I was a Sinclair news director. For a few months, at least.
In 2013, I was a young news director at a struggling small station in the Midwest, having worked my way up the ranks as a producer in larger markets. I’d uprooted my family the year before and moved from the West Coast to “earn my stripes” running a newsroom. I had a small team with a handful of veterans and eager new reporters I enjoyed mentoring.
That fall, Sinclair Broadcast Group bought the station. Sinclair was not a household name at the time, but it did have a reputation in the business for being heavy-handed in station operations and for having a conservative editorial lean. The company first made national headlines when it forced all its stations to run an anti-John Kerry documentary just before the Democratic nominee lost the 2004 presidential election.
Still, I went in with an open mind. As Sinclair prepared to purchase my station, I emailed a colleague to say, “From everything I’ve seen so far, it’s not the evil empire some people think.”
It took just a few months to realize how wrong I was.
It began with the “must run” stories arriving in my inbox every morning. “Must-run” stories were exactly what the name suggests: They were a combination of pre-produced packages that would come down from corporate, along with scripts for local anchors to read. We had to air them whether we wanted to or not.
On the way to a meeting of company news directors, someone whose station had been acquired a few months earlier explained that the arrangement wasn’t that bad — you just had to bury the “must-run” corporate stories and commentary in early-morning newscasts where few viewers would see them. Shortly after that, an executive made it clear to us that the “must-run” stories were not optional and that corporate would be watching to make sure they weren’t getting buried at 5 a.m.
Sinclair knows its strongest asset is the credibility of its local anchors. They’re trusted voices in their communities, and they have often been on the air for decades before Sinclair purchased their stations.