While the late Jim Vance of WRC Washington achieved extraordinary success and tenure as a local news icon — a dominant anchor in a Top 10 market at the same TV station for 45 years — his story is also a reminder of the value that local TV news still has across the country. Local TV news remains a vital and highly regarded source of information and a cornerstone of the community fabric, thriving in an age of iPhones, Facebook and Twitter.
Washington is different. A swamp. More lawyers per capita than anywhere except a Harvard Law reunion. Transient. Every four or eight years one crowd splits and the next comes in. The currency is visibility and proximity to power, fueled by bombast, self-aggrandizement and pomposity.
The cliché is true only if you don’t live in Washington. For those who do call the District of Columbia home it is a hometown. A city with natives, many third and fourth generation. School teachers, cops, writers, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats — maligned but most motivated by the intrinsic reward of public service. Washington now even has Walmart. They live in the shadow of the Capitol but only enter it the same way as tourists from Missoula. Yes, there are also SUVs ferrying lawyers, lobbyists, and lawmakers.
Jim Vance, who just passed away, represented the hometown Washington — not the place that you remember from eighth grade after a long bus ride. Despite his position in the Washington hierarchy, almost everybody called him Vance, rarely Jim or Mr. Vance. Vance anchored the news on NBC O&O WRC NBC 4 for an amazing 45 years. And he dominated the local news for almost all of them. Though he came of age as an anchor not long after the 1968 riots, when Washington looked a lot different from today’s gentrified city, millions of people in the area who live outside the District of Columbia also saw Vance as their champion. His deep knowledge of the area and earned credibility transcended city, county and state lines. Along the way federal power players also came to appreciate what Vance meant. He became a fishing pal of President George H. W. Bush.
Vance surely appreciated the magic of Washington, the seat of remarkable power. However, he was truly there for the people for whom the city is their hometown — and they knew it — whether they were born in Washington or migrated from somewhere else along the way. He knew them, and spoke to them — in his voice, words and a cadence that became familiar. Early on, TV consultants, whose job it is to critique television newscasts and newscasters, were mystified that management did not tell Vance to speed it up on the air. Can’t someone make him pick up the pace, show some pep? Used to conventional high-energy delivery, his slow, deliberate presentation made it seem to them that he was holding the newscast back. But, the viewers embraced Vance’s unique style, intuitively knowing that it represented the thought and precision he put into every story that he wrote and read.
In a town in which the stars are senators and other giants of the capital city, when Vance walked into a hotel ballroom for a charity event, heads turned. Not just because he was well-known and an imposing figure, but in recognition and appreciation for what he meant to their city.
At the same time, out of uniform in Harley jacket and jeans, he could go unrecognized. Not from a craving for privacy, but because he was comfortable in his hometown. I was at dinner outdoors, when Vance, an avid biker, walked by in bike leathers and sporting a doo rag. Our friends, lifelong Washingtonians who had watched Vance for years, had no clue who it was until I said, “Hi, Vance.”
While Vance achieved extraordinary success and tenure as a local news icon — a dominant anchor in a Top 10 market at the same TV station for 45 years — Vance’s story is a reminder of the value that local TV news still has across the country. Vance indeed was a unique authority figure, never in the shadows of the national figures with whom he shared the Washington public square — as true for his last broadcast in 2017 as in 1977.
Vance’s achievements are a reminder that in many other cities across America local TV news remains a vital and highly regarded source of information and a cornerstone of the community fabric, thriving in an age of iPhones, Facebook and Twitter.
Surveys show that local news is trusted more than national news. Most serious local TV news organizations have a mobile-first mission and ambitious mobile and other digital products. And many have their own local stalwarts, maybe not Jim Vances, but men and women who know and care about their communities, and are in turn respected and appreciated as valued foundations of those communities and honest brokers of information.
That includes my own colleagues Wes Goforth, Valentina Wilson and Brian North. Many of these anchors know what Vance knew: The currency that counts is the hard-earned combination of knowledge and authenticity. Vance was rewarded for that and so were the people of Washington.
Richard Reingold is vice president and general manager of Bonten Media’s ABC affiliate WCTI New Bern, N.C. He is a former VP of news at WRC Washington and was proud to call Jim Vance a friend.