KNSD-TV (Channel 39) employees learned of the sudden departure of News Director Don Shafer early Thursday, when a terse memo from General Manager Neil Derrough was posted in the newsroom.
“Let’s just say more than a few jaws dropped to the floor,” said one newsroom source, who asked to remain anonymous.
Shafer made both friends and enemies during his 18-month tenure, but few suspected his job was in jeopardy. Although the memo said Shafer had left voluntarily, in an interview Thursday, Shafer confirmed that he had been asked to resign.
In the newsroom, speculation immediately centered on Shafer’s relationship with Derrough. Neither Derrough nor Shafer wanted to comment on specifics, but Shafer did say, “You have to get along with your boss.”
There is little doubt that Shafer and Derrough agreed on general philosophy--the hard-news emphasis that Shafer brought to the newscasts--but they are vastly different in terms of personal style.
“Derrough is an uptown, New York City kind of guy and Shafer is not,” said one newsroom source.
With the situation at Channel 39 once again tense, to say the least, newsroom personnel interviewed for this story did not want to be quoted by name. But they made it clear that Derrough simply didn’t mesh with Shafer, the veteran news director he hired to give the station a new direction.
Within the industry, Shafer was largely perceived as a hatchet man when he first arrived at Channel 39 from KOLD-TV, the CBS affiliate in Tucson. A well-traveled veteran of the industry with a background in law enforcement, Shafer revamped the newsroom, firing several longtime reporters, such as Cathy Clark and John Britton.
Shafer also brought a serious news focus to the station, particularly emphasizing “cops and robbers” news. He gave Paul Bloom leeway for his oft-criticized “Crime Watch” segments, as well as allowing sinced-departed reporter Bill Ritter freedom to pursue an array of topics.
Although many in the newsroom were wary of Shafer’s often abrasive style, a large contingent also respected his news judgment and the stability he brought.
A large man with an often gruff manner, Shafer spent 20 years working within the slick and competitive corporate structure of CBS.
“Don has a huge bark to him, but he is kind of a big puppy,” said one source. “The toughness he brought to the newsroom just melted around Neil.”
Derrough emphasizes meetings and communication among staffers, neither of which were Shafer strongpoints, a source said. Shafer’s relationship with lead anchorman Marty Levin also was known to be strained, which certainly didn’t help him.
In the newsroom, it is widely believed that Channel 39’s stilted coverage of the verdict in the Betty Broderick trial two weeks ago was Shafer’s death knell. Channel 39 had made a big deal of the Broderick trial, televising portions of it live during the sweeps month. But when the hung jury was announced, Channel 39 seemed unprepared. Its coverage was brief and tentative, and the station was off the air while the competition was still reporting live from the courthouse.
The mishaps reportedly were largely due to technical problems, but several people at the station were upset.
“I know Neil was furious about the Broderick case,” said a source. “I think that was just the final straw.”
Derrough downplayed his personal problems with Shafer, saying only that he felt the newsroom needed someone new to take it to the next level. But he emphasized that he was in no way interested in changing the station’s “straight to you” news philosophy. And he offered the job to the employee most closely linked to Shafer, Irv Kass, who has been Shafer’s right-hand man for a decade. He worked with him at several stations before joining him at Channel 39.
Reached Friday, Kass declined to comment, even to say whether or not he had accepted the job.
“Irv is a much more measured, thoughtful kind of guy” than Shafer, a source said.
Certainly the timing of Shafer’s removal, coming the day after the end of the most important ratings sweeps month of the year, was no accident. The station will have a breather before entering the next sweeps period in the spring.
But after an unusual few months of stability, Channel 39 employees now are left to wonder what is going to happen next. If Kass doesn’t take the job, it could lead to months of turmoil and indecision at a station that has suffered through both for far too many years.
KNSD-TV (Channel 39) could be excused for prominently using pictures of Charlie Rose in its November ads for “Personalities.” It received word of Rose’s departure from the show too late to change the ads.
But ads during the November sweeps period for “A Current Affair” spotlighted a huge photo of smarmy anchorman Maury Povich. Povich hasn’t been on the show for weeks, and it’s widely known that’s he’s not coming back.
“I did it on purpose,” said Channel 39 promotions director Doug Gilmore. “I didn’t think a picture (of the new anchorwoman) conveyed ‘A Current Affair’ as much as Maury.”
Two points for honesty.
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