Media Watch

Former KGUN news director Thor Wasbotten's chair was not only still warm; Wasbotten was actually in it when his replacement showed up at the end of last month. Which, to hear the replacement tell it, was about a lifetime ahead of schedule.

Six weeks ago, new KGUN news director Fernando Lopez had no desire to come to a place like Tucson. He was living the big-city life in Los Angeles as the director of the Hispanic Initiative and senior consultant for the media-consulting firm Frank N. Magid Associates. KGUN is one of Magid's clients; Lopez heard that the news director job was opening up--Wasbotten was taking a position at Penn State University--and started idly chatting about Tucson with another consultant. All of a sudden, he got a call from KGUN station manager Ray Depa, and the next day, the two men were having breakfast in L.A. ahead of a Yankees-Dodgers game.

"Within three weeks, I was offered the job," says a still-stunned Lopez.

That was after he'd come to town for a mutual interview with the station's news staff. Lopez says he immediately liked the people and the city. And it's certainly a better place to raise kids; he and his wife have three children, ages 2, 4 and 6.

"Compared to L.A. this is a small town," says Lopez, "but in terms of competitiveness, it's not like the 71st market in the country; it's like a Top 10 market. I've been to small markets, and some are very small markets, where the top story is a little bake sale on the corner, or the newscast is all national and international stories because supposedly nothing's happening locally. Tucson isn't anything like that: We've got military bases; we've got the UA; we've got crime stories, medical stories, all kinds of things that are important for the people who live in this community."

Prior to his most recent position Los Angeles, Lopez was assistant news director at KCBS and also worked at KTLA and KNBC; prior to that, he was general manager and news director at Spanish-language stations in L.A. and Houston. Naturally, he has some ideas about how KGUN news can connect with Hispanic viewers, or potential viewers. That doesn't mean starting a Spanish-language newscast, he warns; he thinks Telemundo is already handling that adequately.

"I think we're doing an OK job (with Hispanic viewers), but we can do better," Lopez says. Keeping in mind that the city has a constant influx of Spanish speakers whose children will be English speakers, "you have to do stories that are not only important for the people in both those groups, but show how those stories affect the non-Hispanic population, too. You have to make everybody care about the story. Immigration is a good example. People say it's the same story over and over: People come over the border; they get arrested; or some tragic thing happens. I agree it's the same story over and over--if that's the way you cover it. But you have to look at other issues, like the economy in Mexico, and also how this country was built on immigrants, and what would happen to our society and our infrastructure if they said, 'Let's close the border and that's it.' We have to go beyond the basic stories, and look at the impact in Tucson. We haven't done a good job with that."

So what's good about KGUN news? Plenty, he says. "We have a veteran news operation; the people here are either from Tucson, or they've been here a long time, so they know this community. I like my talent (TV-speak for anchors and reporters); the management and the producers just want to do their best every day; and our brand is very basic: Give people information the way they want it, which is clear, to the point and accurate. That's not a slogan; we're supposed to do that every day. We're not going to waste your time. We're not gonna do fluff stories, and we're not gonna do feature stories where you sit there and say, 'What the heck was that?'

"We're going to do stories that make you think about their impact on your daily life in Tucson. That could be flash floods, transportation, the effect of new students coming in to town for the UA. In your reporting, you have to give options and choices to people. We're doing a good job, but we can do more, and we can do it better--more pieces that affect our daily lives, more in-depth investigations. We've got to be inquisitive."

How, precisely, Lopez is going to get his news staff to do that isn't something he's quite mapped out yet.

"I want to give them the chance to go to the next level, and they're not afraid to take the next step," he says, "but I don't have the quick answer. I can't say that in two weeks we're going to do something that's never been done in Tucson. I sure don't want to do something that's plastic, or all graphics, because that'll only last one day. I want to be the best source of information for the people who live in this community.

"And in two months, people are going to call me and say, 'I don't know exactly how, but what you're doing is better.'"