TV News: A Place Without Graves

After nearly 42 years at KOIN-TV, Mike Donahue is retiring this week. It was clear KOIN liked the young Donahue right from the start.A strong sense of community and tradition is important for Northwest coastal Indians. They have a saying for a community that has little soul. Such a place is transitory – where people may come and go but they never stay long. “It is a place without graves.”

The same could be said of the world of local television news. The newsroom is a hard place to put down roots. It is a business with little loyalty. Talented reporters and anchors stay for a while and then move on. Management turnovers frequently occur. It is hard for viewers to form attachments to the transitory personalities of TV news.

So pay attention Thursday when a milestone is reached. Noon anchor Mike Donahue signs off after nearly 42 years working for Portland’s CBS affiliate, KOIN-TV channel 6. He departs as a highly respected professional in a business that should command our trust, but often fails to do so.

As The Sunday Oregonian noted in its profile of Donahue: “In recent years, local TV news has come under criticism for emphasizing quick-hit news, often at the expense of more substantial, in-depth coverage.”

The article goes on to quote former KOIN reporter Bill Schwanbeck, producer of "Running on Empty,” a documentary critical of the TV news business. Donahue was included in the film as the exception:

"He [Donahue] has so much integrity, and he's also not just a talking-head anchor. He's a reporter. I think that's a reason he's been able to be in this business as long as he has. He's just the pro's pro, meticulous about the writing and getting the story right."

Without getting into his views of the current state of the business in The Oregonian profile, Donahue simply refers to his earliest years in the business as the “golden age.” That’s code for professional standards and resources were better then than now.

The late 60s and early 70s was a vibrant time to start a news career. Donahue landed a job at KOIN straight out of college after graduating from The University of Oregon in 1968. It was clear the young reporter made an early, positive impression.

Donahue went into the U.S. Army in 1969. News Director John Armstrong sent word to the Portland State University journalism department that he wanted a “new kid” to temporarily replace Donahue while he was gone. Professor Wilma Morrison called me into her office. She haled from Donahue’s hometown of Albany and she knew something of him. KOIN very much liked Donahue and hoped he would come back when his service was done, Morrison explained. In the meantime, I could be the new kid. (Another PSU kid, Paul Linnman, had just joined KATU-TV as an intern.)

Having grown up a CBS and KOIN viewer, I said yes to the offer. At age 19, I became a regular part-timer in the TV News Department, starting in late 1969 and ending in 1971, when I was named editor of the PSU Vanguard, the university's student newspaper. It seemed like a good step. I was delighted to gain the TV experience but had decided that TV News was a “silly” business and changed course that led me to become part of Willamette Week’s founding group.

Donahue returned to KOIN after the army, and it’s been the only commercial TV news job he’s held. He’s ridden the tides of good and bad at KOIN, achieving a memorable record as a beloved professional.

This will be a good week to watch KOIN as the news show airs Donahue stories.