Darkened Set  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   November 2001

Darkened Set   

ABC affiliate KDNL in St. Louis shuts down its news operation.

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     


With ratings that indicate few might notice, ABC affiliate KDNL in St. Louis bails out of the local news business after less than seven years. Word came in late September, when 47 news staffers, including News Director Jeff Alan, learned the station and owner Sinclair Broadcast Group had decided the department that aired its first newscast on January 2, 1995, would air its last on October 12.

"I didn't see it coming," Alan said a few days after the announcement. In the newsroom, "nobody is happy, obviously. They're angry, disappointed, upset [and] worried about what's going to happen to them."

KDNL General Manager Tom Tipton says discussions about a shutdown began in March, because of a competitive news environment and a poor advertising climate. "We made the decision that rather than just bare-bone it, to end it," Tipton says.

That leaves St. Louis, the country's 22nd largest market, with three local television news operations. "Business is business, but news is news," says Alan. "We are in the business of public service.... Every time you have one less source to get the information from, you have narrowed the availability or lessened the availability for people to get informed about their community."

A spokeswoman for ABC would only say the network "regrets their decision." Tipton says the station will still air ABC News programming.

KDNL, also known as Channel 30, aired just two half-hours of news a day, at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. Nielsen Media Research numbers for July show Channel 30's higher-rated 10 p.m. newscast pulling a 7 share, behind CBS affiliate KMOV with a 19 share and NBC affiliate KSDK with a 27 share for their respective newscasts in the same time period. Fox affiliate KTVI, with a 9 p.m. newscast, received a 13 share.

But those numbers don't necessarily reflect the quality of the news product. A year ago, KDNL won a regional Emmy for best large-market newscast, which didn't surprise TV critic Gail Pennington of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "I think they do a nice, solid newscast, without a lot of flash and trash," Pennington says.

Which may have been partly a result of limited means. "We were bare bones," says Gina Kurre, 39, one of two principal weeknight anchors. "We were putting news on the air with fewer people than you could imagine, but we did it. And you know what, we had some terrific people who worked here with wonderful skills."

But it was an uphill battle. During a failed takeover attempt by Emmis Communications in 1999, Channel 30 dropped its 5 p.m. newscast, reinstating it a year-and-a-half later. Plus, says Pennington, "they've changed anchor teams repeatedly. St. Louis doesn't like change."

After the announcement, Alan became a one-man career center, sending out word over listservs like Shoptalk. Within four days, he says, he had received 212 e-mails and more than 150 phone calls from news directors around the country, almost all of them offering work. As of October 12, staffers were lining up interviews, Alan says.

Kurre and others say they knew things were bad and would sometimes wonder if the end was near. Still, says weekend anchor and reporter Andy Banker, 34, the only on-air staffer remaining from day one, despite "two rounds of pretty big layoffs in the last couple of years, we just never thought this would happen, ever."

Delivering the bad news was "a very sad experience," Tipton says. "It was something that I wish I never had to do."

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