Competing With Herself—And Winning

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Sixty new staff members. A new anchor team, news brand, set and control room. Three new websites. A strategy for the new news brand to compete directly for four hours daily with the existing operation (while still growing the latter). A live New Year’s Eve broadcast to kick it off. All in 144 days.

This was the challenge for Kerri Cavanaugh, VP of news for Tribune Broadcasting’s Indianapolis duopoly WXIN Fox59/WTTV CBS4, after the Aug. 11, 2014 announcement that come Jan. 1, 2015, WTTV would switch from a CW affiliate to the market’s CBS home.

It’s unusual for duopoly newscasts to compete head-to-head. But after much research and debate, the team set to work on the coordination of two newsrooms that would share some resources while competing consistently on-air with separate Fox and CBS news brands.

“It was crazy stressful, but it was so much fun and an opportunity I’ll probably never get to ever do again,” Cavanaugh says.

The undertaking in fact was one that “some thought could never be done,” according to Tribune Broadcasting’s senior VP of news Bart Feder in nominating Cavanaugh for News Director of the Year.

Cavanaugh says competitors, agents, search firms, even some people working in the building and corporate doubted. “There were a lot of naysayers, but we proved them wrong,” she says.

The sheer number of people she needed to hire was the biggest challenge. Take the day she flew in five candidates to interview for different positions. Without enough people available to take them all to lunch, Cavanaugh and the assistant news director hosted them as a group.

Cavanaugh describes the outing as something out of The Apprentice, with all candidates lined up on one side of the table. She hired three. “It was the most non-normal interview,” she says. “But I’m sure all of those people would say it was a pretty cool experience.”

Cavanaugh assembled an anchor team for WTTV featuring familiar faces in Indianapolis. Debby Knox, well-known in Indy for decades, had retired from WISH, the former CBS affiliate. Knox was paired with Bob Donaldson, who continues to anchor WXIN’s 10 p.m. news, and chief meteorologist Chris Wright.

Cavanaugh says the quick turnaround was a blessing in disguise; it didn’t allow time to second guess. However, she continues to revise her original blueprint.

Paul Rennie, VP and general manager, WTTV/WXIN, says Cavanaugh’s undertaking was a “huge piece” of WTTV’s switch to CBS. “I can’t imagine going through this with anybody other than Kerri,” Rennie says. “She’s a rock star.”

Less than a year on the air, WTTV has been rating (in adults 25-54) third in a five-station market in early evening news and is battling for third at 11 p.m. WXIN’s news audience is up year-to-year by double digits at 6 and 7 a.m., they lead at 10 p.m. and are second at 11. Both stations’ digital metrics are up, too.

“Never in a million years” did Cavanaugh think she’d be in charge of 90½ hours of news per week (Fox59 produces 66; the new CBS4 produces 24.5) and build a news operation in 144 days, she says, repeatedly crediting her staff, Rennie and their Tribune colleagues. “I’m having the time of my life.”