It’s just after 9 AM in a TV studio on the ground floor of a building in Dearborn, Michigan. Ellen Akins is sitting behind an anchor desk, taking a few last-minute sips of coffee and reading through the morning’s script, waiting for the newscast to begin.
Two rooms away, technicians are eager for the newscast to finish. Their job is to bounce it off a satellite orbiting 22,300 miles overhead and onto TV screens across North America.
Between the studio and the technicians is a control room, dim except for the light from 26 video monitors. Rendall Thomas, the director of the newscast, is pulling together its strands: video clips, graphics, on-screen text crawlers. Thomas is clearly the center of gravity. He’s looking at a monitor showing a live shot of his anchor. “I think you need to truck right a bit,” he tells a cameraman. “No, no, too far, let’s go left, get left … “
Thomas’s air of authority is well earned. Five nights a week, he directs the evening news for WDIV-TV, Detroit’s NBC affiliate. For the last two rating periods, his broadcast has ranked number one.
“I think we’re ready to rock and roll,” Thomas says, looking briefly left and right for any dissent from his crew. “Stand by to roll open: three, two, one — roll open….”
On the screen, a series of neon-blue fuses sparks out the letters of a logo. But the letters aren’t WDIV. They’re FCN. This is the Ford Communications Network, and the daily news broadcast from Ford Motor Co. is under way.
If there is a universal lament in business, it has to be, “Nobody around here tells me anything.” At Ford, it’s tougher for people to lodge that complaint. Every weekday morning, FCN beams out 30 minutes of news to 360 factories and offices: a target audience of about 200,000 viewers.
FCN News took shape during the early 1980s, when Ford was losing billions of dollars and decided it was better for employees to hear bad news from the company. Now the news is different: In 1994, Ford was the second most profitable company in the world (earnings: $5.3 billion), and some executives talk openly about surpassing General Motors in market share.
Still, Ford considers its daily internal newscast vital. The logic is clear: There are few real secrets in business, so why pretend a company should (or can) keep its people in the dark?
What’s truly distinctive about FCN News is how it operates. It aims for credibility by borrowing from the conventions of independent journalism. The show — a mix of Ford news, automotive reports, and updates on general economic trends — has production values as good as any local news broadcast. The “newsroom” in the Glass House, Ford’s corporate headquarters, teems with reporters and producers equipped with computers, beepers, expense accounts, camera crews, and more than a century of collective experience in the broadcast-news business.
These people may work for corporate, but with attitude. One FCN News staffer, noting the convenient presence of Ford’s external press-relations staff, says, “We can harass them in person.”
“Do we do pure journalism?” asks Sara Tatchio, FCN News’ executive producer. “No. But we push the envelope continuously.”
Tatchio, a fast-moving, fast-talking bulldog of an editor, is typical of the FCN News staff, almost all of whom came from commercial TV news. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, Tatchio joined Ford in 1989 with seven years of hard news experience, including five as a news producer for Detroit’s then CBS affiliate, WJBK.
Like most newsrooms, the FCN newsroom has developed a motivating idea. That idea is urgency, beating the competition to the story. If there’s news about Ford, Tatchio insists employees should know it before they go home to their evening newscasts. “We want them to see the news first from FCN,” she says.
The staff certainly hustles. Recently FCN News sent one of its correspondents to China for a week of reporting on the country and its auto industry. She researched 15 short pieces plus a 5-part series. One story included the sobering news that while Volkswagen, Daihatsu, and Chrysler are building cars in China, “Ford is still seeking a deal to produce vehicles.”
Ford executives aren’t always comfortable with less-than-flattering communication. “There are groups in the company that don’t always agree with us on the airing of news,” says Beryl Goldsweig, manager of internal communications. “They still believe you can control what goes out, externally and internally. But that happens far less often than it used to.”
Charles Fishman (email@example.com) is a writer based in Raleigh, NC.