WSMV-Channel 4, Nashville’s oldest television station and home of the area’s most traditional and most watched evening news, will almost certainly hire an outsider to replace departing news director Al Tompkins, according to knowledgeable sources.
If that happens, it will be the first time in 25 years that the station has gone outside the Channel 4 “family” to find a news director and will, in many ways, bring an end to the influential legacy of former general manager and news director Mike Kettenring.
Tompkins announced last week that he’s leaving WSMV after 14 years to join the faculty of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank and teaching center in St. Petersburg, Fla. Executive producer J.T. Thompson, 37, will serve as interim news director until station general manager Frank DeTillio names Tompkins’ successor, sources said. That process will likely take several weeks.
Thompson, special projects director Mark O’Neill, and assignment editor Michael Kilbane have each expressed an interest in the news director’s job, but a knowledgeable source said it’s “almost certain” DeTillio will pick someone from outside the station.
After the Des Moines-based Meredith Corporation bought WSMV in late 1994, the new owners quickly replaced Kettenring, a 20-year veteran and icon among local journalists, with DeTillio, a brash salesman with no experience in television news. “To [Meredith], change is a good thing,” one source said.
After he arrived at the station, DeTillio laid off a number of newsroom staffers, but he surprised many when he kept Tompkins, whom Kettenring had handpicked as news director just a few months earlier. Despite some initial clashes, the unlikely pair made things work. Aided by the return of anchor-god Dan Miller, Tompkins kept ratings and news quality high while DeTillio turned WSMV into Meredith’s most profitable station.
Now staffers are nervous again, fearing that a new director means more budget cuts and fewer of the expensive, special projects that were a Kettenring trademark. Some staffers, including Tompkins himself, are making lists of suggested names for DeTillio to consider. Most, however, would prefer Thompson, a known quantity, as news director, sources said.
DeTillio said he’s made no decision yet but insists he isn’t looking for a director to make changes in the city’s top-rated evening news programs. Tompkins predicted the transition will be “transparent” to viewers and that a core group of experienced staffers will maintain Kettenring’s traditions “whether I’m here or not.”
Perhaps. But Channel 4 really is different not much, but noticeably so from the look-a-like, local news shows that air in most markets this size. The pace is slower, the approach more thoughtful, and the stories more substantive. All stations use consultants who pitch the same cookie-cutter graphics and story ideas to newsrooms from Maine to Texas. But Tompkins and Channel 4 seem to have resisted more than most the temptation to surrender news judgment to outsiders. A No. 1 ranking, along with years of experience in the Nashville market, has given Tompkins and the WSMV staff the confidence to keep Channel 4 slightly different from the rest.
DeTillio understands that. When he first arrived, the new manager talked about making Channel 4 news more glitzy and exciting. This week, however, he emphasized the need to maintain the station’s journalistic traditions. Now, ironically, it may be up to DeTillio, the former salesman, to explain those traditions to the next news director.
Tompkins, 41, lives and breathes his job. While talking to the Scene Monday night, the news director was still very much at work, simultaneously watching four news programs and yelling at the producer about a misspelled font (“parlty cloudy”) during a weather shot. “It’s nirvana,” he admitted. “I’ll miss it.”
But not everyone will miss him. Sometimes wrong, but never in doubt, Tompkins can be loud, overbearing, and, on occasion, filled with self-importance. He’s even composed his own “News Philosophy” and posted it on the newsroom wall to inspire the troops. Tompkins’ credo includes six standard bromides and two others that are pure Kettenring/Tompkins.
One says, “We give significant stories the resources and air-time they deserve to be told as fully as we can tell them.” It’s the kind of promise few stations would make, much less try to keep.
Another is even more unusual: “If we use graphic photographs or language in our newscasts it will only be because there is an overwhelming need for the public to see or hear that information.” That’s why, despite a national trend toward more violent, more grisly news shows, Channel 4 broadcasts fewer bloody scenes or closeups of dead people than the other local stations do.
Tompkins is one of the few people in local television news to whom these issues really matter, and he loves to debate them, endlessly, in newsroom meetings, journalism seminars, and interviews with reporters. Now in the process of adopting a 1-year-old, Tompkins has fortunately found a job where he can still pontificate about media ethics and manage to have a home life as well.
On the radio recently, he called the Scene’s media critic a “pinhead.” But Tompkins is, at bottom, a thoroughly professional journalist. Nashville is the poorer for his leaving.
According to Sunday’s New York Times, PBS will air a 90-minute special Thursday night about Southern literature since World War I. Tell About the South was produced by Tennessean Ross Spears, an independent filmmaker.
But Nashville viewers won’t see the show until 2 a.m. Sunday morning because of “operational problems,” according to WDCN-Channel 8 acting program director Harmon McBride, who added that the station won’t be able to air the program in prime time until October. McBride’s explanation sounds credible, but “operational problems” seem to happen all too often at WDCN. If the station is going to survive independent of the Metro School Board, it’s going to have to give its audience better service than that.
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