This Modern World

The marriage of local TV news and the World Wide Web is rocky

The dispiriting effects of Houston's August torpor are evident everywhere in the news business.

Houston Chronicle columnist Thom Marshall -- the Metro-front guy who's supposed to have his pulse on the city and give us all a sense of what Houstonians are doing and talking about -- got a whole column out of the fact that those darn weatherpeople always give the chances for rain in percentages of 10, like "a 20 percent chance of rain" or "a 30 percent chance of rain."

At least this stirring topic gave Marshall a chance to mention the floods caused by Tropical Storm Allison, if only in passing. As far as the archives show, this marks exactly the second time Marshall has bothered to mention the local story of the year, one that affected thousands and thousands of Houstonians. (The other mention: Why aren't there more basements in Houston?)

Oh, and he's mentioned it in the series of columns he's done lately on wrecker drivers, seeing as how there's no one better at milking follow-up columns through reader e-mail and phone calls.

The Tow Truck Series, three columns so far, began August 10 with "Racing Tow Trucks Pose Wreck Risks." In it, Marshall noted that he had experienced little reader reaction to the debate over tow-truck drivers carrying guns.

There was this amazing paragraph: "I got only one e-mail on the subject. Truly stirring public controversies can often generate several times that many. The fellow signed his note 'Bob,' and in place of a last name used that sideways smiley face fashioned from a colon and a closed parenthesis."

He probably used one of those "computers" to do it, too.

At any rate, August 18 brought "Not Much Love for Tow Drivers," a collection of reader horror stories, and August 24 gave us "Good Encounters of the Towing Kind," which used further reader reaction to delve into the novel Few Bad Apples theory.

But we can't blame Marshall for taking the easy way out. We ourselves have been oppressed by the heat, and have been unable to face the evening news. So we checked out the Web sites of our local news folks.

The Web sites are all pretty depressingly similar: a lineup of news stories that, not too surprisingly, seem lifted from that morning's Chronicle; video links to some of the previous night's reports; weather maps galore; links to sex-offender lists and bios of on-air staff.

But there are highlights. KPRC's site, www.click2houston.com -- by far the slowest of them all to load -- features a "behind-the-scenes" look at the news operation. There's a picture of the station with this awe-inspiring caption: "The KPRC tower stands tall and proud along the Southwest Freeway. It's a focal point for the thousands of drivers who travel on the major thoroughfare each and every day."

We no longer want to hear anyone complaining that there's no place in Houston to take visiting friends.

There are "action shots" of staffers, too: "Dominique Sachse and Khambrel Marshall have a good laugh with Chief Meteorologist Frank Billingsley as they wrap up another day's newscast for a day well done," one caption reads. "Bill [Balleza] prepares for the shows by proofreading each story," another one reveals.

Channel 11's www.khou.com offers perhaps the most redundant feature of all: "Clyde's Corner," wherein Houston Chronicle editorial cartoonist C.P. Houston actually explains his latest output. Since that output usually consists of string-tied, cowboy-hatted legislators who are labeled "Texas Legislature" holding out their hands to a cash-carrying lobbyist, or turning their back on a pleading figure labeled "Public Concern," we thought we had pretty much gotten whatever point there was.

But no. Click on "Clyde's Corner" and, if you have RealPlayer, you can hear the artist plumb the depths of his art. The one we watched featured a simple drawing of a Post-It note, on which was written "Congress To-Do List: Reform Medicare."

Channel 13's site (www.ktrk.com will eventually take you there) features the weirdest local link, "Church Sermons Online." It also offers the liveliest staff bios. Veteran reporter Deborah Wrigley "graduated from the University of Houston with a degree from the now-prestigious English department." (Sounds like she got out just in time.) The Webmaster's enthusiasm for reporter Don Nelson can scarcely be contained: "Viewers and fellow employees know Don as a man who loves to cook! And those who are lucky enough to taste his culinary talents are never disappointed!" (Someone's desperate for a dinner invite.)

Channel 39 barely registers on the Web -- www.khwb.com takes you to a Bible site; you have to use the former call letters, www.khtv.com, to find them. Once there, there are some tepid bios (no exclamation points!) and exactly two on-line stories (one on the station's months-old disaster-relief campaign).

Even that lame effort is better than Fox news. Its site, www.fox26investigates.com, is "coming soon," surfers are told. But it's been "coming soon" for months, and insiders at the station say there's nothing on the horizon anytime in the near future.

They have gotten rid of most of their rotary-dial phones, though, we are reliably informed.

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