Extended Interview: Carol Marin
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TERENCE SMITH: Carol, tell us a little bit about television news in Chicago because it’s different here.
CAROL MARIN: It is different here. Chicago is one of those few hard news, blue-collar, newspaper, front-page kinds of markets–you know, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Detroit, Boston. People, whether they are formally educated or self-educated, they read the newspapers. This is a town where cab drivers can tell you every general manager and news director that’s ever walked through CBS or NBC. They pay attention to their news.
TERENCE SMITH: And local news is important to people, it seems to me. Every poll says that. They watch. They want to know what’s going on in their community.
CAROL MARIN: Not only do they want to know what’s going on in the community, but news was a way to keep political score. In Chicago, politics is a contact sport, and the news is very important for that. News was a place in Chicago, historically, for great commentary, for fine journalists. And whether it’s print or television, there has been a body of respect over the years for what the news means.
TERENCE SMITH: Having said that, and with that as the background, what’s happened in recent years?
CAROL MARIN: What’s happened in recent years, to a greater or lesser degree in Chicago, is the same thing that’s happened across the country… It used to be that when you talked about local news, you understood that stations had to make money to exist. But there was always in the conversation the two words: “public trust.” You had something above and beyond a responsibility to be economically viable. You had a responsibility to do really good work, tell really hard stories.
When increasing competition came at us through cable and other outlets, when new management, who didn’t necessarily come out of broadcast, but people bought us who weren’t broadcasters, they saw this as an incredible new profit center. And TV makes a lot of money, you could make even more. And the words “public trust” began to slip out of the discussion, and profit, and marketing and demographics, those kinds of terms, ended up seeing a sort of higher visibility.
TERENCE SMITH: You made some headlines a couple of years ago when you decided to walk away from your position at WMAQ, here in Chicago. Tell me what happened and why you did what you did.
CAROL MARIN: What happened to me, and it really was a longer process than just the one event of quitting, was that my view of news and the station’s view of news began to depart in irreconcilable ways. It was more the consultant-driven kinds of things, where we were leading with scary weather stories because weather is sort of the homogenous, weather is sort of the most generic, lowest common denominator story, in the view of television consultants. So if there’s a chance that you have a storm, go on storm watch, and if there’s a chance that the snow is coming, that’s what you lead with.
We began to do more generic news. I thought we skipped important stories. And worse still, there began to be a greater trend to join with advertisers in what I call “pseudo news stories.”
The last and final event was, in an attempt to boost ratings, the station thought that they could generate some buzz by bringing Jerry Springer on as a commentator. It was the last, but actually it was the least of the issues for me. But it was clear they–General Electric and NBC owned the station. I understood that. They got to put on the air whom they chose to put on the air. It was time for me to leave.
TERENCE SMITH: But, in fact, it blew up in their face. It was not a successful ploy, even after you left, for WMAQ, and in fact they ended up having to change that pattern as well.
CAROL MARIN: Because, and I and my co-anchor, who also quit, said at the time: people will not put up with this. We have some equity in this town as a news organization. As a newsroom, WMAQ had a respected product with fine reporters. And our argument was people in Chicago won’t tolerate this. They’ll see through it. At some point, they’ll rise up and say, no, that’s enough. And they did because Chicago is still, at its core, a hard-news town.
TERENCE SMITH: Tell me now what you’re trying to accomplish with this show, what you’re trying to do that’s different certainly from the trend of local news around the country.
CAROL MARIN: The strange thing about all of this is what seems radical to people is that we’re being very traditional. We’re just doing a straight newscast. And what we’re doing, and being allowed to do, is giving up the idea of a format; in other words, whatever the day’s news is, we’ll try to figure out the order in which we place it in the show and figure out whether we lead with six headlines and a great big package, whether we have only three big stories, whether we do a long live interview and very little else; that depending upon the news of the day, it will dictate what the broadcast looks like. And that’s a–it’s a wonderful feeling. It’s the way it ought to be done, in our view.
TERENCE SMITH: News for news’ sake. This is a radical notion.
CAROL MARIN: Right. Well, you know, news for news’ sake–I’m one of those people who still remembers that the glory days weren’t so glorious. You know, there’s always been a battle in news over something or another. And so this is just another chapter for us.
But this station, this CBS-owned and operated station has had a proud and long hard-news history. It’s had some very bumpy recent years. And we’re trying to return it to what it did best, which is surprise you, not give you a predictable nightly format, tell you something you need to know that you didn’t know how to ask for in some audience survey done by some consultant. We’re trying to use our own news radar and figure out what we should put on the air. And sometimes we’ll do it okay, and sometimes we’ll make mistakes.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s been the reaction so far?
CAROL MARIN: The reaction has been good, but it’s slow. We have not set the town on fire. We have attracted a little more audience. We have done a little better in the ratings. We’ve gotten a lot of conversation going. I literally now have, by my rough count, between 1- and 2,000 e-mails and letters from people who write long things about their relationship to the news, what they remember, how they feel about it, suggestions; you know, “Do this. Please don’t do that.”
We get letters from people saying, “Oh, I think you’re slipping here. I thought there was too light a story last night.” Whether we agree with them or not, the fact that we can have this discussion is a great thing.
TERENCE SMITH: Have the ratings gone up at all?
CAROL MARIN: The ratings have gone up a little, but the truth is you have to get that from my bosses because I purposely, I purposely don’t go and look. Because in the last analysis, what am I going to do? If the ratings took a little dip last night, do I smile more tonight? Do I wear a different color? No.
So what we do is we do the news, and we’ll let other people look at the rating sheets every day.
TERENCE SMITH: You’re doing this with a single anchor, therefore no happy talk.
CAROL MARIN: No. …When you go to a single anchor, you eliminate some of the necessary choreography. For every additional person you have on a news set, they have to have something to do.
TERENCE SMITH: Right.
CAROL MARIN: And sometimes that involves getting from one to the other, and it involves some chat. We have reduced some of those conversations in order, I think, to have longer conversations with reporters who, once they finish the story, because the story is never done, have something else to say, something else to add, some analysis, some additional point. So we have the opportunity to kind of show off our reporters better because there’s only one anchor, as opposed to two.
TERENCE SMITH: And you’ve brought back John Calloway, a long, established figure on public television here in Chicago, to do commentary. Trying to give a little rebirth to commentary as an element in local news?
CAROL MARIN: To give a rebirth to commentary and also analysis. We’ve also brought in Laura Washington, who is the publisher and editor of a highly respected small newspaper, The Chicago Reporter, which deals with racial issues and investigative issues, trying to bring people to the dance who have something to say that ordinarily wouldn’t have the time to say it on an ordinary broadcast.
TERENCE SMITH: Have you seen any change or emulation from the competition?
CAROL MARIN: You know, I don’t watch the competition well enough or long–I don’t have time. But I also, it’s something I almost prefer not to take a look at because you can only do so many things at once, and we’re much better off focusing on what we do. The other thing I firmly believe is there are fine acts of journalism committed at the other stations. You know, there’s some very good work being done. So I don’t minimize the competition. They’re fierce, and they’ve done well in this market.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you have any sense that other stations around the country are watching this experiment to see whether there’s something in it for them?
CAROL MARIN: We’ve gotten calls. I’ve had conversations. But it’s another one of those things that I don’t dwell on. We can only do what we do and try to do it well enough that it really works for us. If other people are watching it, great, but that’s for another day and for another time for us to be thinking about because we have too much–we have too much to do here.