Cohen Brings Hard News Reporting to Channel 30
Harris, Ellen, St. Louis Journalism Review
David Cohen became the new news director of KDNL (Channel 30) on March 23. It's a coming home of sorts after a seven-year hiatus; Channel 30 is the local affiliate of ABC News where Cohen spent 16 years, the bulk of his career in broadcasting. Having been a reporter and producer, Cohen talks in sound bites. He'd fall on an open microphone before using a TV cliche like, "Neighbors are shocked and dismayed in this semi-wooded rural area ..."
Cohen joined ABC radio news in New York, in 1975. He began the new year in 1982 by moving to Chicago as deputy chief of the ABC-TV Midwest Bureau, then the size of a St. Louis television newsroom with 70 staffers. When the bureau moved to St. Louis in 1986, he was appointed chief. Later, he was a Special Projects Producer and news segment producer.
Cohen has sat on both sides of the negotiating table with NABET, AFTRA and the Writers Guild, which gives him an understanding many news directors lack, They've spent their careers from 200th-size markets on as managers while Cohen, 45, understands how reporters work. He also knows how reporters dodge managers telling them how to cover a story over the two-way radio from inside a studio. And like most assignment desk editors who've worked for too long under too loud police and fire scanners, Cohen is a tad deaf.
He's an old-fashioned newsman who does more than react to a breaking story. He ponders, he reflects, he thinks.
"There are two types of interviews in broadcast or print," Cohen says. "Theres the informative where you probe and prod a person's psyche to get him to paint you a picture. Then there's the sound bite interview where you want Brett Hull to say, 'Fuck these people.'"
A man of depth, intelligence and an ego, Cohen loves to hold forth - so much so one fantasizes about hiring him his own editor - but only about the story. With Cohen, it's the story, stupid. With many broadcasters, they are the center of all stories.
Narcissism, however, propels good oversized ego to be willing to drive half-way across Nebraska to grab a story so he can be on the Evening News," Cohen points out. We both laugh.
Cohen bucks the trend of news managers who think of stations and newspapers as Army outposts of a media empire; whatever worked in Fort Benning, Ga., will work in Ft. Leonard Wood. Cohen knows his market and what's relevant - his favorite word - here. He has lived in St. Louis for 12 years come July. When ABC laid off 200 people in 1991, instead of joining the band of broadcast gypsies moving reels, Cohen took his Rolodex to Fleishman-Hillard where he became a senior vice president and director of video services.
Off-the-record sources say Cohen began to have disagreements with his new boss and left Fleishman-Hillard two months ago.
Did he feel he had sold his journalistic soul to the Great Satan, as reporters call the public relations firm where so many of them have gone?
"No. I've always considered myself a journalist," Cohen explains. "In PR, you're still telling stories. I didn't pine for my old way of life."
In his old days, Cohen, the field producer, would hop on a plane and not know how long he'd be gone. He flew to Louisville, Ky., the day after Thanksgiving, in 1985, to cover the second artificial heart operation and came home six months later.
"We had a goat that had to be continuously fed," he says of filing stories for "Good Morning America," "World News Tonight," and "Nightline" and radio. "The patient lived 700 days, far more than expected and with more operations. It made more sense to stay with docs and stay on top of the story." Cohen flew home once, his wife came down twice.
What about clothes? Birthdays? Dental appointments? "If something happened, you went," Cohen says. "News doesn't stop because it's Friday afternoon." Such a life was harder on camera crews and tape editors who were always on call. "When they finished one story, they'd be sent out of town on another," he says. …