Solid journalism, the sort that makes kids weaned on All the President's Men all excited and proud, is rarely flashy. No, solid journalism is like a second baseman who hits .290 and turns a perfect two: It won't be showered with awards, but it will be vital to any good team.
And it starts with fundamentals. Keep the ball in front of you, make the routine play. Do not pass go, do not collect $200--and gladly go directly to jail. Once there, put in a request to interview the most wanted escapees in recent history. It's that simple. You'd think.
But it was that play, the routine one, that somehow everyone forgot to make when police in Colorado rounded up the seven escaped Texas prisoners after their six weeks on the run. Everyone except Darren Barbee, a Denton County reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Barbee, who came to the paper three months ago from the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, was part of the Star-T's "go" team of reporters who covered the escapee captures last week. He scored an exclusive jailhouse interview with acknowledged escapee ringleader George Rivas.
Here's how it went down. Last Monday, when four prisoners, including Rivas, were captured (a fifth committed suicide), the press was told that since the escapees were facing federal charges, all requests for interviews would have to go through the prisoners' lawyers. By Wednesday, all the reporters covering the case were waiting at the jail where two remaining escapees were taken after their subsequent capture.
Barbee's editors, Lee Williams and Judy Wiley, told Barbee to go to the jail in Divide, Colorado, where Rivas and the other escapees were. (Wiley was experienced in this sort of editing task. She has edited cop reporters, and she helped cover the Columbine shootings for the Rocky Mountain News.)
Barbee camped out and chatted with a sheriff there. They talked about dogs. They talked about "Big Sky Country," where the sheriff used to work. About 1 o'clock or so, Barbee threw out a question: Since the FBI dropped its charges a day earlier (Tuesday), and the escapees now faced only state charges, doesn't that mean they could receive visitors from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. like every other prisoner there?
The sheriff said he'd check. The jailer said, dadgum, that boy's right. Barbee was led back to interview Rivas--after his reporter's notebook and cell phone were confiscated. So, for his big-time scoop, Barbee took notes on the receipts and scraps of paper he had in his wallet. Shades of Dustin Hoffman. Praise and national TV appearances ensued.
"Yeah, he was in the right place, right time, but still it was good basic journalism," says northeast metro editor Williams. "I mean, he had to stay there and work it. It seems simple, but he was the only one who did it."
Since Filler has been on vacation--and let us just say, Paris is all kinds of mo' betta if you can spend three weeks there instead of two--we haven't been able to update you on the consternation being experienced by folks stuck under the Belo Corp. umbrella. So this'll be fun.
Channel 8: Let's pretend you're single, and you've had a cat for a long time that, for all intents and purposes, is your life partner. You feed Little Kitty, you stroke Little Kitty, you brush Little Kitty's fur when it gets tangled. When Little Kitty does something you like--sits in your lap and purrs, let's say--you drape affection over Little Kitty, saying "I wuv oo Wittle Kitty, yes I do, yes I do do do." Little Kitty has it sweet.
Now, let's say the household comes under new management. You've brought a human life partner into the fold. This person has all kinds of new ideas on how the house should be run in this, the 21st century. This includes kicking the hell out of that damn cat anytime it gets in Life Partner's way.
Now, let's say this household is really a news station full of bright, pretty Little Kitty reporters. The kitties, who used to have full run of the place, now congregate in the garage and discuss what the hell happened to the sweet lives they led.
"Ever since the new guy has come in and started running the house, things have been ugly for us," they say. "Kitties have been kicked out for being 'too old and boring.' Now, only struttin' young cats get the specially formulated Iams food, and at the preferred feeding times of 5, 6, and 10 p.m. When he brings all his friends over for a 'focus group' party, he has the young cats read lines written by some of the older Little Kitties, because his friends say it sounds better.
"Now, the new guy is making us put small, brown cards in our wallets that say, 'Be Fair,' 'Be Accurate,' and 'Get Both Sides,' like we're all Little Moron Kitties. For a while, we had to sign something called the 'Be A Good Kitty Morals Clause'--meaning if we poo'ed in the wrong place, bye-bye."
Now, if you pretend all of this--and a bunch of other stuff we can't confirm yet--then you have an idea what's it like at Channel 8 right now.
The Dallas Morning News: Nothing much new these days. Everyone is just waiting for the budget numbers to come back from headquarters to see if anyone is going to get axed in 2001--sorry, if there will be any "head count issues"--in a year that is projected to be pretty ugly for all media in terms of advertising dollars. In December, upper management said that, although a hiring freeze was being instituted, they weren't sure yet what that would mean in terms of "head count and filling openings."
As of deadline this week, there was still no word on anything, including possible layoffs, because top brass was waiting on its budget, revised for a second time this month, to be approved. (For all those who graduated from college after 1995, a "layoff" is something that happens when the economy "goes in the shitter.")
Belo Interactive: The former golden child of the Belo chain is being smacked with the 2-by-4 of reality, just like the rest of the dot-com world. (Belo Interactive includes www.guidelive.com, www.dallasnews.com, etc.) Just before the new year, six management types were let go. Then, a few weeks ago, Dale Peskin, the man much celebrated inside Belo for making Guide Live one of the best A&E sites out there, announced he would soon be leaving the company.
TXCN: Is now off the air.
Wait a minute, I should fact-check that.
I'll be damned. Channel 38. There it is. Huh.
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