As the wave of Baby Boomers leaving TV news while still at the top of their games continues, Stephen Clark wants his audience to know that he’s leaving WXYZ-TV in Detroit this week in a scenario that is one-of-a-kind.
After 16 years at the anchor desk, he told us last week “To me, Detroit has been my favorite overall story that I’ve done. I’ve got into this business 40 years ago to tell stories of…ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I feel the City of Detroit fits that, just what it has managed to do (in the past 16 years). That is a phenomenal story and it should not be taken for granted.”
Clark says, after growing up in a military family, “This is the longest I’ve stayed in one spot in my life.” So he’s not leaving. But he is taking his career in a new direction with music, particularly country music, something he says has always been more than a hobby.
Starting as a music major in college, his career was “derailed” by broadcast journalism. In retirement from TV, he wants to get it back on track. “Now I have an opportunity to really pursue music as a business. So that’s my goal, to get to Nashville on weekdays…Five to ten weekdays a month…to find a publisher…find co-writers and hone my craft…The goal is to get there and do that.”
Clark tells us the retirement and transition was his idea and is leaving on his own terms but admits “I’m sure there’s a little tiny part of the bean counters’ brains back there that go “Wow, this is good. We’ll save some money on this deal.'”
He’ll be remembered by viewers as calm, professional, authoritative voice during some of the market’s hardest days. But, within the industry, he’ll be best remembered as “The Tweeting Anchor.” Clark was among the first TV news personalities in the country to embrace social media as an audience connection tool. He is regarded as the first to create a hashtag for his audience, #backchannel. (We first wrote about it in 2010).
In the early days of Twitter, before the toxicity, the trolls, the bots, and as Clark puts it “celebrity flamethrowing,” he used the medium to organize community service projects and engender loyalty, “out of boredom” when he felt like his job was just reading the news. His bosses at the time didn’t get it at first, “Things were really really tense and WXYZ in that era,” he told us, with bosses telling him “We’re not sure you’re our guy…I couldn’t get the station interested in what I was doing.” But Scripps corporate leaders accidentally caught an early story on his Twitter network in action and said “THAT is us. That is who we are.” And it took off, at the station and in the company. “That is where everything changed,” Clark told us, “I became their model for social media.”
One of the best lessons of the #backchannel is its authenticity. It wasn’t created by consultants, it happened because of a natural connection between Clark and his audience. It should be a lesson for many in media. “The Backchannel was never me. It was always ‘you,'” he understands.
His community connection won’t be severed in retirement. Clark and his wife, Larenne, are raising $1 million to have a disability-accessible playground built near their home, in honor of their granddaughter.
In addition to that project and his five to ten work days a month in Nashville for his music, Clark tells us he’s open to other work, “I have to be able to stay home at night and have dinner with my family. I haven’t done that in 40 years.”
What’s first? He’s headed to New Zealand with his wife and father for four weeks. It will be the longest vacation of his life. But after that, he plans to be back to work and back to telling stories and connecting to audiences, just in a different way.
(Photo courtesy: Darrett Pullins)