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Local News at War

As a missile shot across the sky in Israel last week, N.J. Burkett did what any war reporter would do. He strapped on his body armor and rushed to get closer to the action.

It’s his 13th trip to Israel since 2000, but among the scores of press in the region, Burkett stands out. Working for WABC New York, he’s the rare local reporter in this latest battle zone.

“Any international story is a local story in New York,” says Burkett. “I am their eyes and ears in Israel. They see the same guy who walks the streets of Brooklyn, covers fires in the Bronx and reports from City Hall, and now I am standing almost 6,000 miles away.”

As stations have slashed newsroom budgets, overseas travel has become a luxury for many. Sending a reporter abroad can cost upwards of $10,000 and tax manpower back at the station. So, as the networks blanket this Middle East conflict, local reporters on the ground are increasingly uncommon.

“There needs to be a really compelling reason” to justify the expense, says news consultant Valerie Hyman, president, News and Management Training.

Stations often look for a local hook in a global story, such as soldiers from a nearby base being deployed to Iraq or a devastating Caribbean hurricane. WABC and WFOR Miami sent reporters to cover Israel and Lebanon, in part, because both market’s have sizeable Jewish and Muslim populations.

Also keeping local reporters at home is better access to foreign video and reports. Since 9/11, the networks have increased their international coverage. Stations can also draw off network feeds and affiliate news services, including CNN and ABC’s NewsOne.

Still, a few local reporters, such as Burkett and WFOR Miami reporter Mike Kirsch, strap on the armor. When this latest conflict erupted, Kirsch, who has covered wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia, set up in Lebanon. He’s shooting, reporting and editing his own pieces and uses a portable satellite uplink to send back reports. Kirsch says he chose to work from Lebanon, in part, because the networks were all over Israel.

“This is the biggest story in the world,” he says. “I’m trying to deliver the best I can for my viewers.”

Local reporters often have it tougher than their national colleagues. While network correspondents travel with crews, translators and security, station staffers may go solo or hire skeleton crews on the spot. Burkett usually works with the same Israeli cameraman and tape editor and occasionally hires a translator.

Reporters that do get the assignment earn their keep; they file for morning, noon and evening news and may also post blog commentary and file reports for sister stations.

Where they can, the networks provide affiliates with support. In Haifa, Burkett worked out of the ABC News compound, while CBS News helped Kirsch arrange his travel plans. In return, local reporters contribute their video and reports to network shows and affiliate news services.

Since local teams do not travel abroad often, they may need to rent or borrow gear, including satellite phones and body armor. Some opt to rent gear in-country, while a few station groups have bought portable technology, such as videophones, to share among affiliates.

Security is equally troubling for reporters on the ground. While those in Iraq fear roadside bombs and kidnapping, teams in Israel and Lebanon worry about errant missiles, among other things. Burkett says he stays in constant touch with Israeli officials to determine the safest locations.

“You always have to know where you are,” says Burkett, who’s relying on a portable GPS system for that purpose. “If we get pinned down by missile fire or problems on the road, we can call our coordinates in to the Israeli army.”

Station managers say it’s agonizing for them as well. WFOR News Director Shannon High-Bassalik instructs Kirsch to check in twice daily, but his satellite phone can be spotty.

“I flipped out not hearing from him” one day, she says. “I had to learn that, in war, not all plans work. I have to trust his judgment.”

So does Kirsch. As he drove from southern Lebanon to Beirut one morning, burned out cars littered the roadside, and Israeli bombs left huge holes in the road. His driver took only northern roads, hoping Israeli forces would not mistake them for Hezbollah forces heading south. They arrived unscathed, though still shaken. Says Kirsch, “My hair was standing up on the back of my neck.”

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