Sam Zelman dies at 100; pioneer of local TV news helped start CNN

Sam Zelman, a pioneer of local TV news who helped start CNN, has died. He was 100.

Local TV newscasts in the 1950s often consisted of five minutes of news, five minutes of sports and another five minutes of weather.

Broadcast journalist Sam Zelman blew up that formula.

In 1961 he created "The Big News" at KNXT-TV (now KCBS-TV) that presented 45 minutes of local news, sports and weather, kicked off by the regal-looking Jerry Dunphy intoning: "From the desert to the sea to all of Southern California, a good evening."

Local news was never the same, and Zelman, late in his career, went on to help create another breakthrough in TV news that naysayers said would never work — CNN.

Zelman, 100, died Friday at his home in Tucson. The cause was respiratory failure, said his wife, Sally Davenport.

Many in broadcasting thought KNXT was crazy to program a 45-minute local news block. "People said, 'How ever are you going to fill it?'" Pete Noyes, the first city editor of "The Big News," said in a 2011 Times interview.

But newspapers, covering a variety of topics, were what Zelman wanted to emulate. "I like the subject to change often," he told a group of students in Tucson in a 2013 video-recorded class session. "With a newspaper, I can move from one story to another."

He hired a somewhat hard-bitten group of reporters and editors, many of whom came from newspapers and news services. They brought with them the stereotypical hard-news lifestyle of the era.

"There were bottles of booze in the desks of several writers and producers," Noyes wrote in his "The Real Los Angeles Confidential" memoir. "The smell of burning trash cans resulted from discarded cigarettes that were still lit."

But Zelman wanted to give audiences what couldn't be conveyed in a 15-minute newscast. "He would say, 'You've got to give them stories they will remember. You've got to rely on the intelligence of the audience,' " Noyes said in an interview last week.

To front the broadcast, he wanted strong on-air personalities. In addition to Dunphy, who became a Los Angeles institution in four decades of anchoring, the "The Big News" had Maury Green for investigative reports, Ralph Story for on-air essays, former actor and umpire Gil Stratton for sports and funnyman Bill Keene on weather. All predeceased Zelman.

The show had a slow start in ratings, but eventually walloped the competition and was widely emulated across the country.

"He turned TV news into real journalism," USC journalism professor Joe Saltzman said.

Zelman was born Oct. 6, 1914, in Washington, D.C. As a boy, he had a paper route delivering the Washington Star, earning $6 a month.

His family moved to California to establish residence so he could go to UC Berkeley, which at the time charged no tuition to in-state residents. He graduated with a liberal arts degree.

Beginning in 1936, Zelman worked for the San Bernardino Sun-Telegram as a proofreader and then night editor. His ambition in journalism was to become a foreign correspondent, "but actually, when I did get a job on a newspaper, I moved into the management section very early," he told the Tucson students.

He served in the Army Air Forces during World War II, then worked a variety of jobs in journalism before getting the chance to revamp the KNXT newscast as news director of the station.

Although he had an affinity for local news, Zelman eventually held several positions with the national CBS network, including Saigon bureau chief in the mid-1960s during the Vietnam War, Israel bureau chief in the late 1960s and a three-year stint as a producer on "60 Minutes."

He had retired when Ted Turner asked him to move to Atlanta in 1979 to help build Cable News Network. One of Zelman's jobs was to find promising young journalists willing to work for low pay, and some of them went on to become CNN stars.

Zelman's tendency for candidness never left him. When asked in a 1981 Times interview to assess the fledgling network's first year, he answered, "skimpy." But he stayed on as CNN gained audience and stature, retiring again in 1985, though he kept tutoring students.

After all, journalism was far from just a job for Zelman. "News is the lifeblood of citizenship," he told the Tucson class.

And he worried about the future of the profession. "I think there is leadership in journalism," he said, "but the leadership has one primary motive, for which they are hired and for which they might be fired, which is the profit margin."

In addition to his wife, Zelman is survived by daughters Carol Nieh and Diane Zelman; son Barnaby Zelman; and brother Julius Zelman.

david.colker@latimes.com

Twitter @davidcolker

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