Dewey Defeats Truman!

Daniel Ruen

Picture if you will: the "Hometown Team" from WCCO-TV (Channel 4) reading aloud the latest local headlines against the blue-green backdrop of a balmy subtropical bay. The palm trees rustle. A yacht cruises by. Is that a Hawaiian shirt on the perennially buttoned-down Don Shelby?

OK, you can snap out of it now. Come Super Bowl Sunday, Shelby and Amelia Santaniello won't be delivering the news amid what WCCO newsroom operations director Ann Pedersen-Gleeson describes as "a very Miami-ish" set smack in the middle of a snazzy bayfront raw bar.

While the NFC championship debacle produced the predictable spate of lamentations--for long-suffering fans, for the players, and even for merchandisers saddled with piles of now-heavily discounted Vikesabilia--little has been said about the losses suffered by the Twin Cities' media outlets. Like compulsive gamblers intent upon a sure thing, local daily papers and TV stations were banking on a trip to Miami for Super Bowl XXXIII.

According to station honchos, before Atlanta place-kicker Morten Andersen booted the 38-yard field goal that sent the Vikings packing, each of the big three network affiliates--WCCO, KSTP-TV (Channel 5), and KARE-TV (Channel 11)--planned to send about two dozen of their staffers, including their top anchor teams, to sunny South Florida. The smaller KMSP-TV (Channel 9) was committed to dispatching a team of seven, among whom were to be 10 p.m. anchor Angela Hampton and two other on-air personalities.

Because WFTC-TV (Channel 29)--the local Fox affiliate that will broadcast the Super Bowl--has no news division, competition among local broadcasters was expected to be especially fierce, explains Gary Schulzetenberg, KSTP's executive producer of sports. All the stations blocked out hefty chunks of extra airtime for Vikings coverage; in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, he adds, KSTP planned to dedicate its entire 6:30 p.m. newscast to the big game. "I can't imagine any sporting event that would have gotten more coverage than this. We'd done so much planning," Schulzetenberg laments.

For its part, WCCO had made arrangements to delay its nightly Late Show with David Letterman broadcast 20 minutes each night in order to accommodate Super Bowl specials.

The tale is the same in every newsroom in town. Hotel reservations were made, then hastily canceled. Airline tickets, purchased in advance, could not be returned. Some news outlets took a bath; others say they plan to use the tickets later. But the damage was more than financial: Weeks, and in some cases months, of executive strategy sessions and logistical preparation came to naught.

"We were all dressed up and now there's no place to go," KARE news director Tom Lindner notes glumly. Lindner won't comment publicly on how much KARE budgeted for its coverage, but insiders at other stations estimate that costs probably would have run between $100,000 and $200,000.

From a marketing standpoint, Mission Miami promised a colossal content bonanza for local news outlets. For TV stations a Super Bowl appearance means an opportunity to boost ratings during the week leading up to the February sweeps. For newspapers it's a shot at jacking up circulation. For local media in general, the Vikings' participation in the Big Game would have presented a chance to piggyback their own brand onto the "Purple Pride" bandwagon--a practice already in bloom by December and one that escalated at a harrowing rate in the weeks that followed.

Television viewers in particular were treated to thinner and thinner gruel, as reporters doggedly fished for angles. Before the playoff contest against the Arizona Cardinals, for instance, KARE dispatched a correspondent to investigate whether local businesses with the word "cardinal" in their names suffered from the partisan mood. And before the fateful championship game, one KSTP reporter trolled through the St. Paul suburb of Falcon Heights in search of enemy fans. Could it have gotten any worse? Without a doubt.

Both local dailies had commemorative books in the works, along with plans for a weeklong run of daily stand-alone Vikings sections. (As it stood, having flirted with disaster à la "Dewey Defeats Truman," both papers were forced to destroy "special extras" celebrating the Vikings' status as NFC champs.) The Star Tribune booked passage to Miami for a total of 28 reporters, photographers, and editors--a gross excess in the minds of some staffers. "You just try and lay low and just hope that you're not picked for the team," says one reporter who, like several colleagues, spoke on condition of anonymity. "The kind of stuff that would have found its way into the paper would have been pretty unbearable," says another Strib scribe. "What Jason Fisk had for breakfast? Some guy who painted his face purple?"

A third newsroom veteran notes that such perceptions of overkill produced little open dissent at the Star Tribune, because reporters and editors have come to accept with "good-natured disbelief" the paper's carpet-bombing tactics when it comes to megastories. "We are, I like to think, famous for that," the staffer notes. "It amazes me how we continue to top ourselves. But you have to recognize the momentum. After a while you say, 'Why the hell would I want to stand in front of this truck?'"

Perhaps with an eye on the bottom line, the Pioneer Press had in mind a more modest roster: 12 to 15 reporters, with the slack taken up by the paper's conveniently located sister publication, the Miami Herald. (The Herald, like the Pi Press, is owned by the profits-obsessed Knight Ridder Inc.) Pioneer Press sports editor Emilio Garcia-Ruiz acknowledges that a "saturation" strategy has become the rule of the day in sports journalism. "What everybody measures themselves against now is the Chicago Tribune's coverage of the Bulls," observes Garcia-Ruiz. "And nothing we've done can come close to that. The Tribune is famous for sending 12 people to regular season games, and doing 73 sidebars and 57 pages and yadda, yadda, yadda. I'm exaggerating, but they did massive, blow-up coverage."

The Vikings' loss spared many staffers an arduous week of 16- to 20-hour days, and sources say that some of their colleagues privately admitted to feeling a touch relieved. But for editors and producers, erasing the Vikings from the Super Bowl scenario resulted in a dire content shortage. "We've been talking about that a lot at the office--whether we're relieved or not relieved," Garcia-Ruiz reports. "At first you think, 'Well, there's a whole lot of work I'm not going to have to do.' But then you think, 'What the hell are we going to put in the paper for the next three weeks?' Other than Gopher basketball, there's nothing going on. The Vikings leave a big void."

Dona Schwartz, who teaches journalism at the University of Minnesota, has a different take on the matter. "There's plenty of people who are absolutely thrilled that they're not going to be subjected to endless rah-rah coverage of the upcoming Super Bowl," says Schwartz, author of the 1997 book Contesting the Super Bowl, a critical examination of the role the media and the corporate elite play in pumping the game. "It would have been an amazing inundation."

Schwartz expresses little surprise at the scope and scale of the planned coverage. "To imagine they wouldn't go that extra distance would be to misunderstand the nature of the beast," she posits. "But it raises the question: What is a news story? If you see the media as providers of serious news and information, then it's a scandal."

Still, adds Schwartz, recalling her research during Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis, "In a lot of ways, I regret that it's not going to happen. It would have been another interesting piece to study."

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