The announcement went public late on a Friday afternoon, when good news can often get lost. But, word that Detroit’s ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV hired a household-name investigative reporter gave TV news something it desperately needs in Detroit and around the country – positive buzz.
After a more than a decade in radio news (where he became a great writer, like so many 1970s era broadcasters), Scott Lewis worked at WJBK-TV, first a CBS affiliate and then later a Fox-owned station for more than 20 years. When Fox took over and featured a 10pm newscast, Lewis’ stories often ran in, what was for local news, long-form and their prime time appeal helped give the station big ratings, especially when competing against dramas on the other networks and myriad choices on cable. But as this Detroit News story explains (including some commentary from Tanner Friedman), Lewis left the station more than six months ago, with an uncertain future.
Lewis’ return to TV coincides with the upstart, nonprofit Michigan News Center, started by former WXYZ-TV investigator Steve Wilson, which I explored in this article just three weeks ago. When I interviewed Wilson for the piece, he suggested that Scripps, which owns the station, chose not to renew his contract for two primary reasons – one, because they no longer wanted to pay money for a marquee investigative reporter and two, because, as Wilson put it, they “just don’t have the stomach” for investigative reporting anymore.
Of course, Lewis isn’t going to be working for free and, based on his work at WJBK-TV (where his reports helped lead to the indictment of a Detroit City Councilman, among other groundbreaking reporting), he probably won’t tell many fluffy stories. So why was Wilson really forced out? It’s probably complicated and included multiple factors. But, with Lewis changing channels, it’s the first time I have been asked about a high-profile TV news hire in what seems like years, rather than just being asked about talent leaving stations and the financial woes that news operations are experiencing.
Times are still not good in local TV news – in Detroit and elsewhere. Audience and revenue have eroded, leaving behind a product that has experienced unprecedented competitive challenges. But, for at least one station, a high-profile hire is more than just a good PR move. It should lead to more viewers on the nights his stories air, more clicks on the website, more interviews on the radio touting his work and something the industry needs more than ever before – positive buzz. Positive, that is, unless you are a wrongdoer, especially in government. If so, it’s time to watch your back.