Surviving as a News Director

Mar 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Back in the 1980s KUSA-TV’s Patti Dennis once won a Halloween contest by dressing up as Michael Jackson and moonwalking through the newsroom. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a sense of humor if you work in a business where most news directors are eaten alive.
The average life span of a news director is a mere two years, according to the Radio-Television News Directors Association. That’s why folks like Ms. Dennis, who has served as VP, news, at Gannett Broadcasting ‘s NBC affiliate in Denver for nearly seven years and has been with the station for 22, are a rarity.
Michael Jackson costumes aside, it’s tough to survive as a news director. A handful in larger markets have etched out a niche in the same post at the same station well beyond the average life span of the species. Among them are Chicago’s Debra Juarez at Fox’s WFLD-TV, Indianapolis’ Lee Giles at CBS’s WISH-TV, Minneapolis’ Tom Lindner at NBC’s KARE-TV, Margie Nichols at NBC’s WBIR-TV in Knoxville, Tenn., and Ms. Dennis.
Each offers a different nugget of wisdom, but one theme is constant-they all shepherd successful stations.
Ms. Juarez has been VP of news at Fox owned-and-operated WFLD since 1993 and during her stay has beefed up the station’s news resources and built the image of an alternative news source. She added two hours of news each day, at noon and 5 p.m., and a 5 p.m. newscast on Saturdays.
In addition, she has launched a consumer unit, a special-projects unit, an investigative unit and a health unit. Also under Ms. Juarez’s watch, the station finally revamped its sports coverage and built a larger sports department when Fox acquired the rights to broadcast the NFL. That was all part of her mandate from day one to give the station a new image.
Ms. Juarez came on board with WFLD VP and general manager Stacey Marks-Bronner, with whom Ms. Juarez had worked as a producer at Sunbeam-owned WSVN-TV in Miami. They worked closely during that station’s transition from an NBC affiliate to an independent station in the late ’80s and helped to forge its identity as a formidable independent news source. WSVN is now a Fox affiliate.
That “in-the-trenches” experience and sense of teamwork carried over to WFLD and the pair have worked closely to build the station’s name in Chicago.
“We learned how to do TV when you’re not one of the Big 3,” Ms. Juarez said. “We’ve worked our way along and muscled our way in and broken into this market in the news scene.” That mentality and sense of teamwork are reasons for her long tenure at the station, she said. WFLD competes directly with Tribune-owned WB affiliate WGN-TV at 9 p.m., and while WGN usually has bigger household numbers, WFLD has stronger demos, said Ms. Juarez.
Bonding With Staff
The dean of news directors is Lee Giles at LIN TV’s WISH in Indianapolis. He has held his post for an astonishing 35 years, since 1967, and has been with the station since 1963. “You have to get a lot of lucky breaks to stay for that long,” said Mr. Giles, who has lasted through seven general managers and about that many ownership changes. During a management change in 1978 he felt his job was “on the bubble,” but WISH’s coverage of the blizzard of ’78 cemented his standing after the station went live for 24 hours and “owned” that story, he said.
In fact, when general managers change, a news director must build up a “bank account” with each new one, said Fred Zehnder, who served as news director at Cox-owned Fox affiliate KTVU-TV in San Francisco for 21 years, until 1999. He now owns East Bay Publishing and publishes two community weeklies. The staff needs to trust the news director, and he or she has to have staying power, he said.
Winning over the staff hasn’t been problematic for Mr. Giles, since he has hired 69 of the 70 newsroom staffers, said Scott Blumenthal, general manager of WISH. The lone exception is anchor Mike Ahern, who was hired by Mr. Giles’ predecessor. “It’s a team he has put together over the years,” said Mr. Blumenthal. “I think his longevity is due to a few things-his knowledge of good journalism, gut instinct in terms of talent and people and he is a nice man.”
Mr. Giles has also been a pioneer in the market. WISH will introduce the state’s first Spanish-language newscast in March on sister Univision station WIIH-TV in Indianapolis, he said. In addition, the station was the first in Indiana to offer a full-time local weather channel on cable, which began in 1993, the first to produce a regular morning newscast, which started in 1984, and the first to offer daily editorials, which commenced in 1963, Mr. Giles said. “I think it’s just crucial to be adaptable to change,” he said.
At Gannett’s NBC affiliate KARE in Minneapolis, stability of the operation has played a role in the longevity of VP news director Tom Lindner, who has held the job since 1996. He fits the station profile well, since the average length of stay for any employee at KARE is 11 years. Regular training and education is vital for the staff and news director, he said. KARE regularly sends staffers to National Press Photographers Association and Poynter Institute training workshops and recently concluded an 18-month project in which the station’s middle managers attended off-site training retreats every other month.
In addition, parent company Gannett assembles the news directors at its 22 stations two to three times a year to share best practices, Mr. Lindner said.
Continuing Training, Education
A commitment to training and education are common among most of the tenured news directors, said Al Tompkins, broadcast/online group leader with the Poynter Institute. “Leaders who survive are also leaders who are constantly learning,” he said.
A supportive corporate culture also helps. Many of the long-serving news directors are at Gannett stations, including Mr. Linder, Ms. Dennis and Ms. Nichols.
As a company, Gannett does not have a lot of turnover, said Dick Mallary, senior VP with Gannett Broadcasting. “From a company perspective, a lot are expecting almost immediate ratings success or evidence that a news director will perform some kind of magic. Our philosophy is you earn viewers’ trust, and you don’t do that overnight,” he said.
KUSA’s Ms. Dennis became news director in 1996 shortly after the station switched affiliations from ABC to NBC as part of a marketwide change in Denver. One of her goals was to reinforce and rebuild the “9News” brand in Denver, something that reflects her efforts in the way the station talks and writes about 9News and and represents it graphically, she said.
She also revamped the newsroom and eliminated some associate producer positions, among other positions, in favor of adding more reporters. “I am still beating that drum,” she said. In fact, KUSA plans to add three new reporters in February and March. All told, the reporting staff has grown by nearly a third during her tenure, from about 23 to about 30.
Margie Nichols has been news director at Gannett’s NBC affiliate WBIR in Knoxville for seven years. “Perseverance is key. This is a difficult job. You get rated every day,” she said.
A good news director should maintain his or her zest for news, foster a team atmosphere and know the community well, said Barbara Cochran, president of RTNDA.