Monday, Nov. 26, 2007 | One day, a young woman driving a taxi in the mid-1970s in Portland, Ore. found herself at the scene of a major plane crash and realized she wanted to know what had happened.
Marti Emerald left taxicabs and Oregon behind and went to Washington, D.C. Emerald freelanced for The Associated Press Radio, covering congressional hearings and the White House for two years before returning to the West Coast. It was her story about the 50th anniversary of the parking meter in 1985 that got her a job at San Diego’s ABC affiliate, KGTV. Emerald, 52, became the Troubleshooter, the station’s consumer affairs reporter and remained at KGTV until September when she left to run for the 7th District San Diego City Council seat.
I talked with her recently about the state of local television journalism and what it’s like to go from behind the microphone to in front of it.
Do you miss the newsroom?
Sometimes. During the fires I missed it. … What I noticed was all these kids now who are doing the news and yeah, I wanted to be there. … I miss it and I miss sometimes helping the consumers individually, but I know that as a city councilwoman, I’ll be able to help individual people, so I’m feeling good about making that transition.
You won a lot of awards for your reporting over the years. Your stories got picked up by 20/20 and Primetime Live. Did you find that you had to fight to get serious stories on TV news?
It’s a constant maneuvering, it’s a constant fighting for yourself and your story and your cause. I don’t think the public is being entirely served by what they’re getting from the television stations anymore.
Do you think that the focus on ratings is destroying television?
I’ll do my story at 5 o’clock and the next morning I’ll come in and there will be the ratings, broken down in 15-minute increments. If the numbers went down during my 15 minutes when I was on … somebody in the system will say “Well, let’s not do that story again.” It’s very real. And yes, ratings have in some respect brought down the quality of the substance of what we do. You’ve got people who do fine work and are really committed to digging in and doing real journalism, and it’s getting tougher and tougher to do it. Now, is it a downhill slide and there won’t be any recovery? I don’t know.
Is some of this unique to San Diego?
What’s happening is not unique to San Diego. It’s happening all over the country. Every broadcast entity is struggling to get advertising revenue. We see what’s happening to newspapers. They’re folding for good all over the country. And newspapers are now giving their reporters cameras so that they can feed information to the websites. And everything is now being channeled through the Internet where so many people are starting to go.
Newspapers are dying, but television stations remain profitable. Is that profitability reaching the newsroom? Is it being funneled back into the product or is it going back to shareholders?
It really is all about the shareholders. I’m a shareholder. I have stock in McGraw-Hill (which owns KGTV) and I’ve watched my stock divide and grow. Does it filter back to the newsroom? It has but it is filtered back as equipment. Salaries have dropped. They’ve retooled for digital, which is very important because in the next few years, everything is going to be digital. …When it comes to people, it’s about training younger, less expensive staff to go out and do this stuff.
So the profits are being invested in the infrastructure, but not in developing better stories, or even developing better reporters. As a news consumer, what I see over and over is the promotion on TV personalities.
It’s because historically television viewers have turned to a station because there is somebody they can trust. What is becoming apparent is that television viewers aren’t doing that so much anymore, but we still work on that old model. They try to play up the personality, but behind the anchor is a newsroom that really is operating on a much slimmer budget and is just trying to manage sometimes. … When you sit and watch, you watch a kid talk about something that they really don’t know anything about and you’re left to wonder, what is the real story? Or how does that relate to me? Why should I care?
Some people might read this and say “Marti’s saying she doesn’t trust the news from her old station.”
I’m not saying that. I recognize the resources have changed and there’s a lack of depth. It’s happening at all the stations. All of us old warhorses are going by the wayside, either not being renewed or finding new purpose in life or we just decide this isn’t happening anymore and the salaries keep getting lower and lower. Some people just say well maybe it’s time for me to get out of here. Then they’re replaced by people who are a lot less experienced who are covering the news everyday and fewer resources to be able to get it done. That crunch will affect not just the quality of news not just at my station, but at all of them. …The idea of the 5 o’clock news or the 6 o’clock news is a dinosaur. It really is going away. The industry is pushing it and the Internet is pulling it.
Was this part of what led you to run for City Council?
I was a journalist, but I was also an advocate and that’s where I really made my reputation here in this community, standing up for people who felt like nobody else was listening. I did it for a very long time, 20 years. …Then I realized that they weren’t really interested anymore in the idea of going out and fighting for the consumer. It was really about fighting for ratings. I still wanted to serve the public in that capacity. I recognized there was no way I was going to change their opinion so I started coming into the newsroom and wondering where do I fit in? How do I take the passion I feel and the commitment I feel for the community and put it to work again? This was the place to do it.
How does your experience as a TV reporter qualify you for public office?
First of all, being a good listener. I think that’s underrated these days. Knowing how to take a lot of information and figure out the so what about it. That’s really important. Secondly, I’m very good with helping to bring people together. For the last 22 years, I’ve been doing conciliation work, mediation. I’ve had mediation training. Maybe it’s underrated but when you look at what’s going on downtown with people who are not listening to each other, who are not on the same page, who don’t seem to want to arrive at a solution — that’s the public perception anyway — I think that’s real important. I cut through stuff. I mean business. Anybody, who’s had to meet as many deadlines as I do, and solve problems like I have, I think I’ll be a good representative for the 7th District.
Your campaign statement says you’re committed to open, honorable government. But some people feel you were less-than-open about your political aspirations when you were considering whether to run and still working as a consumer reporter. You were building momentum while working as a journalist.
It wasn’t a decision that could be made lightly. Whether I worked as a journalist or an accountant or a ditch-digger, I went through the process of getting educated about what I was getting into and making sure it was going to be the right thing for my family and for me. I took the time, but the stories I did had nothing to do with city government. One of the last big stories I did had to do with notary fraud.
What about the stories you did on the Navy Broadway complex. How did you separate Marti the reporter from Marti the budding candidate?
First of all, I am so busy doing my work, I don’t have time to go out and campaign. That’s one thing. I can’t help by virtue of my job that I’m there in the public eye. Really, I wasn’t there all that much when you think about it, because my stories were on just a couple of days a week. And again, I was swamped. So it wasn’t like I was using it as a position. J.W. August, my managing editor, laid this big box on me and said “Here, make sense of this Navy Broadway thing. … That was my assignment and I did it, and I think I did it well.
Do you think you’ve put your former colleagues at KGTV in an impossible position? If you were the managing editor at Channel 10, how would you cover the campaign of an ex-reporter?
Channel 10 is being very cautious about covering me because they don’t want to be seen to have a bias. I know that the opposition, anytime they make any mention of me, will say “Wait a minute. You’re biased.”
You don’t think that your background as a TV reporter will actually hurt you in terms of getting media coverage?
No because I do have credibility with the media here. I haven’t done anything that’s squirrelly or unethical. I’ve been known. Some people say I’m an icon (laughs) which makes me feel very old. I won’t misuse it, I promise. I won’t try to manipulate people with that. I’ve got knowledge about how the system works, how the media works. I intend to use that in any way I can to get good publicity for the campaign and in turn provide good information to the communities.
Will the $75,000 a year council salary be a step up or down for you?
We’re already tightening our belts and finding ways of saving money. It is going to be hard, but considering that the average salary in the 7th District is about $60,000 a year, I can’t complain. The thing about community service: It’s supposed to be in some ways making a sacrifice. This is sounding like a spiritual journey. Maybe it is. I’ve had a really good ride for a very long time. I’m cutting my salary in half basically. I’ve got a beautiful home and I’ve got a mortgage payment and I’m going to find ways to make everything happen. I’m digging into savings and paying some things off.
What’s it been like to go from reporting the news to become a story yourself since you announced your candidacy?
It’s nerve-racking. Being behind the microphone is a whole lot more comfortable than being in front of it. I’ve got a message and I feel comfortable with that. I’m really enjoying this process. Everybody told me “Oh you’re going to hate dialing for dollars. You’re just going to hate all the fundraisers and walking precincts.” I’m having the time of my life. I get to get on the phone and talk to people for three, four hours solid, meeting people, finding out what’s important to them, connecting. I love that. And then walking door-to-door. People at the door, even if they don’t like me at the beginning, we find a common place and I’m finding even Republicans want yard signs. There’s an excitement and that tells me I’m on the right track.
Seth Hettena, a San Diego-based freelance journalist and author, writes an occasional column “The Peanut Gallery” about local media and journalism. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with your complaints, thoughts or stories about San Diego reporters.