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Why some members of the local media give up breaking the news for the chance to spin it

No News Is Good News


I'm feeling a little queasy," Jim Babb says after viewing one of his favorite tapes from his collection in the Channel 12 newsroom. It's a 1993 broadcast of his investigation into the city's one-day quandary over pet rocks — yes, pet rocks - on the loose, clogging city sewers and the James River. It's classic Babb and if it hadn't been April Fool's Day, we might have believed him.

The veteran reporter, who left Channel 12 last week to become a corporate spokesman for Circuit City, is not accustomed to the spotlight he's received since announcing his plans to quit journalism. He's uncomfortable with the fuss - the accolades, newspaper articles, a newsroom "lunch" of Nabs and pretzels - he's received from friends and colleagues.

Babb's balanced reporting for WRVA radio and WWBT 12 has been his trademark in Richmond for 24 years. The announcement that he'd be exchanging his Capitol post for corporate connections was the talk of the town and a deflation for the local news force. Those of us at home couldn't quite understand — Babb's departure seemed incomprehensible: How could Jim Babb, of all people, possibly leave news? The truth is Babb's departure should come as small surprise.

Consider the growing list: Paula Otto, Brenda Hughes, Ed Scarborough, Nancy Tait, Cynthia Price, Christy Collins, Steve Mullins, Trina Lee, Corinne Geller, Anne Throckmorton, Michael Ford and Jim Hale. All previously were seen either in front of the camera or behind it but left the news side to work as public relations professionals for everything from local museums to healthcare systems to city and state agencies.

And while there's no media stampede of folks crossing the line that divides those who report news from those who spin it, Babb's repositioning does make one wonder. He is the latest in a string of Richmond reporters, producers and broadcasters to trade a station banner or beat for a role in public relations. What's the PR appeal?

"There has always been a tradition of people in journalism who are attracted to public relations," says J.R. Hipple, executive vice president with Carter Ryley Thomas, one of the area's largest public relations firms. "A fellow like Jim Babb has a good sense of the news. In fact, I'm sorry we didn't hire him. He understands how news decisions are made."

Hipple encourages stronger relationships between public relations personnel and the media, a suggestion that raises skepticism. "There's paranoia on both sides," he says. "And some is healthy." It's a matter of deciding what news and stories best serve the public interest - and for PR firms, what pleases clients. But ultimately, says Hipple, "We rely on one another in a lot of ways."

Babb says he doesn't expect his reputation will change now that he's pitching stories to reporters. "I felt it was time to do something different," says Babb.

The stress of being a reporter, he concedes, can be unrelenting. "There have been times when I thought my brain would explode because of the stress. I'm hoping my new environment will have less."

In his job as corporate spokesman for Circuit City, Babb says he'll spot stories that help marry the company's cutting-edge technology with an "every guy" approach to electronics. The result, he hopes, will be an image that's more accessible to more people. He's hoping his experience and reputation help him earn people's confidence in the corporate world, too.

When former Channel 6 Executive Producer Anne Throckmorton began her news career 12 years ago in Scranton, Pa., she never thought she'd end up writing press releases and pitching story ideas to reporters. But at 36, Throckmorton, now public relations director for Bon Secours Richmond, says the "scales of balance" between the time she put into the job and the quality of life she took away from it began to change.

"The adrenaline is incredible," Throckmorton says recalling her media career. "But you can only hit a brick wall for so long. The economics of the business are such that you get good and you get out." And that window of opportunity is particularly small in most news positions - notorious for low salaries and long hours. In addition to less stress, most who make the switch to PR jobs do so for boosted pay and shorter hours.

Throckmorton's job with Channel 6 brought her to Richmond and she decided she didn't want to leave. She bought a house here and got engaged. And she soon realized that if she wanted a life that allowed her to take an art class at 7 p.m. on Thursdays, she'd have to find another career. But Throckmorton didn't want to give up the skills she learned as a producer. What's more, she didn't want to stop telling stories. "Public relations is the other side of the coin," she says to that of news production. During last year's General Assembly session, Throckmorton brushed up on the latest asthma research, followed legislation as it progressed through the assembly and connected it to programs at Bon Secours. "I was able to tie it all together and I was able to make a pitch," says Throckmorton. "It's one-stop shopping for a reporter."

"I enjoy talking to people, listening to them and hearing their stories," says Michael Ford, 43, public relations specialist with Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia. Six months before he left Channel 6 — after 11 years spent as a general assignment reporter — Ford began polling friends who once held media jobs but gave them up for careers in public relations after the hours got too grueling. "They all said it was great," remembers Ford.

"This job is really a dream job. I have the best of both worlds." As part of the university news service department, Ford still writes and produces TV stories; "We just send them out to other media outlets," like other educational markets, says Ford. "A good PR person figures out what the story is and what the reporter needs to make it easy. We still collect facts, still write articles — the difference is how we distribute it."

There are times, Ford says, when his public relations job is just as stressful as a reporter's. "What creates stress is when there are elements to your day you can't control." Most evenings Ford can make it home in time to have dinner with his family. "I never knew how good that was before. News is 24 hours a day."

Babb may be new to the game, but he's proving a quick study. "Who do you go to when you want information? Somebody honest, attentive to deadlines and can make a contribution to public life. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't have taken the job. This is a very legitimate role in communications."

Still, there are no campaigns, debates, General Assembly sessions or elections. "News is sort of a rock 'n roll field," says Babb. "I'm sure there'll be days where things break and I'll be champing at the bit wishing I was back into

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