Former WIFR-TV news anchor reflects, looks forward

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11273278074373.jpg’, ‘photo by Jeff Havens’, ‘Former WIFR-TV Channel 23 news anchor Alan Jones poses with one of Rockford's downtown sock monkey displays.’);

Alan Jones spent 15 years at the helm of local CBS affiliate’s local weeknight news, a rarity for lower-market stations

In a business market that usually turns over news anchors about every two years, former WIFR-TV Channel 23 news anchor Alan Jones’ 15 years at the helm was rare. While viewers may miss his weeknight news broadcasts, Jones was confident and poised about future opportunities during a recent interview.

Jones, 51, said management at WIFR, the local CBS affiliate, decided not to renew his contract after they received information earlier this year that indicated his “numbers” were not commensurate with the level they expected for a news anchor who had been in the market as long as Jones.

However, Jones’ supporters questioned whether the data the station collected was merely a pretext to replace him with a younger news anchor.

Regardless, Jones was upbeat about possible careers in public relations, marketing or consulting. He also expressed a desire to remain in the area he has called home since August 1990. However, he is prepared to reluctantly leave the region if he can’t find employment or succeed in creating a public relations consulting business.

According to Jones, WIFR management cited data that showed 7 percent of 216 people sampled said they would watch WIFR news if Jones were not the anchor. Jones said WIFR managers indicated 5 to 6 percent demarcated the upper level of acceptability for that category, which would have allowed them to negotiate a new contract with Jones.

Jones wasn’t sure how the data was compiled.

Jones had 21 years of service with Benedek Broadcasting Corporation, which was acquired by Gray Television Group, Inc., in July 2003.

Greg Graber, vice president and general manger of WIFR, was very complimentary about Jones’ service. However, he said he couldn’t discuss details of why Jones was not awarded a new contract.

Graber said: “He did a great job. …We really do wish him well. And whatever he does, we’re sure he will do well. …I’m surprised he’s not already an anchor in the south.”

Graber asserted Jones expressed a desire to move to a southern state. Jones made no such assertion during his interview with The Rock River Times.

Informed of this, Graber responded by saying: “He may have changed his mind.”

Getting started

The son of a United Methodist minister, Jones spent most of his childhood growing up in Kentucky. However, his father’s profession meant Jones and his two older sisters would have to make several moves during his childhood, which eventually landed the family in Kokomo, Ind. Jones said he was fortunate the family didn’t move during the time he attended Northwestern High School from 1968 to 1972.

After graduating from high school, Jones studied radio and television at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., where he decided to pursue a career in radio. He landed his first radio gig as a rock ’n‘ roll disc jockey for WIOI-AM in Portsmith, Ohio.

For the next 10 years, Jones was employed by six radio stations in several states where he “did everything” from news production to broadcasting. However, Jones’ view of news evolved. He prefers television’s ability to convey information through images and words over radio’s limitation to sound without sight.

Jones made the transition from radio to television by becoming anchor and news director for WTAP-TV in Parkersburg, W. Va., where he remained for six years, before coming to the Rockford area.

The same company that owned WTAP, Benedek Broadcasting, also owned WIFR before it was acquired by Gray Television Group in July 2003. It was Benedek Broadcasting’s ownership of WIFR that helped Jones land his anchor position with Channel 23 beginning in August 1990.

Television anchors

Jones settled into his new position by moving his wife and two sons to Byron, where he hopes to remain, despite losing his job. Jones and his wife have been married for more than 30 years. His two sons both graduated from high school, and are now 25 and 20 years old.

During his years at WIFR, Jones worked 12 of the 15 years with co-anchor Mimi Murphy. Jones said in the Rockford television market, female anchors rate higher in surveys than male anchors, and are a more valued commodity by management.

Most anchors like Jones and Murphy don’t spend more than a few years in a market such as the Rockford area because the anchors move up to larger markets. The Rockford area rates in the bottom half in size of media markets.

Specifically, Rockford ranks 135 out of 210 in terms of size of television media markets. The ranking means there are 134 larger media markets in which stations broadcast to existing and potential viewers.

According to 2001 research available on the Web by Dr. Vernon A. Stone, professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., “typical anchors in markets 100-215 had been there only two years.” Jones said Stone’s work was highly regarded by researchers who study the media.

Stone died in June from surgery complications at the age of 79.

Stone’s research also indicates that the largest media markets value experience such as Jones’. Male news anchors age 40 and older represented 47 percent of all anchors in all markets. However, in a market the size of Rockford, anchors older than 40 are less than 1 percent of all anchors.

Stone concluded that “high anchor turnover in markets below the top 100, marks them as training grounds.” In most cases, Stone said anchors move after landing employment in a larger media market.

However, Jones decided to stay in a smaller market because of friends, neighbors, proximity to Chicago, shopping and the area’s cultural attractions such as New American Theater. He also wanted to provide a more stable environment to raise his children than he was afforded when he was growing up.

Media trends

As to the trend of ever larger and fewer media companies owning news outlets, Jones said: “I think it’s terrible. It’s strictly for the money.”

Stone said in 2001, 69 percent of television newsrooms turned a profit for their owners. That percentage increased to 80 percent in 1994 and 85 percent in 2001.

“Practically no one loses money on local TV news,” Stone said. “Newsrooms have truly become profit centers.”

But Stone warned that may not be profitable enough for some station owners. He said there has been a shift from stations “ruled more by public interest” to stations guided by “corporate greed so often found in the 21st century.”

Stone said under President Ronald Reagan’s administration in 1984, a Federal Communications Commission rule was thrown out, which, in effect, required information programming as a condition for broadcasting on the public airwaves. When the rule was discarded, Stone said this was the point at which the shift changed toward profit over public interest.

The growth of the Fox News network during the 1990s through 2001 accounted for 6,000 additional television news staff jobs, which increased from 25,000 in 1994 to an estimated 32,000 in 2001.

Jones added that even though the number of local channels that broadcast news on cable has increased from three to six channels, the number of different news casts remains the same at three.

For example, Jones said local NBC affiliate WREX-TV Channel 13’s news team also produces the cable news broadcast on the Warner Brother’s network on cable station 14.

WREX also teams with the local daily newspaper to promote one another’s information and advertisers.

Jones asserted the effect this shift to larger, fewer and more profit-driven media corporations has had on journalism depends on the size of the market. He said television news coverage in smaller markets is more likely to suffer under current trends.

Other media critics share Jones’ concern.

Marvin Kalb, senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, appeared on National Public Radio’s Diane Rehm Show on Nov. 25, 2002, to discuss how the rise of corporate giants in the media has affected the quality of jou


Kalb said: “The quest for dollars is driving corporations at the expense of quality news coverage. …News can make money, but not as much as entertainment.”

During a June 2005 interview with The Rock River Times, Rehm said recent media trends have had a “detrimental” effect on the democratic process.

Assessing life

When asked what question Jones would ask himself if he were conducting the interview, Jones responded by emphasizing he has two aspects of his life—the professional and personal.

At the personal level, Jones is very satisfied with his marriage and family. However, he expressed disappointment about what he hasn’t accomplished this far into his career.

“I could have done better,” Jones said.

He added that the evening hours the anchor job demanded put a strain on his family life. Jones would have preferred to spend more time with his wife and sons during their formative years.

Now, Jones has a lot of time to think, which he is using to his advantage.

By no longer being in front of the bright lights and television cameras at WIFR, Jones said the situation has “forced” him to inventory his skills and attributes. He likes what he has discovered.

Jones said he has gained confidence to create and move forward with plans he hopes to soon implement.

“I didn’t know I had the ability to do other things until I was forced into the situation of looking for something else,” Jones said.

This is a lesson anyone who has suffered through dramatic loss or change can learn from Jones’ example.

From the Sept. 21-27, 2005, issue

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