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Recently, Goff Public sat down with Boyd Huppert, who has been a television reporter at KARE-11 since 1996. Best known as the voice of KARE’s popular weekly feature, “Land of 10,000 Stories,” Boyd is nationally renowned for his superior writing and storytelling abilities, and has received dozens of awards, from Emmys to Murrows. He shared with us his behind-the-scenes, veteran insights on the changing world of local television news reporting.
In an industry where reporters come and go, you have been a mainstay at KARE-11. What has allowed you to remain successful and happy in your career?
I think that’s your nice way of saying “I’m old.” I think I’ve remained happy because new challenges have come along at just the right times for me. KARE is my fourth television station. I’ve been here for 16 years, and I’ve been reenergized many times during my tenure. About a year ago, the station relaunched the “Land of 10,000 Stories” segment that I used to do on an occasional basis. Now it’s a weekly feature, and I love doing those pieces. I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had working in television.
I love working with great photographers, which we’re blessed to have at KARE. Every story is still a challenge. I try to find a better way to tell it, shoot it, and write it – that’s my idea of fun. If I didn’t do this for a living, I think I’d be doing it as a hobby because I enjoy the creative process so much. I think if you can say that about your job, you’re in a pretty good spot.
What, in your opinion, is the recipe for a perfect story?
I have a pretty loose definition of what makes a perfect story. It’s less about the subject than it is about the characters. I search for stories that will touch emotions, happiness, sadness, or anger. People connect with these types of stories. Good stories generally start with good characters – somebody that you can relate to. I look for people who are passionate about the things that they’re involved in. I can usually tell in the first few minutes of a phone conversation if somebody is that type of person.
What about TV reporting has changed the most since you first started?
Technology. When I think back to the way we used to do our jobs, I don’t know how we did it. I remember stopping at gas stations to use the pay phone to try to set up stories from the field. I would feed quarters into the pay phone, make calls, and then drive to the next town and stop at another gas station and make more calls. If we weren’t too far from the station we could use our two-way radio to call the assignment desk and they could call for me. Just talking about it boggles my mind.
I didn’t use a computer at work until I got to my third station. We didn’t have Google or other online tools to fact check. I memorized the number for Ready Reference. Does that even exist anymore?
I lived through it, and yet I can’t imagine what being a television reporter was like before the Internet. As I’m writing my stories, Google is always open on my computer so I can fact check things that people have told me, double-check spellings, or research other facts. The Internet is an incredible journalistic tool that many reporters now take for granted.
What about being a television reporter has not changed during your time in the industry?
I think being a good writer has always been valued. I had a brief stint anchoring the weekend news in Wausau. I didn’t like it, and it didn’t like me. I decided that when it came time to move on to a larger market, that I’d just concentrate on reporting because that’s what I love.
When I talk to journalism students, I tell them to try to find their niche. Bernie Grace, who covered the crime beat at KARE for years; Caroline Lowe, who covered the same beat at WCCO; and Pat Kessler, who covers politics for WCCO are great examples of reporters who are incredibly valuable to their TV station because they have found their niche and are good at it. I tell students that it’s good to be okay at a lot of things, but you really need to find something that you’re particularly good at and be the best at it in town. That’s how you achieve success and longevity.
How did you learn to tell stories so well?
I learned a lot about storytelling elements when my photographer colleagues dragged me to National Press Photographers Association workshops many years ago. I learned a lot about character development, surprise, and plotline. I thought that stuff was only pertinent to movie directors and novelists, but I found that they also apply to journalism because it’s another way to tell stories. Human beings are wired for stories. It’s the reason we buy millions of dollars of books as a country, go to movies, and tell stories around the dinner table. Once I figured out how to tell a story, I reached a whole new level of job satisfaction.
How would you describe your ability to adapt to new communications technologies?
I’m definitely not an early adapter, but I’ve seen the power of social media. I’m just starting to dabble in Twitter a little bit, but I’m now fully immersed in Facebook. When I first started with Facebook, I gently put my toe in the water, and the water went up to my knees. Now it’s up to my ears. I love interacting with viewers at a level that I’ve never been able to before. KARE has really encouraged us to have that dialogue with our audience. Facebook allows us to find interview subjects, get feedback on stories, and get story ideas.
Last Christmas there was a big storm coming in, and I needed to find somebody who was traveling for the holidays. I put a note out on Facebook and a dozen people responded. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise to find someone, but now there’s this group of several thousand friends that I can immediately reach to get information or find a subject. We did a piece last year about how the events of 9/11 changed people’s lives. We found all of the subjects through Facebook. We posted the question, and chose people to feature based on the hundreds of responses we received. Social media is a great tool.
What direction do you see television news taking in the next 10 years?
I’m very excited about the future, but I’d be lying if I said I was this optimistic three or four years ago. Like a lot of industries, we went through some pretty dark days during the recession, but I look around at my environment here at KARE, and it has gotten better. We have a new news director, Jane Helmke, and I think she has us going in a good direction. I also see some good things happening at Gannett (KARE’s owner).
Another reason to be optimistic is that people are still buying television sets, and they’re buying better sets than we’ve ever seen, with beautiful high definition pictures. Ratings for events like the Olympics and the Super Bowl are unprecedented, so all we need to do is provide good programming and there will be an audience for it. We’ve been through a lot of cost-cutting, and I think the lesson is, if we don’t provide good news content, there are plenty of other places people can go to get their news. I think that lesson hasn’t been lost on the people making the decisions at local television stations. We have to provide good content.