WKRN’s Web Woes

The often fractious relationship between Old and New Media has been on display at WKRN Nashville, an ABC affiliate owned by Young Broadcasting. The station’s efforts to modernize its newsgathering and connect with viewers online have garnered widespread praise. But the recent departures of several architects of that strategy have thrown into question the station’s commitment to digital innovation for the future.

Long the market’s No. 3 station (it took in an estimated $27.175 million in revenue in 2006, according to BIA Financial), WKRN began in the past few years to demonstrate a nimble, progressive approach to the new-media landscape. Under the leadership of President/General Manager Mike Sechrist, the station worked with video journalist (VJ) guru Michael Rosenblum to train reporters to produce and edit their stories with lightweight digital gear.

In February, the station launched NashvilleisTalking.com, an aggregation of Web logs that tapped the insights of numerous independent bloggers in the Nashville market. Staffers, including Sechrist, blogged regularly on topics ranging from sports to weather to the news business itself.

“The people who ran WKRN were really smart and did it on a shoestring budget,” says Gordon Borrell, CEO of media-research firm Borrell Associates, which has consulted for WKRN. “They did it without permission from Young and built something great.”

The station even hired a full-time blogger, Brittney Gilbert, who was tasked with overseeing NashvilleisTalking while maintaining a lively Web dialogue with users throughout the day. Web traffic from unique visitors grew some 40%, says a station veteran, as WKRN reached out to a young viewership that, by and large, did not watch TV newscasts.

In April, a Radio-Television News Directors Association panel on new media lauded Sechrist for his efforts and cited WKRN as one station that “got it” in terms of digital strategy.

But after Sechrist resigned later that month to consult on new media at other stations, the door kept swinging. News Director Steve Sabato was let go a short time later, and Managing Editor Mark Shafer left for a new position in late June, a month shy of his contract’s expiration.

On June 6, Gilbert posted a lengthy resignation letter on NashvilleisTalking, citing the nasty comments she had endured from bloggers who assailed her as a corporate shill.

“Being a professional blogger paid by a local news affiliate put me in a different category than everyone else. I became 'the MSM,’” she wrote (referring, in blogspeak, to “the mainstream media”). “This is the Internet. People are vicious. They are even more vicious when they fail to make any distinction between you and a feelingless [sic], faceless media company.”

Indeed, that distinction may be at the heart of WKRN’s current woes. The Nashville exodus comes amid the recent or pending departures of several high-profile digital mavens at broadcast groups, including Wesley Jackson at Belo, Ric Harris at NBC Universal and Eric Grilly at MediaNews Group.

“There seems to be a real rub between those running interactive operations and the big traditional media companies,” says Borrell, “and [the media companies’] inability to move fast enough to satisfy those people.”

And while some insist the turnover at WKRN isn’t extraordinary for a middling station, others suggest there was a philosophical clash between Sechrist and Co. and their corporate bosses at Young.

Says one news veteran who asked not to be named, “They tried something new, it didn’t seem to have an immediate payoff, and they agreed to go their separate ways.”

Adventures in the Blogosphere

Young declined to comment, but some observers believe Young executives flinched at WKRN’s foray into the freewheeling blogosphere. Former staffers suggested that station brass had trouble sitting back while visitors posted unkind comments about the station and its personnel.

“It was my job description to be opinionated” and stir up debate, says Gilbert, “But when Mike [Sechrist] and Steve [Sabato] left, I wondered if anyone in upper management would have my back.”

Whatever the reason for the departures, the turmoil comes at a bad time for Young. The New York-based broadcaster, which owns 10 stations, is still paying for its disastrous 1999 acquisition of KRON San Francisco. Bought for $823.6 million, the longtime NBC powerhouse lost its affiliation in late 2001, and its value has plummeted ever since. Net revenue at Young was down 3.2% in first quarter 2007 from the same period last year, for a net loss of $25.4 million.

Young has already filled the WKRN vacancies. Gwen Kinsey, a 14-year company veteran who became general manager of WATE Knoxville, Tenn., earlier this year, was given oversight of WKRN, too. She tapped former WKRN News Director Matthew Zelkind to assume his old role.

Nearly all expect the station to retain the VJ model—if only because it’s a cost-effective way of doing the news. “For better or worse, I think they’re locked into it,” says Rosenblum. “Now the infrastructure is built that way.”

Meanwhile, some in the market expect management to pull the plug on NashvilleisTalking and ultimately roll back WKRN’s digital innovation. “They’re going back to Media 1.0,” says one veteran of the market’s news wars. “They’ll make their money on broadcast.”

For her part, Kinsey won’t settle on a strategy until she gets her feet under her. “I’m just processing right now,” she says. “But I do believe in innovation.”

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.