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NY, DC Stations Cover Local Angles of Terror Leader's Death

New York and Washington are some 7,000 miles from the site in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was killed, but the terror chief's death is very much a local story for the markets that sustained devastating losses on Sept. 11. Both cities have their share of sentimental and symbolic locales, such as Ground Zero and Times Square in New York and the Pentagon and the White House in D.C., and people are flocking to the sites that symbolize freedom and democracy to both celebrate Public Enemy No. 1's demise--and reflect on the losses from a decade ago.

"With what happened at the Pentagon on 9/11, it's one of those times where official Washington and the local Washington region we cover intersect," says Matt Glassman, senior producer of content at NBC Local Media's WRC Washington.

With close to 3,000 killed at the World Trade Center site, New York will always have a direct connection to Sept. 11--and to Osama bin Laden. "It's absolutely a New York metro story," says Susan Sullivan, VP of news at WNBC New York. "So many lives were impacted here--there are so many personal stories."

As the news was confirmed the night of May 1, WNBC redirected a reporter, Ida Siegal, from Long Island's Jones Beach, where she was reporting on a serial killer, to Ground Zero. The station went live at 4 a.m. Monday morning, and will use Monday's 5 p.m. hour--which usually features lifestyle program LX--to report on the news out of Pakistan with Chuck Scarborough and Jane Hanson.

"We've done it before on big event days, but it's usually because of weather," says Sullivan. "This is the first time we've done it because of [hard] news."

Washington's traditional Big Three stations (WRC, Allbritton's WJLA, Gannett's WUSA) went with network coverage when the news broke last night. Fox-owned stations around the country were a mix of local talent delivering the news, and Fox News national anchors offering their perspective. WRC ran its late news at midnight, while WJLA shifted from network to local at 1 a.m. All are in full press mode today; WUSA, for one, goes live and local 7:30-8 p.m. Monday from the Pentagon, after the network's expanded hour.
"It's a huge local story; we're committing virtually our entire band of resources to it," says Bill Lord, WJLA's VP of news and station manager. "There will be very little [non-bin Laden-related] news today."

WRC benefits from sharing a facility with NBC News' Washington bureau, and tapped the parade of pundits and experts coming through the building to speak with network anchors--as well as the anchors themselves. WRC reporter Chris Gordon happened to be in New York on vacation, and got himself to Ground Zero when the news broke to hear from New Yorkers firsthand.

WJLA shares a newsroom with The Politico, which offers unique access to the Beltway's corridors of power. "We had some of the most immediate and up-to-date information coming out of the White House and the Pentagon," says Lord.

It's been a wild past week for network news professionals, who covered the royal wedding in England late last week, and also trekked to the southern U.S. to cover last week's harrowing tornadoes. Pinning down the veracity of the earliest reports of bin Laden's death as the rumors circulated on Twitter and the web was a challenge. Some radio reports last night had bin Laden killed by a drone aircraft's bomb, which turned out to be untrue.

Stations are also using their various digital platforms to blanket the story Monday. WJLA's site has 'Osama bin Laden' as its top "Trending Topic," while sister polled users about their feelings regarding bin Laden's death. (No. 1 by a landslide at presstime: "I'm not sad that he died, but I don't celebrate violence and death."), representing the CBS-owned local TV and radio assets, had a reporter from a.m. 880 at Penn Station, speaking with commuters about security issues in the face of possible retaliation.

Programs such as The Rundown and Daily Connection on WRC's digital channel, Nonstop, are focused on the news from out of Pakistan. WPIX New York is running a crawl in its programming today. News Director Bill Carey calls it a "counter-newscast," with virtually real-time updates instead of the same half-dozen tidbits running over and over. "It's produced so that people have a sense of live and immediate news," he says.

Newsroom chiefs are trying to strike the right tone with their coverage. They say viewers typically reacted with celebratory emotions upon hearing of bin Laden's death, which gave way to sadness and remembrance for those lost. They then woke up with new concerns about security in the face of potential retaliation.

"We're trying to deal with the three levels of emotions honestly and directly," says WJLA's Lord. "We're trying to capture those emotions from viewers, rather than ascribe our own feelings to the story."