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How Baltimore TV stations are covering the storm

WBAL's Tom Tasselmyer was supposed to be on Christmas vacation Friday, according to news director Michelle Butt. Instead, he worked all day and slept overnight at the station and was on the air at 5 a.m. Saturday morning, going head to head to with an amped up WJZ crew chaired by lead anchor Denise Koch.

Baltimore's leading TV stations hit the airwaves with everything they had Saturday morning at 5 a.m., and WMAR wasn't far behind launching its live coverage at 7.

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WBFF, meanwhile, was showing infomerials for mini-hibachi grills and such syndicated fare as "Wild America." The station did have headlines at the bottom and side of the screen with area closings and weather information. But Fox45 had no real continuing coverage like the competition until much later in the day.

And the live coverage was in many ways, local TV news at its best -- providing viewers with information they needed to make informed decisions about their lives in the face of a major disruption in normalcy. It was an example straight out of the textbooks on the purpose of news.

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READ ON FOR A 4:50 P.M. UPDATE ON COVERAGE

The presence of strong anchors early on made a big difference. Denise Koch gave WJZ's presentation a sense of order and authority from the opening bell. Having its lead anchor on the set instantly created the impression that Channel 13 was on top of this huge story. She was later joined by Kai Jackson who provided just as solid a presence.

Of course, there was more to the Channel 13's sense of authority than one anchor. WJZ had  meterologist Tim Williams and Marty Bass in the studio and out back behind the station. They also had strong reporters on Baltimore area streets. Andrea Fujii and Gigi Barnett did some especially nice work early on.

Lisa Robinson and Deborah Weiner anchored WBAL's coverage until Stan Stovall and Sarah Caldwell took over after about six hours. Robinson and Weiner also provided a strong presence for WBAL, although the real punch for Channel 11 came from having Tasselmyer and John Collins providing constant weather information.

WBAL was also out on Baltimore area roadways. Tim Tooten did some very animated reporting from the parking lot at White Marsh Mall, while Jennifer Franciotti was a font of energy and enterprise in the wind and snow out in Westminster. She had no trouble finding intrepid and interesting residents out in the snow.

WMAR's strength was in having its regular morning anchor team of Jamie Costello and Megan Pringle. Their on-air ease brought a sense of coherence to Channel 2's coverage as well.

The importance of going all-out in covering the storm was not lost on local news executives.

"Everyone is working - whether they're on vacation or not," WJZ's Bending said. "This is what we do. Weather affects everyone and everything in our lives.  All four of our weathercasters are working round-the-clock.  Meteorologists Tim Williams and Bernadette Woods, Bob Turk and Marty Bass have been tracking this storm since it was on the horizon. Our role is to make sure our viewers stay safe and that we immediately relay critical information from our governor and all emergency departments across the state."

WBAL's Butt said: "This storm may not be the biggest story of the year in Baltimore, but it will be without question the biggest weather story of this year.  And my staff understands its role in getting viewers through the storm.  Folks are prepared to be here; sleeping bags and pillows can be found all over the building and crews in the field know it means long days.  People are working today and tomorrow that are on vacation next week; just as Tom did.  But that's what we do at WBAL-TV!  We are committed to coverage of big stories and this storm is without question a big story.

UPDATE 4:50 P.M. -- It looks like covering this storm is going to be marathon event. And while WMAR started two hours after WBAL and WJZ, by 4:30 p.m., it was the only Baltimore station still offering continuous coverage.

WMAR's newsroom is showing some real grit in its coverage of this big story. And given the way that viewers find a sense of reassurance and community in local TV coverage during a big snow event like this, I think WMAR might just win back some old and find some new viewers with its effort.

Besides, Channel 2 had the best dog-in-the-snow pictures Saturday from their viewers. And I love dogs-looking-goofy-in-the-snow pictures. I really do. Beyond the high-end, all-important duty of providing citizens with needed information, that sense of fun and over-the-backfence neighborly feeling of conversation between on-air personalities and viewers are also a major part of successful snow coverage on television.

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WBFF was reporting the storm at 5 p.m. in what co-anchor Jennifer Gilbert described as "special coverage." It was very good coverage. WBFF's images of the storm were among the best, and the field reporting was clean, fast and focused. Kathleen Cairns did a textbook taped report from Howard County, while Melinda Roeder generated energy and even a bit of joy in her snowball reports from Rodgers Forge.

In fairness, by having only cut-ins since 7 a.m., WBFF had far more time to put the 5 p.m. broadcast together than did the three stations that went into continuous coverage at 5 and 7 a.m. Saturday. Still, it was nice to see each of Baltimore's four stations doing some good work.

WBFF News Director Scott Livingston said station management wanted to try and put on some of its best work later is the day as counterprogramming to the other stations as they cut away from their coverage.

It was nice to always have at least one station in continuous coverage from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday.

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