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News Man: WJLA Channel 7 bet its future on Leon Harris. Signs are, it's beginning to pay off.

The future of local TV news is uncertain, but Channel 7's Leon Harris is working to secure his place.

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By Paul Farhi
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Leon Harris is standing on a stage, his tie loosened and shirt sleeves peeled back, facing 300 restless high school students. Channel 7's anchorman is at Eleanor Roosevelt High School n Prince George's County, talking to an auditorium full of teenagers about safe driving.

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It's as simple as saying, 'I will not speed,'" Harris tells the big room, his voice resonant and anchorman-smooth. "'I will not drink and drive. And I will not get into a car with someone who does.'"

The kids aren't quite sure what to make of the TV guy, but Harris presses on. "It's as simple as taking one extra second to think about what you're doing. There are consequences to every single decision you make out there."

Harris cues an assistant, and a series of videos roll on a big screen. Each one is about the tragic aftermath of a traffic accident, with regretful survivors and tearful relatives. By the end, the students have stopped fidgeting.

Harris goes into his windup. "Buckle up when you get in a vehicle. Deal?"

"Deal!" the teenagers respond enthusiastically.

"Don't drink and drive or get in a vehicle with someone who did. Deal?"

"Deal!" roar the students, who whoop and applaud as Harris waves and leaves the stage, a smile curling his caterpillar of a mustache.

It's a worthy message and a nice event, one of dozens organized by Harris's TV station in area schools. But it makes you wonder: What's Leon Harris -- a journalist who has reported stories from around the world, the man recruited from CNN a few years back to lead WJLA (Channel 7) to ratings glory -- doing here in the first place?

As it happens, one answer to the question has been standing just offstage during the event. A cameraman from WJLA has recorded the entire presentation. During Harris's 5 p.m. newscast, the station will air a short piece about his appearance at Roosevelt High. Teenagers don't really watch the local news, but the station figures the students' parents might, if only to catch a glimpse of the kids and the school. One of those families might even turn out to be one of the 560 local households monitored by the Nielsen Co., which could mean a small but critical boost for the station.

"You never know," Harris says in the parking lot afterward.

So, five or more times a week, Leon Harris gets in his shiny black BMW and motors off to do another driving assembly, charity fundraiser or pep talk for "at risk" kids. This kind of house-to-house campaigning is, in a way, what the local news has come to. These days, TV stations can't afford to take even a handful of potential viewers for granted.


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