Thursday, December 14, 2017
TV and Media

WTSP's retiring GM: Provide information the way viewers want

When he came to WTSP-Ch. 10 in 2009, 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 that 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 onscreen 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 as the station's top executive, 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.

The station raised eyebrows last year when, during coverage of a legislative battle that 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 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."

Tonning retires in the wake of an 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 in the fall, hoping to help boost low ratings among key viewers in afternoon newscasts.

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."

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