Walt DeHaven, the new vice president and general manager at Channel 4, doesn't mind sprinkling his no-nonsense reputation with a little sensitivity. During an interview on September 10, he chatted quietly about two of his aunts, who died on the United Airlines flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field last year before hijackers could fly the craft into its intended target. While doing so, he admitted that he'd already had his fill of 9/11 coverage, even though his own station, like the vast majority of broadcast outlets nationwide, would be offering up a giant serving of it the next day.
"Personally, it's too much," DeHaven noted. "I think all of us in the news media decided that we were going to have this big anniversary and this big memorial, and then we were going to move on. And I hope that happens."
Likewise, DeHaven repeatedly emphasized his three children, who range in age from one to seven, when describing why he accepted the top job at Denver's CBS affiliate -- and even implied that he's no longer as professionally ambitious as he once was. "I've ridden the merry-go-round and tried to grab the brass ring," he said. "But now my priorities are different. I want to do good work -- rewarding work, with good people -- and have it be in a good place for my family."
Still, anyone under the impression that DeHaven is a pushover hasn't seen his eyes fire up at the mention of cross-town rivalry. Before his Channel 4 hiring, he oversaw a station in Chicago, and he noted that in comparison with the Windy City, Denver "seems very gentlemanly. It's 'May I?' and 'Excuse me.' And it seems the same way even with our own competitors. In Chicago, there's none of that. You push, and you expect to be pushed back; that's just like a handshake, a greeting. And I don't know that here in Denver, we need to be that gentlemanly. I think news is news, and we should be more aggressive.
"I feel a great sense of urgency not to defer to anybody," he added. "I want us to have the attitude of 'We are the best. We're going to be the best. We'll cover the news the best. And we're not going to back off to anyone.'"
Balls-out bluster like this hasn't been heard in ages from Channel 4, which remains stuck in second place behind Channel 9 in the late-night-news derby and has lately suffered declining viewership for local programming almost across the board. In particular, DeHaven's predecessor, Marv Rockford, who helmed the station for more than twenty years, steered clear of inflammatory public statements. But DeHaven isn't afraid to speak his mind, and his track record demonstrates that such talk generally leads to action.
A New Jersey native, DeHaven has basically spent his career working for the same company, although the names of the firm have changed: He started out at Paramount before it was acquired by Viacom, which subsequently joined forces with CBS. After getting his start as an account executive at a signal in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he quickly became a corporate go-to guy. He jokingly referred to himself as "a broadcasting nomad gallivanting across the country saving unsuspecting stations" in markets such as San Antonio, Dallas, Philadelphia and Boston.
In 2000, DeHaven's travels took him to Chicago's WBBM-TV, which was on the brink of a public-relations disaster. Instead of trying to pump up its chronically poor ratings by hiring bimbo talent and leading with reports about celebrity divorces, the station went in the other direction, focusing on hard news as delivered by a single anchor, the highly respected Carol Marin. Unfortunately, the format tanked, and DeHaven was placed in the unenviable position of having to do something about it. Most Chicago observers assumed DeHaven disembarked at WBBM with orders to put the show out of its misery ("Youth of the Nation," August 15), but he denied it.
"I didn't go into that situation thinking that I was going to blow it up," he said. "When I got there, I took a look at things. And I saw that Carol's an extraordinary journalist who was definitely onto something. But she saw where we were as where we should be, and I saw where we were as a good starting point. So we just agreed to disagree."
That's putting it mildly: Marin announced that she would be leaving WBBM mere weeks after DeHaven came aboard. Her departure, at least initially, made a bad situation worse. "When Carol left, we had one or two female anchors, but we really had no male anchors, let alone a direction to go," DeHaven pointed out.
Since Chicago is America's third-largest TV market, trailing only Los Angeles and New York City, big moolah was at stake, meaning DeHaven didn't have long to ruminate on a solution. So he plugged in whatever anchors he had available and promptly brainstormed fresh approaches. These sessions eventually gave rise to "Problem Solvers," a team-reporting concept that zeroed in on consumer issues. To DeHaven, the idea was a way of "connecting with people the way the station had always done. If you went back to the days of [former WBBM staple] Walter Jacobson, it was fighting city hall, fighting corruption, fighting some of the things that perhaps Chicago was known for in the past. And we wanted to do the same."
Things didn't work out quite that neatly. "People who loved it loved it, but people who hated it hated it," DeHaven said. "And it was one of those lightning rods where critics would say, 'This is ridiculous. This is pandering.' But it wasn't. It was us trying to reach out to the people who actually watch and ask, 'What resonates with you? What strikes a chord?' And it taught us a lot, not only about Problem Solvers, but about the types of stories we were doing when we were enterprising above and beyond the news of the day. So we took a lot of grief for it along the way, but I think it worked out well in the end."
The same can't be said for DeHaven's tenure at WBBM. Earlier this year, he persuaded Antonio Mora, the news reader for Good Morning America, to relocate to Chicago -- a potentially positive development. But before he could reap the fruits of this success, Dennis Swanson, who'd recently been named chief operating officer of Viacom's television-station group, decided that Joe Ahern, a close colleague for many years, should become WBBM's monarch. DeHaven didn't bother spinning this version of events: "I told the people here, 'I left Chicago because they asked me to.' There's no way to dance around that. We had new management, and they wanted their own guy. But the company was gracious enough to give me some different options of things that I wanted to do, and the thing that interested me most was coming to Denver."
Channel 4 certainly isn't in as sorry a situation as was WBBM when DeHaven was sent there, as he acknowledged. "On any given day, you see the type of thoughtful reporting that we do, and I think those are big strengths," he said, singling out investigative reporter Brian Maass for praise. "And I think our weather coverage is very good; we have very trusted weathercasters and do a good job with it."
On the other side of the coin, he conceded, "We need to work on doing better TV. We're in an age when people are barraged with hundreds of different options, and if we don't package our news in a way that's fascinating, that's visually stimulating, that has writing that's concise, and where we move from story to story in a way that makes you feel you're getting the information you need, some viewers may not tune us in. And that's an area we can always do better in."
To get the word out, DeHaven plans to place a greater emphasis on marketing via promotion on Channel 4, cable channels, radio, the print media and billboards, as well as through charity events. He's also big on partnerships with organizations such as the Rocky Mountain News and Univision-owned KCEC/Channel 50, which the station inked a pact with a few months before DeHaven came to Denver. As part of the deal, Channel 4 is sharing assorted resources and footage with Channel 50 in exchange for inroads to an audience that's growing in importance. The popularity of most English-language newscasts is falling, especially among the younger viewers whom advertisers covet, but the number of folks glued to Spanish-oriented outlets is on the rise.
According to DeHaven, "The partnership that we're developing -- and 'developing' is the right word -- lets us tie into Spanish-speaking viewers so they can get a better sense of who we are, and it conversely allows Univision to move into more of a general market. Now, at some point, will we be at odds with each other? If we're successful, we will. Maybe five years from now, we'll look at each other and say, 'You're annoying me; I'm annoying you. Let's get out of here.' But right now, they have good access into our newsroom and to our community, and we have good access into their newsroom and their community, and that will give both of us a better understanding of the people we're trying to reach."
As for changes in on-air personalities, DeHaven suggested that more people would be coming -- like, for instance, new weekend anchor Tony Lopez -- than going. Rumors that main anchor Bill Stuart, who survived one attempted ouster in 1999 and is reportedly considering retirement, may get the boot are unlikely to be quelled by one of DeHaven's comments: "There are people here who anchor and report with us who have been doing it for a long time and may want to go off and do something else, but that won't be our doing." However, he emphasized that "I don't like to make change for the sake of change. In Chicago, the change was made because I had no choice. We were in a dog fight that was swirling around us, and the change was reactive to it. But here we're in a fantastic situation. We do really good work, and there's an opportunity to do better work."
Clearly, DeHaven won't be satisfied with being the bridesmaid of Denver TV news. "Channel 9's product is very consistent," he said. "You know exactly what you're going to get. And if you're a viewer who watches Channel 9, why would you change? But I absolutely see vulnerabilities there. I'm just not going to tell you what they are."
As DeHaven laughed, his eyes were ablaze.
Broken news: An astonishing amount of space was lavished on last week's 9/11 stories by local publications, particularly the Rocky Mountain News, whose gusher of coverage probably put some New York City publications to shame. But here's guessing that the energy, effort and space expended on these articles was totally out of proportion with the time subscribers actually spent looking at them. Did anyone read half the pieces in the Rocky from start to finish? A tenth of them? Even one?
The situation was different when it came to the electronic media; ratings were high during certain times of the day, but the content eventually left many news consumers too numb to comprehend what they were seeing or hearing. An example of this phenomenon may have taken place during the 11 a.m. Eastern/9 a.m. Mountain news update from CBS Radio, broadcast locally on KHOW. In the middle of the report, the anchor wedged in a breaking-news item that initially seemed of tremendous importance: He said that CBS-TV reporter Jim Stewart was reporting that suspected 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was dead.
The news reader promised more information about what, on the surface, was a huge development, but none was forthcoming on Denver radio. KHOW segued directly into Dr. Laura's syndicated scoldfest, and no other area station sent forth further details. A little over an hour later, Jerry Bell, news director for Denver outlets owned by Clear Channel (including KHOW), found out why. CBS's Stewart had actually reported that a Sudanese Web site with alleged ties to the al-Qa'ida terrorist organization was the source for the Osama-is-a-goner story, which was otherwise unconfirmed. CBS Radio added this context in later reports.
Given how many times over the past year various parties have asserted that bin Laden is dead, or alive, or halfway between dead and alive, what at first appeared to be a major blockbuster was revealed to be rather inconsequential. Those tuned to KHOW at the time didn't know that, of course, and after checking out the incredibly provocative phrasing of the item, Bell says he would have expected the phone "to be ringing off the hook." But that didn't prove to be the case. The only person to inquire about it was yours truly.
Apparently the rest of the audience had already tuned out, either figuratively or literally. And who can blame them?
Another one bites the dust: For most people, September 11 was an extremely solemn occasion. But for certain staffers at the Denver Post, there was at least one ray of sunshine: They learned that their nemesis, managing editor Larry Burrough, was on his way out.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Burrough, who came to the Post in 2000 under the auspices of previous editor Glenn Guzzo, had a controversial run at the paper. In some quarters, he was seen as a smart newsman who was willing to do whatever it took to make the Post a world-class paper and had good ideas about how to attain this goal. In others, he was considered to be Guzzo's hatchet man -- a poor communicator who responded to criticism by shipping squawkers to the suburbs ("Swing Shift," February 14). He was also the subject of a whispering campaign that got louder in recent months. After an alleged incident during a staff party at ESPN Zone in July, the Post's human-resources department interviewed a handful of attendees about Burrough. But nothing came of these conversations, and no disciplinary action was taken.
In a September 11 memo, editor Greg Moore wrote that Burrough "had been exploring other options prior to my arrival but stayed on to work closely with me during the past three months to help in the hiring and creating of our new management team for the Post. Since that work is done and I have now made nearly all those changes, we thought it would be a good time to let the staff know about his pending departure." Moore said the announcement "allows me to begin openly pursuing a replacement to complete my new management team."
Burrough, who's leaving on September 27, didn't return a call seeking comment, but Moore's memo stated that "he has not made a final decision about what he is going to do next, though it most likely will take him back to California." (Previously, Burrough worked at the Orange County Register.) Moore added that "a special send-off for Larry" will be held in the coming weeks.
No location was announced.