Before John Wilson read the news each night on WTVT-Ch. 13, he'd tweak and rewrite his script right until he read the words on the air. If he thought an important story was buried in his newscast, he'd have it moved up.
After 33 years on local airwaves, he figured he could tell what his viewers cared about. He'd followed the local news for decades, raised his sons here and made Tampa Bay his home.
That kind of experience "tells you what the community's going to be sensitive to," Wilson said. "What's important here isn't necessarily important in Cleveland, Ohio."
Wilson, who retired from the Fox station just over a year ago, is part of a wave of TV anchors in the area who have gone off the air since last fall, taking years of experience and local knowledge with them.
Since October 2014, six anchors across the market have left TV news behind. Between them, they represent more than 140 years on the air in Tampa Bay.
They include longtime personalities like Wilson, Gayle Sierens, Denise White and Brendan McLaughlin, who left WFTS-Ch. 28 this month. Each had been in the Tampa market more than two decades.
That affects the news viewers get, industry followers say. It can take years for anchors to hit their stride, and these days, they play a bigger role behind the scenes than just reading words on a teleprompter. They help make editorial decisions, contribute their news judgment and occasionally work as reporters; that's where years of institutional knowledge come into play.
"They are more likely to understand what that news development actually means to the audience. If you've got a story that affects a long-standing mayor or a long-standing police chief or something like that that's been in the news for a while, they can help the audience understand why this means anything, why is this important," said Forrest Carr, a former news director at WFLA-Ch. 8. "They're able to make that connection."
In a big market like Tampa Bay — the 11th largest TV market in the country — lots of turnover is uncommon. Stations here tend to be destinations, not stepping stones, said Bob Papper, who has studied the local TV business as emeritus professor of journalism at Hofstra University in New York.
But the local market may be at the leading edge of a broader phenomenon in the TV business: Longtime anchors across the country are set to leave the airwaves soon. The baby boomer generation has put in its time, and personalities like Wilson are getting ready to retire if they haven't already.
"Having a lot of anchor turnover in a market like Tampa is really unusual," Papper said. But, he added, "Inevitably, it's going to happen."
The turnover on Tampa's airwaves comes amid uncertainty across the local TV business. Nationwide, fewer people are watching the local news as the industry tries to regain its footing, and TV stations and their corporate owners have changed hands and restructured in recent years.
In the past two years, Gannett moved to separate its TV and newspaper businesses, owning WTSP-Ch. 10 as Tegna; E.W. Scripps Co., the owner of WFTS, and Journal Communications merged and spun off their newspapers; and Media General, the owner of WFLA, has been the target of a takeover bid by Nexstar Broadcasting Group.
And while analysts say Tampa-area stations have been mostly insulated from movement higher up, they haven't been immune from changing management.
Since summer 2013, three stations have named new general managers, and since summer 2014, three have named new news directors, according to an industry newsletter compiled by Rick Gevers & Associates.
By comparison, the average news director nationwide has been in the job for five years, said Papper, who tracks turnover in TV management.
Tampa Bay's four primary news stations — WFLA, WFTS, WTSP and WTVT — did not return requests for comment.
The new management at those stations will face the challenge of cultivating new stars amid dropping viewership.
The ratings agency Nielsen declined to provide figures that show how local stations are performing. But Paul Wilson, president of the media strategy firm WilsonMedia, said newscasts these days aim for a rating of 1 or 2, meaning that 1 to 2 percent of all the televisions in the area tuned in. Growing up, he remembers his father, John, shooting for double-digit ratings.
So, Wilson doubts the local news will ever have anchors that carry the star power and gravitas that industry veterans like his dad did, but he thinks the stations need to try to develop them. On-air personalities, he said, are an increasingly important factor in attracting viewers, even more than a news station's legacy.
"People are watching people, not letters," he said, referring to the stations' call signs.
That speaks to the changing role of the news anchor, industry followers say. Gone are the days of the TV anchor whose only job was to read a script; now, they need to be active in the community, and they need to be involved in gathering and evaluating the news.
"They're journalists. They're not just reading the news; they're actively involved in the discovery of news and information," said Dick Haynes, senior vice president of research at TV consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates. "They have the added responsibility of communicating that to viewers on a local television newscast, but I think for the most part, the days of having anchors that are just quote-unquote 'anchors' are kind of over."
Contact Thad Moore at [email protected] and 813-226-3434. Follow @thadmoore.