Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Dane Placko

Dane Placko makes frequent radio appearances discussing the stories he's covering on Fox-32, not to mention the stories that concern the love of his life: The Chicago Cubs (Sorry Mrs. Placko!). Dane has been with Fox 32 for seventeen years now, serving as a general assignment reporter for most of that time. He also cohosts Fox Chicago Sunday with Jack Conaty. I interviewed Dane for Shore Magazine over the summer, and an edited version of that interview appeared in the magazine. This is the unedited version.

Rick: What is the biggest story you've covered?

Dane: I've been lucky enough to cover a lot of big stories... from presidential campaigns to mob trials to natural disasters. Probably the biggest story I covered from start to finish was Jeffrey Dahmer. I was working in Milwaukee at a station just a few blocks from his apartment. I remember getting the early morning call at home from our overnight producer. She heard chatter on the police radio about heads in a refrigerator. I told her it was probably just some bored cops screwing around. Half an hour later she calls back and says "No, they really found heads in a refrigerator."

A couple days later I got a tip that the Milwaukee police were called to Dahmer's apartment months earlier after some witnesses saw him chasing a naked boy into the street. They believed Dahmer's story that the boy was an adult and allowed him to take the drugged boy back into his apartment. That child, and several more people, was subsequently killed by Dahmer. The story of the police error was a huge exclusive that roiled the community and led to several police reforms.

Rick: What was the most embarrassing on-air blooper?

Dane: I remember anchoring a noon newscast in Des Moines many years ago. I had to read a story about help for people with dyslexia, and I completely botched the read. Couldn't get a word out straight. It felt like time stopped. I'm sure they're still playing that clip on the WHO TV Christmas party blooper reel.

Rick: Of all the people you've met covering the news, who has impressed you the most?

Dane: I remember the first time I met Barack Obama. It was in 1999 at a southside news conference on payday loan legislation. He was a state senator representing Hyde Park. As soon as he opened his mouth to speak it was clear this was no ordinary machine hack. I remember going back to the newsroom and telling a colleague "I just met the most remarkable politician...."

Rick: How has technology changed your job since you started in this business?

Dane: We were still using manual typewriters and carbon forms when I started. The wire service copy was delivered on a massive machine that looked like an iron-clad corner mailbox. I remember around 1985 our newsroom got one of the early cellphones, the ones that looked like a car battery with a shoulder strap. I took it to the Iowa State Fair to do some live reports and it was a bigger curiosity than the Butter Cow.

Now we're delivering live reports on contraptions that look like Dick Tracy's wristwatch. The digital revolution's greatest impact on the news business is that we're now ALWAYS on deadline. Instead of having hours to craft a story for the late newscast, we have to get multiple versions online throughout the day. The news cycle continues to spin faster and faster, and I'm not sure tthat's always a good thing.

A funny story about old technology in the new media world. I used to sit next to legendary anchor Walter Jacobson in our newsroom. As brilliant as Walter was at findng scoops and breaking stories, he had absolutely no use for technology and computers. He was still using an electric typewriter just a couple years ago. So I would be on the phone talking to someone about a story, and they would inevitably ask about the clickety clack sound in the background. People thought I was kidding when I told them it was just Walter hammering out a script on his IBM Selectric.

Rick: What is the biggest misconception about television news people?

Dane: People often think if you work in TV news you have a team of producers and researchers at your beck and call. I often get asked "Who writes the stuff you read?"or "Who goes out and talks to those people in your stories?" They seem a little surprised when they learn that television reporters are responsible for, well, reporting. And writing.

Rick: What is your favorite part of the job?

Dane: I really really enjoy getting a good tip and working to develop it into a story. Since I do a lot of the political corruption investigations and tax waste stories at Fox, I'm only as good as my sources and tips. Sometimes the phone will ring and out of the blue someone will give you the lead on a great story. There's a sense of euphoria you get as a reporter when you're the only one holding a hot piece of information. Then you dig and develop, sometimes for weeks, before the story makes air.

Rick: If you weren't in television, what would you be doing?

Dane: I'd probably still be flipping burgers at Steak 'N Shake. That was my first "real" job at 16. The way the media business is going... I probably WILL be flipping burgers at Steak 'N Shake.