In late December, mere weeks after 9News anchor Adele Arakawa announced that she would be leaving the station in June 2017 while blasting a blog post that had predicted her exit, the outlet's longtime sportscaster, Drew Soicher, disappeared from its airwaves.
Since then, a permanent replacement for Soicher hasn't been announced, and the station isn't expected to name one in the future. Over the coming weeks, 9News plans to formally do away with the sports segment in which Soicher once starred in favor of an approach that will fold stories on the topic into the overall newscast rather than saving most of them until near its conclusion.
Many local media observers believe this is a cost-cutting move on the part of 9News, which has bid farewell to a slew of high-priced veteran talent over the past few years, including morning anchor Kyle Dyer, entertainment reporter Kirk Montgomery, sportscaster Susie Wargin, evening anchor Mark Koebrich and self-described business boy Gregg Moss.
Moreover, an industry source shared a rumor with Westword that 9News expected to pare its sports staff down to former Denver Post reporter Mike Klis and a couple of MMJs — which in this context means multi-media journalists who serve as their own camera operators — and allow the contract of Rod Mackey, another veteran sports anchor, to expire.
None of this is true, counters Steve Carter, 9News president and general manager. He says neither the size of the station's sports department nor its emphasis on teams such as the Denver Broncos will diminish under the new format, whose concept fell into shape in the wake of Soicher's departure.
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"Drew had his eye on our sister station in Phoenix, KPNX; he's got a contract there," Carter reveals. "So when Drew left, there wasn't a lot of fanfare. That's what he wanted, and that's what we respected. But I put out a note saying that Drew had reinvented how sports was done in this market. He kind of rewrote the job description. And after Drew, what do you do?"
In attempting to answer that question, managers were led in a new direction, Carter maintains. "Drew took sports to an entertainment level that was beyond highlights. He hardly ever showed highlights of games unless they were spectacular. And when he left, we thought, we can still do the sports stories that matter. But we realized that we can take the two and a half or three minutes we saved for sports and spread it across the entire broadcast."
By doing so, 9News will address one of the dirty little secrets of TV news: Viewership tends to drop as the show goes on, with the most precipitous fall after weather and before sports.
"We do see a decrease in the ratings at the end of the newscast," Carter confirms. "It's not the fault of sports. It's just that people feel they've already got everything they need. With scores and highlights, people are holding that information in their hand through their phone. A lot has changed over the years, and that's even more true now that everyone has access to their favorite team through their app and so forth."
Besides, a lot of sports stories deserve a spot higher up in the daily roster, Carter believes. He cites revelations in a recent Sports Illustrated article about domestic-abuse violations made against former CU Boulder assistant coach Joe Tumpkin. "We handled that higher in the show because it's sports-related, but it's also news-related," he says."
The same technique will be used "if the Broncos are making news," Carter continues. "We're still the Broncos' media partners, and we'll still be doing all the Broncos programming we've done in the past. This is an amazing sports town, so obviously we'll be covering all the major things that happen. But we'll probably be more focused on one topic or a few topics, depending on what's just happened in the sports world — and we'll have very capable, high-quality journalists to go out and cover events for us as well."
There are no staff cuts planned, Carter stresses, and that includes Mackey, who he calls "our Broncos guy. He's the guy who does all the shows, and he's been doing that for several years. Drew stayed back and did all the stuff on set, but Rod has been covering the team. And we want Rod to stay involved in all of that."
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Regarding the big names that have vanished from 9News, as well as Arakawa's impending leave-taking, Carter insists that dollars and cents weren't the primary motivating factors. "This is all part of normal turnover. If you start listing all the names of people we've been watching for 20 or 25 years, some of them are now spending more time with their grandchildren or are ready to retire, or they're going to a better or bigger job."
In the meantime, Carter says, the 9News sports staffers who remain are "trying to build up a base of good stories before we kick off the new format. And we've got some really great pieces coming up, including some investigative pieces we've been working on."
He adds, "Being a leader in this market, this station has been doing a lot of innovative things over the years, and our company [9News is owned by TEGNA, an offshoot of Gannett] is behind us in these innovations. We're not afraid to try things, and these types of innovations are things we want to try."
Soon, we'll see if viewers are good sports about them.