All Other News Takes Back Seat to JoePa in State College
(UPDATE: Penn State's board of trustees announced at around 10:15 p.m. November 9 that university president Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno have been let go.)
News organizations are flocking to State College, Pa., for the latest on the sex scandal stemming from the fabled Penn State football program, and it's a home game of sorts for the TV stations in Johnstown-Altoona, which encompasses State College.
Reporters are situated in front of Joe Paterno's home, waiting for perhaps the most famous coach in football to emerge. He's been in the house all day, say reporters in the region, meaning he did not run practice Wednesday. The stations in DMA No. 102, including Nexstar's WTAJ and Cox's WJAC, count several Penn State alumni in their ranks, and it's with mixed emotions that some are reporting on the downfall of a local colossus.
"We all knew the day would come, and Joe would not be around as coach much longer," says Jim Platzer, news director at WJAC. "But we didn't think it would be a day like this."
Jerry Sandusky, a staple of the Penn State coaching program alongside the man known as "JoePa" for decades, has been accused of sexually abusing eight boys. Two top school officials, athletic director Tim Curley and senior VP of finance and business Gary Schultz, have been charged with perjury and failing to report to authorities what they knew about the allegations.
Paterno is, to a lesser degree, under fire for his actions after a graduate student came to him with word of a suspected sexual assault by Sandusky in 2002. Paterno redirected the informant to the athletic director, rather than notifying the police.
Johnstown-area news veterans say the attitude toward Paterno on campus is mixed, with most recalling the vast bank of goodwill Paterno has accrued over the past 46 years atop the Nittany Lions program. Much more ire is directed toward university president Graham Spanier, who will resign or be fired Wednesday, according to the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
CBS affiliate WTAJ is the leader in the market, according to BIA/Kelsey, with 44% of the revenue. NBC affiliate WJAC is second with 33%. WJAC produces news for Fox affiliate WWCP, while Palm Broadcasting owns ABC outlet WATM.
It's very much an all hands on deck story in the DMA, reporters pushing and prodding to get the latest on Spanier's job status. Paterno addressed reporters at his home Tuesday night, and has issued his retirement statement, effective at the end of the season. Some wonder if he'll be permitted by university officials to coach the remaining games this year.
"This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life," said Paterno in his statement. "With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more. My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination. And then I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this university."
Two months ago, the stations marked the anniversary of another all hands on deck story; Flight 93 crashed in the region on Sept. 11, 2001. "Some folks that work here are saying this is the biggest one they've seen," says David Kaplar, WTAJ news director. "It's easily the biggest story in my 2 ½ years here."
The stations are currently airing regular programming, with frequent cut-ins and crawls, and will go live at a moment's notice with the next development. They've broken in frequently in recent days, a bigger challenge than normal with a full slate of political ads on the docket in advance of Election Day.
WTAJ leads off its 5 p.m. news Wednesday with a report on Spanier being out of a job. "We've got it from three good sources," says Kaplar. "The next shoe to drop is if Joe Paterno is coaching this Saturday. We still don't know the answer to that."
WJAC had a particularly emotional story in its noon news Wednesday, as a famous State College mural depicting dozens of celebrated community figures, including Paterno and Sandusky, was altered to remove Sandusky from the ensemble. A blue ribbon has taken Sandusky's place in the mural, which is titled "Inspiration," an homage to victims of sexual abuse. "It was very emotional to see," says Platzer.
With Paterno's advanced age, all local media had prepared special packages celebrating Paterno when he finally decided to leave the football program. Some may never air.
"It's sad it had to go this way," says Platzer, "and we can't honor his legacy in the way we'd planned."
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