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WB 49 news crew gets ready to sign off

Weekday anchor Kelly Kraft and the other five on-air staffers at WB 49 News knew that launching a new 10 p.m. newscast 20 months ago was risky business. But they don't consider the end on Friday as evidence of a failure to launch, or a failure of any kind.

"No, I don't at all," said Kraft. "We did a good job."

Kraft and her co-workers are reflecting on their accomplishments at WNYO-TV and plotting their futures. They could smell the bad news coming when rumors accelerated that Sinclair Broadcasting was going to end the news experiment. Ratings were increasing, but not enough to cover the expenses associated with producing only one newscast.

The 14 full-time and four part-time news staffers losing their jobs (the extra staffers work behind-the-scenes) were more disappointed than surprised when the official announcement came that Buffalo's newscast was one of five in the Sinclair station group being shut down in March.

"I didn't really know the timetable," said Kraft. "But I thought we had maybe five years to try it."

David Amy, the chief financial officer of Sinclair, recently told a trade publication, Broadcasting & Cable, that the news product wasn't the problem. He said the Sinclair model of doing local newscasts in a package that included national news reported from Baltimore couldn't be supported financially.

"It was good, but not quite good enough," he told the trade publication.

Even though she left a good job in San Diego and things haven't worked out, Kelly has no regrets. She thinks the move to WB 49 has all been worth it. She hopes to take some time off before finding her next job.

"I don't want to jump at anything," she said. "I may stay here a while to enjoy Buffalo. I have enjoyed living here. If an opportunity came along in Buffalo, I'd definitely explore it. I've enjoyed the people -- everyone was so welcoming. It's been the friendliest city I've ever worked in."

Kraft is the only WB 49 news staffer without local roots. The other five -- Steve Barber, Tom Duerr, Tom Fontana, Sarah Bishop and Kris O'Donnell -- knew about the friendliness of the City of Good Neighbors. As the end nears, they are all talkin' proud about what they've achieved.

O'Donnell, a Clarence native who arrived from the Fox affiliate in Houston, said it's the fourth time in her career a station she has worked at has been sold or a newscast has folded.

"I feel like an old war horse," said the thirtysomething reporter, who hopes to stay here, too. "This time is the toughest because we had some really good people and we accomplished something really great."

Reporter Steve Barber, an East Aurora native who appears headed to 7 News, believed the news department was already competing journalistically, especially on the county budget crisis, and in a few more years could have achieved the ratings needed for success.

Barber said that politicians and government were aware of the newscast even if many viewers weren't watching. "[Government officials] didn't like to see me coming but they knew I had legitimate stories and would be fair and accurate."

He knows Nielsen says the WB reports received barely above a 1 rating most nights, but Barber measures the station's impact in ways that go beyond viewership.

"Maybe not a lot of people watched, but the stories were picked up [by other media outlets]," he said.

Barber was especially proud to be told that someone working for the county's control board was overheard saying she "was doing a little dance" when she heard he lost his job.

"When she heard I was staying, I was told she turned white," Barber said proudly.

Though the job didn't last two years after his arrival from a Green Bay station, Barber considers the WB experience well worth it.

"Absolutely," said Barber. "I was trying to get back home for years and years. I grew as a reporter. I came at the right time as far as news coverage."

Duerr, a WNY native who previously worked at Channel 2 and Channel 7, has similar sentiments. A graduate of American University, he may look for a job in the Washington, D.C., area.

"I've never worked with a group of people like this who encouraged and supported each other," he said. "A lot of us spent a lot of free time together. It will be tough to see a lot of us go to different places."

Fontana, a WNY native who came to WB 49 after four years at WBEN radio, said it was worth it just to get the TV experience in a Top 50 market without leaving home. And he hopes to catch on with another Buffalo station.

"My goal is to stay here," said Fontana. "I've certainly grown as a reporter on TV. I have more confidence."

Bishop, a native of St. Catharines, Ont., who anchored weekends as well as reports, joins the chorus of those who say the experience was worth it even if the results were unkind.

"Absolutely," she said. "I became a much stronger journalist. Bruce Corris is an excellent news director and I was very fortunate. You can't get away with being lazy here. A lot of times he was the first person on the phone to really wake me up. He'd call on days off, vacations. We worked hard. We're sort of losing a bit of ourselves, not just a job. It wasn't a 9 to 5 job. If we had been given five years, we could have done a lot. You'd think we'd get a longer shot."

But it is all over except for the shouting -- and crying -- at around 10:25 p.m. Friday.

"We're going to have everyone on the set for the final minutes of the newscast," said Kraft. "It will be tough."

Maybe even as tough as the competition to go out in a blaze of glory.

"I hope I have the lead story on the final day," said Fontana.

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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