Ken Tonning, general manager at St. Petersburg CBS affiliate WTSP-Ch. 10, to retire July 5
When he came to WTSP-Ch. 10 in 2009 from Jacksonville, general manager Ken Tonning inherited a station struggling with change, from the death of longtime forecaster Dick Fletcher to an online-inspired name, 10 Connects.
Four years later, Tonning has announced his own retirement, planned for July 5, capping a tenure which has seen the St. Petersburg CBS affiliate return to its old “10 News” brand while pushing the edge of traditional journalism values.
“You’ve got to make sure you’re providing information the way viewers want,” said Tonning, 68, noting that a recent change in on screen graphics, first introduced at WTSP before debuting across owner Gannett Broadcasting’s other stations, allows them to get more information to viewers. “It’s that kind of stepping out and getting noticed that makes a difference.”
Under Tonning’s tenure, WTSP has adopted a more aggressive style of news reporting (industry types often use the word “urgency”) that at times seems imported from the in-your-face attitude of South Florida TV news. That may be in part due to the increased visibility of anchor Charles Billi, a 12-year veteran of Miami’s Fox affiliate WSVN-TV; Billi now takes the anchor desk at 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., also reporting from the field.
The station also raised eyebrows last year when, during coverage of a legislative battle which might have seen the University of South Florida lose nearly 60 percent of its state funding, WTSP created the Twitter hashtag #SaveUSF and took a pointed stand in its news reporting against the huge cut.
Tonning cites that story as a major example of the station’s attitude developed during his time, shrugging off questions on whether an objective news operation should have taken a position on a developing story.
“It was unusual for a TV station to jump in like that, but we asked ‘What’s right with this?’” he added. “And we couldn’t find anything that was right about it.”
The station also faced questions regarding an advertisement for a Monster Truck show which featured its morning anchors reading a mock news story. Tonning insisted such moves “never compromised our journalism standards…I’m the one who has to look in the mirror and say: have we compromised ourselves? The answer is no.”
He retires in the wake of one important victory; Gannett Broadcasting announced Monday that revenue for all its TV stations grew 45 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 compared to the year before, largely due to political ad spending.
WTSP also acquired the popular game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune this fall, hoping to help boost low ratings among key viewers in afternoon newscasts back in November’s “sweeps” ratings period.
And late last year, WTSP won 11 honors at the Suncoast Regional Emmy awards, more than rival Tampa Bay area TV stations combined.
At a time when TV companies fear disruption from digital technologies and audiences losing the local news habit, Tonning said local stations have to be more aggressive about reinventing their efforts.
“You’ve got to be so far in front of every opportunity these days,” he added. “If you look at how people used to do business…We’re doing things very differently now.”