The End Of An Era In TV News
Wednesday - March 04, 2009
Bob Sevey and I never had a cup of coffee together, and we never sat down to discuss the story of the day. We didn’t really get to know each other at all, even though we worked in the same newsroom. Our time together was too brief; our positions, in my mind, too lopsided.
When I joined KGMB as an intern in 1986, Sevey was way, way out of my league. He was the Big Kahuna and I the latest flunky - there to run tapes, write a few lines of weather copy and learn what I could so that I, too, could get a real job in the news biz someday. I was happy just to be there.
I did join the news team soon after, but by then Sevey had gone, and with him, a good chunk of the newsroom’s soul. Still, I was surrounded by excellence - Bob Jones, Linda Coble, Leslie Wilcox, Matt Levi, Doug Woo and Elisa Yadao - but soon after the Big Boss’s departure the splintering began. One by one they left-and each took with them a little more of the expertise, institutional memory and journalistic ethos that had shaped what some have described as a golden era of journalism in Hawaii.
In the years that followed, I didn’t have time to dwell on how everything was changing. I was too busy trying to learn, thrive and survive in a challenging environment. Being a reporter is - or should be if you do it right - a fairly tough job. You scramble to come up with a story worth featuring in the newscast. You use every skill at your disposal: finding sources, talking to people, chasing out details, shaping the words and connecting the pictures. If you’re competent, you come up with a coherent, relevant, intelligent and factually correct piece. Deadlines loom large every day- there’s the mad rush to get that story on the air - and then ... poof. It’s done. Good job, kiddo. Now what will you do for us tomorrow?
It’s easy to get caught up in that day-to-day frazzle and to forget the larger reason for doing journalism. And that’s why Sevey’s passing feels like the end of an era. Under his leadership the entire station understood the mission and the expectation. The mission was, quite simply, to report the news - no bells and whistles required. Bells and whistles were, in fact, looked at with suspicion.
And the expectation? That was simple, too. To be the best.
Being the best meant that everyone was on board, not just the reporters, anchors and photogs in the news department. The techies, promotions department, directors, floor crews, engineers - all were fully committed. The standards were high, and either you did your job well or you were gone. Rather than scare us, it made us try harder. Everyone was proud to be part of the team.
When I talk about the subsequent deterioration, I am in no way denigrating our modern newsrooms. There are plenty of smart, hard-working, dedicated people busting their chops to bring us the news every morning, noon and night. The changes came gradually, but they were inexorable, maybe inevitable, given the escalating pressures on stations to deliver ratings and profits. The demographics in newsrooms changed as budgets shrank and cable TV sliced into a once-loyal pool of viewers. Experience - with its higher price tag - gave way to youth. Institutional knowledge slowly slipped away.
Consultants came and instructed us to make our newscasts faster, brighter, edgier. It was no longer enough to deliver the news; the shows had to “pop.”
The shape and substance of the stories changed to reflect the new mandates. Sound bites, which used to last as long as necessary, now were chopped off at 10 seconds. Stories could be no longer than a minute and 30 seconds on tape. Crime was in. Politics was out, or de-emphasized, because the consultants told us that viewers didn’t like talking heads and didn’t care about what went on at the Legislature or City Hall.
I can’t say all the changes were bad - nowadays we are used to a different look, a faster pace and a snappier delivery. Storytelling has changed with the times, and so have our tastes.
But in too many cases style has crowded out the substance. The sense of purpose that drove the old Sevey newsroom - one that respected bread-and-butter journalism as a public service, an important mission and a worthy calling - is harder to find today. We get glimpses of it still in the work of a few reporters and anchors who believe in and try to pass on the ethics and standards they learned from “old-timers” like Sevey.
There will never be another Bob Sevey. I, for one, am grateful that our paths crossed, however briefly, and that I was able to learn from the people he mentored. His influence helped shape my life.
Thank you, Bob. Rest in peace.
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