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KLAS of the Field in Vegas

Emily Neilson appreciates stability and consistency. She has been married for 31 years. She’s worked for KLAS Las Vegas for 31 years as well, and expresses no desire to suddenly switch to the nomadic life of a typical general manager. KLAS has had the same owner for more than three decades.

Yet Neilson is not averse to the occasional dramatic overhaul, such as when the Landmark Media Enterprises-owned station, long engaged in a ratings duel with rival KVBC (now KSNV), executed a big-time rebrand two years ago. Known for its hard-hitting investigative work, KLAS scrapped its venerable Eyewitness News motif for 8 News Now, which Neilson felt better expressed the station’s mission of being a breaking news leader all the time, and across all available media.

“It was a risky move, in the middle of the biggest recession we’d ever had,” says the unassuming GM. “But by any measure, it’s been a huge success. It was kind of fun…and a little scary.”

In truth, it’s not surprising that Neilson would shake things up to get ahead of the curve. While every station manager talks about breaking news online, Neilson has been pushing that strategy since the late ’90s. “Broadcasters back then all thought about holding breaking news to put on the air,” says Gary Gannaway, CEO of WorldNow, which manages the sites of KLAS and sister Landmark outlet WTVF Nashville. “Emily would break news on any platform at any time. To my knowledge, she was the first.”

Even back then, KLAS was turning a profit on the Web, says Gannaway. In 1999, Neilson spearheaded the station’s digital transition. In 2005, KLAS debuted a mobile product. A year later, it went HD. Late last year, the CBS affiliate began simulcasting its signal for mobile devices. Users may not be equipped to receive the station’s signal on their handhelds yet, but KLAS is waiting for them.

“We’re up and ready and experimenting,” Neilson says. “As the devices come on line, there we will be.”

Breaking news defines the KLAS brand. The station employs a seven-person investigative team, which earned a 2009 Peabody Award for its “Crossfire: Water, Power and Politics” report on how Vegas’ blockbuster growth has affected the greater Southwest. Neilson is all-in on investigative, both to make a difference in viewers’ lives, and to set the station apart in a market where people are presented with an array of distractions like no other in America.

“Everyone throws everything into weather and traffic and breaking news,” says Neilson. “We are there too, but we want to be more.”

Neilson knows news intimately. She answered a help wanted ad in the KLAS traffic department in 1980 and got the job, but was drawn to the strange noises coming from the newsroom. “I saw the other end of the building, where there was so much energy,” she says. “I was able to talk [my way] into a job as a secretary in the newsroom.” She moved up to the assignment desk, then managing editor, then news director in 1992.

Neilson was promoted to KLAS president/ GM in 2004, but retains a special place in her heart for the 100 people in her newsroom. “She knows what I’m up against,” says Ron Comings, news director. “Emily is a real project-execution expert. She knows how to get things done.”

Staffers say Neilson has very high expectations of them, but also shows deep compassion for her charges, such as when she got Landmark to sign off on $1,000 thank-you gifts (after taxes) for each full-time employee last year. “When Emily makes a recommendation on something she needs to do, we know her credibility is strong,” says Jack Ross, Landmark president and COO. “We know she has our best interests at heart.”

Staying ahead in Vegas, where new residents arrive in droves and the economy is digging out from a dreadful recession, is a 24/7 task. But Neilson makes time for full-contact unwinding, whether it’s busting out the shotguns for target practice, taking the dirt bikes out for a ride with husband, Brad, or playing with her toddler granddaughter. (A grandson is due to arrive in June.)

Neilson disdains what she calls “Dilbert language” corporate-speak, but is adamant about KLAS’ mission to “Inform, Connect and Inspire.” “The station reaches 90% of the audience in an average 30 days,” she says. “We can air stories and support organizations. We can make a difference.”

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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.