New Channel 7 news director Jeff Harris on coming home
In this September 27 More Messages blog, Byron Grandy, who was named Channel 7's station manager in July, talked about hiring Jeff Harris to fill his old gig as news director. But Harris, an executive producer for special projects at 7News from 2000 until 2004, is more than capable of speaking for himself -- and in conversation, his ambition comes through despite the difficult economics facing journalism organizations in general, and broadcast entities in particular.
Harris' responsibilities during his initial tenure with Channel 7 weren't limited to the investigative unit. However, such duties took up the lion's share of his time, and when he's asked about the work he's most proud of from that period, he mentions the outlet's coverage of sexual assaults at the Air Force Academy. Although 7News' reports appeared shortly after Westword writer Julie Jargon's acclaimed feature article on the topic, the TV packages earned numerous awards and are widely credited with putting the issue on the national radar.
Back then, Harris got to know investigators John Ferrugia and Tony Kovaleski, whom he holds in high esteem, and he compliments the other staffers on what's known as the CALL7 team: Art Kane, Tom Burke and Jason Foster. Moreover, he makes it clear that this quintet will continue to have the time they need to delve deeply into stories despite industry-wide money woes that have led many outlets to cut back on time-intensive investigations. "Enterprise stories and investigative stories are part of the culture here, and they're going to continue to be," he emphasizes, adding, "I think this is the time to be investing in the sorts of stories that the investigative unit is undertaking. I think it's a cop-out not to."
That isn't to say that the CALL7 crew will be treated as the first among equals. "I see content as being the top priority for us -- zeroing in on providing the highest quality content for folks who come to us for the news," Harris says. "Obviously, investigative plays a major role, but it's no more and no less important than all of the other elements that make up our newscast on a daily basis."
With that in mind, Harris maintains that Channel 7 won't limit investigations to ratings periods. "We've got five bodies in there, and they're not just going to be on the air during November and February and May -- during our sweeps months," he points out. "These guys understand that they need to be on the air consistently with big stories that make a difference, and the newsroom understands that as well."
They also realize that cash it tight, and such budgetary limitations may have an impact on coverage. When asked about traveling for stories (the topic of a May 2008 Message column), Harris stresses that satellite technology and other modern news-gathering advances make it easier than ever for stations to keep viewers up to date about farflung events without putting a correspondent on a plane. At the same time, though, he says that if a story like the Air Force scandal comes along "and we need to travel and talk to folks in other areas," he'll make those decisions "on a case-by-case basis."
"Print and broadcast are struggling in a very competitive environment," he acknowledges, "but news consumption is on the rise. So everyone at the station -- not just our investigators, but our daily reporters and our producers as well -- are going to be challenged to really raise the bar in terms of the depth of our content, and our ability to get it on the air in a compelling manner." -- Michael Roberts