Sunday, December 31, 2006

The Year in Review

What a crazy year 2006 has been. From management shakeups, to ethics lapses, to a war of newspaper headlines, there was plenty for local media watchers to talk about. And without further ado, Beale's Bites presents the Year in Review.

WYOU starts "Dialing for News"

For the past few years, WYOU's newscasts have been dead last in the ratings. Nexstar management tried to tinker with WYOU, to try to gain more viewers, but all efforts fell flat. It's not like WYOU even tried to forge its own identity; its newscasts seemed to be a grab-and-pull from WBRE's shows. This year, Nexstar decided to "think outside of the box," as CEO Perry Sook put it. Gone were the usual newscasts...

...replaced by something management called an "interactive newscast." This time, viewers would get to play a part in the newscast, by calling in to express their opinions about the news topic at hand. They could even ask a question to the guests of the day. News was primarily limited to a CNN-style rundown at the beginning of the program. Sports were axed, except for Fridays and Saturdays.

In a way, it was a risky move. Nobody had done a newscast like this before. But, if the format failed, it's not like things could get any worse at WYOU, right? The official ratings are still not known, but if the amount of people who call in are any indication, it seems that people are interested in "Dialing for News."

For sale: WNEP

In a sea of constant change, WNEP has been relatively unchanged. Owned by the New York Times since 1985, WNEP enjoyed the benefits of ownership by a newspaper company flush with cash. In turn, the NYT enjoyed the benefits of a television station flush with advertising cash and dominant ratings. Most TV stations seem to go through five owners in a decade. But not WNEP.

Well, at least until now.

This year, the NYT announced it was selling its broadcasting group, which included WNEP. Management downplayed the sale announcement, but there were concerns rolling throughout the station. Who was going to come in and buy the place? What would happen under a new owner? Who would get fired?

Fortunately for the folks on Montage Mountain Road, selling a TV station is about as complicated as solving a Rubik's cube with your eyes closed. The amount of red tape from the FCC will likely delay any anticipated sale for another year or two. But with prospective buyers already touring the station, it's clear that someone out there wants WNEP. Employees will just have to wait until the deal is sealed, to know whether to polish up those resumes.

Management lost

2006 began with a big shakeup at WBRE. News director Paul Stueber, whose tenure as a news manager includes stops at WNEP and WABC, was suddenly and unceremoniously shown the door. The details behind his firing remain murky, though many staffers say it centered on Steuber's personality, which, depending on who you ask, can be pleasant or pissed off. Someone ventured down door #2, and went to human resources. Management later escorted Steuber out the door.

Just across the newsroom, WYOU news director Frank Andrews decided to hit the road. In the spring, he announced he would run for state representative in Scranton. Andrews won the primary, and in November, the voters gave him a ticket to Harrisburg.

WBRE and WYOU also lost its general manager, John Dittmeier. Whether he was fired or left on his own remains to be seen.

The Newspaper War

Those who have been around a long time may remember the infamous Wilkes-Barre newspaper strikes of the late 1970s. Upset that the newspaper was to be sold to Capital Cities, unionized workers at the Times Leader went on strike. What resulted was a giant mess that led to fights, vandalism, and a tiny strike newspaper that grew to become The Citizens' Voice.

2006 showed that the old wounds and memories of yesteryear were not forgotten. In March, the McClatchy Company announced it was hanging the "FOR SALE" sign on the TL's door. And before you could say "scab," the CV and TL began using their front pages to continue their decades-old battle. Both newspapers traded shots in back-and-forth editorials, and were eager to pounce on even the slightest of mistakes by its competition.

For the TL, it was a matter of survival -- there were rumors that CV parent company Times-Shamrock wanted to buy the TL and shut it down. But a buyer eventually emerged...a familiar one, at that. Richard Connor, a former TL publisher who held the reigns during the infamous strike, came back to Wilkes-Barre with his checkbook in hand. With that, Wilkes-Barre would remain a two newspaper town.

VNR fiasco

WNEP, a station that has long said it is "proud to serve" its viewers, ended up serving those same viewers a dish called "dishonesty." In April, a media watchdog group pegged the ABC affiliate as one of several stations which aired a video news release. A VNR is much like a press release, in that someone is trying to grab a reporter's attention, except the final product looks a lot like the news stories you see on television. Rarely does the VNR attribute its source, which is usually a company that paid to have the VNR created on its behalf.

The VNR that ended up in a WNEP health report promoted the benefits of glucosamine supplements, and was created on behalf of a company that...get this...marketed glucosamine supplements. WNEP's story, which used the VNR seemingly verbatim, made no mention of this fact.

Within a day, news director Dennis Fisher issued a statement, and admitted the story was indeed a VNR, and that WNEP never attributed the source of its story. But he called it "an honest mistake," because the reporter who picked the story thought it came from a medical journal.

That wasn't the end for WNEP, though. At last check, the Federal Communications Commission was investigating WNEP, and the other stations mentioned in the PR Watch report, to see whether airing the VNRs broke federal regulations. That will probably be the last we hear of this, since the wheels of government bureaucracies move slower than molasses.

Coming and going

The doors at all three stations continued revolving in 2006. Here's a sampling...

  • Elliot Weiler (WBRE)
  • Phil Yacuboski (WYOU)
  • Gabrielle Prutisto (WYOU)
  • Vince Sweeney (WBRE)
  • Jason Knapp (WBRE)
  • Diane Lee (WYOU)
  • Sid Michaels (WYOU)
  • Rachel Lindenmuth (WNEP)
  • Kim Supon (WNEP)

  • Josh Brogadir (WNEP)
  • Sarah Buynovsky (WNEP)
  • Jim Hamill (WNEP)
  • Jeff Chirico (WBRE)
  • April Gonzales (WBRE)
  • Jeff Jumper (WBRE)
  • Brian Fitzgerald (WBRE)
  • Kevin Derk (WBRE)
  • Colin Riccobon (WBRE)
  • Eric Scheiner (WYOU)
  • Les Still (WYOU)

    Four weathermen walk into a bar...

    WYOU wasn't the only station to shake up its format. WBRE decided to place a bigger emphasis on weather, with its new "All Points Accuweather." In short, more weather forecasters spread out across the area! Josh Hodell stuck around in Wilkes-Barre, Dave Skutnik manned the Scranton bureau, Jeffrey Jumper headed to Williamsport, and Brian Fitzgerald kept his eyes in Stroudsburg.

    Of course, bad weather has a way of screwing up the best of plans. The night it debuted, Hodell and Skutnik were in Wilkes-Barre (sorry Scranton!), and a thunderstorm killed Jumper's live shot from Williamsport.

    Viewers love weather, and it's the main reason why they watch local news. Hopefully WBRE can find a better use of its "field meteorologists," because as I've said, all you have are four people standing around in a studio, waiting for a lightning bolt to kill their live shot.

    One year later

    If you had asked me, one year ago, whether this blog would make it to 2007, I'd probably say no. Why? Well, I'm sure there are some people out there who don't like what I post. Hell, someone even threatened to sue me.

    But what started as a crazy thought in my head has kept going, and I plan to keep it that way. This blog lets me vent my frustrations about my job, and the news business in general, and it gives you the chance to see what goes on behind the scenes, when the cameras are off. There's a lot to this line of work, both good and bad, that the public rarely gets to see.

    And it's you, the readers, who make this blog what it is. Thank you.

    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Steuber's firing? 'Twas beauty killed the beast (if, by any stretch of the imagination, you consider Lyndal Stout a beauty).

    9:51 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Nice going Howard. Congratulations
    on making it to another year.

    11:12 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Howard...thanks for the blog. as someone who used to work at the 50 and now in a larger market in PA, I like to check back here often to see what is going on. Thanks and have a great 2007.

    4:01 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Howard, I don't work in the biz but this blog is in my top 5 favorite places to visit amongst the vast World Wide Web. I love this stuff like a stay-at-home mom loves soap operas.

    9:03 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Congrats on keeping the board going thru good times and bad.

    10:37 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Keep up the great work!

    11:31 AM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Thanks for keeping the board going, even after that one time scare last year.

    3:43 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Thanks, Howard, happy 2007.

    To my surprise, however, this thread has proven far less contentious than I would've anticipated. Not that your facts are wrong, mind you, but I thought more than a few readers would take exception to what importance you seemingly attached to what incidents of the year past.

    12:27 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Vince Sweeney being fired was clearly the biggest story of 2006.

    Should never have happened.

    12:29 PM  
    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    If you judge the year on what caused the most "water cooler" talk and "street buzz," the nastiness this past Summer at 50 has to play high. Two long-time employees fired, another squeezed until he did what they wanted(which was walk), yeah, I'd say that had some chatter-value. Then the guy who did all the dirty work gets sacked. Sounds like the makings of a David Yonki novel...

    The big story of 2007 should be WNEP and its new ownership, if the deal happens in a timely fashion. Should Oak Hill do what Nexstar did, local news viewership will diminish to the point of near non-existence. 50 has no audience now, and 16 could go the same route.

    9:57 AM  

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