Sustainable Journalism: Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV Channel 4

By The Garrity Group


Special Edition of the Perception Podcast focusing on the New Mexico First Forum: Sustainable Journalism: Preserving the Fourth Estate

Meet our Panelists, Leaders in New Mexico Journalism

Michelle Donaldson
 is vice president and general manager at KOB-4 TV news. She also worked as KRQE’s news director and brings television as well as radio experience from the Phoenix and Detroit markets.

Listen to these podcasts to get a behind the scenes insights on the upcoming New Mexico First program, Sustainable Journalism: Preserving the Fourth Estate! Tom Garrity, President and CEO of the Garrity Group talks with our First Forum panelists, New Mexico journalists Gene Grant, Russell Contreras, Jessica Onsurez and Michelle Donaldson. Tom serves as a member of the New Mexico First Board of Directors and is chair of the upcoming First Forum Lecture Series—we thank him for contributing his time and talent. The interviews are a part of Tom’s Perception Podcast through his firm.

Full Transcript

Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:00:00] Sustainable journalism and preserving the fourth estate. It’s a special edition of the Perception podcast featuring Michelle Donaldson, vice president and general manager of CLB TV. Hello, this is Tom Garrity with the Perception podcast. The New Mexico First Forum on Sustainable Journalism and Preserving the Fourth Estate will occur on June six five thirty PM at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:00:25] In this age, when the electorate needs accurate and dependable media coverage to inform their personal, economic and voting decisions, the one group that is providing those necessities is under continual scrutiny from a vocal but not always informed part of our community. Michelle Donaldson is the vice president and general manager of Kail BTB, based in Albuquerque. Serving New Mexico. Michelle, welcome. And I would think that the topic of sustainable journalism is something that’s near and dear to you.

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:00:55] Absolutely. Thank you, Tom. I appreciate being able to participate in this. It has been a lifelong vocation for me. I started as a journalist in Detroit where I grew up and 38 years a journalist before ascending to the general manager’s office at the station. 

Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:01:13] Wow. So talk to me a little bit more at first. Congratulations. We’ve known each other for a number of years with in different capacities in Albuquerque. For our listeners, though, share a little bit more about that 38 years as far as your journalism background.

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:01:29] Yeah. And, you know, I got the bug early. I’m a child of the Watergate era. I can remember being a kid and coming home from school. And Batman was preempted by the Watergate hearings. And my mother made me watch them so I can say that I came by it rightfully when I was 16. I decided to go down and ask the local radio station if I could hang out and learn about how they did the newscast. Of course, I put on my little business suit. I was on the high school debate team and carried my little briefcase and they never asked me how old I was and they gave me a job. So there I was, 16, 17 years old, going to city council meetings. I was in Toledo, Ohio at the time and turning out stories and learning the craft. And it was very exciting. I told them that I needed to change my schedule in the fall for school. And the news director I was working for, I said, oh, are you taking classes at the university? And I had to break it to him that he’d given this job to a kid. But that was my start in the industry. And I never really got cured from the bug. I just loved broadcasting and I love telling people’s stories. My dad who adopted me was a little country lawyer, and the sense of justice that I was instilled with were trying to help people know the little guy, especially when he’s up against that, you know, the government or some big enemy in his life. That appeals to me. That speaks to my soul. And so this has been a wonderful career, being able to tell people’s stories and try to make our communities a better place for families.

Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:03:12] Well, and I mentioned that you’ve seen a lot of change in the way the industry kind of plays out.

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:03:19] Oh, absolutely. You know, when I worked in radio and I did that for a while in Detroit on the great voice of the Great Lakes, WJR, Detroit. I loved that job. It was great because you had all the control yourself. If you ever were unhappy with what you did at the end of the day, all you had to do was look in the mirror to know, hold all accountable. Moving over to television was a challenge because I had to relinquish that control and count on an editor to interpret my vision or a producer to interpret the vision. And so learning to trust others to communicate what the vision was, making sure we’re all on page. Those became skills that I had to adapt to. And then no later running newsrooms and trying to share a vision with the team and make sure that we’re all working off the same script and that we’re operating in a manner that I feel good about ethically and journalistically. That became the next challenge. But the big changes that I think really rocked our world are what happened with the WorldCom economy. I think about 9/11. Was it an enormous event for journalists that a lot of us don’t talk about? Not only did we live through covering that event, and I had a grandparent who was working in the Pentagon on that day, but we also lived through the economic collapse that happened after that event. And a lot of newsrooms were significantly downsized to survive. And then we went through the recession of 2008, and once again, we had to downsize to survive layer on top of that, the technologic. Advances in our industry, which was what a lot of us gravitated toward to make that survival happen. So if we can make the tasks easier and not have so much job differentiation on the television side. So maybe one person can do it all. Like in my early radio days, they can shoot their own video and edit their own stories and tell their own report. Then you can keep that engine moving with fewer people. And now we have a new crisis that we’re facing, a crisis of trust right nationally with this bitterly divided situation that we have.

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:05:38] And I think it’s never been more important or relevant for a local news team to be connected to its community and aggressively working to find those stories and be a champion for people.

Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:05:49] Now, more than ever, you talk about trust. And a lot of times you folks get tied in with certain terms. Many, many years ago, public relations was branded as spin doctors. Now it seems as if the focus has turned to the news gatherers and news reporters with the term of fake news. How do you weather storms like that or how do you counter that or do you? Well, it’s certainly real, you know.

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:06:18] And I’m the person who will go home and watch all of it because I want to know what everybody is saying. And sometimes you can watch, like, the cable news landscape and it doesn’t even feel like they’re covering the news in the same country. They have an entirely different rundown. They have an entirely different editorial filter so that it doesn’t even feel like they’re covering the same government. I think it’s important for us locally not to get wrapped up in that. We’re certainly hurt by it. The word that always comes to my mind is agenda. People believe, unfortunately, that news providers have an agenda. And I think that that’s a dangerous concept. Anybody who’s ever worked in a local news operation knows that that’s far from the truth. And I think the only way that we’re ever going to prove that is just to do our jobs properly over time and be judged on the body of our work. There’s a joke in every newsroom that if you’re equally making both sides angry, you must be doing something right. So if you get calls from both sides, you must be somewhere in the middle. I think it’s a little bit more nuanced than that. You’re going to get calls from one side when you do a critical story and then from the other side when you cast your spotlight there. And that’s why it’s important that you be judged over time, because over time those things will wash out. But listen, there’s a natural tension. And what we do, our government is supposed to serve us and make this a better place to live. And my job is to make them accountable to do that. There’s a natural tension in that. I’m never going to be friends with the people in power.

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:08:00] And because of that, we will always be a target to take potshots from the people in power.

Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:08:08] Great discussion. A preview of what’s going to be happening in June at New Mexico first forum. Michelle, you and Kate will be have some firsthand knowledge of how New Mexico first works. You actually partnered up to create a more informed electorate. Tell me a little bit more about what that engagement was like with Mexico first and what you were able to accomplish.

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:08:32] This was a really exciting project for us. I’m glad you asked. Two years ago, when we were looking at the mayoral race in the city of Albuquerque, we recognized that there. I think we were the first station to start using the term crisis when it came to the crime problem here. It was very difficult to get real data from our city. And when we did get it, it confirmed our suspicions about what we thought we were living through, that something was happening that needed to be acknowledged. And in order to focus that conversation and to drive a more informed electorate on that topic, we partnered with New Mexico first and did a an enormous undertaking with four regional town halls and the quadrants of the city in which people came together at the community level and talked about what issues they wanted. The new mayor of this city to address on this topic, and then they specifically put their questions directly to the mayoral candidates in a live telecast that we did in the center of the city over at CNN. Technically speaking, it was one of the most audacious things I’ve ever done. I held my breath through the entire broadcast because it was technologically a very difficult thing to pull off, and we did. But when we got to the governor’s race, we really wanted to take that to the next level. And our partnership with New Mexico first was amazing because, you know, they’re bipartisan and they’re focused on these issues all the time. So they are the ones who put the town halls together for us. And we did them regionally in our state and had the people at the town halls put their questions directly to the candidates for governor, that we were able to tell a bias.

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:10:20] And so I always get excited that I can insert instead of a journalist, a real person asking the question that I always coach our people, that, you know, our authority as broadcasters and journalists does not derive from the three letters on our sign. It’s not about being KLP. It’s about being a representative of the people in our audience.

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:10:44] So if you’re putting a difficult question to someone, they don’t owe KMOV an answer to that question. They owe the people of New Mexico an answer to that question. And when you remember that, that’s where your authority derives from. That’s when you know that you’re doing the best work. These town halls really underscored that for me. Those questions came directly from the citizenry and they really drove home three critical areas, which was crime, jobs or the economy and education. And if you look at what just happened in the last legislative session, those were the three issues that drove the agenda in Santa Fe. We were able to take those questions from ordinary citizens, put them to the candidates, and then follow through with the winner in Santa Fe during the session and say, what are you going to do about it and take it all the way to completion. So it was a beautiful partnership.

Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:11:41] And I think the results speak for themselves, understanding sometimes how a newsroom operates as a challenge for residents who are consumers of daily newscasts. Can you shed some light on the process of how a story becomes news?

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:11:55] That’s a great question. I used to do something with visitors in our newsroom that was kind of Schoolhouse Rock, how a bill becomes law. I love that. So how does a press release or an idea become a news story and walk them through the whole thing?

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:12:11] You know, every newsroom has a new nerve center. That is the assignment desk. And they’re listening to police scanners and they’re answering the phones and they’re getting emails from viewers. And a lot of the content filters through there from ordinary people making us aware of things. Right. And then we’ve got to do some of our work to confirm that what they’re telling us is true and do some rudimentary background. And once we feel like we’ve got enough to believe there’s something to work on, then it goes to an editorial meeting and goes through a nuanced filter where there’s a conversation about what do we need to do to feel good about putting this on television?

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:12:49] Who do we need to talk to? What do people need to know? And then there’s a process during the production of that story where there’s editorial oversight and then editing and then it gets on air. But the stories that I like the most are always, always about curiosity. Somebody once asked me if you could pick one trait for every journalist in your newsroom, what would it be? And I would say curiosity, because every great story starts with a great question. So I’m driving through the downtown area and I see a new downtown safety zone, 20 miles an hour sign. I’m on the phone to the newsroom saying I just heard this idea two weeks ago and there are signs up already. There was a story in our newscast last night. You have to be connected to your community. You have to be fearless to ask someone at church. What was that problem you were talking about? I want to hear more. If you’re standing in line at the grocery store and you hear a mom lamenting about how she can’t get her children to an after school program, you you want to know more. You have to be innately curious.

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:13:57] And that curiosity, I think, leads to the best editorial process because. And then it’s a true reflection and mirror of your community.

Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:14:07] Finally, the New Mexico first forum is scheduled to occur on June six, five thirty pm in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico. Tickets can be purchased through an M first dot com. Why should listeners consider consider attending?

Michelle Donaldson, KOB-TV [00:14:22] Well, if you care about leadership in your state, if you care about ensuring that there is a vibrant and free press, if you care about accountability. And I would make the argument that New Mexico certainly needs that. We are a poor state in many ways. We are a leadership challenge. We are economically challenged. It has never been more important that we do care about these issues. So if you do, I would encourage you to attend. I think the stakes are very high indeed. And the people who serve you on a journalistic basis, it’s important that you get to know them and understand how they think.

Tom Garrity, The Garrity Group [00:15:01] Michelle Donaldson, vice president, general manager with Kobe TV. Thank you so much for your time today. This concludes the Perception podcast. Thank you for listening. This is Tom Garrity links to learn more about the event. And our guests can be found in the show notes. Be sure to visit about perception dot com for more podcasts like this.

Published May 15, 2019


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