News 8 at 5

Can Austin's little news station that could survive the grim reapers at Time Warner?

News 8 at 5
Illustration By Jason Stout

Sitting in his office, shortly after first coffee, News 8 Austin news director Kevin Benz is attempting to explain why his 24-hour news channel is different from the other local TV news operations. He pulls up a rundown of his competitor's newscasts from the previous night, a hodgepodge of reports on scams, assorted mayhem, and national news. "Our 6pm was all about the first day of school," Benz said, vigorously pointing at the computer screen. "The whole opening segment was about schools."

To hear Benz tell it, News 8 has no need to wallow in the ratings muck with the other stations. "I don't have to hype the hell out of a story" to keep the audience's attention through Oprah or C.S.I. reruns, he said. "Our producers don't have to worry about dragging eyeballs away from Jeopardy! When people are tuning into our station, they are tuning in to get news."

Benz has been with News 8 since the beginning, so maybe he can be forgiven for sounding like he's been drinking his own Kool-Aid. Five years ago – Sept. 13, 1999, to be exact – Time Warner launched the channel, based on the audacious idea that people might actually care to watch local TV news at any given moment. "The biggest challenge the first couple of years was to let the community know that there was actually enough news to cover 24 hours a day," said Benz, who left KTBC, the local Fox affiliate, to join the upstart.

From the beginning, News 8 was a different type of news beast. One of nine local news channels launched around the country by Time Warner, the cable company was hoping News 8 would provide a community service and help differentiate cable from those rat bastards in satellite, who were stealing their customers at an alarming rate.

The result often comes across like a cut-rate version of your local 5pm TV newscast on a demented perpetual loop – a place where channel flippers are equally likely to find a lengthy interview with a minor candidate for rail commissioner or a lengthy feature on the latest breakthrough in lawn-care technology. If nothing else, in five years News 8 has managed to insert itself into the fabric of Austin life. Walk through the halls of the Capitol, and it's often News 8 blaring from staff offices. In recent years, U.S. airports have generally been held hostage to CNN, but at ABIA, travelers gather around monitors playing News 8. "They've jumped into the gap that once used to be filled by 24-hour news radio," said Ross Ramsey, editor of the Capitol newsletter Texas Weekly.

All in all, this should be a time of celebration for Benz, a five-year anniversary to stick it to all the skeptics. Except there is one tiny problem: A few weeks ago, Time Warner closed down its 24-hour news operations in San Antonio and Houston and sliced the Charlotte operation in half, jettisoning a total of more than 200 jobs. All were joint ventures with Dallas-based Belo Corp., owner of the Dallas Morning News and several other papers, as well as 19 TV stations nationwide. After posting $18.7 million in losses, Belo decided to rethink its Time Warner 24-hour cable news channel partnership.

Time Warner corporate spokesman Mark Harrad says the cable company has no plans to drop any more news operations, which is remarkably similar to what he said in July, right before the Houston and San Antonio channels disappeared. News 8 is widely seen as one of the company's most successful, an example of a station providing a unique service in the community, but there is no mistaking the corporate clouds gathering on the horizon.

  News director Kevin Benz (l) and anchor Paul Brown
News director Kevin Benz (l) and anchor Paul Brown (Photo By John Anderson)

"I think next year will be a tougher year for us," said News 8 general manager Brian Benschoter. "Our hope is that we will be able to hold on to people." Benschoter calls closing the Houston outfit, which he also oversaw, the "low point of my career."

Talk about a buzz kill. Instead of celebrating the five-year anniversary of the station, staffers are wondering if they'll still be around to see number six.


Blood Doesn't Lead

At a press conference or a street shoot, the News 8 reporter is easy to spot: He's the one with a camera on his shoulder. News 8 reporters usually operate as "one-man bands" – shooting, reporting, and editing their own packages, a cost-saving technique primarily employed in small markets. Indeed, most News 8 reporters are either fresh out of school or have, at most, one or two years of experience in markets like Victoria, Texas, or Augusta, Ga. The pay scale for reporters ranges from $15-17 an hour. "People who accept the job are either desperate or they don't know," said one former staffer.

From the beginning, Time Warner decided it didn't want its news channels to try to out-glitz the traditional local news operations with the latest in news set technology or a phalanx of helicopters patrolling overhead. The idea was to use digital technology to do news more efficiently – to get more for less.

With 24 hours to fill, News 8 operates on a fundamentally different level than the network affiliates. Many stories are four or five minutes long, more than twice as long as an epic-length story on conventional newscasts. With time to expand (or kill), there are often lengthy segments devoted to health, entertainment, and news-oriented series. There's a fair share of stories on dating and golf tips, but current feature topics listed on the news assignment board include tort reform and air quality.

"I can afford to cover stories that might be bypassed by the affiliates because they're not promotable or sexy," Benz said. That may mean assigning a reporter to a story on a bond issue or a city council meeting in Buda rather than chasing a late-breaking car accident on Rundberg.

"We try not to be sensational, period," said Natasha Allen, who covers Hays and Caldwell counties out of an office in San Marcos. "They want stories to be something that really affects you."

The difference in the News 8 culture is most noticeable during elections, when News 8 tries to give all the races at least some level of coverage. "They really get around to a lot of races that wouldn't get more than a second of air time [on other stations]," said Travis Co. Commissioner Karen Sonleitner, a former TV news reporter who says she was "beyond skeptical" when News 8 went on the air, but now calls herself "a big fan." "They have found a niche covering good local stories that deserve attention but never rise to the level of the other local stations," Sonleitner said. "I've probably been interviewed by News 8 on relevant, important stories more than any of the other local stations."

If nothing else, News 8 is noticeably less bloody than the other stations, the result of a specific effort to rein in crime coverage. "We don't have to worry about tricking or teasing [the audience] with a false sense of insecurity," Benz says, a reference to the fear factor that prevails in many newscasts, which often offer "news that could save your life." Written policies call for news managers to avoid packaging stories about violent crime, to not show dead bodies, to not "harass" grieving relatives, and to avoid "gloom and doom" rundowns.

Assignments manager Cyndie Espinosa
Assignments manager Cyndie Espinosa (Photo By John Anderson)

For evidence that News 8 takes a different approach than the traditional network affiliates, Benz points to coverage of the recent arrest, for a second (and then a third) time, of former Williamson Co. Sheriff John Maspero, who has admitted to a bit of a drinking problem. Long gone from office, in August Maspero was handcuffed outside his wife's house and taken to jail, an event immortalized by the camera in one of the patrolman's cars. Three of the four network affiliates used the arrest as one of their top stories; News 8 didn't run it.

"He was out of the public eye, not in power," Benz said. The decision not to run it came after a lengthy newsroom debate. "The fact that he was running amok again," Benz decided, "was not really news."


Five Reporters, Lots of Weather

Benz is what is known in the business as an awards hog. He loves to point out that News 8 routinely wins national awards for its journalism, including an Edward R. Murrow Award this year for a report on child abuse and a USC Annenberg Walter Cronkite Award in 2002 for its election coverage.

But longer, more in-depth stories require experienced, savvy reporters, and it's hard not to notice that many of the reporters winning awards for News 8 are no longer at the station. After a steady dose of chasing 24-hour news at admittedly down-market pay rates, some begin to rethink their careers. Anchor/reporter Heather Maze left to open a bar (although she emphasizes News 8 didn't drive her out of the business).

Most recently, the station lost award-winning mainstays Antonio Castelan and government reporter Eric Allen, who left to take a job as public information officer with the Association of Texas Professional Educators. "I left because of the strain of the one-man band," said Allen, who was nominally on restricted duty due to a back injury when he left the station. "After three years of lugging around a camera and a tripod, I decided my time could be better spent elsewhere." Two months after Allen left, his position was still open.

"Turnover probably is a little higher. Part of it is the nature of the beast," Benz said. "This is hard work, to do 24-hour news. Our producers work much harder than the producers at affiliates. Our reporters work much harder than at the affiliates."

On any given day, Benz will have only five or six reporters and a handful of photographers to cover all of Central Texas. The Hays/Caldwell bureau consists of one person to cover both counties, and the new Williamson/Bell County bureau will be staffed by one "videojournalist" – who, Benz notes, "is one more person than anybody else has there."

Unlike most stations, which send reporters scurrying around the region, on most days News 8 reporters are usually assigned to cover only one story, a concession to their experience and the requirements of the one-man band. Photographers are assigned to pick up the slack and shoot video for two or three stories. "We really have to think hard about what we cover," said assignments manager Cyndie Espinosa, who has been at the station for three years. Reporters also know that if there is a storm brewing, they are likely to get called off their stories. Like all the TV news operations, News 8 tends to get what is known as a "weather woodie" whenever a storm approaches, sending staffers running to don rain slickers and canceling all programming for wall-to-wall weather. There's nothing like a storm of Biblical proportions to spike the ratings. Benz likes to say that when the other stations put up a graphic warning of approaching weather during a sitcom, "It's like an advertisement for our station."


Will the News Break – Even?

"The challenge has always been to help people understand the uniqueness of 24-hour news," Benz said. "It's a very different animal." In a sense, station executives are still trying to explain it, at least to advertisers.

When selling the channel, News 8 points to numbers that show their cumulative audience for news during the entire day is larger than the audience for the few hours of news programming offered by the networks. For example, in June the station claims it attracted more total cable viewers on any given day than the other stations, which, of course, only do a few hours of news. "We're running 48 half-hour newscasts," Benschoter said. "Our audience is generally spread out."

General manager Brian Benschoter
General manager Brian Benschoter (Photo By John Anderson)

The challenge is to sell that reasoning to advertisers, who often note that News 8's total viewership may be swell, but during peak news viewing hours their audience is often a tiny fraction of the network affiliates'. With 24 hours of ads to sell, a 30-second spot during a News 8 newscast averages about $50, Benschoter said. "Advertiser acceptance always lags behind the acceptance of the general public," he said.

Most importantly, News 8 is "not 100% ad-supported," Benschoter said. That's not good news, as Time Warner's commitment to floating the bill for this particular community service appears to be waning. The news channels were not "set up as a loss-forever situation," said Harrad. "We've never been disappointed with the level of the journalistic product, but we do want them to break even in the shorter term rather than the longer."

Even before the closing of the Belo operations, there were rumblings that Time Warner might be "re-evaluating" the news channel concept. A plan to start a news operation in Milwaukee was shelved earlier this year, and there are no plans at this point to launch any new 24-hour news operations.

While shuttering the San Antonio and Houston operations probably had more to do with Belo's woes than those of Time Warner, Time Warner COO John Billock noted at the time that the operations had not been able to "achieve the kind of sustainable audience growth on a stand-alone basis, which is required for long-term viability." That's the sort of bottom-line rhetoric that prompts TV news veterans to start sending out résumés.

News 8 staffers were told of the demise of the Houston and San Antonio channels in a conference call with Benschoter, who answered questions for 30 minutes. Not too many people were surprised, said one staffer, who describes morale as "low."

But Benschoter insists that News 8 is in a stronger position than its San Antonio and Houston compatriots, which never made it to their second birthdays. "We're much more heavily cross-branded to Time Warner here" than the news channels in San Antonio and Houston, Benschoter said. In addition to its ubiquitous presence in the community, Time Warner has spun off News 8 weather and traffic into separate channels, and News 8 stories are now available through the cable system's video-on-demand service. News 8 weather is also available in Spanish on another channel.

News 8 should be looked upon as a "programming expense," Benschoter says. But that makes it difficult to measure the news channel's true value. After all, with so many channels available, it's difficult to determine how many people subscribe to Time Warner simply for the news channel. And Benschoter knows that argument is not going to work for long. "We're not viewed as a start-up any more," Benschoter said. "Becoming more mature, we should be able to live within our means. We're to the point where we should see some bottom-line growth consistently."

Benz says his news budget for 2005 will be smaller than 2004, but he doesn't expect radical changes. Cuts may come in the form of reduced satellite time, travel, and overtime. All signs point to business as usual, he says. The station just purchased a new editing system and, after a long search, it is finally ready to fill the Williamson and Bell County bureau job.

Yet, Benz appears to know the game is changing. "Ratings are the coin of the realm," he said. "It would be stupid to ignore that."

But Benz doesn't sound nervous. He'd much rather talk about News 8's anniversary, a sure sign that it must be doing something right. "It takes five years to develop and reaffirm your philosophies," Benz said. "We're still pretty young in the big spectrum of things." end story


Time Warner's Local News Channels

Capital News 9
Albany, N.Y.

NY1 News
New York, N.Y.

R News
Rochester, N.Y.

News 10 Now
Syracuse, N.Y.

News 14 Carolina-Charlotte
Charlotte, N.C.

News 14 Carolina-Raleigh
Raleigh, N.C.

News 8 Austin
Austin, Texas

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

News 8 Austin, News 8, Kevin Benz, Channel 8, Ross Ramsey, Belo Corp., Brian Benschoter, Time Warner, Natasha Allen, Karen Sonleitner, John Maspero, Eric Allen, John Billock

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