With last week’s announcement that Jay Newman will soon be retiring as general manager at WJZ-TV, reaction at the station is reportedly somewhere between great relief and great anxiety.

The anxiety is reflexive. Journalists keep a cool emotional distance dealing with other people’s tragedies, whether it’s triple homicides in West Baltimore or airline crashes over New Guinea. But they tend to fall apart when change, however small, enters the newsroom itself.

In a time of swift, volcanic convulsions across the media landscape, “Eyewitness News” staffers are already wondering what changes a new boss might inflict on their lives.

But the great relief over Newman’s upcoming departure is easy to explain. When he arrived there 19 years ago, WJZ was Baltimore’s undeniable TV news leader and one of America’s most respected local stations. He’ll leave with the station a distant second in local ratings and its once stellar reputation all but vanished. Once, it was an earth force. Now, it’s an afterthought.

Some of this is Newman’s fault, and some of it is simply the march of history. He arrived when the station was still living off the glow of the beloved anchor duo of Jerry Turner and Al Sanders. Each man died before reaching 60, and nobody’s replaced their abilities or their cultural impact.

Newman’s presided over an extended era when cable TV was luring local viewers away by the tens of thousands, and he leaves when tens of thousands more check their phones so many times each hour that they feel no need to flip on the TV at day’s end.

Where WJZ, in its heyday, could count on a quarter-million eyeballs tuning in to watch “Eyewitness News,” if they get one-fifth of that many now it’s considered a fabulous day.

So while the CBS bosses up in New York watched the dwindling ratings numbers out of Baltimore over the past two decades, they saw similar drops out of their other affiliates. The key now wasn’t ratings, per se, but profit margins.

Newman stayed ahead of the game in that sense by cutting costs – veteran on-air people may have been good reporters who knew the town’s secrets, but if they made too much money, they were expendable. The young reporters who were brought in couldn’t find City Hall without a GPS, but they worked cheap. So the station continued to make money, even as the journalism fell apart.

When the new general manager arrives, a lot of newsroom people will be watching carefully for the inevitable changes on the way.

Top photo: Screenshot of WJZ-TV Facebook page

A former Baltimore Sun columnist, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Tonight at 6: A Daily Show Masquerading as Local TV News” (Apprentice House). Olesker worked as a nightly commentator at WJZ-TV from 1983 to 2002.

 

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