Local News Close-Up: Easy Does It in New Orleans

The WVUE/Fox 8 10 p.m. team includes sports director Juan Kincaid, anchor and chief investigative reporter Lee Zurik, anchor Meg Gatto and chief meteorologist Bruce Katz.
The WVUE/Fox 8 10 p.m. team includes sports director Juan Kincaid, anchor and chief investigative reporter Lee Zurik, anchor Meg Gatto and chief meteorologist Bruce Katz. (Image credit: WVUE Fox 8)

With its colorful festivals, two major pro sports teams and lots of crime and corruption, New Orleans feels like a larger market than No. 50 to the newsgatherers toiling in the region. There’s never a shortage of big-time happenings. A peek at the calendar reveals the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Eve, Mardi Gras beginning February 21 and Jazz Fest in late April. 

But on any given night, there’s merriment in the French Quarter, in Treme, Uptown or in most any New Orleans neighborhood. 

“From a news perspective, it certainly feels a lot bigger than market 50,” said Tod Smith, president and general manager, WWL-WUPL. “There’s always something going on.”

Also: Check Out Our Local News Close-Up Profiles on Dozens of U.S. Markets

Gray Television owns the Big Easy leader, Fox affiliate WVUE. Hearst Television holds NBC outlet WDSU. Tegna has WWL-WUPL, a CBS-MyNetworkTV duo. Nexstar Media Group owns WGNO-WNOL, an ABC-The CW pair. Mayavision has Telemundo station KGLA. 

Cox Communications is the market’s main pay TV operator, and Spectrum has a significant cable presence, too. 

WVUE goes with a Fox 8 moniker. In October, Fox 8 was No. 1 at 6-7 a.m., in both households and viewers 25-54, with WDSU in second in both races. At 5 p.m., WVUE again won both contests, with WWL the runner-up. On to 6 p.m., where WDSU took both households and the demo, with WWL in second in households, and WVUE second in viewers 25-54. And at 10 p.m, WVUE had a 14.6 rating in households, ahead of WWL’s 11.3, WDSU’s 10.5 and WGNO’s 1.2. In the demo derby, WVUE scored a 9.6 in late news, WDSU a 7.5, WWL a 6.3 and WGNO a 0.9. 

WWL was the leader for decades, but WVUE wears the crown today. WWL had a unique arrangement where it ran local news, not the CBS morning show, from 7 to 9 a.m. That ended in late 2016, with the local wake-up show shifting to WUPL. 

Fox 8 had a local morning newscast for those who went looking for one at the time. 

The word “aggressive” comes up a lot when Mikel Schaefer, WVUE VP and general, describes the station’s rise. Aggressive in cranking out content, including investigative and a new 4 a.m. news, aggressive in bringing rival talent on board, including Lee Zurik and John Snell, and aggressive in marketing its wares to viewers. “We work really hard to get the best talent and do the best work,” Schaefer said. “It’s just a lot of hard work by really smart and hard-working journalists.”

Zurik, New Orleans-raised WVUE anchor, was named News Anchor of the Year by B+C this year. Schaefer was B+C’s News Director of the Year in 2013. 

Sandy Breland, former WVUE general manager, supervises the station as Gray TV’s senior VP of local media, and is based in New Orleans. “Conversations with Sandy about what we want to do and what we need to do are much easier conversations,” Schaefer said. 

Happy Anniversary!

Michael Neelly recently reached his first anniversary as WDSU president/general manager, shifting from the top spot at WAPT Jackson (Mississippi) when WDSU’s Joel Vilmenay took over CBS-owned KCBS-KCAL Los Angeles in September 2021.  

Next year, WDSU celebrates 75 years on the air. “I think we might have a little party,” Neelly said. “New Orleans is known for its parties.”

WDSU airs the Children’s Hospital Holiday Parade (opens in new tab) December 3. The inaugural event features floats, musicians, balloons and Santa himself. WDSU’s telecast will stream throughout Hearst Television on the group’s Very Local app

“We’re real excited to bring this to the people,” Neelly said. 

WDSU’s tagline goes “Live, Local, Late Breaking.” Melissa Dart took over as WDSU news director at the start of 2021. Neelly previously was the news director at Hearst TV stations WLKY Louisville and WLWT Cincinnati. He spoke of WDSU journalists focusing on the difference between entertainment and news, since the market has loads of both. “What people want to see,” he explained, “and what people need to see.”

Ricknise Riggins has boots on the ground for WWL in the Big Easy.

Ricknise Riggins has boots on the ground for WWL in the Big Easy.  (Image credit: WWL)

WWL launched The Talk (opens in new tab), which focuses on race relations and is anchored by Charisse Gibson, following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The program picked up a National Murrow Award last year. WWL’s “Wounded City” segments focus on crime. Recent stories include investigations into how other cities’ police departments cut back on crime, and steps taken to address mental health issues in the city. “It’s from the perspective of, yes, it exists, why it exists, and what can people do to mitigate it,” Smith said. 

The Tegna station also has segments called “Historic Neighborhoods,” which offer a deep dive on a different neighborhood, be it Stapleton, New Orleans East or Ponchartrain Park. They sometimes turn into half-hour specials. 

WWL, which recently had its 65th anniversary, deploys that deep-dive approach in its news product too. “We look at issues and try to go more in depth than headlines and quick splashes,” said Smith. “We don’t just present the problems. We talk to the people who have been impacted, and we talk to the people who are addressing the issues.”

WGNO is focused on ATSC 3.0 conversion and in the fall aired specials tied to Hispanic Heritage Month and to veterans. The station introduced News With a Twist, a 6 p.m. program that mixed news with lifestyle content, in 2011, and the motif spread to 5, 6 and 10 p.m. news. It now offers one-off Twist specials. 

“We went back to traditional news once the pandemic hit,” said John Cruse, VP/general manager. 

The stations are doing what they can to get ahead. WDSU welcomed anchor Darryl Forges, previously of CNN, to its noon and 4 p.m. programs. WWL revived its “Louisiana Made, Louisiana Proud” (opens in new tab) segments, which are paid for by companies with roots in the region. 

WVUE has sports shows in the 10:30 p.m. slot most nights, including Final Bet and Deuce McAllister-hosted Saints program Black and Gold Review

Saint Misbehaving 

The NFL’s Saints are a huge source of local pride, but the football team is in the midst of a losing season. “People will watch the Saints no matter what,” said Schaefer. “But if they’re not winning, the mood of the city is somewhat affected.”

The New Orleans economy is so-so. Midterm elections came and went with light political spending. “I think we’re hanging in there,” Neelly said. “The circumstances are tough for just about everybody, but the business community is chugging along.”

WDSU morning anchors Chad Sabadie and Randi Rousseau present the news to New Orleans.

 WDSU morning anchors Chad Sabadie and Randi Rousseau present the news to New Orleans. (Image credit: WDSU)

Hurricane Ida, which walloped New Orleans in 2021, set the market back a bit. “I don’t think the rest of the country realized how big a deal it was here,” Cruse said. 

But residents love the multifaceted ethnic flavor of New Orleans, be it Cajun, Creole, European or African. “Each culture comes in and adds something to the culture,” Smith said. 

New Orleans is known for extraordinary cuisine, music, nightlife, history and architecture. It’s a small city, Schaefer noted, but is nonetheless an international one. “People don’t move from New Orleans,” he said. 

Neelly has appreciated the friendliness of the residents upon his arrival, and the lively atmosphere that greets residents most every day. “There’s always something to do,” he said. “You have to try to be bored in New Orleans.” ▪️

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.