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Former Denver Post reporter Amy Herdy knows full well that many newspaper types look down upon their broadcast counterparts. After serving in behind-the-scenes capacities at a couple of Florida TV stations during the '90s, she joined the writing staff of the St. Petersburg Times, and she estimates that it took at least three years, and numerous awards, before she'd truly overcome her boob-tube stigma in the eyes of co-workers. This was a real achievement, given how deeply ingrained their prejudices were. According to Herdy, the only TV set in the Times newsroom when she first joined the staff -- the one everyone huddled around during newscasts in order to ridicule the anchors -- was placed near a sign that read "Television News is the Scourge of God."
Such views didn't prevent Herdy from bidding farewell to the Post last year in favor of an investigative-producer gig at Channel 9 -- and neither have they persuaded veteran Rocky Mountain News journo Charlie Brennan to reject an offer at Channel 31; he recently gave his notice at the Rocky and is slated to start at the Fox affiliate on March 5. By making these moves, they're taking the road less traveled -- and Channel 31 news director Brad Remington, who hired Brennan, is proof that the trip can be worth taking. Remington served as city editor of the Ogden, Utah, Standard-Examiner before being recruited to fill the managing-editor position at a Salt Lake City station, and he's stuck with television for more than twenty years since then. "The switch isn't for everyone," Remington acknowledges. "But there are times I'm so glad I'm in TV."
The same can be said of Herdy, whose return to the medium was spurred in large part by "convergence" -- a trendy term used to describe cross-promotional partnerships between television outlets and newspapers. The Post and Channel 9 are involved in just such an alliance, and when Herdy and Miles Moffeit were assembling "Betrayal in the Ranks," an excellent 2003 series about victims of rape and sexual abuse in the military, she was given the opportunity to create several TV packages designed to air in conjunction with the articles. Because she'd developed such a close relationship with many of the "Betrayal" sources and didn't want to hand them over to just anyone, she leapt at the chance. She sensed some negativity about the assignment from a few Posters, who "wondered why I was even bothering," she says, and received a baptism by fire, when, during a live newscast appearance, anchor Ward Lucas asked her questions about the story that she wasn't expecting -- a game jokingly referred to at 9News as "Stump the Chump." In the end, though, Herdy was pleased with the way the print and TV versions of "Betrayal" worked together.
Cut to 2006, when Herdy happened upon a 9News advertisement for an investigative reporter. "I called [Channel 9 news director] Patti Dennis and said, 'Why don't you change that to investigative producer and hire me?'" she recalls. Dennis took her advice, and Herdy came aboard in August, one day before the station told the world about false confessor John Mark Karr. In the months that followed, Herdy created her own blockbuster via one of the past year's most memorable pieces of videotape: a brief conversation with former New Life Church pastor Ted Haggard, who announced, while sitting in his car with his wife and children, that he'd gotten a massage and purchased meth from male prostitute Mike Jones. But she admits that her newspaper-honed training nearly scuttled the scoop.
In the hopes of landing such an interview, Herdy and 9News director of photography Eric Kehe staked out Haggard's well-fenced home. After lingering for a while alongside personnel from the Colorado Springs Gazette, Herdy decided she'd move toward the front door the next time the main gates opened -- and when one of Haggard's New Life associates drove up a moment later, she slipped onto the property behind him. The associate immediately asked her to split, leaving her with two options: She could continue toward the entrance and refuse to go until Haggard either spoke with her or demanded that she vacate the premises, or she could pass along the message that she wanted to talk with him, then return to her previous spot and keep waiting. Following a brief internal debate, she chose the latter option, to Kehe's relief. He hadn't cleared the gates, so he would have been unable to record a single syllable.
Herdy nearly made a similar mistake when Haggard subsequently pulled over to chat; Kehe had to nudge her to the side to get his microphone close enough to Haggard to pick up what he was saying. Making room for a boom "wasn't my first instinct," Herdy concedes. "But I had my notepad out."
Now Herdy realizes how fortunate she was that things worked out as they did. "Had I gone to the door and gotten an interview with Pastor Ted, it wouldn't have had nearly the impact," she maintains. "You wouldn't have had the impact of him saying, 'I did call him, but I threw the meth away' while he was nodding his head." This was a telling moment, she argues, because "the body doesn't know how to lie."
Brennan's learning curve is likely to be even steeper than it's been for Herdy. He was on retainer with ABC News for eighteen months in 1999 and 2000 as a consultant about the JonBenét Ramsey case, which he'd covered extensively for the Rocky, and briefed Barbara Walters before she interviewed John and Patsy Ramsey for a special hyping their book The Death of Innocence. That, along with several appearances on Larry King Live and other programs to talk JonBenét, constitutes his television experience.
Nevertheless, Brennan was recently contacted about a non-print job -- he's coy about saying anything more than that -- and called a friend, Channel 31 reporter Julie Hayden, to ask her advice. Hayden told him there was an investigative-reporter opening at Fox and encouraged him to look into it -- and Remington was receptive, despite Brennan's extremely limited TV-journalism resumé. Right now, Remington isn't sure whether Brennan will spend the majority of his time on camera or behind it. "This is like drafting the best-available athlete," he says. "Wherever we put him on the field, good things will happen."
For his part, Brennan says he's excited by the challenge of trying something new, and he likes the job security of television in comparison to print. "There is a lot of uncertainty in the newspaper industry at large," he says. "It looks to me that the Rocky is making smart decisions -- time will tell. But with things the way they are, it would have been foolish not to talk to the people who approached me. At this stage of my career, it's a wonderful thing to fall in my lap."
Thanks to Channel 31's beefed-up website, Brennan will be able to keep using his long-form writing skills -- and Herdy doubts his style will be cramped when penning on-air scripts, whose brevity is being emulated by more and more newspapers. While at the Post, she says, "I'd have stories with all kinds of detail, and an editor would say, 'Give me twelve inches on that.' So there's not that much difference anymore."
Even so, Channel 9's Adam Schrager, who concentrated on print at the University of Michigan before embracing TV, emphasizes that the formats require diverse techniques. "Newspaper writers have to describe what's going on," he says. "But in television, you don't have to tell people what they're seeing. You have to enhance what they're seeing."
When TV reporters are able to do so, Schrager feels their efforts are every bit as valuable as first-rate newspaper reporting -- and he isn't about to let those who believe otherwise to win without a fight. "There's a general sense among print journalists that broadcast journalists are lesser," he says, "and I work every day to dispel that notion."
In Herdy's opinion, that goal hasn't been accomplished yet. She gets the sense that some of her onetime Post comrades think that by moving to television, she's selling herself short. She sums up their reactions in one word: "snobbery."
That's a scourge of God, too. More newspaper reporters are taking the leap to TV -- a move some print pros still see as consorting with the enemy.