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Sinclair Fortifies Station Newscasts

Jan 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

David Smith, the chairman, president and CEO of Sinclair Broadcast Group, was holding court after hours in the lobby of the Sinclair Building, located in the Baltimore suburb of Cockeysville, Md.
Dressed casually in a sweater vest, khakis and boat shoes, the leader of TV’s most contrarian company elaborated at length about the media bias he feels has crept into every corner of American culture, including local TV news.
“Our news media has intentionally dumbed down the news,” Mr. Smith said, “and we all know why they do: because they have a political agenda.”
As he sees it, the news fixates on crimes, fires and accidents because that keeps people from questioning the institutions that run this country-such as the “liberal media.”
“What would serve you better, a story about a house fire or a story about the Supreme Court?” Mr. Smith said.
A few steps away through double doors, three dozen employees were assembling that night’s edition of the newscast that Mr. Smith believes will set those “biased” TV news outfits on their ear.
This is “News Central,” the controversial hybrid local-national newscast being rolled out to many of Sinclair’s 62 owned-and-operated stations nationwide. This newsroom supplies between 20 and 26 minutes of content per night to affiliates. The local stations provide the rest, creating a blended hour at a fraction of the cost of a traditional local newscast.
When “News Central” launched in mid-2002, two-thirds of Sinclair stations weren’t producing local news. Their sales teams were effectively cut off from the 30 percent to 40 percent of local ad dollars that are spent exclusively on news. In three to five years, Mr. Smith believes, those stations will be more profitable with “News Central” than whatever syndicated product was airing in that hour.
But to dwell on Sinclair’s business model-as most critics have done-is to miss the real story behind “News Central.” Mr. Smith is an admirer of Fox News Channel, and he has drawn inspiration from its pot-stirring, button-pushing approach to journalism.
Joe DeFeo, the longtime Sinclair news director who was tapped to run “News Central,” is Mr. Smith’s temperamental opposite. Reserved in his style and opinions, Mr. DeFeo described the hybrid newscast in strategic rather than political terms.
“We are the fourth or fifth or sometimes sixth news operation in the market,” he said. “Usually we’re up against one or two competitors who are doing a good job. We have to go in there and provide something different. Different in the way it looks and in the kind of stories we’re doing.
“Where TV news organizations have gotten stuck is, `Here are the easy stories to do because we’ve got 27 hours to fill and we need stories.’ It’s very easy to do those [kinds of] stories and very difficult to get out of that rut.”
In the first 16 months of Sinclair’s local news experiment, Mr. DeFeo has authorized nearly 300 full-time news hirings nationwide. And the hiring will continue apace in 2004. About 25 to 30 local staffers are needed for each local newsroom. In St. Louis, where Sinclair shut down the ABC affiliate’s newscast and fired 47 employees in 2001, the company plans to launch “News Central” next year with a smaller staff.
Currently seen in 10 markets-Cincinnati went online last week-“News Central” opens with 10 minutes of local news. The local studios are designed to look identical to the national desk. Along with a graphics package that includes a continuous news ticker, “News Central” achieves a virtually seamless look from wherever it’s originating.
Sinclair-provided air checks from “News Central” newscasts in Las Vegas, Tampa, Fla., and Flint, Mich., revealed local segments where story counts were kept low, with most stories focusing on local controversies. Some packages ran as long as three minutes, with lengthy sound bites from opposing points of view. On “News Central” it seems the motto is “If it bleeds, it gets buried.”
This should come as no surprise to those familiar with the work of “News Central’s” managing editor and second in command.
Carl Gottlieb’s previous job was at the Project for Excellence in Journalism of Columbia University, where he handed out report cards to local TV newscasts across the country. Stations that emphasized issues, local relevance and sourcing while keeping story count low got high marks.
An energetic 53-year-old newsroom lifer, Mr. Gottlieb jumped at the chance to join “News Central” when it started up last year. He said he’s getting to put into practice what he preached at the Project for Excellence, and believes “News Central” is creating a new audience for local news.
“Maybe the reason people aren’t watching TV news is that the information isn’t resonating with them,” Mr. Gottlieb said. “It’s too passive a pursuit.” What he hopes to do, in theory at least, is create “a conversation” with viewers that engages them and brings them back for more.
Mr. Gottlieb’s team shows its stuff in the newscast’s second segment, a meaty 12 minutes of politics and world news. Stories that other stations might give a quick read often merit a package on “News Central,” with sound bites from two or more points of view.
The national segments, more than the local ones, have a strong Fox flavor. One of the national anchors, Morris Jones, opened with an upbeat story about the U.S. occupation of Iraq by asking rhetorically whether Americans were getting “the real message” about that country’s turnaround.
In the newsroom, Mr. Jones was at his desktop PC, editing his interview with President Bush. Sinclair was one of five so-called “regional broadcasters” chosen when the president did his network end-run this fall.
“Frankly, centralcasting is not a new idea,” said Mr. Jones, who has been anchoring since the 1970s. “What’s different is that we’re free of the built-in political correctness and bias that viewers see from the East Coast networks.”
Another break, and it was back to the local studio for four minutes of news. After the third break came the segment that most people, if they’ve heard anything about “News Central,” know about: the weather. It’s delivered from Maryland by a meteorologist who’s assigned up to three markets to cover. The weathercaster, who often appears in the opening “local” segment as well, is presented as though he were giving the forecast in the same studio as the local news team.
Newspaper stories have brought up the weather-in-Flint-from-Baltimore angle repeatedly, as if it were a sinister new development in local TV. In fact, Intellicast, owned by the parent company of the Weather Channel, provides exactly the same “looks local” weather service for cable operators across the country.
Others have been critical of the nightly commentaries delivered by Sinclair Corporate Affairs Director Mark Hyman, usually against left-wing loonies and critics of the president. (Baltimore’s alternative weekly compared Mr. Hyman to G. Gordon Liddy but admitted he was “a lot of fun to watch.”)
Mr. Smith has told Wall Street analysts that “News Central” will be completely rolled out by the end of 2004, though at its current rate of one market a month that seems optimistic. (Mr. DeFeo has also begun adding a faster-paced, half-hour late-news version of “News Central” in Baltimore, Oklahoma City, and soon Greensboro, S.C.)
One thing’s for sure: Dave Smith isn’t going to tone down “News Central” just because a bunch of East Coast intellectuals don’t like it. “We’re entrepreneurial and we don’t care what people say about us,” Mr. Smith said. Then he ventured a prediction: “They won’t like us any more than they like what Fox [News Channel] does.”
Aaron Barnhart is the TV critic at the Kansas City (Mo.) Star.