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News is Coming to KSMO WB 62

November 13, 2003

KSMO and corporate parent will present blend of local and national reports.

After George Will and Bill O'Reilly, the best-known conservative commentator on TV today just might be Mark Hyman. Never heard of him? You will.

"Don't look now, but your tax dollars just funded a workshop on having safe sex with male prostitutes!"

Hyman, a 45-year-old former naval officer, delivers such verbal heat-seeking missiles in a nightly commentary called "The Point." What makes these one-minute broadsides stand out is that they appear across the country in the middle of local TV newscasts, soon to include KSMO (Channel 62) in Kansas City.

KSMO, also known as WB62, will air Hyman's nightly editorials as part of a unique one-hour program called "News Central," a "blended newscast" that's the first of its kind.

Beginning some time next year, half the newscast will originate from the Kansas City, Kan., studios of KSMO, which will hire a news staff of about two dozen. The other half will be broadcast live from a small newsroom on the ground floor of Sinclair Broadcast Group's corporate headquarters in Maryland. That part will be simulcast to all "News Central" stations like KSMO.

Kansas City viewers will see a few things they haven't before.

Start with the dueling anchors. The newscast will open with a single anchor based here. The anchor will present 10 minutes of local news, with reports from the newsroom staff.

After a commercial break, presto chango, a new face appears. It's the national anchor, based in Baltimore (though he or she doesn't say that). This segment consists of world and national news, including reports filed by its national desk, Sinclair's Washington bureau and, as needed, local Sinclair stations.

Back and forth it goes: After each break, up pops a different talking head. The local newscaster comes back to deliver more stories, some of the sports and the closing. The weathercaster might say, "Here in Kansas City," even though he, or she, is actually in Maryland.

That's one of the problems, critics say. It tricks viewers into thinking they're watching an all-local newscast when, in fact, much of it is being piped in. (To make switching locations more seamless, Sinclair is building cookie-cutter sets in each city that will resemble the one in Baltimore.)

During the hour a news ticker scrolls at the bottom of the screen, repeating 15 to 20 headlines plus local weather. The ticker is a staple of 24-hour cable news but will be a first for Kansas City TV.

In between sports and weather, the newscast takes a sharp right turn. This is "The Point," in which Hyman attacks animal-rights wackos, tax-exempt groups with leftist agendas, and government waste. Once a week he reads e-mail from viewers who can't stand him.

Wayne Godsey, the general manager of KMBC, Channel 9, is the only station manager in town who still delivers editorials. Next to Hyman's nightly jolts, Godsey's weekly positions on such topics as the bi-state tax proposal will seem tepid. On the other hand, Godsey's editorials aren't seen by anywhere near the 4 million or so viewers who see "The Point" on dozens of Sinclair stations.

Unique look

Journalistic watchdogs have howled about Sinclair's approach, though perhaps surprisingly, they're more upset about the weather than Hyman's commentaries.

Sinclair's straight-talking chairman, David Smith, couldn't care less what the pointy-heads think. Smith's father, Julian Sinclair Smith, started the company in 1971, and his family still owns a controlling stake in Sinclair.

"Our news can't look like everybody else's," he said, "or we're setting ourselves up for failure."

Smith makes no bones that he's in this for the money. Three out of every 10 dollars spent on local TV advertising, he points out, are earmarked for news. Stations like KSMO that don't have a newscast can't stick their hand in that cookie jar. With his lower-cost newscasts, Smith thinks his stations eventually will turn a higher profit during that hour than they do now with syndicated fare such as "Just Shoot Me" and "Frasier."

KSMO has been given the go-ahead to start planning its newsroom. Joe DeFeo, the longtime Sinclair news director who runs the "News Central" operation, is guarded about when exactly Kansas City will be given the green light. But Smith has told investors his plan is to have "News Central" rolled out by the end of 2004.

One media watchdog who's sold on "News Central," literally, is Carl Gottlieb. A veteran news producer in New York and Washington, D.C., his last job was rating local newscasts for the well-regarded Project for Excellence in Journalism at Columbia University. Today Gottlieb is the managing editor and second in command at "News Central." To hear him tell it, Sinclair not only represents the future of local news, but a bright future indeed.

"We are getting local relevance back into the news," Gottlieb said. "We try to avoid everyday murders, `chalk line journalism,' call it what you will, and get into the issues."

Anti media-bias

While other stations are laying off employees, Sinclair's are hiring. Nearly 300 jobs have been created by "News Central" and its 10 affiliates nationwide since August 2002. In St. Louis 47 staffers lost their jobs two years ago after Sinclair-owned KDNL-TV stopped doing news. The station will soon hire back 25 to 30 people and launch "News Central" there, Smith said.

But Smith is more than a bottom-line man. He has strong opinions about media bias and sees the issue-driven style of "News Central" as a tonic to a profession that has lost its way.

"I'm tired of watching biased, distorted, sometimes made-up news on television," Smith said. "It's time for some of us to do the right thing, which is to tell people what the facts are and let them make up their minds."

Smith praises Fox News Channel and says "News Central" is an unapologetic attempt to do with local TV what Fox has done with cable news.

"They," meaning the critics, "won't like us any more than they like what Fox does," Smith said.

Based on looks at "News Central" newscasts in other cities, it appears that the national parts are more politically charged.

The local parts stick to bread-and-butter stories: schools, government and the like. A recent newscast on Sinclair's Flint, Mich., station led with local a story about a suburban fire department dispute and followed with taped pieces on health care costs for city employees, rising prices at the pump and a school janitors' strike.

For the Baltimore-based segments had national anchor Morris Jones introduced 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.

"Frankly, centralcasting is not a new idea," said Jones, who has been anchoring local TV news 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."

`Suburban Liddy'

Hyman's editorial feature was originally scheduled to air weekly. That changed after 5,000 e-mails a month started pouring in.

"We were surprised at the response of viewers," said Hyman, who estimated that viewer mail runs about "80-20" in support of him. A Baltimore weekly recently named Hyman "Best Local TV Personality," calling him a "blow-hard" and "suburban G. Gordon Liddy" whose editorials, nonetheless, were "a lot of fun to watch."

Tom Rosenstiel, who heads up the Project for Excellence and was Gottlieb's former boss, said he likes the idea of nightly editorials. He'd like it a lot better, though, if each station aired its own editorials instead of relying on Hyman to deliver what would appear to be the company line.

"That doesn't have much to do with community journalism," he said.

Unlike other critics, however, Rosenstiel is willing to withhold judgment on the rest of "News Central" until he's seen it. He thinks Gottlieb wouldn't have signed up for something that betrayed his ideals.

Still, the idea of centralizing weather -- which is often the main reason people watch news -- strikes many observers as just wrong. All the "News Central" weathercasters are in Maryland, each one assigned to do forecasts for up to three cities.

Two former news directors contacted for this story said they had not seen "News Central" but their impression of it was negative, based on press reports that played up the weather-from-Baltimore angle.

This irks Gottlieb, who complains that almost no critic of "News Central" has actually seen it.

"News Central may not be for everyone," he said. "It's not supposed to be, but if you're tired of news as it exists, try us."

It appears that is happening. Sinclair's chairman says more people already watch news on his stations than the average audience for Fox News Channel. To think, David Smith's local news revolution has only begun.