Changing World Of TV News

A day before Scripps ABC affiliate WEWS/5’s “NewsChannel 5” says goodbye to its most visible face, this is a good time to talk about the changing environment in local TV news “after Ted Henry”.

By our reckoning, after Mr. Henry says his final words on Wednesday night’s 11 PM newscast, there will be just two of his generation of Cleveland TV news left: his former co-anchor Wilma Smith, now down to a single nightly newscast at Local TV Fox affiliate WJW/8 “Fox 8”, and Wilma’s WJW co-hort Dick Goddard, who’s been doing the weather on Channel 8 since before many of its viewers were born.

That’s it, basically…Dick and Wilma. Their “generation” has been seen in Northeast Ohio’s local living rooms for decades.

The group was once formidable: those who were so established locally, they felt like friends. In an insular market like Cleveland, local ties and longevity are important.

But as time moved on, retirement came in for names like Ted Henry…and like Tim Taylor, who recently stepped down from his role alongside Ms. Smith at WJW. On the entertainment side of local TV, “Big Chuck” Schodowski called it a career. The bridge from the mid-to-late 1970’s into the 21st Century is getting close to being gone.

Oh, there are still some who cross a divide of more than a couple of decades. WEWS’ “Live On Five” co-anchor Leon Bibb comes to mind. Or, maybe Robin Swoboda at “Fox 8”, though her presence hasn’t really been as continuous (and she’s doing the talk/entertainment show “That’s Life” today).

How important is the “Big Name Anchor” in 2009?

To most broadcasters, well, not very.

Consider this TVNewsday interview (“Raycom Success Strategy: 3 Screens, 24/7”) with Raycom Media VP of News Susana Schuler, responsible for overseeing dozens of local news operations for the company – including, of course, “19 Action News” – the newsroom of CBS affiliate WOIO/19-MyNetwork TV affiliate WUAB/43 in the Cleveland market:

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Our goal has been to try to put more energy, effort and resources into 24-hour content dissemination on all our platforms. To do that, we need to have more people in every station that are able to do more things than perhaps they had been encouraged or trained to do in the past.

It’s been almost two years now since we started down this road. We always have had a good understanding that this was an important place to be, but we weren’t structured in a way that allowed us to gather news and information 24 hours a day and pick the platform for dissemination depending on the particular time of day.

We call it our three-screen strategy. We want to be the local information provider over the air, on the Internet and on the mobile device.

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Not a word there, of course, about the high-profile local anchor who becomes the face of the station. But the anchors do get mentioned:

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If you now have three skill sets, you are probably going to need six and you’re going to be utilizing those skill sets with some regularity to do your job every day. We’re probably asking everybody to double the number of skills that they have.

Do I think every reporter needs to shoot? Absolutely. Do they need to do that every day? That’s not up to me. It’s up to the local managers. Do I think every anchor needs to report? Absolutely. Do most of our managers? I suspect they do, but that’s not my call.

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These words are no surprise to anyone in a TV newsroom in 2009. The highly-paid anchor with the cushy job and the over-six-figure salary who never leaves the news set? That seems destined to be consigned to the era of fictional TV news anchor Ron Burgundy.

So, what does Raycom consider the role of today’s news anchors? Back to Susana Schuler:

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Anchors need to be leaders in our newsrooms — what (AR&D’s) Jerry (Gumbert) calls chief journalists. As I said earlier, every anchor should be reporting. It keeps them connected to their communities. It gets them engaged in what their audience is interested in. Being a reporter was the most fun I ever had. It was being out in the field connecting with the audience.

So, the anchor role is evolving. Their connection to a community, to the audience, remains critical, but their role in the future has to go way beyond their performance in a newscast. I would hope that the journalists and news anchors that work for us understand that. I feel they do. I feel they have embraced what we have been asking them to do, some better than others. Why wouldn’t you want to be more connected, more relevant, more engaged, more valuable moving forward?

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Schuler also talks about the company’s employees being more involved in online media, social networking and blogs, spreading their personality brand outside the realm of the TV studio.

That may be one reason why many “19 Action News'” Twitter updates will include the anchor or reporter introducing themselves. “Denise Dufala here”, “Paul Joncich here” “David Wittman here”, etc., many of ’em with quick takes on hot button issues…or pokes at NBA TV analyst Charles Barkley, recently.

All of this ties back into the situation at 3001 Euclid, where Replacing Ted Henry will be the focus in the next few weeks or months.

We’re hearing again that WEWS will turn to a rotation of fill-in anchors to sit next to Danita Harris on the evening editions of “NewsChannel 5”. Expect names like Duane Pohlman and John Kosich, among other existing station newspeople, to start showing up after Wednesday.

Station insiders tell us that they expect this to continue through the summer and perhaps into the fall, before a final decision is made…and expect it’s “even money” that the hire will be internal, vs. someone from outside the station.

Does that preclude WEWS VP Viki Regan dialing up Wyoming and reaching out to former WKYC/3 anchor Tim White?

Well, as we mentioned, we’re not hearing anything about that possibility, one way or the other.

But what may have been a nearly-automatic move for a TV station executive like Ms. Regan a few years ago, may not be nearly so automatic now.

And certainly, the above reality – and cost pressures – of modern TV news would tend to work against paying big money to lure a high-profile former competing anchor to “come back” to compete with his old station.

And in 2009, it’s just as likely that WEWS will move one of its existing news people into the anchor chair…and focus on continuing to build its online presence instead of “landing the big fish” anchor-wise, be it Tim White or anyone else…

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