexual abuse, domestic violence, shoplifting, homicide, drunken or drugged driving, mortgage fraud?
* If The Enquirer intends to assure readers that donations won’t go to convicted criminals, must reporters check every Wish List subject for a criminal record and how extensive must that probe be?
* Would they run the same checks on nominees for Enquirer Woman of the Year honors (who are unfailingly deserving and never poor)?

• Bleeding ad revenue, The Enquirer bought out or fired scores of employees last year, including about 30 from the newsroom. Now the paper is shrinking page size again to save production costs, and Publisher Margaret Buchanan promises, ”We remain passionate about local news and local sports reporting. That commitment hasn’t wavered and none of these changes will reduce that capacity.”

Among the more than a dozen newsroom employees fired last month, none was a “content provider,” management-speak for “reporter” and “photographer.” A strong core of veteran local reporters remains. Local news is the franchise, whether in print or online, and online also requires reporters, photographers, editors and the like to provide content.

If the changes mean less national and foreign news in the reduced Enquirer, so be it. We have alternative sources. A recent study by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Pew Research for the People and the Press confirms this: More people (40 percent) say they get most of their national and international news from the Internet than from newspapers (35 percent) even though still more (70 percent) rely on TV.

• Proximity is a factor in news judgment. If something occurs where news media congregate, it’s likelier to be covered than if it were distant. For instance, drivers recently caught in a water main burst near Washington, D.C., were same-day news nationally. Parochialism also affects news judgment. If it affects Tristate audiences, it’s more newsworthy than, say, a similar event in Malawi or Mississippi.

So, when a toxic coal mine sludge pond burst into eastern Kentucky streams, roads and gardens in 2000, it threatened to pollute the Ohio River and Cincinnati’s water supply. That explains why The Enquirer sent reporters to cover it. Last month, a far larger toxic waste pond burst at a TVA coal-fired power station about 40 miles from Knoxville. Ash sludge covered hundreds of acres and threatened to drool into rivers from which municipal drinking water is drawn. It took at least two days to elicit national coverage, although Tennessee and Kentucky media were on it immediately.

• If somehow you found a story about that billion-gallon TVA coal ash sludge spill in distant Tennessee, the reporter probably called it a “disaster.” I disagree. No one was killed. A few houses were badly damaged or destroyed. Water supplies were threatened. Cleanup costs will be huge and, of course, the spilled sludge has to be dumped somewhere else. If it dries, blown dust will carry toxic heavy metals and be inhaled. That’s bad.

But if this is a disaster, what was Katrina? The Indian Ocean tsunami? The Northridge or San Francisco earthquakes? Isn’t “disaster” like “racist” or “Nazi” in that once it’s used there is no superlative left?

• Environmental activists say the TVA sludge — fly ash from burned coal and water — is continuing evidence of the silliness of “clean coal” technology. The more ash removed from coal fire smoke, the more sludge. Alternatively, the more ash emitted into the air, the less sludge.

• Mining and burning coal are dirty. “Clean coal” is an oxymoron. The sooner reporters abandon their stenographic embrace of partisans’ misleading language, the faster their coverage will provoke and support informed public policy debates on energy.

• That’s not a mistake that environment and science reporters commonly make. Even as energy and climate become omnipresent public issues, however, there is a growing trend to eliminate environment reporters as news media cut staff to reduce costs.

• Israel is bombing dozens of tunnels used to bring goods and weapons into Gaza from Egypt, but where are the stories asking why medical supplies and badly needed food didn’t take precedence over rockets during Israeli blockade and Egypt’s complicity?

The New York Times says print isn’t dead but it’s no longer the only way to deliver the comics. Target audiences include people who want everything available to them on the mobile internet devices. The story mentions Zits, by Jerry Scott and Cincinnati’s Jim Borgman, saying, “The creators of the comic strip ‘Zits,’ which is syndicated by King Features, are working with Jantze Studios in San Anselmo, Calif., to develop ‘audio comics,’ in which a camera pans over a strip while actors read the text.” It’ll provide action for iPhones and similar devices. Borgman told Curmudgeon that it’s called “panamation.” Full animation was too costly, he added.

• “I'm here to tell you, and remember that you heard it from me first, that the Jews didn’t kill Jesus. But we are, I’m pleased to say, killing something just as pure and holy: Minnesota Nice.” That’s how Samuel Freedman opens his Jerusalem Post column on Minnesota’s nasty Franken-Coleman and second ugly Jew versus Jew senate race in a generation. To which this Minnesotan adds, “Ja, sure, you betcha.”

• Will the last copy editor please excise “enormity,” “utilize” and “infamous” before you turn off the lights? Enormity means something nasty or awful, like a coal ash spill in Tennessee. Substituting “utilize” for “use” violates the newsroom tradition of eschewing a 50-cent phrase when a nickel word will do. To call someone infamous is to defame them and, if it’s not true, invite a call from a libel lawyer. If the distinction is unclear, recall why FDR referred to Dec. 7, 1941, as “a date which will live in infamy“ not a “day that will be famous.”

• On recent nights, there was the long, local TV story of a house burning in some suburb; no one was hurt, the house was not destroyed and there were enough flashing lights to short-circuit some neuro-centers. In others, various vehicles (usually SUVs) went upside down and someone who was not badly hurt was taken to hospital. TV needs visuals. They’re TV’s raison d’etre, but is there nothing too trivial that a team and emoting reporter aren’t sent out?

• And why do local stations run the same few seconds of video again and again while the anchor reads the script? We’ve seen the fire, we’ve seen the old lady getting her ring back, enough already. Unless there is more for us to learn from the images, once is enough.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com



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