Newsmaker Of The Forever

January 17, 2007
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The Business Journal’s 2007 Newsmaker of the Year wrapped today at an Econ Club luncheon, but it didn’t include the area’s top news story of the last half-century. The death and remembrance of President Gerald R. Ford proved to be the largest ever news event in the Grand Rapids area, attracting the full attention of every reputable local news outlet.

Leading the way by sheer force of numbers was WOOD-TV8, as the NBC affiliate pumped out nearly 30 hours of unscheduled news coverage over the course of the president’s eight-day wake. The station was among the first mourners at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, with seven hours of continuous coverage through the early morning of Dec. 27.

Like the funeral itself, this was a plan years in the making. Preparations for the event were already well underway when news director Patti McGettigan joined the station in 1995, and escalated as Ford’s health waned.

“There was a great deal of focus,” said McGettigan. “Our reporters and anchors were well prepared and well versed in the story and the history, and we were able to carry that coverage in a way that went beyond the events that were happening.”

Over 70 newspersons and support staff took part in the WOOD production, which had three satellite trucks and five ENG (electronic news gathering) trucks in the field. To address airspace concerns, a helicopter with longer range cameras than Chopper 8 was borrowed from a Detroit sister station. WOOD was one of only two local news organizations with a reporter inside the motorcade and produced a shot that McGettigan believes could be a first for the industry — footage from an ENG truck driving the route earlier in the day used to portray the perspective from inside the motorcade.

Gannett-owned ABC affiliate WZZM 13 nearly matched channel 8 in numbers, pledging 70 bodies between its entire news staff, the “Take Five” program and former employees borrowed from other stations. But it had fewer trucks, three, and overhead shots were provided by an aerial camera extended from a satellite truck. Channel 13 did have the edge on strategic locations, however, with anchors Lee VanAmeyde and Juliet Dragos stationed on a deck at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel overlooking the museum, and Stephanie Webb and company adjacent to the channel 8 remote at the Bridgewater Place perch of law firm Varnum Riddering Schmidt & Howlett.

The largest point of differentiation was WZZM’s unabashed emotion. Chief meteorologist George Lessens had called for a clear afternoon, but showers came anyway, when senior reporter Peter Ross began sobbing after the Grand Rapids service, setting off a chain reaction among the broadcasting crew.

“They’re real human beings, and many of them knew the president over the years,” said WZZM General Manager Janet Mason. “We didn’t tell people to check their emotions at the door; we told them to be genuine in their coverage.”

Mason believes the coverage further cemented the station’s brand position: “People make the difference.”

With less than half the staff of its 24-hour news competitors, WXMI FOX-17 was not able to match the 9/11-style coverage of its peers, but did cover every event the average viewer was likely to be interested in, even dispatching reporters Joe Lynn and Lisa LaPlante to California and Amy Turner and Brian Farber to Washington, D.C.

The station also ran half-hour programs recapping the day prior to the BCS bowl games during the two-day Grand Rapids stop.

“We had a number of people gone on vacation, and with some already out of state, there are only so many you can cancel,” said FOX-17 News Director Tim Dye. “It’s one of those times you just do the best you can. I was proud of our staff; they really gave it their all.”

Dye regretted one decision: Prior to the Grand Rapids funeral, which was delayed by nearly two hours, the station briefly cut back to normal programming.

According to WOOD general manager Diane Kniowski, the remembrance fell on one of the lightest advertising weeks of the year. The loss of revenue from uninterrupted coverage was minimal, and the ads scheduled for those times were easily rescheduled.

There was a noticeable difference in coverage among news outlets by their proximity to Grand Rapids. Kalamazoo-based CBS affiliate WWMT (channel 3) had bare-boned coverage, as did the Kalamazoo Gazette and Muskegon Chronicle. Business Review (Kalamazoo) and MiBizWest (Muskegon) ignored Ford entirely.

  • Ohio Meijer stores this month were running several “tailgator” promotions in anticipation of the ill-fated BCS title game between Ohio State University and the University of Florida. One such was an offering of frozen alligator fillets for $6.99 a pound in Columbus, so customers could “bring home their own slice of gator.”

As it turns out, it doesn’t taste like chicken.

  • In other news, a pro-immigration group in Hazleton, Pa., lobbied to have Santa Claus banned from the city under its strictly enforced zero-tolerance policy toward illegal immigrants.

  • Summarizing the data W.E. Upjohn Institute Senior Regional Analyst George Erickcek presented at last week’s Holland Area Chamber of Commerce Early Bird breakfast: Michigan’s economy this year will look a lot like the Buckeyes against Florida (a rout), while Ottawa County will look more like Florida at Auburn (closer game).

Ottawa’s slightly higher concentration of young, professional workers will be an asset, as “human capital is going to make all the difference.”

One of the keys to success is going to be changing the aspects of a product’s life cycle, he said. Instead of going through the birth, development and wealth creation, standardization, and death of a product, companies should concentrate on revitalizing products instead of letting them die. He suggests finding ways to break into new markets with the same product, finding new markets, or growing as a supply source to other companies.

On the national front, he is concerned with the amount people are spending compared to what they earn. “We are a nation of grasshoppers,” he said, referring to the fable of the industrious ant and the fun-loving grasshopper. “We spent $121.3 billion more than we made — nationally.”    

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