Local news blues

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  June 24, 2009

But observers say there was a depth to Rhode Island television news that cannot be ignored. "There were some very good or, in some cases, legendary reporters [on television]," said M. Charles Bakst, retired political columnist for the Journal.

At WPRI, Jack White carved out a niche as a top-notch mafia reporter and collected Emmys for reporting on a fugitive banker and Providence tax officials who evaded the city's residency requirement.

ABC6 had its moments, too. Most recently with former reporter Jim Hummel, who attracted attention with his "You Paid For It" segments focused on government waste.

But WJAR, the local NBC affiliate, has defined television news in Rhode Island for years. And it is the station's recent woes that have been hardest to swallow for many in the industry.

The state's first television station, originally owned by Providence-based department store chain the Outlet Com-pany, signed on-air in July 1949 and has remained the dominant force in local broadcasting ever since.

WJAR owes some of its success to Rhode Island's fervent loyalty to institution. Parents watch Channel 10 and their children follow suit. The joke, in the local TV biz, is that the station could run a test pattern and still top the ratings.

But WJAR also built a formidable news reputation over the years. National television personalities Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira, of the Today show, got started at the station. Political reporters Tom Kole and Dyana Koelsch made the station a presence at the State House in the 1980s and 1990s.

Current political reporter Bill Rappleye said he was struck by Channel 10's drive to be more than a colorful imitation of the morning paper when he took the job seven years ago. "It's the first time in my career I wasn't just given newspaper clippings and told to go report," he said.

But these days, the station looks not quite as mighty. "I think for the first time in my observation of this market, they're vulnerable," said Hart, the retired news executive.

Media General, a Richmond, Virginia-based conglomerate that operates 22 daily newspapers and 19 television stations, bought WJAR in 2006 as part of a four-station, $600 million deal consummated at the height of the market.

And the company, saddled by its increasingly burdensome newspaper holdings, has watched its business slide sharply in recent months — posting a $632 million loss in 2008 and a first-quarter loss of $21 million this year.

Company-wide job cuts — through layoffs and attrition — have wiped out more than one-quarter of WJAR's news staff in the last year, including longtime news director Betty-Jo Cugini and anchor Kelley McGee.

Meteorologists Gary Ley and John Ghiorse, both Rhode Island fixtures, are also gone, leaving WJAR with a smaller weather team. And one day this spring, in an episode that has become shorthand for the declining fortunes of local television, the station called on a meteorologist at a sister station in Columbus, Ohio to beam in the local forecast.

There have been other troubles, too. A new, labor-saving engineering system has led to some embarrassing, on-air gaffes. One night three weeks ago, during the 6 o'clock news, a reporter detailing a heist at a wishing well stared awkwardly into the camera waiting for an interview clip that never materialized. A few minutes later, as WJAR moved toward a commercial break, the station teased his story as though it had not yet aired.

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  Topics: News Features , Media, University of Rhode Island, Tom Rosenstiel,  More more >
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