In an unlikely game of musical chairs, Mark Shafer, acting news director at Cincinnati’s WCPO, has been named news director at Nashville’s WSMV-Channel 4, while WTVF-Channel 5 newsroom boss Mike Cutler has reportedly been offered the top job at Shafer’s Ohio station.
Station officials announced Shafer’s hiring to Channel 4 staffers Monday. He plans to start in two to three weeks. Although Cutler’s offer is still officially under wraps, sources say it’s “likely” he’ll take the Cincinnati job if he can arrange an amicable parting from Channel 5. Cutler himself did not return calls.
Shafer, 46, worked at Channel 4 from 1982 to 1987 as senior producer of the prize-winning special projects team. Longingly remembered by veteran staffers as the station’s golden era, those were the days when Channel 4 enjoyed huge ratings, a fat budget, and, supposedly, newsroom bosses who cared more about quality journalism than corporate profits. “I’ve got some big shoes to fill,” Shafer says, describing former directors Mike Kettenring (“he hired me”), Bob Selwyn (“my mentor”), and Al Tompkins (“whom I have the most respect for”).
Shafer doesn’t mention J.T. Thompson, Channel 4’s most recent news director who resigned in February after several adolescent lapses in judgment. In contrast, industry insiders describe Shafer as “a gentleman,” “a class act,” and “almost too nice to be a television news director.”
Also like his mentors, Shafer is “not a big fan” of using contests to boost ratings. “You’re trading short-term ratings for long-term value,” he explains. “That’s not how you build viewer loyalty.”
Those are high-minded words from the soon-to-be director of a station that relentlessly hawks Snowbird paraphernalia during sweeps months and, not long ago, gave away an entire house. Shafer, however, says he’s learned how to attract viewers and boost ratings. After working at a half-dozen stations and a TV consulting firm, he says he’s come to appreciate the importance of “relevance” and of “understanding what our customers’ needs are.”
That sounds more in keeping with the no-nonsense attitude of Channel 4 general manager Frank DeTillio. Asked to describe Shafer, DeTillio first uses terms such as “mature,” “strategic thinker,” and “someone who knows the news business,” but quickly adds, “he also enjoys competing. He wants to win. He’s coming here to win.” Maybe so, but Shafer himself doesn’t mention that.
Cutler, on the other hand, is known to talk of little else. Shortly after being named news director three years ago, Cutler told the Scene his primary mission was simple: to beat the other stations every day and in every time slot. He rarely mentions journalism.
Sources say Cutler wants to take the Cincinnati job, which is approximately the same market size as Nashville, but he may be concerned about breaking his contract with Channel 5. WTVF has a reputation for playing legal hardball with employees and, although Cutler probably would win, the threat of a nasty lawsuit could keep the news director in Nashville.
The better strategy, of course, is to let staffers leave and wish them well. That’s probably just the advice Cutler’s heir apparent, assistant news director Lyn Plantinga, is giving this week to her close friend, station general manager Debbie Turner. Insiders say the transition from Cutler to Plantinga would be hardly noticeable, except that the station would be entirely, not just mostly, run by women.
The rest of the story
Last week, colleague Matt Pulle castigated Channel 5 reporter Jennifer Kraus for interviewing 8-year-old Domunique Workman, son of death-row inmate Philip Workman, apparently without permission of the child’s mother. Kraus and a pack of reporters seemingly ambushed the mother and child at the airport, where they were met and escorted out by Philip Workman’s minister, Rev. Joe Ingle.
Pulle didn’t know, however, that Domunique’s mother, who had been subpoenaed by Workman’s legal team to appear in Nashville, had asked a friend to call all the local stations. She wanted the cameras there and was willing, even eager, to put herself and her son on television. “I wanted people to know that I was there against my will,” Workman’s ex-wife, Jane, says. “And my son had something to say too, and I wanted to let him say it.”
Kraus announced on air that she had asked the mother’s permission to question the child. Jane, who asked the Scene not to use her current surname, says she can’t remember whether or not Kraus asked but adds, “She certainly might have asked. And if I hadn’t wanted her to interview him, I would have told her to stop.”
On camera, both Jane and her son said they wanted nothing to do with Workman. Channel 5 was the only television station to conduct an interview with Domunique. Ingle was outraged, and reporters from other stations clucked their disapproval. But Kraus was right. The child was the focus of the story. He didn’t mind the camera, and neither did his mother. It was compelling footage that no one else caught.
Change that dart to a laurel.