Jordan Wertlieb Leads the Charge for Localism

Jordan Wertlieb’s office in New York’s Hearst Television headquarters has all the hallmarks of having made it to the big-league C-suite — none better than the wall of windows with a view of Central Park.

But Wertlieb, the station group’s president, is very conscious that the Manhattan he peers out at — the skyscraping office buildings and tony apartment towers, the mass of inhabitants below dodging traffic and running in and out of fancy stores — isn’t the reason he’s in that prime spot on the 39th floor. Nor is it what keeps him there.

Rather, Wertlieb, Broadcasting & Cable’s 2017 Broadcaster of the Year, has risen the ranks at Hearst the way the company’s executives, at the station and corporate level, typically do: through a steadfast dedication to localism. For Hearst employees that typically involves picking up the family and moving once, maybe even twice or more, for stints at a number of group’s 30 stations in 26 markets around the country.

Wertlieb joined Hearst in 1993 as WCVB Boston’s national sales manager, eventually working his way up to president and general manager of WBAL Baltimore before making the jump to corporate. But his office contains three very visible reminders of his commitment to localism.

The vibrant, poster-sized photographs, which he explicitly requested when he assumed the group’s top job in 2012, show artistic aerial shots of three sports venues: a Stow, Mass., basketball court sitting next to a playground with a floor painted to look like an American flag; a Manchester, N.H., tennis court; and Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, the now-demolished minor league baseball field in Omaha, Neb., named for the former Omaha mayor (and the grandfather of a woman who currently works in Hearst’s financial office).

All three venues are (or were, in the case of Rosenblatt) in communities served by Hearst stations: ABC affiliates WCVB — which covers Stow and Manchester — and KETV in Omaha. (In Omaha, Hearst’s decision to turn a downtown train station into a new home for ABC affiliate KETV has helped revive the area.)

“I love the color, I love the sports theme and I love the fact that these are our local markets,” Wertlieb said during a recent interview.

Given the breadth of his career in local TV, his investment in the communities his stations serve and initiatives since taking the helm of Hearst, Wertlieb’s commitment to localism — and the integral role broadcasters play in supporting it — is genuine. (We’re talking about a guy who, while at WBAL, participated in the station’s polar bear plunge, after all.)

Steven Swartz, president and CEO of parent company Hearst Communications, said that commitment shows in Wertlieb’s work. “Jordan’s passion about our commitment to television journalism, our people and the communities that we serve make him the outstanding executive that he is,” Swartz said. “He has fully assumed his rightful place alongside such Hearst icons as John Conomikes and David Barrett as a leader not only of Hearst Television, but also of the television industry.”

Wertlieb’s passion for localism — particularly the integral role local journalism plays in bolstering communities —has been at the core of many of the initiatives he has headed, or seen come to fruition, during the last year.

“The year for our company has been reaffirmation of the importance of the community service the stations provide,” he said.

One of Hearst Television’s biggest initiatives has been the group’s yearlong commitment to covering, and helping spur recoveries from, the country’s opioid crisis. Since the start of the year, local news operations across all of Hearst’s markets have focused on producing robust news stories. Those newsrooms also participated in a national primetime special hosted by journalist Soledad O’Brien, head of Hearst’s weekly political show Matter of Fact, that aired across the group in early September.

In New Hampshire, where WCVB reports that roughly 50% of the population knows someone with an opioid addiction, about 5,000 high school students packed a Hearst-organized town hall meeting on the subject. Drug take-backs that Hearst has held in partnership with the Drug Enforcement Agency have yielded tens of thousands of pounds of pills such as Percocet.

Victims and their loved ones have responded — seeking help, sending stories and posting photos.

The way Wertlieb sees it, the magnitude of the epidemic made it incumbent on Hearst to address the crisis in a meaningful way. A series of events over the last 18 months made that abundantly clear. First, overdoses surpassed auto accidents to become the No. 1 cause of accidental death in this country. Second, and closer to home, a Hearst employee lost her son to an opioid overdose.

“It’s staggering,” Wertlieb said. “This is a very unusual situation, and it’s touching every community.”

Hearst’s news teams across the group also galvanized to cover Hurricane Irma, the destructive early September storm that devastated parts of Florida, where Hearst has stations serving Tampa, Orlando and West Palm Beach. Journalists from Hearst stations in Boston, Cincinnati and Lancaster, Pa., traveled to Florida to help cover the storm wall-to-wall in West Palm Beach and Orlando. WESH Orlando’s meteorologist was one of the earliest weather watchers to forecast the path Irma ultimately took.

Hearst also helped out a fellow broadcaster during late summer’s spate of hurricanes. When Hurricane Irma struck Florida, Hearst’s independent Tampa station, WMOR, which doesn’t carry news, simulcast WSTP, Tegna’s NBC affiliate. This was to avoid a repeat of what happened in Houston, when Hurricane Harvey forced Tegna’s station there off the air. Hearst also raised nearly $5 million for relief from the flooding caused by Harvey.

“No one has boots on the ground like local and we see that time and time again,” Wertlieb said. “We hear in our markets that there is a really strong connection to the local station.”

Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, said Wertlieb’s work on the ground, as well as for the larger industry (Wertlieb currently serves as chairman of the NAB’s television board) is a testament to his belief in local broadcasting.

“Jordan Wertlieb and Hearst Television represent the best of local broadcasting,” Smith said. “He and the Hearst team are committed to public service, quality investigative journalism and making a positive difference in communities where they serve. Jordan is a true leader in the business of broadcasting.”

Yet, when referring to Hearst TV’s most recent initiatives, Wertlieb describes them as a “reaffirmation” of local broadcasting — as if the medium has yet to prove its case.

Wertlieb, however, said that’s not about local TV losing its relevance as much as it is the medium not being immune from the beating news media across-the-board has taken over the last 18 months.

“I think the vitriol from the election season questioned media in general. There was a blur of cable news, national news, local news. We were all being put in the same bucket,” Wertlieb said. “There is an under appreciation of the role all these journalists play in the function of our society.”

At the same time, however, local journalists in many of Hearst’s markets — places such as Omaha; Des Moines, Iowa; Jackson, Miss.; and Albuquerque, N.M. among others — are in tune with their communities like few others, he said.

For instance, while Donald Trump’s election as president shocked many, “our stations had a much different feeling as to what was possible,” Wertlieb said. “They weren’t predicting what happened, but they were saying there is a lot of support for different opinions. They were saying this is going to be closer than you think.”

Which is a key reason why Wertlieb believes so strongly in the long-term viability of the medium.

Despite the onslaught of challenges — digital delivery platforms, audience fragmentation and the regulatory environment among them — local TV continues show its value, he said. The way over-the-top delivery platforms have come around to realize the importance of carrying broadcast TV stations is just one point of proof, he said.

None of which means local broadcasters can sit back and relax while the wider world of media changes around them.

“We as an industry need to break out of our product, out of our form, and make sure we’re distributed in other ways. I think stations are starting to do that but there is a lot of work to be done,” Wertlieb said.

“Those challenges can be overcome if you come back to the basic foundation of the relationship a station has with its community,” Wertlieb said. “And if you do come back to those foundations, there will be models that work the problems out.”

Yet for the complexities and intricacies of the business, Wertlieb said he still gets “pumped up about the job every day,” especially when people, like the crews who worked around the clock covering Irma, shine and show their “inner strength.”

Hearing from local advertisers who have grown their businesses with help from Hearst stations is still a big deal, he said. So is meeting people on the ground, like the former interns now running Hearst newsrooms or stations.

“Pretty much every day, I find reasons to get excited,” he said.