After being on what unemployed TV journalists refer to as The Beach for several months, Steve Brown looked at the back of his 200-page annual day planner to see what he had written down about his ideal destination if he ever got back into investigating reporting.
Brown wanted a place with a strong management team and ownership that would give an investigative reporter the resources, manpower and time to do good work without having daily obligations.
“I thought, ‘Where can I go work and do this and have an impact?’ ” Brown said over coffee recently. “And where would I want to go? There was just one answer: Channel 2 … I want to do important work, where it is important to me. It all added up to Buffalo.”
That started the wheels in motion for Brown’s return two weeks ago to Channel 2, the local NBC affiliate he left 20 years ago to go to rival Channel 7.
Brown left Channel 7 three years later to become a Fox News correspondent and eventually a political reporter based in Chicago, a job he held until March 2013.
The Canisius College graduate was let go as part of the network’s restructuring of its news bureau.
“I think I became an overpriced asset, at least in their eyes,” he said of Fox News.
“I was treated wonderfully,” he said of his years at Fox. “I was there for 15 years with 14 pay increases. You start pricing yourself out of the market.”
Brown enjoyed his work at the controversial network, covering several presidential campaigns. Among the highlights was reporting on the legal arguments that settled the 2000 presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore, and covering several Senate races in the Midwest.
He said he never experienced pressure to adhere to the pro-conservative agenda of the Fox opinion shows.
“I think the opinion shows drown out what otherwise is terrific journalism on the non-opinion shows,” Brown said.
He was 52 when he was let go by Fox News, not an ideal time for any TV journalist to be looking for a job, especially when local news departments are looking to cut salaries or hire young people who don’t demand big contracts.
“It is easier from a management standpoint to take a gamble with a young talent. I saw this a lot at Fox,” Brown said. “Throw him into the pool and see if he can swim. Because if they can’t, what did you really risk? That’s the easy one. The hard thing is to take someone who does have experience and talent and bring them back. Because it usually costs a couple of more bucks. That’s hard, because television stations have budgets. It is a safer bet to get somebody who has experience. But it is just a more expensive bet.”
Brown married for a second time a few years ago. He and his wife have a blended family of children raised in the Chicago area so Brown naturally wanted to stay in the Windy City and first talked to the news stations there.
“I did apply,” Brown said. “The Chicago market is a little quirky. There’s great talent and it seems very difficult to break into.”
He said at least three stations seemed interested but weren’t in an expanding mode and had veteran investigative reporters.
“I would have been very happy to have found a job, but things weren’t moving along as fast as I would have liked,” Brown said. “I needed to get back to work. I sat too long.”
After all, you can only spend so much time on the beach before getting antsy.
“It was driving me nuts,” Brown said.
The Buffalo TV market has substantially changed since Brown left Channel 7 in 1997 to work for Fox News. When he left, Channel 7 was still the dominant player in the market and Channel 2 was third. Now Channel 7 is a poor third, with Channel 2 in first place or tied everywhere but at 10 and 11 p.m., where Channel 4 is No. 1.
“It is sad,” Brown said of Channel 7’s demise.
He is more focused on Channel 2’s revival.
“It has always been a place with tremendous talent,” said Brown. “But that’s not enough. You have to have management and ownership willing to fight the fights. That takes a little bit of courage and some money.”
Brown saw that it is now there with Channel 2 General Manager Jim Toellner and the station’s owner, Gannett.
He initially called Jim Heaney of Investigative Post, which has a partnership with Channel 2. Heaney encouraged Brown to talk to News Director Jeff Woodard. He came in for an interview after Thanksgiving and noticed that some things at Channel 2 were the same and some were different.
Some of the people were the same. When he was the weekend anchor, he worked with anchor Maryalice Demler, who did weekend weather. He also has kept in contact with several photographers and behind-the-scenes personnel.
The primary thing that was different was the morale.
“The morale is great, it is something I didn’t experience very much under the previous ownership unfortunately,” Brown said of his last stint at Channel 2. “They’ve done upper-level journalism.”
Toellner is happy to have Brown back to add to the journalism level.
“I remembered Steve from his work in the market and saw him several times on FNC,” Toellner wrote in an email. “I was always impressed with his reporting. He is very smart, passionate and skilled. We are enthused that his love for Buffalo has brought him back to WGRZ.”
With his wife and children back in Chicago, the arrangement isn’t perfect. Brown will be commuting back and forth.
Channel 2 also had to be aware of the possibility that eventually he might want to return to Chicago but it has protected itself. Brown said he signed a three-year contract looked over by an old Canisius College friend, Steve Boyd, who became a lawyer after a career in television. Boyd and Brown lived together after college while working at rival stations. The deal doesn’t have an out-clause. “Don’t need one, don’t want one,” Brown said.
His hiring follows Channel 4’s addition last year of former Buffalo News and Philadelphia Inquirer investigative reporter Rose Ciotta to its staff. The two stations are emphasizing investigative reporting, a national trend in local news.
“Look around the country,” said Brown. “The one area that is expanding is investigative reporting. It is content. In this day and age, if you don’t have new and different content, you are as good as dead or you are about to be dead. You have to get at things that have meaning to your audience.”
Brown, who switched his college major from pre-law to communications shortly after taking a tour of the Channel 2 newsroom, believes the one thing that is dead is Thomas Wolfe’s claim that you can’t go home again.
“Sure you can,” Brown said. “I’m here. It is not the same. Time didn’t stop, it didn’t stand still. Things move on. Thank goodness. I’m very happy about what happened to Channel 2. This was the place that I fell in love with television journalism. … I found what I wanted to do.”
And now he wants to do it all over again in Buffalo.