By Kevin Finch, RTDNA Contributor
Share this story with your rookie reporters.
Ask them to project ahead decades into their career and see if it looks anything like the daily output of one David Louie, who celebrates 45 years with ABC-owned TV stations May 29.
Take the floods in San Jose, California, Feb. 21: Louie was the lead reporter for KGO-TV, San Francisco, during an expanded noon newscast.
“We went into live continuous coverage for two hours,” recalls news director Tracey Watkowski. “David was just fantastic – the play-by-play, explaining the situation. It was solid.”
Watkowski cites other examples, including Louie’s “tremendous” coverage of a murder trial that began in January and didn’t conclude until earlier this month.
“Hard news, breaking news, business, features – he can do it all,” Watkowski said.
These days, doing it all is cranking out two stories a day, going live on TV, filing for the web and posting on several social media accounts.
And did we mention he’s been at it 45 years?
Louie says he has “worn many hats” since he arrived at KGO in 1972 after he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He says long before he graduated, he attended the RTDNA (then RTNDA) convention in Denver, where he met KGO news director Pat Polillo, who told him to keep in touch.
The young man was already enjoying success in his fledging career in 1970 as the first winner of what was then RTNDA’s $1,000 Ben Chatfield Scholarship. The money put a dent into his college costs, but his situation improved even more after graduation when Polillo offered the fresh-faced Louie an on-air job.
Louie says, “It was about the time affirmative action was starting to get traction. (There were) challenges to licenses and other pressure” on TV stations.
So a freshly minted Chinese-American journalist from Lakewood, Ohio, looked attractive to a TV station in the Bay Area, with its significant Asian population.
The “kid” was thrown into the deep end and learned quickly. Since then, he’s worked bureaus in the East Bay, the peninsula, and these days, the South Bay.
He’s also covered business and technology, including what he says is one of the biggest continuous stories of his career: the growth of Silicon Valley.
When Louie moved to the Bay Area, that valley was just “a sleepy farm area with lots of orchards.” Now, he notes, it’s the home of “Apple, Google and other companies, and incubated others places such as Boston and Austin.”
The biggest story of his career? Probably the same for any journalist over 35: “Without a doubt, 9/11.”
He was in Nashville, sitting in an RTNDA board meeting, when he realized that everyone there had to go back to work. Louie and a few friends piled in his rental car, headed for Washington and eventually drove all the way to Boston to cover the aftermath.
Louie’s coup was the first interview with the secretary of transportation, Norman Mineta, who explained the decision to ground all commercial aircraft after the attacks.
Another first involved technology and geopolitics. In December 1979, KGO was the first local TV station to go live via satellite from China. The technology was so new, he remembers hearing Channel 7 anchor Van Amburg saying, “Testing, 1, 2, 3” live on the air as they established communication. The signal made multiple “hops” from China to a satellite over the Pacific to eventually land in Bay Area living rooms.
Before that and even now, technology is a huge part of what Louie has covered and how he has covered it.
“I was the first reporter (at KGO) assigned full-time to a microwave (live) truck,” he remembered. And then, half-jokingly, he wondered, “How much microwave signal – spurious – did I absorb? It was very primitive in those days.”
For years, Louie gained intimate knowledge of San Francisco’s topography. “Always trying to find out where we could go live,” he said. The eternal question: “Is this live-able?”
He also remembers ABC sending a satellite truck in the belly of a 747 to the Philippines, where Louie covered the Corazon Aquino vs. Ferdinand Marcos election. Cumbersome and quaint by today’s standards, that was cutting edge in 1986.
Three years later, another huge story in an already storied career for David Louie: the 1989 San Francisco-Oakland earthquake. That’s the one that occurred in the middle of the World Series, with Louie covering damage to “infrastructure, freeways and buildings.”
Working in the same shop with Louie for most of those years is Wayne Freedman, who describes his colleague as “ageless on the air.”
“He’s more than institutional,” Freedman says. “We’re not talking about a piece of furniture, not the walls. We’re talking foundational.”
Freedman adds that Louie’s value extends beyond the newsroom into the region he covers. “He is part and parcel of the fabric of the community – instantly, instantly credible.”
Watkowski points out that community includes his industry, where Louie became one of the first non-news directors to serve on the RTDNA board and later became a trustee of RTDNF. She says he’s also a mentor to younger reporters in his shop.
Louie once took a detour from reporting and from San Francisco to serve as assistant news director at WXYZ in Detroit, which was then an ABC O&O, like KGO. After two years in management, he returned to the Bay Area in 1979 and to reporting, his first love.
“Early in my career, I thought management was the way to lead.” But he realized later, “I did not have to carry the badge to be a leader.” He says the best of both worlds is being a reporter who exemplifies leadership every day on the job.
And that’s just the beginning of Louie’s sage observations and advice about his industry:
On what he likes about the direction of his station and the business overall: “I’m proudest of the fact we have become very skilled at using technology for storytelling. We’ve become very agile. We’ve developed a loyalty from viewers who give us feedback. (That) continuous loop is making us better.”
On a troubling trend: “News has always been criticized for being biased by some segments.” But now? “I hate to see the messenger being the whipping boy. I don’t like to see Washington having a chilling impact on the public’s ability to have information.”
But his boss says it is what is constant with David Louie that is so important. “He still has the enthusiasm and curiosity and love for what he does and we benefit from that,” Watkowski says.
What keeps him interested every day?
“I’d like to think it harkens back to college days: Write an essay on a new subject every day,” Louie says. But he warns, “No dead air, no missed deadlines.”
His long-time colleague Wayne Freedman notes, “Next to him, I’m the longest-tenured in the market. I’d love to be the longest-tenured reporter, but I don’t think he’ll ever quit. I won’t be surprised to see David working into his 70s, if he can.”
Sounds good to David Louie, who has no plans to retire.
“Journalism has been my family,” he says.
Kevin Finch is a former TV news director and teaches journalism, politics and documentaries at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
See KGO-TV's story about David Louie.