The normal career path at a TV station results in general managers rising from the ranks of the sales department. Recently, there’s been an upsurge in news directors being chosen to fill the top management spot. And many say that the increased and varied responsibilities that leading a news department entails, is great experience.
About seven years ago, Mark Danielson, then a Belo-owned station news director, was at a company party chatting with three other news directors, all of whom shared his aspiration to one day head a station.
“Back then, it wasn’t very often that big companies made general managers out of news directors, no matter how successful they were,” Danielson says. “It just didn’t happen.”
Fast-forward to today: All four of those individuals got what they wanted. Danielson is the GM of KIFI, News-Press & Gazette’s ABC affiliate in Idaho Falls-Pocatello, Idaho (DMA 160); Sandy Breland holds the VP-GM job at WAFB, the Raycom-owned CBS affiliate in Baton Rouge, La. (DMA 94); Pat Costello is the VP-station manager of KING, Belo’s NBC affiliate in Seattle, Wash. (DMA 12); and last year, Rod Gramer became VP/GM of the Bay News 9 cable news channel in Tampa, Fla. (DMA 14), owned by Bright House Networks.
They also are in increasingly good company. News directors are being hired for stations’ highest managerial positions at a greater rate than ever, industry watchers say. And those who made the move earlier are moving up in market size.
Just last month, longtime newsman Eric Lerner was named president-GM of NBC-owned WCAU in Philadelphia (DMA 4) after a GM stint in Seattle. Other news directors-turned-GMs include Greg Easterly, who heads WJW, Local TV’s Fox affiliate in Cleveland,; Mark Pimentel of Belo’s ABC affiliate WHAS Louisville, Ky.; and Holly Steuart, head of the Newport-owned CBS affiliate WHP Harrisburg, Pa.
And although the bulk of GM jobs still belong to people from sales, we can expect to see more and more news people assuming those coveted gigs in the very near future, according to media experts.
The activity is the result of the new reality that news directors, charged with running increasingly complex and multi-faceted departments, are now more qualified to lead stations.
“There is so much more demand for them to be strong business people along with great sellers and terrific content creators,” says Frank N. Magid Associates SVP Laura Clark. “There are reasons you should want a news director to be GM,” she says.
On top of that, having someone make the leap from running a news operation to an entire station makes sense, given that news is typically a TV station’s largest department.
News on average generates about 45% of all station revenue, according to Hofstra University journalism professor Bob Papper. News departments usually have the largest percentage of station staff.
In turn, a growing number of individuals who actually do such hiring are catching on. “There are more people open to it,” Clark says.
Among those people are the executives at Allbritton Communications, whose largest station, ABC affiliate WJLA Washington (DMA 8), has a former news executive, Bill Lord, at its helm.
“You find today the savvy news director has control over journalism, promotion, the digital project and the operations and engineering,” says Allbritton SVP Jerry Fritz. “Those are highly sought after people.”
Pigeonholing candidates based on their backgrounds no longer works.
“Past experiences are certainly important, but we want to make sure future general managers have a clear understanding of how to run a business as well as understand the obligations and social responsibility involved in running a news organization,” says Brian Lawlor, Scripps’ SVP of television.
“Coming from one particular department within a TV station does not make that person a strong candidate,” he says. Scripps trains general managers in specific areas when they need it.
Mike Devlin ran the Peabody and Murrow award-winning news department at KHOU, Belo’s CBS affiliate in Houston (DMA 10), before becoming the VP-station manager of WFAA, the company’s ABC affiliate in Dallas-Ft. Worth (DMA 5), in 2005. He became president-GM two years later.
Devlin says running a newsroom prepped him for parts of the job, but he also had to check some of the “instinctual” ways a newsman does business at the door.
“You have to slow down,” Devlin says. “News is a succession of quick decisions throughout the day, but you also have to be conscious that there are downsides,” he says. “The issues you face as a general manager are a little deeper, they have more ramifications and take a little bit more time.
“News people tend to have qualities like cynicism and suspicion,” he says. “Those are good things on the news side but when you apply them to other things they can be destructive.”
Devlin says he also knows well enough to seek the counsel of people like sales managers and the station controllers to help him get a better grasp on the financial issues that he doesn’t understand at the same gut level as he does news.
They tend to bring something else new to the table. “Sales people are refreshing from news people because they are optimistic,” he says.
Nonetheless, hindrances to news directors moving up the company ladder still exist, not the least of which is tradition of filling GM jobs from the sales ranks.
Executive recruiter Carrie Pryor says her clients prefer hiring top managers who have already held GM positions elsewhere.
And, despite progress being made over the last few years, there probably would be even more news directors in GM jobs today had the economy not tanked, says Tom Dolan, a Washington-area media consultant and recruiter. During the recession, generating revenue became so important that stations that might have given news directors a chance got gun shy, he says.
That occurred despite the reality that today’s news directors are actually tremendously equipped to oversee financial dealings, since managing money and staff levels, monetizing digital properties and boosting revenue in a competitive environment all are part of their news management jobs, he says.
Marcia Burdick, a former news director who is now SVP of broadcasting for Schurz Communications, says the news directors she has hired to run stations are quick learners with a keen ability to multitask.
When it comes down to it, though, it doesn’t matter which side of a station a GM comes from. “They still have the burden of demonstrating how they’ll manage,” Burdick says.
“The people in news have always lived in fear of the GM with the sales background and the sales people always lived in fear of the GM with the news background,” she says.
“The question is whether that person can take the top seat and demonstrate that they love all their children equally.”