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From AJR,   April 2000  issue

Building TV News Brick by Brick   

A news director in northwest Arkansas is deep in the process of starting something relatively unusual in journalism--a broadcast news operation from scratch.


By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      


GARY DARNELL'S OFFICIAL title at KPOM/KFAA-TV in northwest Arkansas is news director. But at the moment, Darnell has no news to direct. There are no newscasts, no cameras, no equipment. The studio is still a construction site, and the staff is nothing more than a couple of boxes of résumés and audition tapes.
From his office in Rogers, Arkansas, Darnell is deep in the process of doing something relatively unusual in journalism--starting a broadcast news operation from scratch. The 36-year-old news director was hired in January to bring local news to the NBC affiliate in the Fayetteville/Fort Smith area.
"This is such a rare opportunity, especially at an NBC affiliate," Darnell says. "It was a chance to really get in on the ground floor."
KPOM/KFAA (channels 24/51) folded its news operation in 1992 when the area economy was slumping. The ABC and CBS affiliates in the area continued to air local news.
But last year, the station owner--GDG Television, a subsidiary of Griffin Holdings, a family-owned company in Oklahoma--decided to finance another run at news. Though there was no pressure from the network to get the NBC affiliate back into local news, General Manager David Needham says the station was itching to try again.
"Now seems to be that time," Needham says. "The economy in '92 vs. the economy here in the early months of 2000--it's different."
The Fayetteville/Fort Smith area is growing, with the help of booming corporations including Tyson and Wal-Mart. The two cities in the shadow of the Ozark National Forest are separated by the Boston Mountains. The challenge for local stations in the area is to find a way to cover two, largely separate cities with one newscast and a news department split between two offices. Local stations also cover portions of neighboring Missouri and Oklahoma.
When the final decision was made last October to bring local news back to KPOM/KFAA, Needham began looking at successful newscasts, particularly in "hyphenated" markets similar to Fayetteville/Fort Smith. "I've spent a lot of time looking at examples and picking brains," Needham says.
Darnell was hired away from his news director job at KCEN-TV, the NBC affiliate in Waco, Texas. Joining KPOM/KFAA was a homecoming: Darnell had worked for KHBS/KHOG, the area's ABC affiliate, as associate news director for nine-and-a-half years.
He had experience in front of and behind the camera, but starting a news operation was a new experience--as was helping make decisions about building its headquarters in Fayetteville.
"We're building a studio in what was a turn-of-the-century department store. It's been vacant for seven years," Darnell says. "They carried two containers [of debris] a day for three weeks out of it."
He and the station's top brass began by determining how much money he needed for staff and production and by designing the management structure. "Then we moved on to job descriptions and organization," he says.
Darnell has also spent his days trying to get the best deals on equipment. What little camera, editing and engineering equipment was left from the previous news operation is now obsolete.
The station has not advertised yet that it needs to hire a newsroom full of journalists and technicians, but already the résumés have started arriving. A station the size of KPOM/KFAA usually has a newsroom staff of 30 to 35 people, though Darnell is unsure exactly how many people he will hire. The number and times of newscasts is also undecided, along with the exact launch date. "We're saying definitely before the end of the year," he says.
But the station is hoping to start news broadcasts by late summer or early fall to cover the Summer Olympics and presidential elections, traditionally among the year's biggest stories and major advertising revenue sources. At KFSM-TV, the local CBS affiliate, the news director is cagey about whether he plans to make any changes once the new NBC station joins the mix. Bur Edson, KFSM's news director, watched KPOM/KFAA fold its news department eight years ago.
"I was surprised when they said they weren't going to do news, and I was surprised when they said they would again," Edson says.
Starting up and folding news operations is part of the ebb and flow of local television, says Bob Papper, a professor of telecommunications at Ball State University in Indiana. Papper and associate professor Michael Gerhard do an annual survey of all 1,349 operating TV stations in the United States.
"There are about 750 television stations that do news," Papper says. "Is the number growing? Yes. Is it skyrocketing? No."
Over the last few years, Fox has been pushing its affiliates to get in the local news game, and more than half have complied. There has also been "spot growth" in some markets, where stations, including WB and UPN affiliates, have started news operations, Papper says.
Whether a news operation survives is based largely on the local economy. When the advertisers are there, the profits can be huge. According to the Papper/Gerhard study, most television news departments are turning a profit, and the bigger the news department and the more newscasts, the better. The typical station gets about 35 percent to 40 percent of its revenues from commercials that run during newscasts.
Needham says he and the station's owners realize KPOM/KFAA's newscasts will probably not be an immediate financial success. But the architects of the news department are enjoying the start-up.
"That's not an opportunity people get very often," Needham says. "We're going to have fun."