Maybe because he hasn't had to spend time thinking about his next TV station or his next company, Fred Young has been better able to focus on the company he has been with for 40 years. It's a considerable tenure by any standard and a remarkable one in television.
"It occurred to me," Hearst-Argyle's senior vice president for news mused last week, "that, among the many folks who have passed through Hearst-Argyle and were once colleagues at WTAE, are Tony Vinciquerra and Judy Girard . They are running networks [Fox and Food, respectively] while I frequently find myself at airports [being searched by] 18-year-olds who don't watch news. But there must be some poetic justice to all of that."
Young's peers hold him in far higher esteem than his self-effacing humor would suggest. Next month, the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation will present him with an award for his service to the First Amendment at a banquet in Washington.
Hearst-Argyle President David Barrett calls Young "a treasure for our company. His wisdom and oversight of our news has made a spectacular contribution. I give him a lot of the credit for setting the standard for our company."
Young started in the business as a disk jockey, but it's clearly in news that he has made his mark. He started as a desk assistant at WTAE-TV Pittsburgh and rose through the producing ranks to become news director and later general manager before moving to Hearst's corporate suite.
Clearly, he notes, it's a troubled business: eroding viewership, diminished resources and the temptation to play strictly to ratings.
"What changed the business most severely was the meter," he says, referring to Nielsen Media Research's overnight measuring instrument. "We used to look at a couple of rating books a year. Unfortunately, a lot of us now live from one quarter-hour to the next. In some markets, we all look a little too much alike; we all cover the same story and use the same buzzwords. Those numbers are what drives our business, not our news. Somehow, we have to assess how we can be different again, more creative."
Noting the expanded use of live coverage, Young says, that "there has been a tendency to turn stories that were once produced and artistically created into a live story. The proliferation of the meter has given birth to spectacular fire video and car chases. As the business is changing and we're doing more with less, we need people who can go live. But we do well-produced stories at every station in our group.
"Right now," he says, "there are three major cable news channels duking it out for publicity. Those three get all the attention, while the three networks get all the viewers. We have to remind everyone about the importance of local TV news. Sometimes we sell ourselves short. If it weren't for us, the networks wouldn't have any pictures from America. We're the pipeline into every city in America. We're how they get to every home."
Two years ago, Hearst became one of the first station groups to replace much of its independent consulting with in-house experts: Candy Altman, Brian Bracco—both promoted from news director—and Young.
Hearst-Argyle has no hostility for consultants, Young explains. "We still use some of the best for research, headhunting." But the ongoing consulting role, he says, "we felt we could internalize, do it better and with less distraction." He likens it to a consultant with a single client: "We don't have to spend any time selling them. We're family."
In addition, Young says, the group frequently sends its newspeople to workshops produced by the Poynter Institute, Newslab, RTNDA and others. "Our goal may have been to be more efficient, but we don't want to bury our heads in the sand."
"Because we had a resource like Fred," says Barrett, "it allowed us to think about how we measured quality."