Houston, 24/7

Two years after announcing their plans for a station devoted 24 hours a day to local news, Time Warner and the Belo Corporation put their product on the air December 12 after a week of dry runs.

News 24 Houston occupies a prime space on Time Warner's cable dial, has the newest in digital equipment and lots -- and lots and lots -- of weather. (Six live weather updates every hour was a plus on a storm-ridden opening day, but what will they do during summer's never-changing misery?)

The format is akin to CNN's Headline News, but there's little to no world news or state news, just Houston. "It's not meant for someone to sit there for two hours and watch it," says general manager Mike Crew. "But no matter what time you tune in, if you stay for a half-hour you'll get everything we've got."

Which, at least in the beginning, is not as much as Crew hopes to have. "We probably have 15 to 18 stories in a half-hour now; we're looking at getting 25 to 30," he says. "Stories" include brief nuggets read by the anchor, he says.

To do that many stories will require much hustling from the 19 reporters the station has on the street. Those reporters are largely "one-man bands," toting and working their own cameras and sound. If December 12 was any indication, they're still learning how to shoot video that doesn't have that family-wedding quality to it.

Houston is the second Texas market, after Austin, to have a 24-hour Time Warner/Belo station (Belo, by the way, owns the Dallas Morning News and Houston's KHOU-TV). There are seven others across the country, all part of the cable company's attempt to fight off satellite-dish competition.

Although News 24 Houston will break its news-weather-sports "wheel" for big breaking events, it won't be offering regularly scheduled public-affairs or investigative shows.

Crew says updates or new stories will be substituted throughout the day, and that "if you watch us for a half-hour in the morning and then a half-hour in the evening, you'll see two completely different shows."

That wasn't true in the first couple of days of operation, at least. And checking in every so often with the station can produce a skewed view of the city, just because the same stories show up. The announcement, for instance, that a previously unheard-of paper-recycling plant was shutting down in previously barely-heard-of Shenandoah somehow comes to seem like an earthshaking event when it keeps being one of the top stories reported each cycle.

Crew has tried this kind of thing before. He was with KNWS, Channel 51, when it launched a 24-hour local channel in 1992. The station soon started adding infomercials before all but getting out of the news business.

He doesn't see that happening here, and probably with good reason. Belo and Time Warner are two news heavyweights that have made a big investment in equipment, building a high-tech studio from scratch. The station will be looking for ad revenue, but isn't expected to be profitable anytime soon.

"This is not some noble experiment they're going to try, and give up on if it doesn't work right away," Crew says. "Size matters -- we're doing this for two companies with vast experience in news. With 51, they were great entrepreneurs, but they were not great in understanding the commitment that was needed for a news operation in Houston."

Crew says his bosses are more concerned with protecting the journalistic reputation of Belo and Time Warner than with the immediate bottom line, which is certainly what you'd expect him to say.

(When Time Warner officials announced the new station two years ago, by the way, they said it wouldn't cause cable rates to go up. Rates have been hiked twice since then and each time part of the justification has been the cost of expanded programming such as News 24 Houston.)

Having a new media outlet can't be anything but good for Houston -- competition never hurts. But it's still an open question whether News 24 Houston will be little more than an endless cycle of poorly shot versions of the same news everyone else is showing.

The staff hasn't had the chance to prove their stuff with a big breaking story yet. ("And I'd just as soon it doesn't happen right away," Crew says. "We could use a little time to get our feet wet.")

It could turn out to be a station that, at the very least, devotes some air time to the important-if-mundane stuff that other stations skip, like City Hall meetings that generate news if not eye-catching sparks.

Hey, it's Christmas. We'll be optimistic and keep our fingers crossed.

Déjà Vu

A lot of newspapers around the country run the comic strip Tank McNamara, for reasons known only to them. The Houston Chronicle, of course, has a special relationship to the sports strip -- it's always been written by Jeff Millar, who was a longtime film critic and columnist there until he retired in February 2000.

The December 12 Tank McNamara in the Chron was more than slightly familiar, and not just because it was yet another wordy treatise leading to a lame payoff. It was because the same strip had been printed the day before in the Chron.

Production mistakes like that are understandable, of course. What's funny enough, however, is that apparently no reader noticed it: James Campbell, the Chron's ombudsman who handles such complaints or questions from the public, said he hadn't heard from a soul about it.

Seen one Tank, seen 'em all, we guess.

Food, Glorious Food

Five months after the departure of Chronicle food editor John DeMers, who for 18 months replaced the legendary Ann Criswell, the paper has a new head for the section.

The choice resulted in loud cheers from some parts of 801 Texas -- but not for the reasons you might expect.

The new food editor is Jane Marshall, who has been the longtime features editor of the paper, overseeing the Houston sections (and supervising the food editor).

In a memo to the troops announcing the change, Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen said Marshall "told us she'd like to make a career change and applied for the position." Cohen noted that Marshall has a nutrition degree and had overseen the food coverage for 15 years ("Quite a few snappy food stories have appeared under her byline during that time," he wrote.)

The move is not apparently the glowing love-fest the memo would have you believe. More than a few people who work under Marshall in the features department are not sad to see her and her volcanic temper go. They apparently made their feelings known to Cohen as he surveyed the departments after coming to the Chron this summer.

She did have her supporters, among them feature writer Marty Racine. But Racine's cushy arrangement -- he works out of New Mexico -- rankled others in the department. When one staffer complained, it led to a confrontation with Marshall that eventually came to the attention of the paper's Human Resources department.

(Defending Racine's setup to Cohen can't have been easy -- he's been telling reporters he wants them and the paper to live, breath, and ooze Houston.)

At any rate, the scuttlebutt says Marshall's change was not as voluntary as the spin being put out. And the Chron is looking for a new features editor, one who hopefully will breathe some life into the tepid department.

What, if anything, this all means for Marshall's husband, uber-bland Metro columnist Thom Marshall, remains to be seen. But vultures are circling, supposedly.


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