2011 Margaret Murchison News Director of the Year

The Margaret Murchison News Director of the Year award is presented to the News Director of the Carolinas who the RTDNAC Board of Directors selects from nominations and supporting documents. Any person who has served as a news director in the Carolinas during the award year is eligible.

First place

Rick Gall
WRAL-TV

To say Rick Gall is the best news director in the Carolinas would be an understatement. He is quite possibly the best news director in the country. Rick is the reason WRAL is a powerhouse news operation known for its quality journalism and outstanding work environment. He brought his reporting talents to WRAL in the mid-90s. After running the assignment desk and becoming assistant news director, he was named news director in 2005. Not only is he an extremely talented and successful newsroom manager, he is passionate, approachable, and dedicated. Above all, he cares deeply for his co-workers.

I have worked with Rick for more than four years. As the weekend news producer, I can assure you he is always a phone call away. No matter the time or the day, he has always been ready to help us make complicated decisions and react responsibly to breaking news. When tornadoes began forming on Saturday, April 16, Rick was already at the station. He knew the exact steps to ensure our newsroom was providing fast and accurate information to our viewers on WRAL-TV, WRAL.com, WRAL Mobile, and WRAL-FM. Rick made sure we were calling in everyone who could work. From his years of experience, he knew we would be on the air all night. He was right. We spent the next 10 hours in continuous coverage. Throughout that time, he made sure we all had the resources we needed. He also made sure we were providing outstanding coverage while staying safe ourselves. A tornado actually passed over our building. While we stayed on the air, he moved most of the staff to the basement. The lights went out, the generator kicked in, and WRAL-TV shined with unparalleled coverage of the tornado recovery.

Rick is constantly focused on all WRAL News platforms, while maintaining a passion for investigations and promotable content. He believes that WRAL’s news coverage should be in-depth and unique. It is a rare occasion that Rick misses an editorial meeting. He encourages us to be creative, embrace new ideas, and impress our viewers. When you talk, he listens. When Rick talks, he always remains calm and collected. When he disagrees with you, he respectfully explains why. I always feel comfortable approaching him with an idea or a question. His leadership style is the most successful I have ever seen.

Rick’s dedication to his job and co-workers is extraordinary. He recognizes great work and encourages you to achieve excellence. When giving feedback, he is tactful and willing to listen. Even after hours of exhausting live coverage, you want to hear from him. Rick is the kind of boss who knows how to respectfully give feedback. He also knows how to be fair. When facing a difficult decision, you can always count on him to be considerate and objective.

Rick is unlike most news directors. He works with you, not above you. He leads with passion and compassion. He encourages our newsroom to achieve excellence, while maintaining realistic goals. People come to WRAL and stay at WRAL because of his leadership. He is the reason for our success and our determination to be the best. Please consider Rick Gall for the Margaret Murchison News Director of the Year award.

Second place

Dennis Milligan
WBTV

Dennis Milligan is a journalist's boss. He started in the trenches and understands what it takes to building and run a newsroom from the ground up. Milligan is the longest presently serving news director in Charlotte. With 10 years under his belt, his focus and enthusiasm has not waned. In fact, during the 2010-2011 award period, Milligan's energy has spilled into the newsroom, the WBTV station at large, and on the airwaves at WBTV.

During this contest year, under Milligan's leadership, WBTV launched a new 4 p.m. hour-long newscast that is now the timeslot winner in the Nielsen ratings LPMs, 25-54. The show is not even a year old yet. This newscast follows the implementation of a morning weekend newscast nearly two years ago. Both shows are executed with mostly existing news personnel, used in more efficient ways. It's not that Dennis does not fight for additional resources, because WBTV did gain 2.5 positions to launch an innovative 4 p.m. newscast. However, he is the first to look at workflow and asks his team for creative solutions to accomplish new goals.

One of the solutions was to initiate a news and production-wide cros-training initiative. Production works on the Web, reporters work on the Web. Photographers work on the Web. The production team is trained to work three or four positions, rather than one or two in the studio. Dennis hired two more MMJ to help gather news. The intent is not to convert his whole staff but to hire people who are comfortable shooting, editing, and writing on any platform, adept with Skype and social media. Anchors are the new news marketers, using Twitter and Facebook to engage viewers with content and having conversations about the news we produce for them. At first, they resisted plunging into a new area – and frankly worried about more work on their plates. Dennis talked to them individually about the purposes of social media and why it's important to talk with potential viewers in the arenas THEY want to communicate. After explaining this clearly, two of the main anchors have become newsroom champions of using Facebook to engage viewers.

Assistant News Director Yvonne Simons observes that Dennis has a good feel for the potential of his employees. “He thinks a long time, sometimes it feels like too long, about how to encourage employees to stretch their boundaries, especially when he needs more performance out of them.”

Simons continues, “Dennis is a master about when to push and when to pull back to get employees on the right track. He is not there to demean anyone. He’s pretty direct with workers so that they do not have to guess what he expects from them. People respond to truth and Dennis explains his news purposes well.”

During the contest period, Milligan developed a plan to improve the morning and early-evening broadcasts to increase ratings. Galvanizing a busy team, during an economic downturn is not an easy task. But Milligan's manner helped create a cohesive team that understood the goals, understood it means more work, but signed on to take on market leader, WSOC.

Program Director Shelly Hill notes, “Dennis has a unique ability to be empathetic while remaining unemotional. His relationship with his employees in the newsroom is one of openness, respect and trust.”

One early victory came on Sept. 30, 2010. The community was waiting for a verdict in the Demetrius Montgomery Trial. The young man stood accused of killing two Charlotte police officers, an event which stunned and moved the community three years earlier. Knowing this would be a huge event, Milligan made sure the newsroom would be poised to react with comprehensive coverage. On the third day of the existence of the brand new 4 p.m. newscast, our court team signaled the verdict was coming. WBTV was first to break that news to the website and then first on air, breaking it at 4:09 p.m. The entire newsroom moved to pre-arranged positions and at 4:30 p.m., we began wall-to-wall coverage of the verdict results, the sentencing results and were on air with live interviews with the prosecutors, the police chief, reaction from the neighborhood where the shootings took place. And, a reporter moved into position for exclusive interviews with the slain officers’ parents. That exclusive story led the 11 p.m. newscast. The plan executed like clockwork and became a confidence builder for the newsroom for the coming year.

For the mid-term elections, WBTV broadcast a two-hour election special on its 3.2 channel, simulcasting cut-ins on WBTV's main channel. The station had race results and every main acceptance and concession speech live on air during that time period, and during its 11 p.m. broadcast. There were no technical difficulties and again, the team executed the plan.

To improve the profile of the morning team and to serve the community better, Dennis enlisted his morning anchors on the ‘See, Click, Fix’ franchise. Viewers let them know about the issues that bother them, from pesky potholes to clearly dangerous situations. John Carter and Christine Nelson have clearly hit a nerve with viewers who keep them busy. It's another tangible way that viewers know WBTV is ‘On Your Side.’ Dennis also initiated and expanded live traffic coverage in the morning and, this past fall, in the afternoon broadcasts, by adding traffic reporters in each daypart. They offer solutions to daily traffic problems viewers may encounter in their commutes.

Dennis asked the marketing department to come up with a morning image campaign. He explained to the creative services director, John Rice, the need to prove that the morning team delivers viewers the urgency and utility they are looking for. The result was a campaign that has the anchors explaining utility in their own words. The unusual campaign rises above the usual “noise” of station promotions and explains, in a user-friendly way, why viewer will get what they want and need in morning coverage. John Rice says, “Under Dennis’ leadership, WBTV News has evolved into a much stronger reflection of the community it serves and has become a clear leader in Charlotte news media.”

He also explains why the marketing department is successful promoting the news product.

“Effective branding and good, ethical news judgment aren’t mutually exclusive – and can’t be in today’s media environment.” Says Rice, “Dennis certainly understands this. He has helped build a news organization that maintains the highest standards in the delivery of journalistically sound news content – all the while clearly understanding and articulating the mission behind its stated ‘On Your Side’ brand position.”

During the Christmas storms, Milligan had the unenviable task of pulling people from holiday plans and vacations to cover the snowstorm. He leads by example and worked Christmas Eve and Christmas Day himself, beside his employees, to make sure WBTV's weather team had the proper field support to give viewers needed information to manage their holidays. Dennis often goes out in the field during inclement weather to shoot pictures and write short stories for the community sites on WBTV.com. He does not ask staff to do work he is not willing to do himself.

At the first of the year, Milligan instituted a daily overtime management system, to make sure that the team wasn't spending on overtime when it did not need to, leaving funds available when overtime is needed. This program has been very successful and adopted by other stations in the Raycom Media group.

Under previous owners, WBTV.com was a low priority. Now, Milligan requires that the newsroom breaks news to the website and mobile first. The entire editorial staff – producers, reporters, photographers and production – contribute daily to the website. This past year, WBTV.com added Community Websites to offer viewers and readers hyper-local content – news in their neighborhoods. The sites have their own producers who develop unique content and who tailor other site content for readers in local areas. This has been a success and has helped WBTV significantly boost page views while serving the community in a unique way. This spring, the station re-launched its news and weather APPS with a better viewer experience as they take WBTV with them on the mobile platforms. The website as a whole received the Associated Press's first place award as Best Website in 2010.

The news staff wants the awards committee to know that Dennis Milligan led his team through the May and July books while his wife was dealing with a serious illness. He empowered his mid-managers and the team to stay the course, and maintained his presence in the newsroom while dealing with this personal challenge.

Television is a numbers game. The Nielsen Local People Meters for the prime demographic of Adults 25-54 show significant gains for WBTV in the past year. That's how we're measured, and under Dennis Milligan's leadership this past year, WBTV is not only the mover and shaker in Charlotte in television news, but is showing the results of a lot of very hard work.