KDNL Kills Off Local News
The Last Days at Channel 30 News By Terry Cancila In January 1995, the start of the New Year brought something new to St. Louis television, KDNL (Channel 30), the then-Fox affiliate in St. Louis, began broadcasting a 9 p.m. half-hour newscast seven days a week. Working as an assignment editor at Channel 30, I remember the optimism among the staff. Even though there were some mispronunciations of streets and names, and technical difficulties, there was little doubt we’d succeed. Fast forward to Sept. 28 of this year . During our afternoon editing meeting, news director Jeff Alan told us regardless of the circumstances, make sure all employees were in the newsroom for the 3 p.m. meeting called by General Manager Tom Tipton. Immediately employees began speculating the 5 p.m. news would be cut because of low ratings. Based on an anonymous tip I received earlier in the week, I braced for much worse. A dismal Tipton walked into the newsroom shortly after 3 p.m. and announced Sinclair Broadcasting was shutting down KDNL’s news operation effective October 12.
“Stunned” described the mood. After so many budget cuts and layoffs over the last three years, I looked around the room and thought this is what soldiers must look like after they’ve been told “the war is over, you’ve lost, now just go home.” Some employees reacted with disbelief. Others seemed relieved by the announcement. The bottom line was we were all out of a job.
During the meeting we were told that all full-time employees would be given a severance package based on their tenure at the station. But we were also informed that insurance coverage would also be terminated on our last day of employment. That’s great! Fire an employee. Take away their income and now tell them they have no insurance. A family insurance plan without employer assistance costs approximately $700 a month. I was one of the lucky ones. I had just switched to my wife’s insurance coverage the month before, but the majority of employees depended on their health benefits for their families.
When I arrived for work the following Monday morning, Alan had already begun posting a list of job openings on the bulletin board. Unfortunately for most of us, none of them existed in St. Louis.
The mood was very quiet and somber that day. I don’t think anyone had his or her mind on covering the news, although a short talk with Channel 30 reporter Paul Brown left a lasting impression. Brown called a little after 8:45 a.m., just as he had every day for the past three years. Instead of talking about our fate, Brown was more interested in what we were going to cover that day. He said it wasn’t over yet. “Let’s keep covering news to the end.” For the remaining two weeks, Brown kept that attitude. I have to applaud him. I still don’t know how he could have achieved such enthusiasm. But maybe like the rest of us, he couldn’t stand the thought of something he loved coming to an end so abruptly.
As the week went on it became increasingly tough to perform the job. As expected, employees were calling in sick or had physician appointments. I remember once having one reporter and three photographers to cover the entire day. That Friday, a photographer told me, “Hey, you know I haven’t done much shooting this week and you know I’m going to be doing even less next week.”
The Monday of our final week the newsroom began to resemble a mortuary. Reality was setting in. Whenever you visit a funeral home, although solemn, loved ones always share fond memories about the deceased. In this case we were sharing our favorite stories about a once-vibrant newsroom that was now dead. Each recollection would take on the same mood. We would laugh about it, followed by a brief period of silence and ending with a heavy sigh. In one instance, several people were in Assistant News Director Nancy Tully’s office talking about all the people who had worked at Channel 30. Tully suddenly became misty-eyed and politely asked us to leave. Being the tremendous leader that she is, she didn’t want to show any weakness. She wanted to be strong for the rest of us. Shortly afterward, she came out of her office and apologized. There was obviously no need to be sorry.
The last two days were agonizing. We shot no news. The priority was making sure everyone had time to follow job leads, work on resumes and put audition tapes together. My worst moment came at home that Thursday night. Fearing that Sinclair would pull us off the air a day early, we finished our 10 p.m. news with a sign-off segment that covered the promising beginning and the unfortunate end. Watching that piece brought back so many memories of all the effort, sacrifice and teamwork that went into making the newscasts work over the years. Knowing that I was losing such great co-workers and friends in my everyday life left a tremendous void, and tears in my eyes. I hope I can experience that camaraderie again.
On the last day, the consensus was to get it over with. Everyone was sick of the lingering misery.
After tying up loose ends with management I did something I hadn’t done in my almost seven years on the assignment desk. I went out to lunch. Photographers Julie Taylor and Carol Lawrence and I went to the South City Pizza Hut and had a relaxing meal. This may seem insignificant, but as assignment manager, I never felt comfortable leaving the newsroom for any long period of time. I wonder why I gave so much to a company that cared so little about its employees.
Former Channel 30 reporter Jean Shepherd summed it up best during her speech at the party after the last newscast: “Because we’re professional, we gave Sinclair better than they deserved.”
(Used with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 11/2001).