Local News Close-Up: Nashville Newsrooms Catch Their Breath
Relentless rash of breaking news in Tennessee boomtown
It has been an exceptional spate of major news in Nashville of late, including the Covenant School shooting on March 27, the nine Fort Campbell soldiers killed in a helicopter crash March 29 and the two Democratic lawmakers ousted from the State Capitol by GOP colleagues April 6 amidst their push for stricter gun control.
Nashville had a bit of severe weather to boot.
The incidents have been difficult for everyone in Nashville and perhaps even worse for those who need to cover the stories. “The news departments deserve recognition for what they’ve done,” said Jasmine Hardin, Gray Television regional VP, and general manager of WSMV-WTNX.
Also Read: Check Out Our Local News Close-Ups on Dozens of Local Markets
Clips of WSMV anchors Holly Thompson and Amanda Hara becoming emotional while reporting on the school shootings were viewed around the globe, Hara dealing with text messages at the anchor desk about her own children being under lockdown in a nearby school.
News gatherers’ mental health has been top of mind. Stations brought in counselors, had training sessions for managers to help them recognize stress in staffers and offered pet therapy. Hardin got suggestions from a Gray Television colleague who was general manager during the Sandy Hook tragedy in Connecticut. WTVF offered anxious staffers massages and WKRN had a cookout for the employees — burgers, hot dogs, casual conversations.
“Everyone could talk a little bit,” said Tracey Rogers, WKRN VP and general manager, “but not a thing about what’s the next story, what’s the next story, what’s the next story.”
Nashville also got some therapy from an unlikely source. Taylor Swift, who moved to the Music City with her family as a teen, did three shows at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium May 5-7. “It’s been a lift to this community,” said Lyn Plantinga, VP and general manager, WTVF.
E.W. Scripps owns market leader WTVF, a CBS affiliate known as NewsChannel 5. Nexstar Media Group has ABC outlet WKRN. Gray Television has NBC affiliate WSMV and Telemundo affiliate WTNX. Sinclair owns Fox station WZTV and MyNetworkTV-aligned WUXP, while managing Nashville Broadcasting’s The CW affiliate WNAB. JKB Associates owns Univision station WLLC.
WNPT is the local PBS station. Comcast is the primary pay TV operator in DMA No. 27.
The news stations start their day with 4 a.m. weekday newscasts. WTVF is a beast. In February, the station won the 6 a.m. Comscore race in both households and viewers 25-54, and won 5 and 6 p.m too, with WKRN just off the pace at 6 p.m. At 10 p.m. in February, WTVF averaged 60,599 households and 35,749 viewers 25-54. WKRN and WSMV were virtually tied at 10 p.m. in households, at 39,215 and 39,212, respectively, and in the demo too, with WKRN at 23,378 and WSMN at 23,104. WZTV had 19,083 households at 10, and 11,777 in the demo.
WTVF thrives on deep staffer experience on both sides of the camera. The station seeks out “a very specific kind of person” to work there, Plantinga said: “Somebody who is highly competitive, who loses sleep when the person across the street gets the jump on them. But a good person, a nice person. We don’t have big egos.”
WTVF focuses on capital J journalism. Chief investigative reporter Phil Williams won a duPont Columbia this year for his statehouse investigation titled “Revealed,” one of five duPont prizes going to a broadcast station, and he claimed the Toner Prize from Syracuse University for the same report.
When The Ellen DeGeneres Show ended in 2022, WTVF moved The Kelly Clarkson Show from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and launched 9 a.m. news.
WTVF reporter Levi Ismail is finding new users with his “Nashville News” reports on TikTok, which have over 81,000 followers. “He’s really building a nice following there,” said Plantinga.
Plantinga got her start at WTVF as an unpaid intern in 1988, and never left. “I’ve worked here every day of my adult life,” she said.
Battling the Beast
Nashville climbed from DMA No. 30 to 27 in the past year. Rogers said WKRN’s growth comes from the new residents, drawn to its colorful, bright look, as well as the rich context the station provides in its news stories. “We spend a lot of time on story development,” said Rogers, a news director in Memphis and Huntsville, Alabama, before becoming general manager. “That sets us apart.”
Oprah Winfrey visited WTVF May 5, when the station dedicated a conference room to the TV icon who got her start there decades ago. Winfrey began at the station (then WLAC) around 1972, when she was a teenager studying at Tennessee State University. She was in Nashville to do the commencement speech at Tennessee State.
Winfrey spent around two hours at WTVF. “The interest in others, the curiosity, the compassion — you see it on TV, but one-on-one, she has every bit of that,” Lyn Plantinga, WTVF VP and general manager, said.
The Winfrey is the largest of WTVF’s four conference rooms. Others are named for Nashville-reared women’s suffrage activist Anne Dallas Dudley, for architect Earl Swensson, who designed the WTVF building, and for Jimi Hendrix, who played guitar on the WTVF show Night Train in 1965, in the backup band for an act called Buddy & Stacey when he was a soldier stationed at Fort Campbell.
Plantinga called Winfrey “the perfect person” to be honored at NewsChannel 5. “She makes an impact and leads with her compassion for others,” she said, “and that’s absolutely the mission of NewsChannel 5
WKRN premiered lifestyle show Local on 2 in September. It’s on 2-3 p.m. weekdays. “For Nashville, it makes a lot of sense,” said Rogers. “The music, the bars, the bachelorette parties, the restaurants — all these things lend themselves to a show like this.”
Gray Television “has poured a lot of money into the station” since it acquired WSMV from Meredith, Hardin said. That means both technology and staffers; Hardin said headcount is up 10%-15% since the acquisition closed in late 2021.
WSMV has zero syndicated shows. In September, the station expanded both an 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. weekday newscast to an hour. A 3 p.m. newscast took the place of People (The TV Show!).
“Gray has really gotten behind this station,” said Hardin, who also oversees stations in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Evansville, Indiana.
WTNX bills itself as Telemundo Tennessee, also serving Hispanic viewers in Memphis and Knoxville. The station does a statewide 5 p.m. newscast, and may add more news in 2024.
Univision station WLLC has 5 and 10 p.m. weekday news. Jim Baumann, acting general manager, said a “major upgrade” is coming to the station — not just gear, but a new GM and a new news director.
The station offers “Metro Minute” news briefs to keep viewers informed. “We definitely consider ourselves to be public-service oriented,” Baumann said.
How Nashville TV Stands Out
Nashville is a unique TV market in that all of the general managers are women. The station chiefs use the word “supportive” to describe the vibe between them. “We all know each other and work well together, if the need arises,” Rogers said.
Plantinga called it a friendly relationship amidst the general managers. “It’s very,
very competitive, but there’s mutual respect,” she said.
As befits a growing market, the Nashville economy is booming. Besides being the country music capital of the world, Nashville is home base for Bridgestone Americas and Nissan North America, among other corporations. Vanderbilt University is a Nashville draw, too.
Buildings keep going up around town, providing new places for all the fresh arrivals to live and work. “I think the state bird should be the crane,” said Baumann. “Nashville is growing by leaps and bounds.”
The general managers describe Nashville as a big small town — plenty of stuff going on, but a very good chance you’ll run into a friend when you check out a concert, a restaurant, a Titans game. “There’s the feel of a small town,” Plantinga said, “but there’s also an incredible amount of things to offer.”
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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.