Fox25 stakes a lonely claim on Beacon Hill
An ink-stained wretch no more, Joe Battenfeld wears a white T-shirt and dress pants as he walks through the Boston Common and up Beacon Street, carrying a camera-friendly suit jacket and a button-down shirt in a plastic dry-cleaning bag as he trods familiar ground. In a dozen years as a political reporter for the Boston Herald, Battenfeld drank late into the night with former Boston mayor Ray Flynn, broke the “booze cruise” story that drove Peter Blute out of Massport and out of politics, and covered dozens of state and national elections.
His destination these days is not the State House, but a building across the street. On the corner of Beacon and Park streets, in a space formerly occupied by a coffee shop called Curious Liquids, is Beacon Hill’s newest curiosity—the small storefront studio of WFXT-TV, Fox25. From the sidewalk, through floor-to-ceiling windows, passersby can see the station logo floating on LCD screens; an anchor desk vaguely reminiscent of Star Trek: The Next Generation sits under a bank of spotlights.
Battenfeld, who is finishing his first year as political editor, is an important part of the strategy at Fox25, a station that is trying hard to make itself a force in local news. So, too, is the fishbowl-like studio across the street from the State House.
The Beacon Hill presence is also a brand-builder for Fox25, Kelley says. The satellite studio gives the three-hour Fox25 morning news show a Today Show-type street-level presence when it catches a “toss” from the station’s main studio in Dedham. The constant flow of foot traffic also lets reporters get those all-important “man on the street” reactions to breaking news.
“Obviously, being across from the State House is a unique location,” Kelley says. “It gives us a competitive advantage in collecting political news. But at the same time, the central location allows us to gather any other news happening in downtown Boston.”
Fox25 setting up shop on Beacon Hill also marks a reversal of the main trend in television news coverage of the State House over the past two decades, which is departure rather than arrival. Whether that reversal is symbolic or substantive remains to be seen. Battenfeld admits he’s still learning the TV game, trying to fit in with the blow-dried crowd. But the ethos he brings to his broadcast beat is no different from the one he followed at the Herald. “I came here to try to break stories,” he says.
Breaking stories on Beacon Hill is something most local television stations have all but given up on. Broadcast journalists were once such fixtures at the State House that they had their own office. But in the 1990s television reporters packed up and left the building, by 1998 giving up Room 439 and dropping in only for press conferences. Whereas stations once had one or two reporters assigned permanently to the State House, now only CBS4’s John Henning, who is semi-retired, is on Beacon Hill regularly. Janet Woo, WCVB’s veteran political reporter, is as likely to cover a car accident as she is a dustup in the Legislature.
“The news has changed,” says Andy Hiller, longtime political reporter for WHDH. “Traditional political coverage—where you attend the meeting, you report the process—has lost its value.”
“They just marginalized the coverage little by little,” says Henning. “You know your lifeboat is getting smaller, and all of a sudden there’s no boat.”
The shift in coverage has been away from process and toward personalities, and mostly away from the State House altogether. In part, that’s a function of the way local newscasts have changed, beginning with Channel 7.
But a less noted factor in the decline in State House coverage is, ironically, too much airtime to fill. The evening newscasts on the three major-network affiliates now consist of three 30-minute blocks from 5 to 6:30 p.m. (or from 4 to 5 p.m. and then 6 to 6:30 p.m. at CBS4, which recently switched its broadcasts with Dr. Phil).
“That really was the beginning of the end of political reporting,” says James Thistle, director of the broadcast journalism program at Boston University, who has served as news director at all three stations over the years. “Every half hour has to be interesting and compelling on its own, but you get less time spent on local items.”
It also means more demands on producers and reporters. “When I started as news director in 1993, WBZ [now CBS4] was producing 26 hours of news a week,” says Peter Brown, who held that position for more than a decade before leaving earlier this year. “When I left, we were producing 43 hours a week on two television stations [CBS4 now produces morning and 10 p.m. newscasts for UPN 38]. Over that time, we probably introduced three [additional] reporters.”
In this hurry-up news atmosphere, the first casualty was time, especially time spent prowling the corridors of the State House. “We simply didn’t have the luxury of beats anymore,” says Emily Rooney, a former news director at WCVB and now host of the local affairs show Greater Boston, on WGBH. “People had specialty areas, but then we could not afford to not have them report a story.”
It used to be, Brown says, that if Henning told him he didn’t have a hot story that day, he could let the correspondent “gumshoe” off-camera, working his sources around the building, drumming up something big for later in the week.
“The days you’re not reporting are often the gold mine days, the ones when you pick up the most information,” says Henning.
But time spent away from the cameras is a gold mine stations can no longer afford, says Brown. “If you have a beat reporter at the State House and it’s a slow day, then you’ve got a one-, or even a two-minute hole to fill,” says Brown. “Not having anything, in this day and age, doesn’t work anymore.”
The stations have put themselves in this bind in pursuit of ratings, but none of what they’ve done has been enough to stem the loss of audience to cable stations and the Internet. Nationally, local news is a medium whose market share is falling, and so, arguably, is its credibility. According to Nielsen Media Research, from 1998 to 2002, between 70 and 90 percent of stations across the country lost viewers each year.
One news veteran says the changes made to stop the slide may be making things worse. “Audiences have been in decline, yet [local stations] have refused to pursue a different strategy,” says Ed Fouhy, a veteran network television executive and founder of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism. “It’s almost like lemmings going off a cliff.”
Boston is the fifth largest television market in the country and has long been one of the most prestigious. Even today it’s seen as one of the best nationally. Two years ago, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, sponsored by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Pew Charitable Trusts, concluded a five-year-long survey of local television news, awarding high praise and “A” grades to Boston’s three major-network affiliates. The city’s rankings in 2002 put it at the top of the 17 markets surveyed—and marked a turnaround from four years earlier, when the same stations earned grades ranging from “D+” (WHDH) to “C+” (WCVB).
But it has been the upstart stations, broadcast and cable, that have started to fill the politics-and-government coverage gap. Nearly 10 years ago, WLVI, now known as WB56, hired Jon Keller, then of the Boston Phoenix, as political analyst, taping sharp segments for its Ten O’Clock News.
“We’ve almost counterintuitively emphasized political reporting,” says Keller, whose Keller at Large is now the only Sunday morning political talk show on the Boston airwaves. During the week, Rooney’s Greater Boston, on local public television, has chewed over public affairs nightly for more than seven years.
New England Cable News, with a full day to fill, adds another dimension, covering politics in Massachusetts and throughout the region. In addition, its NewsNight interview show brings in guests to talk over political developments with hosts Chet Curtis and Jim Braude.
“We have the ability to provide, in the overall context of our coverage and NewsNight, a much deeper level of information for our viewers,” says Phil Balboni, president and founder of NECN. “I’m not suggesting we’re fulfilling it all the time. We do live in the real world, and we have to pay our bills.”
And last year Fox25 tapped Battenfeld, rather than some eager-beaver “on-air talent” working his way up-market, to cover and analyze politics for its 10 p.m. newscast. Just being in the Beacon Hill studio, where Battenfeld goes three or four days a week, can be an advantage in breaking stories, he says—as it was when labor unrest threatened to dash Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s hopes for a smooth-as-silk Democratic National Convention. “In the weekend before the convention, when Menino was still having negotiations, I had parked my car and headed to studio, when I saw the firefighters coming out of [the] Parkman House,” says Battenfeld, who found himself first on the scene of the last city-worker contract settlement. “The photographer was right there, and then Menino came out, so we got him, too. We were the only TV station there, and part of that was due to the fact that we were on Beacon Hill.”
A few scoops like that may justify Fox25’s investment in Battenfeld and its Beacon Street storefront, but it’s unlikely to turn the tide at the major-network affiliates, where political reporting has apparently lost its romance.
“I came from Atlanta because Boston had a City Hall and a State House,” says Hiller. “If you were to say now, ‘Name the country’s most politically active cities,’ you’d name Chicago and you’d name Boston. There are many people here who are experienced and sophisticated at playing the game.”
But this game is one that today’s television reporters are no longer fans of, industry watchers say. “We are developing new staffers who have been trained as generalists,” says Thistle. “My fear is that there isn’t another generation to cover politicians.”
In this, the stations are also taking the advice of private news consultants, who Thistle says typically cite audience surveys that show less interest in government stories than in weather, medical news, and consumer issues. “But it’s in how you ask the question,” Thistle insists. “Ask [viewers] whether they’re interested in how politicians are using your money, or making decisions about your child’s education. All of a sudden, interest goes up.”Except, maybe, among reporters. “I don’t believe the new reporters aspire to be political reporters,” says Hiller. “I don’t believe they come in and say, ‘Where’s the State House? Where’s City Hall?’ And I also don’t believe, at Channel 7, there’s someone saying, ‘When is Andy going to leave? Because I want to be a political reporter.'”
Jeffrey Klineman is a freelance writer in Cambridge.