Sam Zelman, pioneer of current local news format, dies at 100

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More than a half-century ago, Sam Zelman had a crazy idea.

What if local news was presented on television the same way it appeared in a newspaper? A digest of in-depth local reports, stories flowing seamlessly from one to the next, coupled with extended sports highlights and comprehensive weather forecasts?

People said he was nuts. In the 1960s, broadcasters dedicated around 15 minutes to the hard three — news, sports and weather — nothing more than a few sentences per story, and nary a live report.

Zelman changed all that. When he launched “The Big News” on KNXT (Channel 2, now KCBS-TV) in Los Angeles, he promised to set aside a whopping 45 minutes every night for local news, sports and weather.

People wondered where he’d get all that content. He found a way. And local news was never the same again.

For his news program, Zelman hired a group of hard-hitting reporters and editors — his stars would come from newspapers across Southern California and brought with them the tenets and habits of a print newsroom (swearing, booze and, back then, chain smoking). But all of it made for compelling television news broadcasts that were quickly emulated by local stations in the Los Angeles market and eventually across the country.

“He would say, you’ve got to give them stories they will remember, you’ve got to rely on the intelligence of the audience,” Pete Noyes, the first editor of Zelman’s “Big News” program, said in an interview.

Zelman knew something about the print news industry: As a kid, he earned $6 a month on a paper route. He joined the San Bernardino Star-Telegram out of college, where he cut his teeth on hard-hitting news — first as an copy editor, then a night editor.

He bounced from newspaper to newspaper before landing at KNXT in the early 1960s. After launching the “Big News” program, he joined the CBS network before retiring in the mid-1970s.

A call from Ted Turner in 1979 brought him out of retirement. The Georgia media philanthropist had a single big ambition to launch a 24-hour cable and satellite channel that emulated the local news format that Zelman had created.

The channel would go on to become CNN. Zelman, who joined Turner Broadcasting in 1979, was tasked with finding new blood who were willing to work for cheap for the fledging network when it launched one year later; some of them later became rising stars at the channel.

Zelman died late last month at his home in Tucson, Arizona. His wife told the Los Angeles Times newspaper that the cause of death was respiratory failure. The Times published his obituary on Wednesday.

Los Angeles Times: Pioneer of local television news Sam Zelman dies