Newsroom Notes: Meet your new anchorman. He’s also your governor

How do you run a newsroom through these unusual times?  We’re providing a first-hand view from an industry veteran who agreed to lead the KOMU Newsroom during a faculty search process—just as the Covid-19 crisis began unfolding.

Governors across the country are taking on new prominence as the country moves through the Covid-19 pandemic and we’ve got the Facebook Live broadcasts to prove it. But some are doing better than others and, whether they’re dealing with good or bad situations, our journalism colleagues are working hard to create accountability and ensure transparency. Let’s take a look at the state I’m currently sitting in. I wonder if our situation in Missouri sounds like how things are going in your state capitol.

In a familiar development around the country, Gov. Mike Parson began what he called a daily news briefing a few weeks ago. It could have been an opportunity to reset the relationship with reporters who are dedicated to covering state government. It could have been an opportunity to ensure that issues of the most interest to the most Missourians were addressed.

Instead, the decision to exclude reporters—saying it wasn’t safe for more than ten people to be in the same massive government building as Parson—created an editorial challenge that certainly hampered the ability of the Missouri press corps to tell the story about COVID-19 in the state. My Mizzou colleague Kathy Kiely shared her thoughts quite eloquently on the Opinion page of the Missourian. Later, the Kansas City Star joined the effort. The Missouri Association of Broadcasters and Missouri Press Association were among the first to take a broader view about public transparency across all levels of government.

All important points, but what about something even more basic and easy?

Once the news briefings were scheduled, broadcast organizations in Missouri immediately offered to help distribute the daily offerings — after all, we pool events all the time and we’re pretty good at it. Parson insisted on using only Facebook.

After technological malfunctions, we offered again.

The three television news directors between Columbia and Jefferson City, KOMU, KRCG and KMIZ, agreed to rotate the duty despite having among the smallest newsrooms in the state. Our national networks offered to distribute a reliable broadcast quality feed as they are doing in most of the adjacent states. No, having one journalist in the room created an untenable risk, according to the Governor’s office.

It is impossible to separate this missed opportunity from the broader national political discourse. When we decided—several weeks ago—to gracefully break from President Trump’s daily briefings in order to broadcast local news, we were peppered with comments from viewers saying they preferred hearing “their” president. Live news conferences became a staple of national cable networks. When does the public service of broadcasting important information conflict with our duty to provide clarity and context. It is a subject we’ve openly discussed in our newsroom and not a new controversy as Mark Lukasiewicz discussed in a Columbia Journalism Review article.

While Gov. Parson has been far less combative in his comments, his views are clear. “A lot of the media would like to be in here in press conferences and pack the room,” he said during Wednesday’s event that many of us broadcast live despite the technological mess.

There’s a lot to unpack in his “pack the room” comment but suffice to say that Job One for the governor and journalists is to find ways to get the most information delivered to the most Missourians. There is plenty of technology that would allow Governor Parson to reliably address the state AND give journalists an opportunity to ask questions with appropriate follow-ups.

Any of your governors willing to share their solutions with Governor Parson? Let me hear from you:

I have been ending these Newsroom Notes with a verse from Ecclesiastes Chapter 3. “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Maybe this crisis is a time for a reset of the relationship between Governors and the journalists working hard put stories into a meaningful context.


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