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Making Headlines - Jim Driscoll
10/27/2009 - By Chad A. Safran
Photo by McKay Imaging
Behind the Scenes with News Director Jim Driscoll of My9 News
You have never seen Jim Driscoll on the air during a local newscast, but for almost 25 years he has been a consistent part of the broadcasting world in New Jersey and New York. The Bronx, NewYork, native began his news career at Fordham Universityís student-run radio station. There he worked side by side with future New York Yankees television voice Michael Kay, and with Bob Papa, who is the current radio play-by-play man for the New York Giants. After graduating from Fordham in 1985, he worked as a morning news anchor for radio station WVOX-AM in New Rochelle, New York. Jimís first step into television was as a senior producer at WWOR-TV (channel 9) in 1985. He began a steady climb from there to his current position as that stationís Vice President/News Director.
During his tenure at Channel 9, along with 4 years at WNYW-TV (Channel 5), Jim has helped shape the way viewers have seen some of the biggest events over that time, including the Gulf War and the return of those veterans to the United States, Pope John Paul IIís visit to New Jersey, the firstWorld Trade Center bombing, and the events of September 11, 2001. His news teams have been ranked as number one in the area, and his efforts have resulted in five local EmmyAwards and an Edward R.Murrow Award for Best News Operation.
Jim and his wife Kristin had lived in Middletown since being married in 1994; however, a strong desire to be part of St. Catherineís Parish, where they wed, brought them to Holmdel in 1998. They, along with their daughters Kiera (age 13) and Casey (who turns 9 in November), enjoy days at the beach and going to their favorite restaurants in Sea Girt and Sea Bright. "I think growing up on the Jersey Shore is awesome," says Jim, who also volunteers as a head coach of a Holmdel womenís softball team. "I donít want to leave the Jersey Shore. Everything is so accessible. The beaches are great. I love the beach."
Recently, Jim sat down with Living In Holmdel to discuss his nearly quarter century in the news business and the way the media has evolved during that time.
LIH: When did you know you wanted to be involved with news, television, and broadcasting?
JD: When I was in high school I wanted to go to Fordham because they had a great radio station. I wasnít sure exactly what I wanted to do with that. I went to Fordham because I wanted to be involved with the radio station. It was the best move of my career because it gave me the opportunity to be on the radio at 18. As students we ran the place. The seniors were in charge. Each year as you moved up, you got to run the place even more. I remember the night I decided I wanted to do this for a living. I was a freshman, and we went out on election night to campaign headquarters for David Dinkins, who was running for Manhattan Borough President, and I got to go along with a senior who was covering his campaign. I couldnít believe how exciting it was. There were TV cameras everywhere. I remember the next morning saying to my mother that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
LIH: As a news director, what are your duties on a day-to-day basis?
JD: The news directorís job in any market is to set the vision of the news, to hire a staff that can fulfill your vision, and then on top of that you have to manage them managing their jobs, manage a budget, and just make sure your vision is carried out Ė protecting the companyís interest and making sure your viewers are being served. If you are a good news director, you will hire really good people to fulfill that vision, and I have some pretty good people working for me, so I am pretty lucky.
LIH: What is your vision of the news?
JD: I have always loved local news and telling stories from our own backyard. To me the most important part of the story is people. There is no good story unless there is a person involved.You can do a dog story, but that dog has an owner and thatís what makes the story interesting to some viewersÖitís somebodyís pet. I had this mantra when I was an executive producer, and I carried it through to being a news director to my reports: go out and get the mother. That doesnít mean you have to get someoneís mother.What I mean by that is go out and get the story of the person thatís going to bring the story to life. To tell stories through peopleÖthatís my vision, and my reporters get that.
LIH: What are the biggest challenges you face as a news director?
JD: In the last year the biggest challenge has been the economy. Our industry has been hit pretty hard as has every industry. The ability to balance your desire to get the news on the air at any cost isnít at any cost. Itís a business, and you have to take into account the cost of things. Sometimes you donít worry about the costÖitís get the story at all costs. But there are times when you make decisions and decide to spend the money on bigger stories rather than smaller ones. I think that once the economy turns, the competitive nature of the business is going to take hold. Once there is a flow of money from advertisers you are going to see competition rise again.
LIH: What makes for a successful news operation?
JD: Smart people. I think it starts at the top. If you have good leadershipÖa good management team that can set a vision for a news department and always keep the viewer in mind. Any news director that doesnít make the viewer the focus of what they do on a day-to-day basis isnít a very good news director. I try to keep that in mind every single day. Every single decision I make should affect the decisions on whether the viewer is going to turn into my newscast or not. Every story we potentially do, you have to ask yourself, "Is this a story thatís going to affect the viewer and make them tune in?"
LIH: How has television news changed since you first started in the industry nearly 25 years ago?
JD: Technology is the biggest change. When I first got into the business we were on typewriters and teletype from the large news services. The computer age and the Internet made gathering information a lot easier. I recently asked someone "What did we do before computers?" I donít pick up the phone that much any more. I either "IM," text, or e-mail everyone I know. Technology has really made the business a lot easier when it comes to gathering and disseminating information.
LIH: Has there been a negative impact of technology?
JD: No. Technology has been amazingly positive for the viewer, which is the most important thing. We are there to service our viewers. Our ability to get on the air fast has grown immensely in the last 20 years. We can be on the scene of a breaking story within minutes because of our chopper. Because of our satellite truck, we can be live from anywhere around the country now. I remember when I first started, when getting live shots you had to worry about the buildings in NewYork City or the hills in New Jersey. Now itís never a question. From a viewer standpoint, news is instantaneous now. You donít have to wait for the evening news. You can see it on the air at a moments notice.
LIH: How does the Internet affect how you cover news and what you put on the air versus what you put on the stationís website?
JD: The website is there to service viewers. Itís an additional platform. Some people will argue that itís the future. I think itís part of the future, but I hope and pray that it doesnít take over TV. I donít think it ever will. To me TV is the easiest way to get your information, and itís themost relaxing way to get your information. You can watch it in bed; you can watch it in the background when you are getting ready in the morning. The Internet is work; you have to sit at a computer, you have to drag amouse, you have to click and find stuff. Itís a great resource, but when it comes to a source of information, I donít think anything will top TV news. We have seen reports that the death of TV news has been greatly exaggerated.We are here to stay, at a local level and a national level. Does that mean there will be as many newscasts? No. Thatís not because of the Internet but because of how technology has grown and the ability to domore with less. The smaller companies are not going to be able to survive. In somemarkets, where there are now five newscasts, you may see three.
LIH: The news business is filled with ups and downs; much of it is based on ratings. How much of that is your responsibility, to get people to watch, and howmuch of it is based on the programming that comes before your telecast?
JD: Itís a little bit of both. You still have to do a great newscast. If you are smart you are going to analyze your audience. I learned under some great news directors in my career; the one thing they all taught me was to read your audience. You have to know who is watching your station and who the "getables" areÖpeople you can grab onto for your newscast and may not be loyal to somebody else. You are going to have your core audience that watches your lead in, and lead in is very important when it comes to news. You canít just sit there and say lead in is everything. You have to put on a quality newscast and produce a show that is going to keep them through the newscast.
LIH: How do you get your stories?
JD: Our resources are vast.We have our stable of reporters, photographers, and assignment editors who gather local news. I like to define local news gathering in a newsroom as being divided into two sections: you have the people who gather the news and the people who present the news. The people who gather the news are the reporters and photographers and the assignment editors, and the people who present the news are the producers and the anchors. When I was teaching at Monmouth one of the analogies I used to make to my students to help them understand how a newsroom works is to look at it as a fisherman going out and bringing back all this great fish to a master chef who does something special to it to make it taste great. It goes beyond all this. We have the resources of Fox News. We have 17 newsrooms in the biggest markets across the country.We have the ability to go live from any city in the country. We have feeds coming in from our network all the time. The real challenge for the producers is to decide how you break it down into a newscast.
LIH: How do you decide what is newsworthyÖ what makes it on the air?
JD: The viewers. If you have good news judgment you are going to know what the pulse of the public is and what they want. You are going to guess wrong sometimes, and itís going to be reflected in the ratings. But if you are a smart newsperson, then youíre going to know if viewers are going to care. You should ask yourself that question with every news story. "Are viewers going to care? Will it be an interesting enough story to hold viewers and get them to watch a newscast?"
LIH: The line between news and entertainment seems to have blurred. How and why have the lives of celebrities taken a more prominent place in news than a city council meeting?
JD: I think it comes down to what viewers want. I think the line between whatís news and whatís "infotainment" has also been blurred. I read somewhere that "The John Stewart Show" is looked at as a newscast by young people. Thatís discouraging. I always encouraged my students to watch the news. A lot of young people donít watch the news because it doesnít affect their lives. The way people perceive news leads to all the glut of the entertainment stuff you see in newscasts. Entertainment is important in newscasts. You want to make your newscasts as full as possible; you donít want an hour of blood and guts. You want to mix it up.
LIH: With Channel 9 being the only local station covering the New York Metropolitan area but based in New Jersey, how do you balance your reporting of New York and New Jersey?
JD: I took over Channel 9 two years ago, and I am really proud of our commitment to New Jersey. Our New Jersey coverage dominates our New York coverage, and itís on purpose. We feel we need to serve the viewers in New Jersey. When I got there, I actually instituted a policy of monitoring it internally to make sure we were servicing our viewers.
LIH: What event or story are you most proud of having played a part?
JD: I have a lot, but I think itís the way we handled 9/11. Itís not even so much the events of the morning, but itís the events that happened over the year after.We got on the air that morning and did not get off the air for 5 days. The production I may most be proud of is the 1-year anniversary of 9/11. I was told by our general manager that we were going to be on the air from 5 am to 11 pm.We didnít want to run any commercialsÖas a tribute to the viewers. I was hit with this task in June, and I had to produce 18 hours of news. I just thought we had a phenomenal, respectful tribute to the people who died the year before. There have been a lot of great moments in my career, but I donít know of any other story that will touch me or any other producer like 9/11 did. After getting off the air at midnight, I just went into my office and closed my door and actually broke down. Nobody saw me. I told my bosses afterwards. You couldnít let your emotions out until the end of the day because we were going crazy trying to stay on the air. That was just an emotional [and] draining moment.
LIH: Was that the most difficult story you had to cover?
JD: That was the most technically challenging editorially as well. We were knocked off over the air. We were seen on cable stations, but if you didnít have cable you were not seeing us anymore. There was a moment when we didnít even think we were on the air. We realized within about 10 minutes that we were on cable and we had to keep going.We were just bought by News Corp. (Chris Craft had sold the station to News Corp. earlier in 2001). We were lucky because we had the resources of the most powerful man in news (Rupert Murdoch) behind us, and he was instrumental in helping us through that. We had the resources of the network to help us. We brought people in from Philadelphia [and] Cleveland. Every news director around the country was asking us what they could do, and we said to just start sending people to us because we had to stay on the air 24/7. You had to stay on the air. You had to keep sending out information.
LIH: Of all the stories in recent history you could have covered which one would you choose and why?
JD: I would think the moon landing would have been an awesome thing to cover from many perspectives. It would have been so great to have seen history unfold. I have been through wars I never thought I would have. I remember being a kid in this business and thinking there will never be a war in my lifetime. Then all of a sudden, in 1991, one of the first shows I ever produced was the day we launched the Gulf War. Itís not fun, but itís got to get your blood going when you are covering moments like that in history. With 9/11, I hope we have covered the biggest story of our lifetime and we never have to cover anything bigger. If thereís something bigger than 9/11, I donít want to know what it is.
LIH: During your time in television news you also took some time to teach atMonmouth University. What did you enjoy about that?
JD: I had always wanted to teach. I had guest lectured at classes, and I had spoken at several universities. I had spoken at mentoring programs, and every time I would always get these great responses from students. They would come up to me and spend a half hour with me afterwards. I got a real thrill out of it and thought I should be giving back more. To me, the best way to give back is to teach. It was about trying to touch some lives. I designed a news writing class, and the class went so well that they asked me to design another one for the spring semester. So I came up with a broadcast reporting class where we took what you learned in the first semester and would incorporate it into a class the second semester; we would actually do what we learned. Both classes were very well received by the student body; people were signing up for it left and right. I did it for 5 years. When I got the job at Channel 5, regretfully I had to resign because my hours changed. To me, teaching is all about giving back.When I decide that I have had enough of ratings I think would want to teach full time. Probably not for another 10 years, but I would like to go into a college or even a high school.
McLooneís in Sea Bright
Three People Youíd Like to Have Dinner With:
Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and my mom
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