Olympics Travel a Hurdle for Local News Media

When it comes to travel, news organizations are asking themselves: Should we stay or should we go?

The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China, are producing huge headlines three months before the opening ceremonies, slated for August 8, and the extravaganza will undoubtedly stir tremendous local interest. After all, the United States Olympic Complex is based in Colorado Springs, and many of the athletes who will compete either live or train in these parts. So every sizable news organization in town will be sending personnel to cover the competition, right?

Wrong. Channel 4, a CBS station, Channel 7, part of the ABC family, and Clear Channel-owned KOA, the only area radio station with a substantial news department, don't plan to ship folks to the Olympics — and while Channel 9 will, partly because NBC, its parent network, has the broadcast rights for the games, news director Patti Dennis is trying her best to rein in costs she says are "in-the-stratosphere expensive." As for the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, both are dispatching staffers to the Far East, but Rocky editor/publisher/president John Temple reveals that for the first time in recent memory, he's not including a photographer. One reason for the decision, Temple says, is the likelihood that a Beijing-bound shutterbug wouldn't be available to cover a subsequent bash: the Democratic National Convention, which gets under way on August 25. But dollars and cents are important, too, especially when Temple can grab photos off the Associated Press wire for a fraction of the price.

"I think you're going to see people scaling back on the Olympics and stuff like that because there's so much duplication," Temple predicts. "You've got to be picky."

Indeed, news purveyors are choosing carefully when it comes to road ventures, and the current condition of the info biz is the reason. TV and radio stations as well as newspapers are trimming budgets and, in some cases, jobs in the face of an economic downturn that shows no immediate sign of reversing course. As a result, travel expenses are coming under closer scrutiny than ever before. "We're very selective in the stories we send a reporter to," says Kris Olinger, head of AM programming for Clear Channel Denver. "If we can get the information we need through other means, then we're more inclined to go that route than send one of our own people."

At the same time, Olinger, like her colleagues, emphasizes that if a story demands to be covered in person, it will be, and damn the expenses; that's why the station picked up the tab for KOA Morning News host Steffan Tubbs when he went to Virginia Tech in the aftermath of on-campus shootings there last year. But she's also open to more creative approaches. On April 23-25, when Tubbs broadcast from Australia, where he joined six World War II veterans from Colorado who were being honored there, he did so under the auspices of the Greatest Generation Foundation, an organization with which KOA has partnered in the past. Although Olinger doesn't think such an arrangement would be appropriate for a news story, she sees no problem with it given the feature-oriented tenor of Tubbs's Aussie programs.

Other news supervisors have found imaginative ways to save money beyond surfing to Expedia. Channel 4 news director Tim Wieland wanted to get fresh observations from Regis University president Father Michael Sheeran right after he met with Pope Benedict XVI during the pontiff's recent visit to Washington, D.C. — so, he says, "we worked with Father Sheeran in advance and asked him to go to a CBS live truck and do a live interview with us from there," thereby saving the station the cost of a plane ticket. Over at the Rocky, political reporter M.E. Sprengelmeyer rented an apartment in Iowa and stayed in the state for ten months in advance of January's caucuses there — a tack that Temple believes was actually cheaper than flying Sprengelmeyer back and forth a dozen times over the same span, and one that led to better reportage. And to combat the spiking price of gasoline, Channel 7 news director Byron Grandy has started leasing hybrid vehicles for his charges. By doing so, he stretches resources even as he makes the outlet look environmentally responsible.

Still, no amount of cleverness can mitigate the damage caused by unexpected outlays — and afterward, the piper must be paid. Denver Post editor Greg Moore looks back in frustration at the costs associated with the 2006 case of John Mark Karr, a false confessor to the '90s murder of JonBenét Ramsey who was taken into custody in Southeast Asia. "I never had it in my budget to go to Thailand," he says. "That probably cost us $10,000. And then we had to go to Atlanta, where his father was. It was a very expensive misadventure." Worse, Moore adds, the amount of dinero wasted "caused us to choke down on other travel later in the year." In his words, "That stung quite a bit."

These days, the pain has spread to sports, with even travel that was once seen as a no-brainer falling victim to the bean counters. When Denver sports franchises made it to the playoffs in past years, the major network affiliates routinely assigned anchors or reporters to accompany players. This year, however, channels 4, 7 and 9 chose not to fund visits west to watch the Denver Nuggets be drubbed by the Los Angeles Lakers or north for the Minnesota Wild's home games against the Colorado Avalanche. "We're fortunate that the first rounds happened where there were CBS owned-and-operated stations," notes Channel 4's Wieland. "Minneapolis and Los Angeles both helped us, and we helped them by providing locker-room interviews here."

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