WMAR, a station undergoing tremendous upheaval internally, stumbled and fumbled in its coverage of one of the city's biggest breaking news stories: Tuesday's verdict in the Sheila Dixon case.
While the other local affiliates were already in live TV coverage, WMAR was offering a chaotic online presentation at abc2news.com. The unedited live streaming video involved a reporter, Joce Sterman, standing before a camera apparently not aware that she was online.
Things got worse from there once Sterman appeared to know that she was online. She looked at a video monitor showing a scene at the courthouse and said, "That looks like somebody important. ... Do you just want to pull it up?"
WMAR General Manager Bill Hooper and News Director Kelly Groft defended the coverage Tuesday saying that an online feed is intended to be "raw streaming video" and that people watching it do not expect it to have the polish of the TV presentation. Hooper further said that the primary reason WMAR did not have as much coverage as WBAL and WJZ is that they do not have a noon newscast, and so, "did not have crew sitting there" to cover the mid-day breaking story.
WMAR was the first station to break away from live coverage following remarks by the mayor and her attorney, Arnold Weiner, on the courthouse steps. At 1:04 p.m., the station returned to carrying the ABC soap opera, while WBAL and WJZ went into high gear.
WBAL reporters Jayne Miller and reporter Dave Collins moved the story forward by examining the statute that could force Dixon to step down as mayor based on the single conviction from the jury. It was exactly where the story needed to go following the flurry of questions for Dixon and her attorney as to whether she was going home or back to the office and where they go from here.
WJZ, meanwhile, was furiously gathering reaction at the courthouse from the likes of attorney Warren Brown and WOLB radio talk show host Larry Young, a self-described supporter of Dixon's.
If there was any doubt in anyone's minds why these stations had the two most popular news operations in town while WMAR's has drifted further and further off the lead, Tuesday's breaking news offered a clarifying snapshot.
Here's a transcript constructed from notes of what WMAR put online and on the air in the wake of the verdict.
WHILE STREAMING: "They want a live interview … See if they've got someone to talk to … Get Rohrbaugh … anybody … Don't they have another analyst down there? Whoa, looks like they've got someone important … Come on … You just want to pull it up live? Ready … What did he say? He said what? [inaudible] About stepping down … [inaudible] … All right, here comes city hall."
ON AIR: "Mayor Sheila Dixon and her attorney Arnold Weiner reacting to today's verdicts. One guilty verdict in this case: misappropriation of gift cards given to Dixon by the city. As far as her status from this point on, Weiner says all things are being considered. No firm answer on whether or not she will step down. Mayor Dixon, though, being very clear, saying at this point the city will move, they'll continue to do business as usual. She says she has a budget hearing this afternoon and she is on her way to City Hall. We will continue to update you on this story. Stay tuned to ABC News and abc2news.com for any updates."
WHILE STREAMING: [hiccup]… [inaudible] … [hiccup] "Oh Judah!"
"If we would have had a full crew, we would have had a different presence," Hooper said when asked how he would characterize the station's coverage.
He said station management has chosen to marshal its resources in other ways, keeping an overnight photographer and extra staffers on its morning news program.
When asked for her analysis of WMAR's performance, Groft said, "No matter what, when you get through something like this and go back, there's always room to improve."
WMAR union employees are in the midst of a buyout offer this week that is sending shock waves through the station.
After 21 years, Mary Beth Marsden's last day at the station is Wednesday. After 17 years, Terry Owens leaves Friday. Marsden anchors the 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts and has lately found herself reading sports scores on-air. Owens anchors the 5:30 p.m. newscast.
The cuts at WMAR have been deep, and the newsroom is expected to be even more depleted by the time the buyout offer ends next week.