I turned on the TV at noon Wednesday to see how Baltimore stations handled what I was thinking of as fluff: the arrival of the first ships for the Star-Spangled Sailabration.
I came away instead impressed with the performance of Baltimore's top two broadcast news operations, WBAL and WJZ, in handling serious breaking news without ignoring the kind of culturally important softer stories that make a city into a community rather than just a TV market.
And I was reminded of a largely overlooked truth: Baltimore viewers enjoy some of the best local TV journalism in the country.
That might seem at odds with our national ranking of 27th in market size. But if you judge local TV news by how well it connects to its community and balances the sometimes conflicting demands of supporting and watchdogging civic institutions, Baltimore TV news ranks near the top of the list.
"The quality of TV news is only tangentially related to the size of the market," says Bob Papper, chair of the department of journalism, media studies and public relations at Hofstra University. "There's no question that pound for pound in New York, where I am, in the No. 1 market, the reporters are slicker and their presentation skills are probably stronger. But that doesn't mean that the quality of the news and the newscasts they deliver are better."
Papper, whose annual survey for the Radio Television Digital News Association has become the leading barometer of trends in TV news, says Baltimore's top stations deliver what matters.
"It's not about doing negative stories or positive stories," he says. "It's about what's going on in that community, what's important to that community — and being tuned in and responsive to that. And that's what you saw on that noon newscast in Baltimore this week."
I don't usually watch midday newscasts. But the first tall ships were expected around noon Wednesday, and WBAL and WJZ, the two market leaders and the only local stations that have noon newscasts, were promoting the event as though their lives depended on it.
Last year, local TV did an awful job covering a similar event: the Grand Prix. Too many media outlets accepted the false promises and exaggerations of the promoters as truth. The event was declared a "hit" by some when it was anything but, in many regards.
So, the idea was to use Sailabration as a case study to see if I could track and pinpoint how and where local TV stations might lose their journalistic bearings in covering such events.
Except just before the carefully orchestrated arrival of the first tall ships, news happened: Political consultant and robocall crook Julius Henson decided during sentencing late Wednesday morning to give the judge a piece of his mind about what he termed a "witch hunt."
Bad idea. Henson left the courtroom in handcuffs, headed for 60 days in jail after a lecture from the judge on how he didn't understand how badly he had behaved. That's big news in a community in which many citizens outraged by Henson were resigned to seeing the politically connected escape punishment even when caught red-handed.
WBAL had Jayne Miller at the courthouse, and she delivered as sure-handed a TV report as you could want. Miller, who won a national Edward R. Murrow Award on Tuesday for a series on area judges, is as good a TV news reporter as there is in any market of any size.
Among local broadcasters, she led reporting on Henson since election night in 2010 — including being the first to report the robocall over the air while the polls were still open; in doing so, she surely helped keep some voters from being tricked by it.
Compared to Miller's report, WJZ seemed a bit more scrambled in doing its live report from the courthouse. But reporter Derek Valcourt gave viewers all the facts and a clear sense of the breaking news. Furthermore, he had a interview with Henson the night before that previewed what the convicted political consultant said in court.
One impressive aspect of WJZ's overall coverage was the performance of veteran Don Scott at the anchor desk, a ringmaster smoothly telling the audience to shift its gaze back from TV-news-as-watchdog to TV-news-as-guide-to-civic-celebration. And making it seem like a logical progression.
"Now, the other major story we're covering this noon — some lighter, brighter news," he said leading into reporter Jessica Kartalija, who practically exploded through the screen with enthusiasm for the tall ships.
WJZ and WBAL made it clear at noon Wednesday that they were going all out in their coverage: reporters on the ships, helicopters overhead and camera crews swarming all over the harbor.
"In terms of what you saw on the noon news and how we operate in general at WBAL, it all comes down to resources," said Dan Joerres, general manager of the Hearst-owned station. "We choose to staff heavily so that we can cover whatever news there is at any one time. We had those Sailabration plans going on for months. ... But we also had Jayne Miller following the Julius Henson trial all the way."
Joerres, who came to Baltimore last year from a Hearst-owned station in North Carolina in the nation's 46th-largest market, believes his station's battle with CBS-owned WJZ demands that kind of coverage.
"Our key mission is to be the local source of news," he says. "And in such a great competitive television market when you have two top stations competing against each other, it gives viewers good, solid choices, and it gives people the chance to get information when and where they need it on their terms."
Baltimore is, of course, a four-station news market, with WBFF, the Sinclair-owned Fox affiliate, and WMAR, the Scripps-owned ABC affiliate, in the mix. Neither has the newsroom resources or the overall ratings of WJZ or WBAL, but they do compete in several key news periods, particularly WBFF.
"Just being in this region itself, we realize there's a comparison of us to stations in Philadelphia or New York," says WMAR General Manager Bill Hooper, explaining the importance of location in the kind of TV news viewers see here. "I think the whole market holds itself to being on that level of a Mid-Atlantic, major news station."
Plus, they compete with D.C. stations for viewers south of Baltimore.
"We can't be a JV news department while the Washington stations have varsity news departments," Hooper says, "if we expect to win those homes in Howard County or Anne Arundel County."
Placing Baltimore on a list that includes Louisville, Ky., Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, Hofstra's Papper says, "You have really good TV news there — not necessarily at every station, but some stations in those cities are doing really good TV news."
And "really good news coverage," he says, "is not about the slickest presentation skills. It's about, at the end of the newscast, did you learn what's important to the people in the community? Did you learn what's going on and what matters in Baltimore that day?"