He was in line at the grocery store, and it earned him an Emmy.
Ken White, news director at WCCB-TV in Charlotte N.C., said he received the award because he was in the right place at the right time, and it led him to the right story.
“I was at the grocery store one morning, and the guy in front of me was complaining about the cost of milk,” White said. “He said the state hands out too much money for people that are developing new milking procedures to people that don’t really work. I found a guy who got almost $200,000. He was on a farm and he was trying to develop ethanol, but he got it under a grant to develop new milking procedures, to improve the productivity of his cows. And it would have really worked, except he didn’t have any cows.”
He may have been scamming the state of Alabama, but he helped White discover the secret to a good story — finding average people in town, and listening to them.
White has worked as a broadcast journalist across the U.S. in cities such as Pittsburgh, Montgomery and Albany. In each newsroom, the trick to his success was getting to know the everyday lives of the locals, finding what made them tick.
“People that have lived in a town can help you with the context of a story,” he said. “Use people around you that have experience or are older. They’re not as cool as talking to your friends, but they know what makes the town tick, what generates interest.”
But before an aspiring journalist can start storytelling, he must be hired. According to White, this is easier said than done.
“About three years ago we had openings to be anchors,” he said. “We had over 8,000 applicants within 96 hours. The only job that gets more applicants for us in that short of a span is sports anchoring, and it’s because they’re both fun jobs.”
“I don’t look for people that are average, I look for people that are willing to stick their necks out,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking for, somebody that can turn a phrase and know not to use a cliche. I’m looking for people that are creative that can think on their feet. You’ve got the be able to tell them as quickly and to the point as you can. Brevity is key.”
The other necessary skills are imagination and writing. A journalist can’t learn to be imaginative, he said. And they can’t learn to write either, because it’s too important to spend time working on.
Although his work in the industry spans three decades, this hasn’t changed since White began working. What has, however, is the medium.
“You have to feed the beast, there’s no arguing about it,” he said. “Eight years ago we weren’t putting stories on the Web very fast. Now we’re putting stories on the Web as soon as they’re done, even before on air. You have to just keep up with stuff because if you’re not competitive even on your down time, you’re not going to be competitive at all.”
White knows competition.
“We do not go up and knock on doors after a homicide, but there is a station that is one of our best competitors in Charlotte that will do that every time, and they have great ratings,” he said. “The reality of it is in most domestic situations, there’s a loss of life, but that doesn’t mean that those persons are a threat to anybody else. My feeling is we’re going to do stories that influence more than just one person.”
It all comes back to the average citizen, the man at the grocery store.
“We need those hard stories,” he said. “We need stories that show tension, something going wrong in the community.”