Brendan Keefe, chief investigative reporter at WXIA, Tegna’s NBC affiliate in Atlanta, has pretty much been a one-man-band since he was hired as a news photographer in 1991. Today, Keefe is the leader of the investigative team at WXIA, and the corporate trainer for all 60 Tegna stations.
Brendan Keefe, chief investigative reporter at WXIA, Tegna’s NBC affiliate in Atlanta, has pretty much been a one-man-band since he was hired as a news photographer at WREX in Rockford, Ill., in 1991.
“I started as a full-time photographer, and you know how small markets are. This one day, they are like, we want you to package this even though you’re the photographer. So next thing you know, I’m a reporter, but I’m still a one man band.”
Over the next 16 years, Keefe’s career took him from WREX in Rockford to stints as reporter and anchor at WWMT Kalamazoo, Mich.; WJXT Jacksonville, Fla.; WFSB Hartford, Conn.; KPRC Houston; WCBS New York; and WCPO Cincinnati, Ohio.
It was while working at WCPO in 2007, as an anchor, when Keefe really began working alone in earnest, and in secret.
“I would go out and shoot my own stories without asking or telling anybody. I did this for a solid year before someone said, hey who shot that package with you? We want to enter it for national awards. I said I shot it. They are like, no you are an anchor. Who shot it and who edited it? I’m like I shot it and edited it and then, over the next five years, I worked myself off the anchor desk to investigative reporting and I have never looked back. With limited exceptions, I have worked entirely alone for almost 12 years now and since then, I have done the best work of my career.”
Even though he started out as a news photographer, Keefe said the photographers he was paired with over 30 years improved his work.
“I learned so much from them. I did a lot of work collaboratively with photographers on visuals. And so I picked up a lot of skills from them that I have applied to my own work, and without having worked with them over those years I wouldn’t have that skill set.”
In 2014, Keefe became the leader of the investigative team at WXIA, Tegna’s NBC affiliate in Atlanta, where his work won a Peabody Award and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award in 2016. He’s also earned five National Edward R. Murrow Awards, an Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) Award, the Scripps Howard Award, and the Hillman Prize, and his work has also been honored with 105 regional Emmy Awards.
And in addition to being the chief investigator at WXIA, Keefe is also the corporate trainer for all 60 Tegna stations.
Training, Keefe said, is “such an important component in all of this. It is absolutely incumbent upon TV stations and companies to provide not just advanced training, but basic training. I do that for Tegna.”
Keefe said he teaches the basics, like the rule of thirds, crossing the axis, depth of field, and shutter speed, as well as how to get good audio.
And the art of the standup.
“Sometimes I have spent five hours on a creative standup. They made a huge difference, because they weren’t just a 10-second bridge between two soundbites. They were a way to demonstrate visually a concept that there was no other way to communicate it. I have the ability to invest in that time because it is my budget. When they do work, it is jackpot.”
He credits Tegna for understanding that photography and editing aren’t just part of the job description.
“Here is how they got it right. They treated photography and editing as an art rather than as a job. That’s the secret. Who doesn’t want to do creative work? Who doesn’t want to do work that is meaningful? Who doesn’t want to do work that is rewarding? It’s something that is its own reward.”
At WXIA, the old model was that the top reporters were all assigned photographers, said Keefe.
“That is no longer the case. Our top reporters are MMJs because what the company has done is they have rewarded that with more freedom. Tegna’s approach is that everybody who does this should have as many skills as possible because then they are empowered to tell better stories and if they are willing to step up and try it, the company gives them the resources.”
One way that Tegna is encouraging its MMJs to live with the camera, as Keefe puts it, is to allow them to take their equipment home with them for personal use, even on vacations.
“It’s a trade-off where if you want to use this equipment to document your vacation, we get the benefit of you learning how to use your equipment while you are on vacation. Every day you learn something new. Any photographer has to be able to operate their gear in the dark because you will eventually operate it in the dark or a hurricane or whatever and you have to do it without looking at the buttons. The only way to do that is to sort of live with the camera.”
In Keefe’s experience as a corporate trainer for Tegna, he tries to change the way reporters and MMJs approach their work from the beginning.
“The mistake a lot of reporters make, including MMJs, is they treat the assignment as the story. The assignment is the setting, not the story. They think they are supposed to go out and paint by numbers based on what was discussed in the morning editorial meeting instead of taking an assignment as a setting and then going and looking for the story that is in the assignment.”
As an example, Keefe said a reporter is sent to cover a fire and “you can immediately tell a bad reporter because they give you the hits, the runs and the errors. They basically give you the equivalent of the battalion chief soundbite. The fire broke out at 8:15, ladder 7, engine 12, medic 41 responded, they found the structure fully involved, they made entry, they vented the roof, unfortunately the structure is a total loss and the cause remains under investigation. It is totally missing the human story that took place there. Maybe the family dog woke up the family and they all escaped, but the dog perished in the fire. Maybe there is the story of the neighbor who ran in and rescued them. And so then there is a human story that takes place, but the fire is just the setting.”
The story and story-telling are central to Keefe’s training and his approach to his own work.
“You don’t get into this to make money, you do this because you really want to do it. It’s a calling. I stopped working for my employers and started working for the story. Yes, they sign your paycheck, you have to do what they tell you as long as it is legal and ethical, but be true to the story. If everything you do is in service to the story, all of the rest of it will take care of itself. If you are dedicated to telling a good story, then the money, the success and the appreciation of your bosses will come.”
In fact, Keefe believes that no matter what you do in local TV news, your job is to be a storyteller.
“Your job title should be storyteller. Whether you are an editor, a photographer, a reporter, a producer, whatever, if you are producing content, then you should be a storyteller and let that guide you. If you asked me what my job is, my primary job is I am a video editor. My secondary job is I am a photographer. My third job is I am a researcher. My fourth job is I am an investigator like in the classic sense, I mean surveillance and documents and legal research, and the very last job is appearance on camera.”
Ultimately, said Keefe, dedication to your craft is critical to your success. “If it is really your calling, then you should live it.”
NOTE: Click here to read about what a TV Reporter/MMJ’s first three weeks on the job.
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