Man of Action (News)

When WOIO Cleveland anchor Sharon Reed shed her clothes to participate in one of photographer Spencer Tunick’s massive nude events for a November sweeps story, the CBS affiliate could have used a suit of armor to fend off the attacks on the station’s journalistic standards. But News Director Steve Doerr, one of the piece’s architects, makes no apologies.

“We were doing a story people in Cleveland would like,” he says, adding that the piece was not meant to please the Poytner Institute’s journalism think tank “or The New York Times. The people it was intended for—our viewers—supported it.” Indeed, the report, which aired just one time, earned WOIO its highest-ever ratings.

Reed’s infamous “naked-anchor” story last fall was more than a simple sweeps stunt. It is the best-known example of WOIO’s new Action News, a fast-paced, graphics-heavy presentation with a grab-you-by-the-lapels emphasis on investigations and hard news. Doerr and WOIO GM Bill Applegate, a local-news veteran who has a reputation for tabloid-style stunts, introduced the Action News format in October 2003 in a so-far successful effort to energize ratings for WOIO, long a laggard in the market.

Not everyone finds Action News appealing. WOIO’s detractors call it flash and trash, and local alternative paper Cleveland Scene sniffed that WOIO news is “all about seduction. They grab your attention for one night, even if you feel a little ashamed in the morning.”

Ratings turnaround

Even so, viewers tune in. In two years, WOIO has climbed from last place in 11 p.m. news to second behind WKYC. (Two weeks into May sweeps, WOIO was averaging an 8.4 household rating/16 share, behind WKYC’s 9.9/19.)

Engineering that kind of turnaround is nearly impossible in local news, where viewers often watch the same station for their entire lives. In Cleveland, WKYC is a well-established No. 1, and Fox station WJW is steeped in local-news traditions. To lure viewers, Doerr says, WOIO had to be a renegade. “You have three stations here that have been doing it the same way for 50 years. How do you break the vault? Some people say: 'I’ll do it better.’ There is no doing it better. There is just different.”

Doerr was introduced to the TV-news business at an early age: His father, Bob Doerr, produced documentaries for NBC News and worked at local stations. But when Doerr, who spent parts of his childhood in Ohio, left Ohio University, it was to work on-air at a Cincinnati-area jazz radio station. He quickly decided that, while on-air work was not for him, he liked the news business.

Doerr landed his first TV job in 1982 at WPTV West Palm Beach, Fla., producing the 11 p.m. news. Later, as a producer for WKRC Cincinnati, Doerr worked for anchor Nick Clooney (actor George Clooney’s father), an Ohio native who had just returned from anchoring at KNBC Los Angeles. The veteran anchor made a lasting impression. One night before the news broadcast, a staffer referred to viewers as “Joe and Mary Six-Pack,” angering Clooney.

“He said viewers are people who invite us into their homes,” Doerr recalls. “They plumb, they build, they hammer, they work for a living, and how dare we talk down to them. It was an incredible lesson: Always respect your viewer.”

That message stayed with Doerr as he moved from job to job in the résumé-building local-news tradition. In the late 1990s, he was named news director at NBC affiliate WCAU Philadelphia. ABC-owned WPVI had always been the dominant Philadelphia station, but the NBC network was riding high with Today and prime time, and Doerr smelled an opportunity to latch onto that success. WCAU branded itself the weather station and promoted its news relentlessly. For a time, the station challenged WPVI’s supremacy.

“Mr. Fix-it”

The turnaround inspired Reed, a Philadelphia native who worked at WCAU at the time, to nickname Doerr “Mr. Fix-It.”

“Growing up in Philadelphia, I didn’t know there was another channel other than WPVI,” she says. “To move WCAU into a dead heat with WPVI, it was amazing.”

Doerr’s successes on the local level caught NBC’s attention, earning him a corporate job in New York as senior VP of programming and news for NBC-owned stations. But that was short-lived. At the time, industry executives said Doerr’s brash demeanor did not mesh with NBC’s more restrained style. Doerr says only that it wasn’t a good fit. He left in 2002, after less than a year.

About that time, Applegate was plotting the overhaul of WOIO. The reason local-news viewership declines, he says, “is not because of the Internet and cable. People are bored with what they see.” He wanted news “with a point of view” and needed a lieutenant. Doerr, he says, “is a tough, hard-bitten news guy—and fair.”

Because of the notoriety of Reed’s much publicized sweeps report, Doerr says, “people assume we’re wild and crazy and anything goes, but this is carefully crafted. We’re at a B+ right now. There’s still a lot to be done.”