Fifteen Minutes with Mary Lynn Roper

By Betsy Model

Tracking down a native New Mexican in the Land of Enchantment’s world of broadcast journalism is one thing; tracking down the head of a major network affiliate who can track their family history in New Mexico seven generations is something entirely different.

Mary Lynn Roper, president and general manager of Albuquerque’s ABC affiliate KOAT-TV, can do just that.  She began her broadcast career in radio as a disc jockey in her hometown of Raton in 1970 and, by 1977, had moved on to become an on-air reporter and photographer at KOAT-TV.  After winning an IRE Award of Excellence in reporting for her coverage of the New Mexico State Penitentiary uprising, she became the station’s news director and, after a series of promotions within the then-parent company of Pulitzer Broadcasting, moved to her current role.

We asked Mary Lynn to share a bit of what she’s seen in her thirty years in New Mexico journalism, to comment on trends and to even make a prediction or two…

Mary Lynn RoperYou’ve got an incredible New Mexican pedigree…seven generations!  That said, you actually left New Mexico for a while to pursue journalism…

Yes, to St. Louis (Missouri) to become vice president of news for Pulitzer (Broadcasting) who had nine television stations and three radio stations.  I loved that job and learned a ton (and) I’m glad I did it.  But it was also good to return to New Mexico when the opportunity arose.  I have a real love for this state.

Was there a culture shock leaving New Mexico?

You know, what I didn’t realize having grown up here and having stayed here for so long was that not everyone has blue skies (laughs) or our wonderful vistas.  I didn’t understand, really, what humidity was!

You’ve been in this business over thirty years; what are the biggest changes?

No question, technology.  When I started at KOAT-TV we were still shooting film – imagine that! – and at 2 pm every day we’d have to deliver our film for processing and then have to cut it and edit and get ready for air.  To go from that to instant capability with satellite live shots and microwave shots and a completely automated newsroom…amazing.

And all things being equal?  I think the stories are better.  From a television perspective, we can visualize and illustrate them better than in the past.  We can put graphics together, we can split screens, we can dissolve so that the viewer can actually see ‘this was then, this is now’ and just visually do a better job than a decade ago.

Does that increased fastness mean increased accuracy?

No, that’s still the responsibility of the reporter.  You can have all kinds of instant information – Google, the web, you can pull up archive information online – but you still have to do the work.

What’s one of the best parts of your job?

Getting people on track.  Excited.  Successful.  Sometimes it’s about getting people realigned to remembering why they walk in the door every day.  I’m there to remind them that ‘we can do this.  We can inform.  We can ask questions that we have the right to ask and that the public wants to know about.’  We reveal, we expose, we probe.  It’s exciting stuff, what we do!  I think too often it has become common to just spit out newscasts and not really think about ‘what is our quest?’  I don’t ever want that and I think about it all the time.

Is television news facing challenges that you want to address?

At the end of the day, how do we get the public’s attention so that they can be informed?  We have to have compelling content that piques their interest and gets them ‘in the tent’ to watch the newscast so that they can be informed.  In a 300-channel universe, that is becoming more and more complicated to do.

So how does local news compete with national programming or cable news?

I think when people think of Action 7 News and KOAT-TV they think of local news.  They always have and they always will.  Whether it’s a 300 channel universe or a 2000 channel universe there will only be a couple of stations in New Mexico that can put the spotlight on New Mexico news and that’s your local affiliate.  That’s really comforting, actually!  There will always, always be an appetite for local news.  You can get national news from a myriad selection (but) you can only get local news…locally.  It’s local journalists who gather local news and report it to the local public.

So what does that mean to local journalists looking to stay and work in New Mexico?

I think that with the right skills, you will have job opportunities because your skills are needed.  Understanding and reporting local news is a specialty.

You’re based in Albuquerque.  Does KOAT-TV have additional news bureaus?

Yes, we have a Santa Fe bureau with a full-time staff.  We also have bureaus in Carlsbad and Farmington.

So when job openings occur at KOAT-TV, are you finding the skilled personnel you need within New Mexico or are you recruiting out of state?

Both, but often out of state depending on what level we’re recruiting for.  ENMU does a beautiful job teaching college students our business and we have had great success where, when we hire from ENMU, they almost always hit the mark and grow with us.  We’ve also had some luck with NMSU.  So there’s been great success with entry-level positions.

For producers with three or four years experience?  We usually have to look out of state. There isn’t a lot of job-hopping between the various affiliates and stations.

Any predictions?

Belt tightening will continue for the next year.  Newsroom operations will stay a bit strapped.  It’s one of the great questions we grapple with; as newsrooms get smaller, what does that mean to the product?  It’s a fine line there on how far is too far…is there time to think a story through?  Are we accurate?  Fair?   Balanced?

But there’s an upside to all of this, too.  More employees are cross-trained.so that you can shoot, you can edit, you can report and you can pull graphics.

Any final thoughts on where television journalism in New Mexico is headed?

I truly believe that if you can inform the public, the ratings will come.  If the ratings come, the revenues come and that is (laughs) a beautiful thing.

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