On Media: Louisville: A springboard to the Big Time

The college and pro football coaching carousel, as we’ve all seen at our local university, is all about jockeying for position and moving up to a bigger and presumably better job. It’s the same with local TV reporters — minus the promises of allegiance and multimillion-dollar contracts.

For the ambitious among them, it’s a nomadic life in which entry level may mean following fires in outposts such as Monroe, La., or venturing into the crime-ridden streets of, say, Flint, Mich. Louisville television stations, in a market ranked 50th nationally, hire a lot of reporters on the way up. And frequently, it’s a stepping stone, a place to pass through on the way to the journalism big-time of Nashville or Charlotte.

Lee Eldridge is the new news director at WAVE-TV. He grew up in Shively, and most recently helped move a Rochester station out of last place in its market. He’s pretty happy to get back to his hometown after 24 years in the news business. Among his first tasks: replace four reporters who have moved up to bigger stations.

Louisville is a competitive market that’s historically strong in journalism,” the Pleasure Ridge Park High School and Murray graduate said.

So the market gets its share of j-school graduates from schools like Northwestern, Cornell and Missouri. They work nights and weekends here, arriving on the scene of murders and accidents, trying to get noticed so they can do the same thing for more money in a bigger market. Often, they’re able to use a few years in Louisville as a springboard.

Our town’s TV reporters fall into a few categories: ambitious journalists passing through, those who want to settle here and find a local job in PR, or, for the rare few, maintain a career in local TV news.

The most experienced among those are at WHAS-TV: Chuck Olmstead, except for one brief stint away, has been there since 1975, and Mark Hebert’s tenure is approaching 20 years.

And then there’s the curious case of James Zambroski. WAVE took a risk in hiring Zambroski, a print reporter, based on his work with the station while he worked for the now-defunct Snitch newspaper. When Snitch closed shop, Zambroski became a full-time WAVE reporter, and won two Emmys last year for his work.

The 53-year-old Zambroski just landed a new job, and is moving up to the ABC affiliate in Tampa, the nation’s No. 12 market. I asked him if he had any idea a couple of years ago he’d be a TV reporter in sunny Florida. He didn’t. But he’s plenty thrilled to be heading south. He’ll be at WAVE until the end of the month.

Zambroski admits to being the “old, gray-haired fat guy” compared with his reporting colleagues. He said that bringing some print reporting skills to TV has worked for him, and in doing so he’s earned plenty of respect in the reporting community, focusing mostly on crime stories. Zambroski doesn’t fit the mold.

By my unofficial count, more than a dozen new reporters came in to the market at our four TV stations last year. Of those, only two (WAVE’s Janelle McDonald and WLKY-TV’s Carissa Lawson) have any anchoring duties. Most are moving up through Louisville, and presumably on their way to larger markets.

Zambroski is the fourth member of WAVE’s reporting staff to leave for greener pastures since November. The other three fit the young, up-and-coming category. Jeff Tang, a product of Northwestern’s journalism school, left in November after two years at WAVE for Nashville, the 30th-ranked market. Indiana University grad Anne Marshall, who came to WAVE from a Spokane, Wash., station, also moved on to Music City after two years at WAVE. Frances Kuo, a Cornell graduate, ended her WAVE tenure last month and is headed for Charlotte’s NBC affiliate in the 27th market.

Eldridge said his newsroom will emphasize investigative reporting, troubleshooting and viewer advocacy, and that his hires will be storytellers. “I’m hiring strong, positive-minded, optimistic people who believe they can make a difference in the community,” he said.

He emphasized that WAVE has encouraged its reporters’ ambitions, going so far as to modify contracts to enable them to get to their next opportunities. But, he said, his plan is to structure future contracts so that he doesn’t have several end at the same time.

Rick Redding’s blog, The ’Ville Voice (http://thevillevoice.com), covers local media and politics, among other things. Contact him at [email protected]