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In her job inquiry, she noted that one in 3.8 television viewers is at least 55 years of age. : Doris Winkler's Beat Covers New Topics for an Older Audience

April 28, 1985|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

A year ago, Doris Winkler was 62 and depressed. Her husband was ill; their savings had been jeopardized by an investment failure; her seven grown children no longer needed her. Winkler had had a 20-year career in journalism and public relations; now she wondered whether her active life was through.

"I realized I wanted to work in the mainstream again," recalled Winkler, a resident of Orange. "But I looked at the marks of age on my face and thought who would hire me?"

As it turned out, Channel 7 Eyewitness News hired Winkler--for a position they had never had before, for work she had never done before. And now a year later, her new job has brought her more fame, glamour, financial security and satisfaction than she ever thought she would attain.

It all started with a letter.

The letter, which Winkler had carefully researched, pointed out that one in every 3.8 television viewers is 55 years old or older. Those viewers' concerns were not being represented on television, she wrote. And--even though she had no television experience--she proposed to produce and host a program dedicated to seniors. She photocopied and sent the letter to every television station in the Los Angeles area.

As a result, Eyewitness News executives created a "senior correspondent" position, much like those of other specialty consumer reporters. Winkler may be the only television reporter covering the "aging beat" in the United States, according to Vic Heman, executive producer of Eyewitness News.

News stations across the country are finding that specialty reporters such as Winkler raise ratings, said Heman. Seniors, however, are not a prime target of advertising on news programs. And although Winkler may increase ratings, her primary purpose is to fulfill what the station sees as a public service obligation, he said.

After receiving Winkler's letter, Terry Crofoot, the station's news director, asked her to write a sample script and read it on camera. An extrovert with the soft accent of her native Louisville, Winkler spoke to the camera lens as if it were a person, talking about how aging had affected her. She detailed her depression but also told what she said she had learned from a Catholic priest--that the essence of life is change. "There is always beauty to be found in the garden of life, if one only looks for it," she said.

She feared her script would be too sentimental for the young producers. But when she finished her audition, she said the crew applauded and a young woman yelled: "I want to be 60 years old and be just like you!"

Winkler was hired as a "free-lance talent," at first temporarily to work on seniors-oriented mini-documentaries for May when the station devotes more air time to issues of interest to older viewers. Then, she was to work a few days a week. But she pressed for more regular work and station executives agreed to teach her the nuts and bolts of production.

She quickly found out they did not want more philosophical essays, but rather news segments that she would be expected to produce. She also was responsible for selecting her own topics. She said she learned to work faster with less research than she had in newspapers and to call "tape" what she previously had assumed was "film." Now she reels off jargon like "live intro" and "live tag" (translation: the parts of her segment taped in the studio), "B-roll" (background shots), and "bites" (portions of taped interviews chosen for use).

And she works five 6-to-11-hour days a week. Some days she travels Southern California with a camera crew. Other days, she works in the studio only, writing, working with editors and taping the live intros and tags to her two-to-three-minute segments (seen Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on the station's 4 o'clock news).

"I like to give resource information people can use to solve a problem," says Winkler, who has covered such topics as Social Security problems, senior housing, employment, nutrition and services and programs aimed at older people. She leaves involved social issues to documentary producers and shuns "demeaning" topics such as senior "kitchen bands" (which play utensils as instruments). This May, she will also work on longer mini-documentaries about the problems of older Americans.

The afternoon news show reaches an estimated 399,000 people from Ventura to San Diego. Since many older people watch news at that hour, the station assumes a large percentage of its viewers are seniors, said Heman.

In recent years, the media has paid more attention to the growing over-50 population, publishing specialty magazines such as Modern Maturity and 50 Plus. Newspaper syndicates report selling more columns on aging, and more mature faces are starting to appear on television news programs.

Even so, as a mature, female television reporter covering the "aging beat," Winkler is probably unique.

"We were surprised at how well it worked," said Heman. Winkler receives more mail and phone calls than most other news or feature correspondents, he said.

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