From the Simpsons to the Onion, the world is full of TV news parodies. Local TV newscasts (and the people who star in them) are easy targets. And among the stereotypes, next to Ted Baxter and the dim bulb weatherman, is the feature reporter. The impossibly-coiffured reporter in the field holding a microphone up to a waterskiing squirrel. But it wasn't always like that.
Barry Bernson was part of the first generation of local TV feature reporters, successors to CBS's Charles Kuralt. Bernson came from print and presented his stories with a wry smile, even if they were about animals doing human things:
Bernson retired from his morning anchor job at WDRB last year. But for most of his 47-year career, he was feature reporter, working at stations in Louisville and Chicago. Bernson has written a book about his life, 'Bernson's Corner.' In it, he chronicles his transition from cub newspaper reporter to Chicago media celebrity to morning anchor. And during that time, Bernson has seen a fundamental shift in local TV news and in how features are reported.
“There are no longer very many reporters who are dedicated to [features],” says Bernson. “You can turn on a television channel almost any hour of the day and see some wacky video. But there is no journalist to interpret that for us. I think that's the problem with a lot of news today.”
And Bernson defends the need for local feature reporting, even if it's done a bit differently than it used to be.
“There are so many more people with video cameras now shooting unusual things and those instantly make it on television stations. What I think they represent, whether they were done as formal features or 'gee whiz look at this video' is a side of humanity that we often ignore for the screaming headlines and the publicity seekers. To find ordinary people doing extraordinary things, I think that gives a complete picture of American society, or really any society.”
Look at this story Bernson did in 1977. In it, he literally steps off screen to let the subject have the spotlight.
That's not something many TV reporters do anymore.
“Consultants who have been hired to help TV stations increase viewership have for years said the reporter cannot be a mystery voice. You have to put the reporter in the story. Reporters have to be identified with the story. You'll see a local reporter now appearing three times in the story, at the beginning middle and end. I resisted that. I don't think I'm the story. If you remember me, I'll have succeeded as a personality and failed as a storyteller,” says Bernson.
And stepping aside is part of the art of the feature.
“[TV reporting] is a very personal kind of reporting. You have to bring your own personality to the reporting, but you want to get out of the way of the story. Being able to do that is part of the challenge of feature reporting.”
TV news has changed in other ways. For instance, there's a lot more of it now. Local stations continue to put more newscasts in morning and evening time slots.
“It probably won't be long until here and in other markets, you'll see a 24-hour news operation. When I started in TV, it was before the accountants realized news was the profit center of the station. Once they did, then we of course increased the amount of news.
“I'm not sure it has gotten better. The technology certainly has gotten just phenomenal. As the technology has increased, I'm not sure the quality has.
“There are still good reporters. There are still good news operations. But you have to take them with a grain of salt.”
But Bernson doesn't think that's sustainable.
“Louisville used to have four newspapers. Now there's one. We have four television stations that do news. It's possible the accountants will say, 'You know, we could make more money if we put on Balinese Gong Music Hour.'”