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CNN's New News Chief Has Local Roots

Princell Hair is a local TV news executive with no experience at either a broadcast network or a cable all-news channel. He's the quintessential local TV gypsy, job-hopping nine times (among eight cities) in 13 years. Is this the man to stabilize the battered news network CNN?

Hair's new bosses at CNN and fans in the local news business say yes, betting that his management skills and long experience at a variety of news operations will help raise CNN from its ratings swamp.

The appointment of Hair as general manager and executive vice president of CNN's U.S. news operations is part of yet another shakeup in management of the news network. Hair replaces Teya Ryan, who ascended in the days when CNN started seeking more TV glitz to polish its Nielsen ratings, a strategy new CNN chief Jim Walton has been unwinding.

Eason Jordan, CNN's president of newsgathering and head of worldwide news coverage, is giving up day-to-day management of the news and a reduced slot as executive vice president and chief news officer. Jordan, however, was always happier dealing with broader editorial strategy and working top-level contacts abroad than he was with daily news operations. His top lieutenant, Keith McAllistar, who had served as CNN's national managing editor, is leaving the network.

Walton's central strategy is to emphasize strong journalism with the aim of getting CNN viewers to spend more time at the network. CNN attracts more viewers at some point during that day than main rival Fox News Channel, but they don't stick around as long as Fox News shout-show fans do. Hence, CNN's ratings lag.

Hair, 36, says he buys into the plan. "We have to continue the quality of journalism that has been established and we have to get people watching longer and increase time spent viewing. So, a lot of the skills in the local arena can be applied here."

The chief lesson Hair says he brings from is his comfort with hot local news wars, where number one and two newscasts will draw a disproportionately huge share of local ad dollars and newsroom resources.

"It's a dog fight every day and that's what I bring," Hair said. "It's the same in cable news."

He balked when asked for his assessment of CNN's newscasts.

By most accounts, Hair is a seasoned local TV news executive with a measured temperament, a contrast to his mentor, controversial news director Joel Cheatwood, who is known for emphasizing stunts in the local newscasts whose ratings he has revived.

Hair worked with Cheatwood at Miami's WSVN-TV and joined him in several jobs, most recently when they both worked in corporate-level jobs at Viacom's station group, guiding newscasts at 34 CBS and UPN stations plus one independent outlet.

Tom Dolan, president of newsroom consultant Dolan Media Management, said that Hair isn't addicted to the crime-and-crash stories that Cheatwood is so fond of, but likes a textured approach to the news.

"We see so many newscasts that are traditional newscasts of record," said Dolan. "What he was good at was angling for enterprise. Many newsrooms, assign a reporter and camera to cover a story, but they don't spend a lot of time on the treatment of the sidebar." Hair, however, pushes reporters to offer more context and perspective.

"He's a really good guy," said Hearst-Argyle Senior Vice President of News Fred Young, which owns Baltimore WBAL-TV, where Hair was news director from 1998 to 2002. "Without sticking my nose into CNN's business, I'm pleased that one of the cable networks got the wisdom to tap someone with a local news background for top management"

That was a common theme last week. One executive said that he's annoyed by local TV's second-class treatment by network journalists. "Somehow when you're a local news guy, you're a parolee let into a bank. But more people watch local news than cable news any day. We know how to do news they want to see."

TV critics have seized upon Hair's position as news director at Chicago WMAQ-TV in 1997 when the NBC O&O tapped schlock talk show host Jerry Springer as a news commentator, outraging critics and high-minded news staffers.

But Lyle Banks, GM of WMAQ at the time, said that Hair had no say in the Springer move. "When you write the book on journalism, that's not something you want include," Banks acknowledges. "But Princell's clear of that. He had no responsibility."