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A Broadcaster’s Broadcaster: WDBJ Owner Known for Commitment to Local News

The live TV ambush murders of a reporter and photographer at WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Va., have devastated the family-owned firm that owns the station.

The respect that Mishiwaka, Ind.-based Schurz Communications commands in the close-knit world of broadcasters has prompted an outpouring of support from station owners around the country. Local rivalries were quickly set aside on Wednesday as the industry tried to come to grips with the early-morning slayings of reporter Alison Parker, 24, and cameraman Adam Ward, 27, who were gunned down while delivering a live broadcast for WDBJ’s morning newscast. The suspect, now dead, was a former WDBJ correspondent, Vester Flanagan.

The situation, industry insiders said, amounts to a nightmare that station operators thought could only be the stuff of fiction. David Smith, president-CEO of Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, the nation’s single-largest owner of TV stations with 160-plus outlets, said Sinclair’s thousands of employees nationwide were “mourning” WDBJ’s loss.

“Moments like this remind us how much we appreciate all that our staffs do for our communities. WDBJ7 should know that our Roanoke station, WSET, is there to help in any way during this difficult time,” Smith said in a statement.

Jeffrey Marks, president-general manager of WDBJ, said Thursday the station had been overwhelmed by the response from fellow broadcasters as well as journalists throughout the world. “Countless” deliveries of food and flowers have been arriving at the station’s doorstep, Marks said at a news conference Thursday.

Schurz Communications is one of a disappearing breed of small companies that once dominated the U.S. broadcasting business. The company is headed by president-CEO Todd Schurz, grandson of the man who took what had been a newspaper company into the broadcasting business in 1922 with the launch of radio station WGAZ (now WSBT) in South Bend, Ind. Todd Schurz took the CEO reins in 2007 from his uncle, Franklin D. Schurz Jr., who remains chairman of the board.

Schurz owns eight TV stations that operate in small markets, ranging from Anchorage, Alaska, to Augusta, Ga., to Wichita, Kan. The company has owned WDBJ, a CBS affiliate, since 1969. Schurz also runs 26 small-town newspapers, mostly in the Midwest and South, and four cable systems serving tiny markets in Maryland, Florida, Arizona and Iowa.

In broadcasting, Schurz is known for its strong investment in local news. WDBJ operates four news bureaus throughout its market, the Roanoke-Lynchburg region that encompasses 441,140 viewers, according to Nielsen’s most recent market rankings. That makes it No. 67 on the list of 210 U.S. TV markets — less than 0.4% of the total U.S. viewing audience. But the company does not stint on spending on news resources — and has cases full of awards and accolades to show for it.

“If you were trying to identify a local broadcaster that is laser-like committed to localism, you couldn’t find a more likely candidate that Schurz Communications,” said Dennis Wharton, exec VP of the National Assn. of Broadcasters. “It’s in their blood.”

Just this month, on Aug. 18, WDBJ aired an hourlong primetime special, “Childhood Lost,” on the issue of child abuse in the region. It was anchored and reported in part by Chad Hurst, who had been romantically involved with Parker.

“We are committed to the hard stories and the stories that make this area special — there is no pulling back from that,” Marks said, when asked how the station’s news team was holding up on the job. “We learn. We go forward,” he said.

Marci Burdick, Schurz’s senior VP of broadcasting and a 25-year company vet, is a past chairman of the NAB’s television board and remains a current board member. She’s been a frequent visitor to Capitol Hill to testify on various telecom policy issues on behalf of NAB, a role that has raised Schurz’s profile among broadcasters beyond its modest business holdings.

Burdick headed to Roanoke Wednesday amid the chaos of the shootings and the hunt for the suspected gunman, who ultimately died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while attempting to flee from police. Burdick said Thursday she’s spent most of the past 24 hours answering phones at WDBJ in an effort to give the station staffers a rest.

News producers and executives from other Schurz stations have also come to Roanoke to help the WDBJ staff cope.

The response from the community surrounding WDBJ has been as if viewers had lost a family member, Burdick said, which is no surprise for the station that bills itself as “Your Hometown Station.” A local food truck parked across the street from the station has been dishing up meals in exchange for donations; the truck’s owner brought $2,500 in cash to station executives on Thursday morning, Burdick said.

The outpouring reinforces what Schurz executives already knew: In small towns, local TV stations and newspapers play a more vital life of a community than in large markets where the population is denser and there are more outlets overall. And that means stations have an obligation to serve viewers with well-reported, well-researched local news and public affairs programming.

“We think of news as the face of our stations,” Burdick said. “It is part of this company’s mission statement. When we do our strategic planning every year, managers are held accountable to the question of ‘What are you doing to advance your local news brand and your community service.’ “

Todd Schurz also spoke eloquently about his company’s dedication to local TV in 2011 when he testified before Congress about the FCC’s plan to auction off broadcast spectrum to ease congestion for various wireless services.

Spectrum auctions offer the prospect of a quick cash-in for station owners at a time when many broadcasters are struggling to adapt to monumental changes in the digital era. Schurz made it clear his company has no intention of pulling up stakes — nor has Schurz Communications parted with any stations despite the overheated M&A market in recent years, fueled by consolidators such as Sinclair and Media General.

“I am as excited about broadcasting’s future as I am proud of our past. Our company has no plans to return our spectrum,” Todd Schurz testified in 2011. “For that reason, I ask that any spectrum legislation be crafted to protect our ability to continue to serve the viewers of our local communities.”

On Wednesday, WDBJ-TV found itself in the unusual position of being part of a tragic news story that made headlines around the country and beyond. At 6:45 a.m. ET on Thursday, 24 hours after Parker and Ward lost their lives in the line of duty, the station observed a moment of silence.

Burdick noted that Parker and Ward were shining examples of the locally rooted journalists that Schurz seeks in its newsrooms. In a small market, being on TV isn’t so much about seeking fame and sexy headlines as it is telling the stories of everyday people and everyday problems. Like others at WDBJ and Schurz, Burdick choked up periodically while talking about the slain pair.

“These kids were true journalists,” she said. “They were committed to making their community a better place to live. Alison and Adam should be remembered as the face of what local journalists do every day.”

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