Spy In The Newsroom
Competition in Tampa Bay news leads to
computer intrigue

by Jim West
News Director, 1984-89 

    Around 1984, the newsroom began experimenting with computers.  We purchased a very early model IBM desktop, so early that the hard drive was housed in its own chassis.  I think it had a 'massive' 20Mb hard drive, but it was a beginning.

    The computer was needed for several reasons. One was to begin a library of news clips used on the air.  Heretofore, reporters and photographers kept their favorite stories in and under their desks. There was a room piled high with stacks of raw tapes of important stories and well as generic video. But there was no systematized way to find anything.  Were it not for Warren Elly’s photographic mind and knowledge of the stacks of tapes, we would have been in great jeopardy.

    To bring some order, we began editing our stories on library tapes instead of short playback cassettes.  Once full, these tapes would become a library of completed video used on-air and data associated with the story including key words would be entered into a very flat-file database. This was a long way away from meta-tags that are used today, but it worked fairly well.

The Radio Shack TRS80 computer

In the late 1980's, we began equipping reporters with laptop computers.  The Radio Shack TRS80-100 had a meager amount of memory; about enough to hold 50 typed scripts.  While primitive by today’s standards,  they worked well enough to send scripts electronically back to the studio for approval via a simple phone/modem setup.   

    This was also a time when cellular phones first made their appearance.  Before that, two-way shortwave radio was the only way to communicate with the newsroom from a mobile location. Some early model cell phones were as big as lunch boxes, but they were battery powered and most importantly, mobile.  We bought cell phones that had a phone jack built-in, so we could plug into the laptops.  Amazingly it worked! Most of these phones were built into the live trucks, and provide another example of Big 13’s continued use of advancing technology.

We kept our eyes on the various newsroom computer systems that were coming to the market.  Word processing made a lot of sense in a newsroom, since we spent a fortune in paper packs (specially printed packs of 5-6 sheets each) which were often trashed in the course of writing a story.  Furthermore, the cost of the large-type typewriters and maintenance was constant. Perhaps most important was the convenience of word processing that enabled last-minute changes to scripts and positioning of stories in the format of a newscast.

There were some early newsroom computer solutions that we examined. ComPrompter’s Ralph King came to our station to demonstrate his system built at that time on an Apple platform.  At successive RTNDA conventions, the newsroom computer systems made a constant evolution as technology permitted.  In 1988, we embarked on an exciting path to computerize the newsroom…but a course that would also result in a major scandal in the market.

After months of study and deliberation, we picked a Basys computer system. Built on a centralized hub of servers from Digital Equipment Company (DEC), their mini-Vax line. The assignment desk, reporters and anchors all were equipped with terminals to access the system.  We added two high-speed printers, which would print multi-sheet paper packs, but only once, adding to our savings.

The software contained some interesting features such as a primitive version of Instant Messaging. There also were templates for use by Assignment Editors, Producers, etc. and well as extensive library capability to recall previous stories when needed.

There were a number of ways to access the system remotely over the phone since the Internet and Wide Area Networks were still virtual unknowns.  Remote access was possible using the similar “dumb” terminals but there was also another gateway available for use by the growing number of PC’s.  In fact, I could access the system from my home 40 miles away and look at the assignment list and the show rundowns long before they aired.  Unfortunately, as we later found out, so could others!

We sent two of our most technically astute news employees to Basys training.  Michael Shapiro, then Assignment Manager, and Cary Williams, who was to oversee the system as Operations Manager. They did a wonderful job of learning the ins and outs of the system and spent weeks training the staff in its use.

A few months after in implementation of the computer system, Shapiro announced he was accepting a position as Assistant News Director for one of our competitors, WTSP.  He gave his two weeks notice. Perhaps more out of kindness than better judgment, I allowed him to work out his notice until the last day.

Knowing that Shapiro played a big role in setting up the system, we made sure all of his passwords and access was closed. Case closed, but not quite.

        Weeks later, in the fall of 1988, a morning show producer called Cary at home and said some files were missing from the computer system’s drives.  While they were restored we grew suspicious and took the opportunity to review the security of the system overall.  We asked the phone company to give us some logs of calls made into the system recently.  Some red flags came up.  Calls were traced to WTSP and to Shapiro’s home.

At this point a criminal investigation was launched. The case was turned over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). By the end of that year, a solid case of corporate espionage had been built against Shapiro and WTSP News Director Terry Cole.  I remember one visit to the FDLE, during which I was shown files from the personal computer I kept in my office. That computer was not networked, so the only way to have acquired those files was for someone to have broken into my office and copied them. Those files involved contracts and other sensitive information. Some reportedly were found as paper printouts behind a dumpster at WTSP.

In January 1989, the computer spy case received national publicity. The stations lawyers were building a very strong case against a competitor. But rather than a protracted court battle, both sides agreed to settle. Shapiro and his News Director were fired and a six-figure financial settlement between the stations was arranged. Computer-Gate was over.  We had been “bytten”, but the offending parties paid a hefty price. We later learned that Shapiro allegedly used a temporary password to gain access, one which inadvertently not been changed.

    This case also changed how Basys (now Avid) handled security issues. Computers in the general workplace, and accordingly, security, were going through a seminal stage in the late 1980's.  According to Cary, “Security training at Basys in Atlanta amounted to a one-liner:  Don’t put anything in the system you don’t want your enemies or News Director to see.  That was it.”   After the computer espionage episode, all that changed.  Soon, software upgrades to the system automatically required users to enter new passwords at regular intervals.

    In the following years computerization of the newsroom became ubiquitous.  From an assignment editor's desk to a reporters first notes to the script appearing on the TelePrompter, computers provide the pathway for the modern television newsroom.


BIG 13 thanks Jim West for this comprehensive look at WTVT news in the 1980s.

To read Jim West's story about first WTVT Co-Anchors, CLICK HERE

To read Jim West's story about the dawn of satellite news, CLICK HERE

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