For Steve Paulus, it doesn't get much better than his hometown, 24 hours a day. Except for a few years earning a journalism degree at the University of Minnesota and some time sailing on a Norwegian square-rigger, Paulus has spent his entire life in New York.
His father was a 28-year programming veteran of CBS's flagship WCBS-TV New York, and the younger Paulus began his own career there as a news clerk. That led to spots on the assignment desk, in producing and eventually in executive-producing and news management.
But, he said, the size of the New York viewing area, reaching regularly into parts of four states, almost defies localism. "I'm a New Yorker," he said. "When I pick up The New York Times, I don't start at the front page; I open it to the Metro section. But [for television] the market is so large and you're driven by commercial pressures—there's pressure for stories on New Jersey, pressure for stories on Long Island—a lot of the time what you're doing is not relevant for the people living in New York City."
So, when the chance came a decade ago to really cover his city full time, "it was just too good to pass up." At New York 1 (NY1), he said, it's all New York, all the time. NY1 will do more stories about city schools or from Staten Island in a year, he boasted, than a local broadcast station will do in a dozen years.
"We've developed our own franchise," he said. "We launched with a beat system, covering politics, education, transit, health, technology, sports and geographic beats. We have reporters assigned to each of the boroughs. It's not like we're ripping and reading the newspaper" the way many broadcast stations do, he implied. "Our goal is to have the stories the day before the newspaper has them."
There's not a lot of competition, he noted. "We only have competition at 6 a.m., noon, 5 and 11. The rest of the day is ours. If people want news at 3 p.m., they're going to turn to us." During New York's biggest and most dramatic story in memory, on Sept. 11, 2001, every station went wall-to-wall news for days, eschewing commercials and network or syndicated programming.
But, he noted, "when the local stations went back to regular programming, we stayed with the story. We carried every press briefing, every event. And we launched an hour-long newscast every night to deal with nothing but the Trade Center story."
And, although "I hate talking about ratings, we were getting unbelievable numbers" the morning the threat of a transit strike peaked last month. Though well behind WABC-TV that morning, NY1 was competitive with WNBC(TV) and WPIX(TV) and ahead of WCBS-TV.
He compares his own channel favorably as well with national and international cable news channels. "Viewership for CNN spiked so much during the Gulf War. Then people went back to watching entertainment. That's the nature of 24-hour news. People dip in and dip out. But the beauty of a local news channel is that people will still turn you on if they want to know what the weather is. People will watch local news before they watch national news." And, he added, "it's a comfortable position to be in: with no competitors."
The channel "is not making money hand over fist," he said, but, with subscriber and advertising revenue streams, it's profitable. "We're paying the bills, and we're an asset for the cable company."
The next step, slated for a Time Warner digital channel in the city, is a 24-hour Spanish-language version. That's scheduled to launch in May, and Paulus is looking for an executive producer to help pick the talent and run the channel. With only seven staffers, as on many news radio stations, the news may repeat itself a fair amount. But, "as the audience grows, the channel will grow. And, in 10 years," he predicts, "it could be as big as the NY1 English-language channel."