Combined KSFY-KDLT news operation ready to recast local broadcast market

Jan. 9, 2020

What’s it like trying to bring two television news operations into one? This captures it as well as anything: It’s 4 p.m., and Jim Berman is about to eat his lunch.

Next to the to-go soup on the desk of KSFY-TV’s president and general manager is a small set of chimes marked with a vintage NBC logo. Strike them, and the iconic “N-B-C” notes ring out.

But listen to Berman and his plans, and it’s clear the tune in the Sioux Falls television news market will be changing.

Since the bid of KSFY’s parent company, Gray Television Inc., to acquire NBC affiliate KDLT-TV received federal approval in September, Berman and his team have been working long days to combine two newsrooms into one, restructure a newscast schedule and rebrand.

Next week, Dakota News Now – which won’t be shortened to DNN – will debut as the new, shared name for local news aired on KSFY and KDLT. The shift in ownership and resulting combined newsroom represent an unprecedented change to the Sioux Falls television news market.

Berman, who has led KSFY for a decade, calls the process “one of the most challenging and exciting experiences I’ve ever been through.”

“I’m very proud of my team. This is just phase one. There will be more.”

The move leaves the Sioux Falls market with two owners for three stations that provide news.

“I never thought I’d see it,” said Jay Huizenga, vice president and general manager at CBS affiliate KELO-TV and a 40-year veteran of the market.

“But I give a lot of credit to what Gray did and how they went about making a case there needs to be a combination of the stations here. It was really brilliantly done, and the timing was perfect.”

The $32.5 million deal, first announced in May 2018, took just shy of 18 months to complete and required approval from the FCC and U.S. Department of Justice.

The reason the timing was “perfect,” as Huizenga described, is because while it took some time, it also came ahead of a legal challenge to the government’s decision to allow ownership of two affiliates in the same market. While that works its way through court, any similar acquisition is on hold.

“I’m proud of them as an industry person they were able to get it done. It took a lot of work,” he said. “They waited a long time, and it was a smart move. We’re happy to be that unique market where we’re the only ones in the country where they got it done.”

The Sioux Falls market now is controlled by some of the most dominant players in the television news industry. Atlanta-based Gray Television owns and operates stations in 93 markets. KELO’s parent company, Texas-based Nexstar Media Group, owns and operates stations in 115 markets.

“When the FCC announced that it would approve on a case-by-case basis the merger of two TV stations affiliated with one of the top four broadcast networks in the same local market, we looked for a potential transaction where the benefits to the public would be overwhelming. KDLT was the perfect choice,” Robert Folliard III, vice president of government relationships and distribution for Gray, said in a statement.

The deal did not include KDLT’s building at 3600 S. Westport Ave. KSFY is located in a studio at Courthouse Square, 331 S. First Ave., that it moved into in 2016.

“Like many local media outlets, KDLT was struggling from intense competition from internet, cable and satellite giants. In all likelihood, KDLT would have been forced to eliminate local news within the next year or so,” Folliard said.

“Instead, as we demonstrated to the FCC and Department of Justice, by bringing KDLT into the fold with KSFY, we could not just maintain local news on KDLT but would expand it on both stations.”

First changes

As part of its application, Gray committed to add at least 28 hours of local news programming across the two stations. It also announced plans to open a news bureau in Pierre to provide better coverage of state government.

Additionally, it expanded over-the-air distribution on both stations, which Berman said will be a win for the growing number of “cord cutters” and bring free television service to an estimated 80,000 people who could not receive ABC or NBC programming with an antenna.

Dakota News Now is the process of leasing space in Pierre for its bureau, which it plans to staff with a full-time reporter by midyear, he said. In the meantime, reporters from Sioux Falls and sister stations in Rapid City will cover the capital from there.

“It will be very close to our state Capitol, so very easy to get the governor or whoever on the air, and with the technology not just on our air but any of the national shows regardless of network affiliation,” Berman said. “So that’s a huge benefit when there’s a story of importance in South Dakota.”

KELO-TV employs reporter Bob Mercer and has a sales representative in Pierre. Both work from home.

The more noticeable changes from Dakota News Now will begin at 4 p.m. Monday when its new lineup of news shows debuts.

“There were two options as the owner of a merger,” Berman said. “The first is you can say I’m going to leave the news alone. And just say we will have a 5 and 6 p.m. and simulcast everything and reduce costs dramatically and lay off a ton of people. That’s a cost model that’s going to work, but is that good for the market? No. You’re eliminating choice that way. You’ve eliminated KDLT’s voice and jobs in the market. That’s not a good thing.”

Instead, Gray went with a hybrid model – simultaneously airing some newscasts and restructuring the schedule for other shows.

The weekday morning show, which runs from 5 to 7 a.m., will be broadcast on both stations at once. The anchors will be Vanessa Gomez and former sports anchor Erik Thorstenson. The meteorologist will be Aaron Doudna.

Thorstenson and Doudna will attempt to fill the dual role of Shawn Cable, whose last day – coincidentally – is Monday as he leaves to split time between Sioux Falls and South Carolina.

“The TV gods were definitely smiling on us on this one,” Berman said. “We’re not ever going to find someone who can do what Shawn does. That is a rare scenario. And when he made his decision, we knew we had to rethink how we did morning news.”

The biggest dilemma is combining the staffs was the sports department, he added.

“It suddenly got us thinking Thor (Thorstenson) could be the guy. He brings a lot of things to the table that will make him an outstanding anchor,” Berman said.

“So we brought the option to him, and he was intrigued, and we think it’s going to be a wonderful team. We can always bring Thor in for Summit League or NCAA tournaments, so it really couldn’t have worked out better.”

The biggest change to the schedule comes in the early evening when Dakota News Now will add an hourlong 4 p.m. newscast on KDLT. It will be anchored by Carleen Wild and Kelsie Passolt, with weather by meteorologist Tyler Roney.

The half-hour 5 p.m. news will air on KSFY and be anchored by Brian Allen and Passolt, with weather by meteorologist Phil Schreck.

A new 5:30 p.m. newscast will air on KDLT and be anchored by Allen and Wild with weather by Roney.

The 6 p.m. news will air on KSFY and be anchored by Allen, Passolt and Schreck. Roney will replace Schreck on the 6:30 p.m. newscast, which will be aired on KDLT.

“Nobody is expecting people to watch the news for three hours,” Berman said. “That’s not the purpose. The purpose is to give viewers a choice to watch news when they want to watch it.”

For instance, network evening news now will be an option at 5:30 p.m. on KSFY and at 6 p.m. on KDLT. Viewers who aren’t home until later in the evening now can watch local news at 6:30 p.m.

“We feel it (the 6:30) is a little bit of a wild card to try different things, take a longer form approach to a story,” Berman said. “Maybe the first 15 minutes is standard news, and the back half is a special report.”

The half-hour 10 p.m. news will air on both stations and be anchored by Allen, Passolt, Shreck and sports anchor Mark Ovenden.

“You’re not going to see sports on a regular basis at 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday or Friday because what is it you’re going to show? It’s old-school thinking. It’s all from the day before,” Berman said.

“Everyone has seen the highlights. It’s a reason to tune out. We want our sports people to focus on the 10 p.m. Now, if the Summit League tournament is on, we’ll do sports in all newscasts. If a team goes to the NCAA tournament, we’ll be all in.”

Dakota News Now also will take more of a “team approach” to weather, he added. While there are designated meteorologist anchors, two will be on hand from 4 to 7 p.m.

The weekend shows will be simulcast at 6 and 10 p.m. Saturday and 5:30 and 10 p.m. Sunday, anchored by Sam Wright with weather by Sam Gabrielli and sports by Zach Borg.

While staggering the schedule during the week is an unconventional move, “that was well worth the risk because it made sense. It kept jobs,” Berman said. “We weren’t able to keep everyone, but we kept a substantial number, and it will give viewers more choice and give our advertisers lots of options.”

Focus on immediacy

The Dakota News Now newsroom is at 35 people, Berman said. Before the acquisition, KSFY had about 25 in the newsroom, and KDLT had about 20. About half the KDLT staff came to Dakota News Now, and “we’ve been working hard to make sure anyone we weren’t able to retain – and there are so many talented people at both stations – that we got them placed (elsewhere in the company), and our goal is to get them all placed before it’s done,” he said.

Huizenga put KELO’s news staff at “north of 40 people” and said it has grown in recent years as the station has bolstered its digital presence. Nearly one in four staff are dedicated to the station’s online presence, including reporting “ originals” – pieces that are published online and not aired on television.

“We’re a bigger news department now than we were five years ago,” Huizenga said. “While television is still the biggest thing, there’s so many platforms for us to provide information. It’s my contention if you look at the statistics, we’re delivering more news to more individuals now than we were 20 years ago. It (digital) provides this great opportunity to give more in-depth detail to a story than on television.”

For its part, Dakota News Now will combine web traffic from KSFY and KDLT’s websites and social media accounts into one new, shared digital brand. Another new addition will be the “Now desk,” designed to bring a greater sense of immediacy to the newscasts and online reporting.

“We want to make sure people are getting the news when it happens,” news director Kevin King said. “The idea is as things break and happen we will be on top of that in the newsroom, so during the newscast the anchors might send it to the newsroom to give an update on what’s happening locally and nationally.”

Both news operations note there’s only so much breaking news in the Sioux Falls market. Much of the reporting requires enterprise.

“Presentation is key – thinking outside the box,” King said. “How do we make it different each day? Both our newsroom and KDLT have been in situations where there are days there’s so much going on you don’t have enough people to cover it. This allows us to cover stories we might not have gotten to otherwise.”

KELO-TV has no immediate plans to change its news lineup, Huizenga said.

“We think we’ve hit the mark on the right time periods,” he said. “There’s always a question about how much news is there. This is not Chicago where we’re going to be reporting a lot of murder and mayhem. Every station here does enterprise reporting. We don’t wait for the police scanner.”

Nexstar will be investing more in the station, he added. It has been located at 501 S. Phillips Ave. for 60 years.

“They’re big into capital infusion. We’ve been on the schedule for a while. Our news set was about 10 years old. It’s no secret we’re on a temporary set right now. We’re in the process of rebuilding our studio – cameras, lights, new set, everything – the builders are here now starting.”

And when the studio lights go on just two blocks away at its now sole broadcast competitor, he acknowledges he will be watching.

“It would be disingenuous if I said we weren’t paying attention. We are. But it’s helped create more competitive juices at the station; there’s no question about that. And that’s good. That’s good for the viewer and the advertiser and good for those guys and good for us,” he said.

“I’m really happy for them. I think it’s a great move for the staffs to be able to learn from each other, and I think it’s going to make the market more competitive, and we’re fine with that. We don’t shy away from the competition. There’s room for all of us.”

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Combined KSFY-KDLT news operation ready to recast local broadcast market

It’s the biggest change to hit the Sioux Falls television news market in decades: Introducing Dakota News Now.

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