Sunday, February 7, 2010

Surprise from Afghanistan is Good News

It feels good to do a good story. I don’t mean a story that was well written or a story with incredible video. I mean a story with good news – something that’s uplifting. It grabs you and it makes you feel. This week I was lucky enough to have one of those stories.

(See Lauren's Report on Local 12 -- click here for video)

An Army helicopter pilot, home on two weeks leave from Afghanistan, decided to surprise his two young sons at school. They had no idea dad was coming home. Dad is also known as Warrant Officer Mike Vinson, and he was nice enough to invite us along for the surprise.

For 7-year-old Noah and 5-year-old Caleb it was school as usual – or so they thought. While Dad was waiting to make his big entrance, he was already emotional. Mike told me he’d been planning this surprise for a month and had pictured the moment he would see his boys over and over again.

He walked in the door – announced as a special guest. At first the boys just smiled big grins, and then they popped out of their seats and ran to give Dad a hug. It was a Kodak moment and a Kleenex moment. The teachers dabbed at their eyes with tissues, while I tried to keep myself in check. As for Mike -- he assured the students that his tears were tears of happiness. Mike Vinson’s love for his children was radiating from him that morning – it was in his eyes and his voice and in that first big hug he shared with his sons.

As a news reporter, in the midst of all this excitement – I need to do interviews. Even the boys get to go on camera. Now, interviewing children can be tricky. They love the idea of being on TV, but they can become shy and clam up when it’s time to talk. But, these interviews were priceless. Asked about seeing his father – 7-year-old Caleb said he was really happy…but he didn’t really know how to describe it. The follow up question was “How much did you miss your daddy?” His response – “More than he loves me.” And, as I’ve already established – that’s a lot! Hearing the boys articulate their feelings was touching. And trust me – they’re your typical boys. The next conversation was about using their bb guns with dad and playing basketball.

I returned to the news station a few hours later after appearing on the noon news with my report. I was immediately hit with a flurry of praise from my co-workers – they were all touched by the story. And trust me – news personnel have thick hides – it takes a lot to impress us. Well, then my phone rang and e-mails popped up in my inbox. I wasn’t the only one happy to see some good news.

Mike Vinson pilots a Blackhawk helicopter in Afghanistan. He runs a medevac unit, which means his job is to get injured soldiers off the battlefield and back to safety. He tells me it’s a gratifying job. But, I can tell you – for two weeks you don’t need to call Mike a pilot, a solider, or an officer – because he’s simply happy to have the titles of husband and father.

See Lauren's Report on Local 12 -- click here for video

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Politicians and the Power of Charisma

When reporters, voters, and historians talk about politicians – you often hear about charisma. Maybe words like charm, energy and enthusiasm are also used. However you describe it – some political figures have a certain indescribable quality that makes the people around them look up and listen. And when they do, maybe they feel special or inspired.

Our President, Barack Obama, certainly has that quality. Not only is he a gifted orator, but he has a presence that attracts people. Former President Bill Clinton was always said to bring a certain energy to a room. I experienced that first hand at a political fundraiser here in Cincinnati. People were on the edge of their seats – the room was electric. Bill Clinton was disarming, funny and endearing.

I have to say, my experience covering politicians shows me these qualities are even more impressive in person. It must be you feed off the energy around you – because it’s a sensation you can’t quite capture through television.

I experienced this once again with the visit of the former 2008 Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. She was in town recently signing copies of her book, “Going Rouge: An American Life.” I was on hand to cover that book signing. It was a long and tiring day that started eight hours before Ms. Palin ever arrived. Her fans had also waited in line for hours – and yet when she appeared on a staircase above the crowd, they erupted with cheers and applause. She spoke for only a few minutes, and truly, nothing impressive was said. She was thanking her fans for their time and promised a fun day. But, Sarah Palin was appealing and personable, and she got the crowd going. A chant of “Sarah…Sarah” was soon underway. And, although I admonish myself in advance for saying it….it has to be said because it’s part of her appeal. She looked attractive and fashionable. And after having their books signed – fans felt special.

I looked around the room that day, feeling swept up in the energy and at the same time, watching it wash over others. It made me marvel once again about the power of charisma.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"Future Blooms" Looks Bright

It’s not a plan to get rid of eyesores, but it will at least cover them up. That’s certainly a start. “Future Blooms” is a new initiative by Keep Cincinnati Beautiful (KCB) that uses community art to decorate boarded up and vacant buildings in the city.

Now, I attended the kick-off of this program last week, but I don’t have any photos to show you…so you’re going to have to use your imagination here. First picture a boarded up building with plywood covering the doors and windows. Okay…now picture artists transforming the look of that plywood with a little paint and a lot of creativity. A bright red door is paired with beautiful windows reflecting the blue sky. The windows are shaded by purple striped awnings and there are flower boxes in full bloom. Additional pieces of wood are layered on the plywood to create a multi-dimensional look. Think bright colors, cheerful and eye-catching. That was the type of transformation made at the first Future Blooms home on Elm Street in Over-the-Rhine.

KCB Executive Director, Linda Holterhoff, told me how children attending the daycare next door exclaimed that the transformation had created a home. That’s exactly the reaction she’s looking for. Of course, Holterhoff knows this is a false front. The building is still vacant, but she says a little sprucing up can have a real effect. The new look can deter criminals, reduce blight, and even keep property values from plummeting in the area. Those buildings also have a better chance of staying boarded up.

A series of grants are being used for the project. The goal is to use that money to decorate at least 130 vacant buildings through May of 2010. The Future Blooms artist team will be painting and installing a variety of window and door designs.

I have to say, I was impressed. Where a vacant, boarded up building can be a black mark on a street – this created a splash of color. You were drawn to the public art rather than a public nuisance. And maybe a buyer can envision that this was once a home, and it should be a home once again.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Importance of Getting the Facts Right

It seems obvious – when reporting a story the media should go to great lengths to get the facts right. For the most part, that is the case. But, too often the race to get the story on the air or on the web outweighs the importance of getting the story right. This irks me. And trust me, I feel the pressure.

As a reporter in the field, I’m constantly in a race with three other television stations, the paper, and news radio to get the story first. I need the best interviews and the best video. My story needs to stand out. Make no mistake, this is a competition.

Consider this breaking news scenario. There’s a police standoff with an armed suicidal man who’s pacing around outside his apartment complex. It goes without saying, this is a dangerous situation. This man is unstable, he has a gun, and there are a lot of innocent people living in the area who could get hurt. The SWAT team is called in. They have the area surrounded and they’re working to negotiate with this man. There’s a stalemate for hours. At hour five all the news media has left except for me and my photographer. I’m exhausted and frankly, I’m bored. That’s about to change.

I am shocked at what I see next. The subject make’s a sudden move, as if to run. Then, gunfire erupts. There are multiple shots and he appears to be hurt. I never looked away, but to be honest, I can’t say for sure what happened. Did he fire first? If so, did he shoot himself or fire at police? The first sound I heard was very loud and created a lot of smoke. I’m fairly certain that was a flash-bang often used by SWAT teams to distract a subject. I know the SWAT teams fired on him – I saw that for sure. So I think.

I call the station. We need to get this on the web. What can we report? They want the full story and I don’t have it – police have their hands full at this moment and aren’t talking. So, I’m vague. There was gunfire – the subject appears to be injured, and has been taken away in an ambulance. We’re the only station there and yet other news media start to report the story online with more in-depth information. I feel the pressure – but am not willing to cave.

I’m glad – because I eventually get the full story and feel good knowing that all morning long we’re the only station who consistently got it right. Yes, SWAT fired on the subject. It sounded like gunfire to me. You know… real bullets. We learn it was only bean bags and sponge guns that were used. Thank goodness, I didn’t say otherwise. There was only one bullet fired. The subject shot himself in the chest. Other details were misreported – he never had a hostage, was never barricaded inside a home. Yet, these are details that were reported by some again and again.

In a breaking news situation, often the public can be forgiving. They know the story is happening now, and the information may change. That’s not always the case.

On this day, neighbors and friends were angry and hostile. They were yelling at us, trying to frighten us with threats. Still, I wandered over to speak with them. They had a word for the media – liars. They listed all the misinformation on the television news. Of course, I can’t vouch for every station – but we often get lumped together. I tried my best to convince them that we work hard to get the information right. The best I can do is give viewers a chance to sound off. They know this man and they watched this unfold. Now, I say a little prayer that I get every detail correct – so when they watch my live report at noon, they know someone got it right. I want them to have a little more faith in the media. I want them to know that my colleagues are genuinely good people with good intentions – to get it right.

Old news hounds shrug off the negative attention. They tell me I should too. You can’t please all the people all the time. I find it hard to let it roll off my back.

So, what can I do? My job -- the more we focus on the facts and not just being first, I believe the more the public will trust us.
For More on This Story (including video) : Click on this link to Local 12

Friday, July 10, 2009

When The Vice President Comes to Town

One of my job perks is getting to cover high powered politicians when they come to town. There's always an air of excitement. That was certainly the case when Vice President Joe Biden visited Cincinnati this week to promote the federal stimulus package. For local bigwigs and some lucky members of the public who snagged a ticket, this is Cincinnati history in the making. Grab your camera! Maybe he will shake your hand or kiss your baby! But, for the media, coverage is an elaborate juggling act. If you drop the ball, you could be out of a story.

As you can imagine, every move the Vice President makes is carefully choreographed. The security is incredibly tight. That means reporters and photographers are kept on a tight leash. The Vice President may have delivered a 30 minute speech, but for the media this was an 8 hour event.

First, we're required to arrive several hours in advance. Mr. Biden was scheduled to arrive shortly after 10am. We were in place by 4:30 in the morning. When you drive up, you're immediately flagged down by the press coordinator who told us precisely how to park our truck (at an angle for secret service line of sight). Where to sit, where to stand, and where to's all laid out for us. We were able to do live coverage for our morning show, previewing the Vice President's visit, but by 7am we had to leave. Leave our gear, our bags, our trucks...everything so the secret service could perform a security sweep. Bomb-sniffing dogs climb in and around our vehicles. They canvass the entire site, and we're left standing in the street to watch. This is the time to grab a bite to eat or a potty break. Trust me, as a reporter in the field, any chance to find a bathroom is of vital importance!

Ninety minutes later, the sweep is over and we're issued media passes. Once again, we're allowed on site after going through a metal detector. But, our movement is limited. I must stay in the designated press area. And once I'm in, I can't leave. Even a trip back to our truck requires an escort.

Now -- we wait. Hours pass. We talk, we twiddle our fingers, and we wonder; how late will the Vice President arrive? It's a guarantee -- these events do not start on time. But, today we're lucky, Vice President Biden is up at the podium and delivering his speech by 11 o'clock. The stage is surrounded by secret service agents -- all in suits, wearing ear pieces with their roving eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. The Vice President elicits cheers and laughter -- he's in front of a friendly crowd and they love this experience. The press tries to absorb every word, scribbling furiously on notepads and checking our watches. He's finally here -- but he better hurry up, because we have noon live shots to get too!

For some reporters this is old hat. They've been in the business for thirty years and all the hoop-jumping is a nuisance. Others still absorb the excitement -- that's me. Here's how you can tell the difference. We whip out our camera phones to grab a picture -- proof that we were there!

As quickly as the VP swooped in and rallied the crowed, he's gone. The set is quickly cleared and the event is over. In another city, the press is likely setting up, sitting and waiting. After all, the Vice President is headed there next

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Shoppers Find Good Deals at Goodwill

Have you noticed lately how people brag about the bargains they find? In this economy, saving money has become a badge of honor. If you want to bargain hunt or treasure hunt, a good place to start is Goodwill. There are fourteen stores in our region. While most retailers are struggling, Goodwill is seeing a big bump in sales. Frankly, you can't beat their sales. On the day I visited the Fairfield store this week all skirts, shirts, and kids clothing were on sales for 50 cents an item. Yes, 50 cents!

I would say there are two types of shoppers that visit Goodwill or any thrift store for that matter. There are practical shoppers and fashionistas.

The practical shopper: They either need or want a good deal. Clothing is the biggest seller for Goodwill, and that's likely their target. We know that children outgrow their clothing and shoes quickly. This is a good way to fill in their wardrobe with a few new pieces. Or maybe you want to avoid a big purchase. You could grab a prom dress or a new suit for $30. The folks at The Ohio Valley Goodwill tell me they're seeing a lot of new faces -- middle class faces who are living with a tight budget.

The fashionista: This is the fashion guru who either can't afford designer labels or just loves treasure hunting. At the Fairfield store I came across a pair of Salvatore Ferragamo flats for $80. Expensive -- yes, but a lot cheaper than the $400 it would cost you at a department store. Dooney & Bourke plus Coach purses are also popular, and should be like new. Check out the jewelry cases too. I'm told after a tough breakup, some pricey items end up getting donated. You will find real gold and real diamonds. Right now, there's a Cartier watch in the cabinet!

If you don't like the idea of second hand clothing, you could always save on books, furniture, and toys. The Fairfield store had a neat ittle selection of wall art. I felt like I was browsing in HomeGoods or T.J. Maxx.

Now, lets face it. Some people just aren't second hand shoppers. That's fine. Do what I do -- donate your items, make someone else happy and in the end you'll save on your tax return! Just remember to get a receipt and keep it in a safe place until April.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Neighborhood Blitz

Blight and Crime -- they seem like insurmountable problems in some Cincinnati neighborhoods. A city initiative, the 90 day Neighborhood Enhancement Program, is proving otherwise. Since 2007, eight neighborhoods have received additional funds and attention from the city to get on the right track. Today, College Hill celebrated their success.

The big picture is about improving the quality of life in a neighborhood. But, where to start? In College Hill they started by removing graffiti, picking up litter, repairing potholes, and planting flowers. New signs welcome folks to the neighborhood. Volunteers helped to give some businesses along the main drag a face lift. Florist Barb Ramsey had her storefront power washed, re-painted, and she hung a new shingle outside. She tells me the changes have been rewarded with new customers walking through her door. They commend her for the new look.

This isn't just about aesthetics. The city dedicated a lot of manpower to College Hill this Spring. Police officers clocked eight hundred hours of overtime, patrolling neighborhood streets. Making their presence known, Cincinnati Police hope to scare off the riff-raff that can make life unpleasant for residents. Building inspectors came in to keep homeowners in check. On their to-do list were more than a thousand properties. In the end, five will be demolished. Vacant, dilapidated eye-sores will disappear to make room for re-development.

Listing the achievements made in just 90 days is one thing. Feeling the energy among residents is another -- they're excited! Things are looking up in College Hill and they know it.

I hope they can keep the momentum going. I hope other residents and business owners see this success and decide to invest in their own property. There's no reason we can't breath new life into our neighborhoods -- after all College Hill is like a breath of fresh air.

Learn More About College Hill: