Half a dozen members of the Channel 11 newsroom – including several high-profile anchors and reporters – are on their way out.
“To take us on the next step I needed to get people who are better story tellers and more assertive reporters,” said KSTW news director Mark Olinger.
Olinger told five staffers on Friday that their contracts would not be renewed. A sixth staffer – a photographer on vacation – has yet to be notified.
Olinger said yesterday that he had no plans to change his weeknight anchor team of Kimberly Hill and Charles Johnson. Both have more than a year left on their contracts, and “I’m not buying those guys out,” Olinger said.
For others, it’s time to update resumes and edit videotapes.
Midday news anchor and reporter Wendy Mann will not be rehired when her contract expires in early January.
Also leaving: Weekend news anchor and reporter Bill Oltman; general assignment reporter Diane Robinson; reporter Heidi Chang; photographer Nick DeVogel.
The shake-up follows on the heels of the removal of KSTW movie reviewer and feature reporter Jerry Kemp and the demotion of meteorologist Dave Torchia to weekend weather duties.
Former KING-TV weathercaster Larry Schick took over for Torchia; former “Entertainment Tonight” reporter Al Owens replaces Kemp, and makes his first appearance Thursday.
Olinger has yet to announce any replacements for the six departing reporters and photographers. “I’m pretty well negotiated on most of the people I’m bringing in,” he said. “I’m probably a week or so away” from naming the new hire to replace reporter Chang, whose contract lapses Aug. 9.
A former special-projects producer at KOMO-TV, Olinger spent the last 2 1/2 years at ABC affiliate KUSA-TV in Denver. He took over the Channel 11 News reins in January.
“Most of the reporters were lazy,” said Olinger. “The photography was lacking creativity. People took long lunches. This is not a personal thing. I’m trying to improve the quality of the television station.”
In the past six months, KSTW has improved its news viewership among key demographic groups, Olinger said. His goal: to attract more viewers than the 11 p.m. network affiliates’ newscasts.
“We’re already doing it” some nights, Olinger said.
One factor in Channel 11’s favor: More people are watching TV at 10 p.m., when KSTW’s hourlong newscast begins, than at 11 p.m.
But KSTW still needs to overcome its relatively low profile as an independent station, and its relatively small newsroom. KSTW’s 40-member news staff is roughly half the size of its Seattle network affiliate competition.
Olinger dismissed rumors that he was looking to hire former KING anchor Don Porter. The rumors started when Porter was spotted visiting the KSTW newsroom and chatting with Olinger earlier this summer.
“We’re friends. He’d never seen this station. I gave him a tour,” Olinger said.
Olinger added that he intends to focus on the important fall ratings period rather than plan any other major personnel shake-ups.
“I’m pretty settled,” he said. “I want to get going into November on a good roll.”
KSTW Turns Off Midday News – Jul 24, 1991 – Kit Boss SEATTLE TIMES – KSTW’s midday newscast signed off yesterday – for good.
The station’s general manager said low viewership prompted the cancellation of the half-hour newscast, which made its debut in May, 1990.
“We gave the show several chances,” Kevin Hale said in a press release. “It’s time to cut our losses.” Hale refused to make any comment outside of those in the half-page prepared statement.
The decision to ax the midday news marks the latest – though not likely the last – turbulent development in the Channel 11 newsroom.
Monday, the union that represents TV reporters sent KSTW a letter announcing its plans to pursue legal action on behalf of several reporters recently fired by the Tacoma station. The union called the firings “arbitrary and capricious.”
Little more than a week earlier, news director Mark Olinger told four reporters and two photographers that they would not be rehired when their contracts expired.
One of the fired Channel 11 staffers called newsroom morale “poisoned.”
“Look at the statements Mr. Olinger has seen fit to give to the press and general public,” said Tony Hazapis, executive director of the local American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. “He’s calling all these reporters incompetent, lazy, . . . no-talent.”
The fired reporters have said Olinger gave them no warning that their performance was sub-par, Hazapis said.
Hazapis said he also advised the reporters to seek outside legal counsel “to determine whether there’s also an issue of defamation here.”
Olinger could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Since the mid-July staff slashing, Olinger has been slammed for what his critics call a less-than-forthright, heavy-handed style of management.
“He certainly had a propensity to be somewhat ballistic,” recalled a colleague from KUSA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Denver where Olinger worked for several years as a producer. At KUSA, as at KSTW, Olinger often said a fired reporter or photographer was “blown up.”
Olinger detonated veteran reporter Jerry Kemp in June, replacing him with former “Entertainment Tonight” reporter Al Owens. The second wave of firings included anchors Wendy Mann and Bill Oltman and reporters Diane Robinson and Heidi Chang.
Some KSTW insiders believed “11:30 Midday” – which ran a distant third in viewership to the noon newscasts on KIRO and KING – suffered from understaffing and too little promotion.
“We never let people know where or when it was,” said one.
With no more midday news, anchor Mann has been reassigned to KSTW’s Seattle bureau as field reporter. Weathercaster Larry Schick will pick up the added duty of environmental reporting.
Olinger left the station because he “wants to pursue other interests,” Channel 11 spokeswoman Julie Furlong said yesterday. Olinger resigned Wednesday, effective immediately. He could not be reached for comment.
Station general manager Kevin Hale is looking for a replacement, Furlong said.
“We’re going to conduct an immediate search to find the best person available,” she said. “We haven’t posted the job in any national publication yet but that will happen real soon.”
In the meantime, KSTW executive producer Julie Akins, news anchor and managing editor Don Porter and assignment editor Tim Church will share news-director duties.
Olinger was hired in January 1991 to revitalize KSTW’s 10 p.m. newscast.
His management style quickly drew attention. Some station veterans were laid off or demoted while on vacation. He fired anchors Wendy Mann and Bill Oltman, and reporters Diane Robinson, Jerry Kemp and Heidi Chang.
Four of them sued Olinger, KSTW and parent Gaylord Broadcasting after Olinger criticized their professional abilities in front of station staff and to other media. Chang and Oltman settled their cases, filed in Pierce County Superior Court. The lawsuits filed in King County Superior Court by Robinson and Kemp are scheduled for trial in June.
Furlong said the defamation lawsuits had nothing to do with Olinger’s decision to resign.