It's the first Friday of September in this college and lumber town sunk in a deep valley in the northern Rockies. Forest fires that have been only partially contained during the past month are still burning in nearly all directions within a 50-mile radius of the city. Heavy smoke is in the air. It's a Stage Two Air Alert (worse than Stage One, not nearly as bad as Stage Four, when ash from Mt. St. Helens blew into town in 1980, covering houses, cars and streets.)
However, the question most residents are asking is not, "When will the smoke go away?" but "Will the Grizzlies be able to play their home football opener tomorrow?"
Football is a passion in this town. The University of Montana won NCAA Division I-AA championships in 1995 and 2001. Hope has again sprung autumnal, buttressed by a opening Griz win on the road at Maine the previous week.
To answer that burning (pun intended) "is the game-on-or-off?" question, a citizen might turn on this night to the local news at 5, 5:30 or 6. At 5:30 on KPAX-TV, it was the lead story. The game is on. At 6 on KECI-TV the fires themselves were the lead but the game-on question was answered soon enough. But at 5 p.m. on KTMF-TV, no mention of this at all in the newscast, and the sports anchor angered locals by leading with information about the home opener of arch-rival Montana State, 200 miles east in Bozeman.
There's a reason for that omission on KTMF, which has raised some ethical concern in local academic and professional circles. KTMF's Big Sky News at 5 and 10 p.m. has an avuncular, white-haired anchor, Greg Wilson, and a young, attractive co-anchor, Jamie Dismer. Behind them is a bank of monitors that each say Big Sky News with a distinctive logo featuring the region's mountains. The show's opening graphic says, "Montana's Own Big Sky News." However, Wilson and Dismer are nowhere near Missoula. They're not even in Montana. They're in Davenport, Iowa, 1477 road miles away.
It's called "outsourcing," and it's strongly defended by a Davenport firm, Independent News Network, which sold its service to KTMF's ownership, Max Media.
INN hires one reporter in each of the five cities where it has client stations (Missoula, Kalispell, Butte, Bozeman, and Great Falls). But no local anchor. No control room. No set to design. Not even a newsroom. Only a reporter's desk, a telephone and a computer to edit and feed stories are required. Each reporter is a one-man band, researching stories, pitching them to a producer in Davenport, then going out and reporting, photographing and editing them for a fiber-optic feed to Davenport at 3 p.m. Mountain time Monday through Friday.
The product comes back on KTMF's air at 5 p.m. First there's an A-Block with Montana news, including packages submitted by reporters, anchor voice-over footage sent in by Montana reporters, and an assortment of "reader" stories that come from the reporters or the Associated Press. After a commercial, the B-Block is an assortment of national and world news, even though, in Missoula at least, ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings has aired at 4:30. Next in Big Sky News is a weatherman in Davenport, electronically placed in a picture with a Montana map, who runs down conditions for the five towns where Big Sky News airs. Then comes the sports guy who has to choose the best sports stories that affect those towns.
A-Blocks are tailored to each Montana market, but don't always hit the mark. On this particular day the lead story on the feed that aired in Missoula was about an arson investigation in Kalispell. The reporter there fed in footage for the anchors to voice over. Missoula reporter Justin Ware had resigned to take a traditional reporting job at a Wisconsin station where he'll also get anchor experience. Ware hadn't yet been replaced, so the Missoula audience was left wondering why a possible grass-fire arson in Kalispell was the Missoula lead.
Ethics aside, this kind of reportage, or lack of same, can lead to journalism that is awkward, to put it charitably, or shoddy, to put it accurately.
Linda Gray manages Max Media's five Montana stations. She acknowledges that there are occasional editorial lapses in Big Sky News, but doesn't see outsourced anchors as a problem. "It's more of a logistical problem for our news...rather than an editorial one," she says. "Some of our challenges are as a result of us being a young company."
Max Media is a little more than two years old. It bought the stations from a firm that did no local news at all on any of its stations, after aborting a news department at its Great Falls affiliate some years before. Gray says she's tired of the criticism she gets about her anchors being in Iowa. She finds no ethical problem with her INN deal and insists that where Big Sky News comes from has no impact on its quality.
Max Media does it this way to save money, but Gray says her company's deal with INN is not inexpensive. "But we do save about 50 percent of what it would cost to produce our own program. We aspire to compete head to head with the other stations but it's going to take time."
Dave Ketelhohn just celebrated his one-year anniversary as the one-man news band for Max Media's KTGF in Great Falls. He's the former news director of the Dix Communications station there, KFBB-TV, which trimmed staff by cutting its morning newscasts some months after Ketelhohn left.
"I've gone back and forth on it," Ketelhohn says of the whole process. "I don't try to pretend that it's local." This could be an "economic model of the future," he says.
Big Sky News reporter Jodi Habighorst in Kalispell is in her first job after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She believes most viewers know the anchors are not in Montana. Her main concern is that if outsourcing grows it will decrease the number of available jobs and therefore hurt her traditional TV reporter market climb.
If there's an ethical problem here, it stems from anchors being some place other than where most viewers would logically expect them to be. This is not a new Montana problem. In the infant years of television here, stations in Billings, Great Falls, Butte and Missoula, all owned by a privately held Montana company, formed the Montana Television Network. A newscast originating in Great Falls was fed to all stations, which took the anchor feed, then cut in with local stories. For years, some viewers unfamiliar with the program thought the anchor was in Butte or Billings or Missoula, when in fact he was in Great Falls. As TV grew in Montana, local stations and viewers demanded a full local production, and eventually got it. Those same stations trade material to this day, often not explaining that a reporter works for a sister station, not the originating station. But the reporter always signs off from where the story is shot.
Outsourcing anchors is not limited to INN and its clients. Anchors for the nightly report aired by Fox Sports Detroit are actually in Bellevue, Washington, where they work for Fox Sports Northwest. Production manager Rocco Maccarrone uses the same control room and essentially the same production staff for both the Detroit and Seattle sports reports. He sees no ethical problem at all. "We have access to the exact same information that Detroit has. There's no problem with us doing their show here."
Most networks have a rule that a reporter voicing-over a story that he or she didn't cover can't use a location as a signoff. But if the reporter did in fact cover a story in a distant city, he can use the appropriate location tag even if he had to travel somewhere else to edit it.
The ethics rule, of course, is "don't misrepresent anything to the viewer." Because outsourced anchors don't come on and say, "Good evening from Davenport, Iowa. This is Big Sky News." or "Good evening from Seattle. This is the Detroit Sports Report," are they misrepresenting location? If so, does it matter? Does anybody care? While print media here love to chide Max Media stations about their distant anchors, the alternative in today's economy is no news at all on those stations. Which practice better serves Montana's TV viewing public?
Satellites, fiber optics, comparatively ancient microwave technology and even bicycled tape reels have allowed all this to happen. From disk jockey "Lonesome Gal" a half century ago being syndicated to distant stations, to what's happening today, the broadcasting industry has seen forms of local-that-isn't for years. The practice won't be going away anytime soon. Worry and hand-wringing won't stop it. What would help is for broadcast entities of all sizes to seriously consider the intent of the Communications Act of 1934: Local broadcasting is a service that broadcasters operate in the public interest, convenience and necessity. Applied to outsourcing: Public interest? Not if the public would logically expect anchors to be somewhere near where the backdrop behind them says they are. Public convenience? No, the only convenience is for broadcasters who save money by outsourcing. Public necessity? Yes-if the broadcaster determines he has to outsource to keep a program on the air, but beyond that, no.
So outsourcing fails broadcasting's historic litmus test: local, local, local. Serve your audience, and be there when it calls.
Oh, by the way, Montana lost that football game, 25-24 to Division II North Dakota State. Some fans wish the game had been cancelled, and wouldn't have cared how, where, or if they heard about it on TV.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), pp. 13,34-35.