Requiem for a Newsroom

Because I needed a job, any job after KFBB let me go, I took one working at KWGN-TV in Denver in 2004. The station actually produced fewer newscasts than the small-market station from which I’d been dumped, and was missing some large-market newsgathering basics like a helicopter, but the pay was worthwhile and, as I said, I needed a job.

TV people are accustomed to moving around a lot to advance their careers, always moving upward and onward, so I figured I’d just work at KWGN until I found something better.

A funny thing happened, though: I grew to like News2 and the people who worked there. And I stuck around for five years, which was longer than I’d been at any one station in my career. I might still be there if not for what I’m going to describe.

KWGN struggled to stay competitive; it was underfunded and understaffed compared to the competition. We were a WB-network station with a 9 p.m. newscast, battling a better-funded, better-staffed Fox operation that also had a 9 p.m. newscast.

The News Director who worked there when I was hired was simply incompetent, and, in his efforts to prove he could make KWGN’s news number one, made decisions that ultimately helped lead to its destruction. His strategy consisted of things like getting rid of popular anchors who had been around for years and replacing them with new anchors from larger cities—and then paying them the kind of money (half- and quarter-million dollar salaries) they were used to getting in those larger cities.

One of the last anchor teams before the ax fell.

When viewers stayed away in droves and complained about the changes, he did nothing, keeping the expensive talent on-air at their star salaries despite the fact that viewers didn’t watch them.

Eventually, the News Director was forced out, and his job was filled by the former Assistant News Director. He was not given an Assistant of his own, but told to absorb all the work of both jobs, and the resulting 16-hour workdays almost killed the guy.

We kept struggling along, with budget cuts made necessary because, we were told, the Sales Department couldn’t sell the newscasts. I later learned that the problem was actually that the guy in charge of Sales didn’t seem to care if his staff made no sales, or even calls. He, too, was eventually replaced, long after the damage had been done.

But the News Department kept working to break stories and to try to be first on breaking news. Each small victory kept the increasingly demoralized staff motivated. Still, the lack of morale took a toll; “going-away” parties, held Friday nights at a local bar, became more frequent as time passed. Not surprisingly, as employees left, their jobs were unfilled for months in an effort to save money. Sometimes, they weren’t filled at all.

NOTE: An employee who left the station several years before me pointed out to me that a major factor behind the flagging morale was the fact that, even when the news team broke a big story or otherwise beat the competition, the station’s management refused to promote those victories. Thus, the only people who knew good work was being done were the viewers who were already watching. “The message was always the same; the WB [network] was much more important than the [local] news product or the talent,” this person reminded me. That attitude extended to a failure to promote even major awards won by the staff for excellence in journalism.

Finally, in 2007, eccentric billionaire Sam Zell came on the scene and bought the Tribune company, the parent of KWGN. Under his leadership—and I use that term sarcastically—the station was allowed to become part of LocalTV, LLC, a company run by former radio executives.

Zell would drive Tribune into bankruptcy before he left it, although Tribune came back just fine without him.

LocalTV made the decision to merge KWGN with its other Denver operation, KDVR-TV, the station’s primary competitor.

Ernie Bjorkman, a consummate professional journalist whose value the new management failed to see. The long-time anchorman was let go.

That move meant several things, none of them good, and the first one was the appointment of the KDVR General Manager to “oversee” both operations. KWGN’s General Manager was shown the door.

When that GM told us at a meeting that there would be layoffs, but that both stations would be affected, no one at KWGN believed the cuts would be equitable, and they weren’t. Our staff was decimated, while KDVR lost just a few people.

There were more lies: We were told there’d been no decision on which News Director would run the combined News Departments, but over at KDVR, the staff was told their ND would be in charge of both newsrooms. We were told no decision had been made about where the two operations would be located, but at the meeting at KDVR, their staff was told we’d be moving into their building.

The KWGN building sat vacant for several years, but now it’s a church.

Everyone at KWGN had to interview to keep their own jobs, something the people at KDVR did not have to do, although we were told they would.

When the time came, people were fired–not based on their performance, but based on their salaries. No matter how good someone was—like long-time anchor Ernie Bjorkman, who the audience knew as the “Face of News2”—if they made too much money (as determined by LocalTV, LLC) they were let go.

(In 2017, Bjorkman agreed to return to KWGN, now under new management, after nine years out of the news business.)

One of the key people fired was KWGN’s News Director, who was pushed out in a hastily-manufactured political battle after nearly two decades of service to the station. That cleared the way for the News Department to be run by the KDVR News Director, just as he’d told his staff.

The evening newscast on KWGN was quickly axed, thus eliminating troublesome competition for the KDVR newscast that aired opposite it.

Finally, the operations were merged, but not until one final lie: The “brand-new newsroom set” being built for News2 over in the KDVR building was so pretty, the GM decided to give it to the KDVR newscast instead.

The GM, in all his wisdom—after all, he’d worked in such major cities as Birmingham, Alabama (a fine city, but decidedly not a large media market)—decided to re-brand the News2 product to attract younger, hipper viewers 18-to-34 and called it The Deuce, completely missing the fact that, to 18-to-34-year-olds, the term “Deuce” refers to a bowel movement.

This is a man who literally played his electric guitar at high volume while people were losing their jobs. Ego–he had that. Compassion was what he lacked.

He also moved the late newscast to 7pm, where it wouldn’t interfere with the KDVR 9 pm newscast any longer, and into a timeslot where it would never, ever gain an audience.

It seems that young, hip people can tell when they’re being pandered to, and they don’t appreciate it. Having your talent sit on a brightly colored set which includes computers (oooh!), YouTube videos, and a live band, not to mention male anchors who don’t wear ties, doesn’t substitute for actual news, even for younger viewers.

That General Manager departed in 2009, after he had helped to decimate a one-proud tradition of journalism. He’d stuck around just long enough to do the damage.

Several of us who used to work at KWGN marveled at the incomprehensibly bad way the whole process was handled.

In July,  2013, Tribune bought the station back from LocalTV, LLC.

I hear that things have turned around, which is good news for my former co-workers who still work at KWGN. But it isn’t the same scrappy place that started the market’s first 9 p.m. newscast over 60 years ago.

The studio the way I’ll always remember it.

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