Former Dallas TV reporter Steve Stoler has stories (and his own story) to tell in Tonight at Ten
04/14/17 07:54 AM
Oh what a relief it is. Former KDFW/WFAA-TV reporter Steve Stoler. Photo: Ed Bark
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
At age 58, Steve Stoler is happily free and clear -- of cancer for the past 20 years and from a TV news room since December 2013.
In short he’s decompressed. Exhaled. Untied the knots in his stomach.
“My resounding sense of relief seems to hit home the hardest when I watch local news,” says Stoler, a reporter with Dallas-based KDFW-TV (now Fox4) for 17 years before moving down the street to WFAA-TV (TEGNA8) in 2003 for another decade of pavement-pounding. “No more storm chasing, standing on overpasses during ice storms, interviews with people who just lost a loved one or putting myself in harm’s way for a story. And I no longer have to leave my family to cover a news story away from home.”
But it’s not quite out of his system. A 34-year career in local TV news, beginning at Macon, GA’s little WCWB-TV, left him with a wealth of experiences and the itch to share some of them. By Stoler’s count, he did roughly 9,000 stories for six TV stations. His new self-published paperback book, Tonight At Ten, starts from the very beginning. It’s an easily digested, quick 115-page read. And if you’d like a copy, for $14.95, it’s available via stevestoler.com. Stoler also would be happy to speak at your event and then sign and sell copies. Whatever it takes.
We talk about it at the White Rock Lake coffee shop and via a subsequent brief email exchange. Stoler comes off as one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and probably is. This is a good trait when you’re the City of Plano’s Director of Media relations, where his principal tasks are to deal with reporters and spread positive stories, whenever possible, about the community he’s called home for 20 years with his wife, Susan, and sons Jordan and Jake. Stoler also covered Plano for most of his tenure at TEGNA8. So he thoroughly knows the ins and outs.
“I feel like I have an instant advantage because I know how the media work and what they need,” he says. “When a reporter calls me for an interview or information, they can’t wait. They need it ‘right now.’ I do everything in my power to accommodate them.”
The book had been on his mind for a while, dating back to his recovery from Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, initially diagnosed in March 1997. Fox4’s former medical reporter, John Hammarley, combined with Stoler to do a series of stories on his treatments. He envisioned writing a book about this. But a talk with a successful author dissuaded him after she asked, “Have you been to Barnes & Noble and seen all the cancer books?”
“I became demoralized after talking to her,” Stoler recalls. “I asked myself, ‘Why am I wasting my time?’ “
It also was a time before self-publishing took hold. So Stoler shelved the idea but continued to keep meticulous “calendars” of his various adventures in reporting.
Shortly after leaving TEGNA8, he revisited the idea. Dallas-based Brown Books Publishing Group wanted $25,000 upfront, a deal that included 3,000 books, Stoler says.
“Most new authors sell maybe 10 books to friends and family. And then you’ve got 2,900 that are sitting in storage,” he says.
So that didn’t seem like a wise financial move for a budding author who in large part sees Tonight At Ten as “more of a bucket list thing” and also a validation of his career for both his children and any eventual grandchildren.
Stoler eventually settled on Dog Ear, a self-publishing company that prints books as needed. He estimates his total costs at about $5,000, which include establishing his website and cutting a video trailer in support of the book. About 500 copies have been printed so far, after Stoler followed the advice of a Dog Ear editor who told him, “You write just like a reporter. You’re giving away the whole story in the first paragraph.”
This wasn’t meant as a compliment. “I basically re-wrote everything” in line with the editor’s edict to “create the images for me with your words. Show me, don’t tell me.”
The book includes blurbs from three of Stoler’s former TEGNA8 colleagues -- Dale Hansen, Byron Harris and Janet St. James -- plus a foreword from the station’s retired longtime anchor, Gloria Campos.
“You just might discover and learn to appreciate what makes a great reporter -- a good person and a compassionate human being,” Campos writes in part.
Dog Ear’s back cover promotion says that Stoler also “takes the gloves off” in talking about some of the downsides of his TV news profession. But Tonight At Ten in reality is no slugfest. Stoler takes some issue with the direction of TV news and its increasing reliance on “social media” content and budget-friendly VJs (video journalists) who shoot, write, edit and transmit their stories at the expense of behind-the-scenes news room personnel whose jobs have been downsized out of existence.
He additionally writes bluntly about a pointed and dispiriting encounter with ex-Fox4 news director Maria Barrs, who left the station in August 2011 to become president and general manager of a Sacramento, CA television station and since has retired from the news business. You’ll have to read the book, but things didn’t go well either before or immediately after Stoler heard that he wasn’t considered one of Fox4’s “go-to reporters.” But this particular chapter, “Maria and the Mi-Ti-Fine Massacre,” is atypical.
“My focus was the stories behind the stories,” Stoler says, noting that he and Barrs eventually made peace before he left Fox4 for TEGNA8. “I really didn’t want to get into things that would leave anyone with the perception of me as having sour grapes.”
The shot on the right is just one reason why Stoler left TV news. Photo: Ed Bark
Back during the “deep pockets” days of local TV news, Stoler was sent by Fox4 to cover the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. Rival D-FW stations also dispatched reporters in the interests of establishing a “local presence.” Commonplace then, it’s basically out of the question now.
Stoler also remembers the nickel-and-dime days. In a chapter titled “We Can’t; We’re Broke,” he vividly recounts his first day in TV news at Macon’s WCWB.
An elderly man with no front teeth “walked into the studio and started flicking on the lights,” he writes. “He swept the floor for a few seconds, laid down his broom, then walked up to the camera. ‘You must be the new guy,’ he said. ‘Good morning, I’m Claude. I’m the janitor, and I’ll be your camera guy for the morning news.’ “
WCWB had a six-person news room at the time. All these years later, major market TV stations seem to be inching toward rather than away from such staffing levels while also hiring on the cheap. If Stoler was starting out in 2017 rather than the late 1970s, he might have been able to trampoline directly from WCWB to a Dallas TV news room.
“A lot of people being hired in a major market today are just a couple of years and one job removed from college,” he says. “I never imagined the day would come when we’d see that.
By 2013, Stoler found himself in something of a middle-aged crisis. He assumed that TEGNA8 would re-up him for another two years after his contract expired in December. But at the same time, “all these reporters at Channel 8 started getting these amazing opportunities,” he says. “Channel 8 reporters seemed to be a really valuable commodity,” with Craig Civale, Brad Hawkins, Brad Watson, Chris Hawes and Cynthia Vega among those segueing to public relations jobs with better hours and less built-in stress.
Stoler hired a “career coach” and interviewed for positions at Atmos Energy and with the city of McKinney before learning that Plano was looking for someone who could talk up the city’s attributes while also serving as a media liaison. Hmm.
“It was like it fell into my lap,” Stoler says. “That was the perfect job that I was looking for.”
He remains euphoric. Being an ambassador and occasional crisis manager for his home city is “more than just a job,” Stoler says. “It feels like a higher calling. When we do have a positive impact, we have made our own community a little better. It’s emotionally rewarding.”
The “daily grind” is now more about having that first cup of morning coffee. The gut grind of “coming up with a story idea every day” for a ratings-driven news boss is now more than three years in Stoler’s rear view mirror.
For 34 years, though, he pretty much had a blast. Even those on-air contests during WCWB (Channel 41) newscasts -- Stoler once gave away a pair of dentures as the station’s news anchor -- are now the stuff of misty, water-colored memories suitable for Tonight At Ten.
“Channel 41 may have been a terrible television,” Stoler writes, “but it gave all of us an extremely valuable gift: experience. We desperately needed that experience if we wanted to move on to bigger and better television stations. We were much more than a six-person team struggling to put a watchable product on the air. We were friends, a small, tight-knit family that shared the same aspirations and frustrations, and all of us did eventually leave WCWB to pursue our dream to work at what we considered real television stations.”
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