News Hostage

Press Club Follies
The press release practically screamed off the fax machine: "KUHF 88.7 FM NEWS TEAM SWEEPS PRESS CLUB OF HOUSTON RADIO AWARDS.

The story added the stunning details: "KUHF 88.7 FM news team captured seven first-place awards, as well as seven second-place and three third-place honors at the Press Club of Houston awards ceremony held on Thursday evening, April 8."

Man -- that's a sweep, all right.
What the press release didn't mention was that KUHF was, not to put too fine a point on it, the only radio station to enter the contest. KTRH, Houston's largest radio news operation, has boycotted the Press Club awards since a 1995 debacle in which management tried to keep the cash that was won by former reporters. No other station bothered either.

As for KUHF, we can't figure out what happened to the rest of the third-place awards. Better luck next year, guys.

The Press Club awards ceremony also produced a classic moment in Houston journalism history. The awards are limited to local media, so the category for Newspapers over 100,000 Circulation is pretty much restricted to the Houston Press and the Houston Chronicle. And, as the only daily in that pair, the Chronicle kind of has an exclusive on Spot News, which goes to single-day stories produced under deadline pressure.

So it was no surprise when the third-place winner was announced, and it was the Chronicle. It was no surprise when the second-place winner was announced, and it was the Chronicle. What was a surprise was when the first-place winner was announced, and it was ... nobody.

None of the Chron entries "show extraordinary creativity in approach or execution or inspired reporting or exceptionally compelling writing," the judges wrote.

If there had been a prize for Lamest Story About Winning a Journalism Contest, the Chronicle would have won yet again for its annual piece on how it dominated the Hearst newspaper chain's in-house competition. This year's version ran April 4.

Few professions hand out more awards to its members than journalism does, and papers everywhere are convinced that readers want to know about it (e.g., the story that runs below about the Press's wins at the Press Club dinner).

But an in-house competition? Do we need 400 words on that? With five mug shots of reporters?

Next: a two-part series on the winners of the Chronicle staff's fantasy baseball league.

Network Claims Tonight's Shows Are Terrific
Everyone has to carve out a niche in the news business, and Chronicle sports TV and radio columnist David Barron has certainly done it.

Barron has cornered the market on one kind of story, repeatedly treating his readers to breathless exclusive interviews that reveal the utterly startling news that a network analyst or play-by-play guy thinks the upcoming game he's about to cover is -- believe it or not -- going to be really good.

It can be as simple as this January's New Year's Day piece, titled "Fouts Can See Buckeyes At No. 1," in which ABC analyst Dan Fouts desperately flogged the possibility that the Sugar Bowl that evening might produce college football's champion, even though the No. 1 and No. 2 teams were playing elsewhere.

Much more typically, though, Barron's exclusives derive from talking to CBS analyst Jim Nantz (and, as if mandated by law, mentioning over and over again that Nantz is a UH alum.)

Some headlines from this year's NCAA March Madness coverage: "Nantz Sees Texas-Purdue as First-Round Standout" on March 8; "NCAA Tournament: Nantz Expects More Upsets in Sweet 16" on March 19; and "Nantz: NCAA Produces Coveted Showdown" on March 29.

Here's the lead on that last piece: "Jim Nantz's road to the Final Four has led him to the game he and practically every other thump fan has wanted to see -- Duke vs. Connecticut tonight on CBS for the national championship.

" 'It seldom works out that way,' Nantz said Sunday. 'It takes 62 games to get to this point, and the game we covet, the game everyone wants to see, just doesn't happen very often.... But this is the game that everyone all season has been calling for.' "

You know, you just can't get reportage like this anywhere else. Except maybe the CBS promotions department.

Lives of the Not-Rich and Briefly Famous
Thanks no doubt to intensive focus-group research, every TV news operation worthy of the name (the name "TV news" as opposed to "news," of course) feels obligated to field some fierce-looking team of consumer reporters who are On Your Side, or Fighting for You, or Stuck on the Consumer Beat.

Unfortunately, there are only so many times you can show someone getting their deposit check back or their air-conditioning repair job finally done right before the whole thing gets a little repetitious. So stations scramble to somehow make fascinating life stories out of the people they're helping, just so we viewers can feel a little better about our nice, friendly TV station.

It can get somewhat desperate out there. Take the April 6 piece by Channel 11's "Defenders" team, specifically Eileen Faxas. Some local woman got a bill from a collection agency seeking $826 it said she owed to a dating service; the woman's payments hadn't been credited properly.

But there's little visual juice in correcting an accounting error. So we really got to know this 46-year-old widow.

We saw her sewing something as she sat on the couch, apparently to confirm that she worked as a seamstress.

We heard about her three failed dates: the first with a "trucker who was rarely in town" (accompanying video showed, for no known reason, ominous black-and-white footage of a semi tailgating a car); the second man "preferred younger women" (the video showed, for obvious reasons, a dancer at a gentlemen's club); the third "had no phone and couldn't call" (footage somewhat incongruously showed an anonymous hand picking up the woman's French Provincial phone).

We thought by this point that we had learned enough about this woman, but that's probably why we're not cut out to be a Defender. There was a question that remained yet unasked, a mystery about this entire string of events that needed to be resolved.

Faxas, fortunately, was the one to do it. She quizzed the forlorn, dateless, creditor-hounded widow about just what her late husband would have thought of all this.

"It would probably break his heart," she answered.
We're guessing she's right. We just hope the guy would understand the Defenders were simply doing their job.

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