When WKRC-TV reporter Larry Davis retired in July after 35 years covering Cincinnati news – a month after Deb Dixon retired after 44 years at the station – I posed the question: Are we witnessing a changing of the guard at Channel 12, the station with Cincinnati's most veteran reporting staff?
Today the answer is: Yes, definitely.
With Joe Webb's retirement Sept. 27, after 31 years on Cincinnati TV, WKRC-TV has seen 110 years of experience walk out the newsroom door in four months (Webb, Dixon and Davis). The station in the past year also has lost veteran anchor Brad Johansen, and meteorologists Scott Dimmich and Brandon Orr.
In my opinion, there are three factors – all tracing directly to the station's owner, Sinclair Broadcast Group. In other words, Channel 12's problems are self-inflicted.
One is the fallout from Sinclair's mandated TV commentary (which wasn't labeled "opinion" or "editorial" in March newscasts) complaining about "the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-side news stories plaguing our country." The corporate statement was read word-for-word by Rob Braun, Cammy Dierking -- and other Sinclair anchors nationwide.
Another is the newsroom's frustration seeing valuable newscast time consumed with Sinclair's heavy-handed schedule of "must run" features – nightly "Terrorism Alert Desk" updates; promotions for Sinclair's Sunday morning Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson and the weekday DailyMailTV syndicated show on WSTR-TV; and conservative views from four Sinclair commentators.
And third, there are Sinclair's budget-conscious ways. When Sinclair bought WKRC-TV in December 2012 from Newport Television, Channel 12 had the city's most veteran TV reporting staff (Dixon, Webb, Davis, Jeff Hirsh, Rich Jaffe), which helped make it No. 1 in the household ratings for more than 15 years – for weekday newscasts mornings, evenings and nights. I kept a close eye on Channel 12's staffing, but the veterans remained.
When I told Dixon I had been watching for years to see if any vets were leaving, she told me in June: "So they just waited a little bit."
Dixon, arguably the city's best crime reporter on TV, told me that "if the company had wanted me to stay, it would not have given me an offer that was so easy to refuse. With a better offer, I would have considered another year because of the family I'm leaving behind."
The belt-tightening and loss of institutional memory at WKRC-TV isn't unique. In 2012, WCPO-TV retained its popular anchors but turned over a lot of its news staffers, replacing them with younger, less expensive reporters. In 2014, the Enquirer lost 50 people – including me and two dozen others whose job descriptions were eliminated or changed radically. Some jobs were never filled; others were filled with much younger, less expensive reporters. WCPO-TV this year dropped experienced morning anchors Chris Riva and Kathrine Nero – and hasn't replaced them. Their work has been spread among several staffers. Were the Riva-Nero departures a salary dump?
Sinclair's mandated "false news" complaint read by Braun and Dierking in March destroyed Channel 12 morale. Braun rewrote the script in his own words, but was rebuffed. You can read the Sinclair script here.
After the segment aired, Braun told a newsroom staff meeting that he had received death threats.
"You have no idea how that (Sinclair commentary) effected Rob," Dixon says. "He tried to rewrite it. He put it in his words and submitted it, and they brought it back and said, 'No, it's got to be done this way'…. After that, people (viewers) separated our newsroom from Sinclair. They'd say, 'We're so sorry they made Rob do that.' They were very loyal to him. But there were some people who were very mean to him. It just broke his heart. It was a very difficult time for Rob. I'd never seen Rob look so bad…. Whatever Sinclair was trying to do, it didn't work."
A week later, Sinclair's CEO Chris Ripley sent an apology to stations saying that the criticisms of the commentary were "politically motivated attacks" by people trying to "bully us."
Ripley was "truly sorry" Sinclair station staffers had "to field nasty calls, threats, personal confrontations and trolling on social media," and apologized to employees who "were personally affected by the attacks from last week."
But there was no apology for local anchors losing their credibility for looking like mindless corporate shills, or for the company's total lack of empathy for the hard-working journalists at each station whose integrity was tarnished or jeopardized.
Dixon didn't want to say much more days after she retired. "I want to be honest about Sinclair, but I don’t want to say too much about the company that employs my friends." Webb didn't want to talk about Sinclair when he announced his retirement last week until after leaving the payroll Thursday Sept. 27. (I haven't had time to follow up with him.) Davis told me he retired a year earlier than planned after getting two heart stents in early July, not because of the station ownership. "I decided for health concerns that it was time to step away from the stress," he said.
One person put it this way to me in the past year: "The (WKRC-TV) veterans are not a fan of Sinclair, but they are just being quiet until retirement…. Many of the younger reporters and anchors are looking for ways out because of micromanaging and low pay… There is an increased focus on the 'key demo' viewer - a middle-aged woman - instead of the overall audience, and numbers (ratings) are shrinking.' "
The losses of Dixon and Webb can't be overstated. Dixon was the heart and soul of the newsroom, the mother figure known for hugging everyone. After all, she was there the day everyone else started in the Channel 12 newsroom.
Webb, one of Cincinnati TV's all-time best storytellers, was a respected newsroom leader. At the end of the day, reporters sometimes would gather, "with Joe usually in the middle, to dig deeper into the stories of the day, beyond what we could include in a two minute story," Dixon says.
"Joe can’t be replaced," Dixon says. "Hopefully the new reporters at Local 12 had time to watch his stories and learn from them."
Or viewers will watch another station.