March 2015 20 Questions: Cathy M. Pircsuk, WWNY-TV 7 and WNYF-FOX 28

One more story to tell

Cathy M. Pircsuk, WWNY-TV7 and WNYF FOX 28, talks about her plans after retirement in her office. Photos by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

Cathy M. Pircsuk, WWNY-TV7 and WNYF FOX 28, talks about her plans after retirement in her office. Photos by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

After 36 years, veteran broadcaster, manager Cathy Pircsuk eyes retirement

In January 1979, a 23-year-old Cathy M. Pircsuk left an adventure that took her from her St. Lawrence County hometown of Norfolk to Columbia, Mo., and Atlanta, returned to her native north country, and began a 36-year climb through the ranks at the local TV station, WWNY-TV7. Since, she’s held nearly every job in news. She will retire as the station’s general manager in June after almost 20 years leading Channel 7 through technological change and a vastly different media marketplace. We sat down with her as she reflected on what she’s learned and what she’ll miss when she signs off.

NNYB: When you joined Channel 7 in 1979, you were a reporter. What do you miss most about being a reporter?
PIRCSUK: I think reporting is the best job in the business for one reason. You go out and you do a story. You decide how to artfully write it and put the pictures together with it. You do all that, you go home and it’s done. There was a great sense of completion. It was different every day and there was a certain element of surprise. In management, you have a lot of ongoing issues and plans and budgets. It’s just a different type of work. And so as much as I like what I do now, it was the romance of being a reporter and having that mystery in your day-to-day work that was appealing.

NNYB: What were the gender roles like starting out and how have they changed?
PIRCSUK: I never felt that I was held back because I was a woman. But there weren’t very many women in management at all. In fact, growing up watching television, there weren’t many women correspondents on the air. You just didn’t see that many women in this field.

NNYB: You’re from the north country. Growing up here, did you have a woman mentor who guided you into journalism?
PIRCSUK: I should say yes, but I honestly can’t think of anyone in particular. You know, probably the best motivator: I had a professor at Geneseo tell me that I was an excellent student, but I might want to change majors so that I didn’t take the job that some nice man with a family needed. That was kind of the way it was then. So I think it was more about proving the fact that anyone could do that job. A man or a woman could do that job.

NNYB: When you earned the Athena Award in 1996, you spoke out for hiring the most qualified candidates, whether women or men. You said, “Things are getting closer to that, where the best person is hired for the job, not just for the demographics.” Do you think we’ve reached that point yet?
PIRCSUK: Yes, I do. There was a time, when women were first getting into this business, when every TV station thought that they needed a woman anchor, and I think they went out to look for a woman anchor. And I don’t think we do that anymore. We’re really looking for an anchor. I guess that certainly signals progress.

NNYB: What was working in television media like on 9/11?
PIRCSUK: I don’t know how you could even describe 9/11. We had to put extra people on the switchboards because you couldn’t keep up with the calls coming in to the newsroom. People were panicked. We heard from people that lived here that had daughters or sons or uncles that worked in that building. Everyone was so starved for any kind of information. I don’t think anybody slept for two or three days. There were special reports, so the programming on the station was constantly changing. It was an unbelievable few days to just kind of grasp what had happened.

NNYB: What aspects of media have changed the most since you started working?
PIRCSUK: You have to keep evolving. I have an incredible bunch of managers who live, eat and breathe technology. We’re always looking for the next best thing, and how we can afford to keep up with the industry, because there’s so much going on. We just talked about the new way to have reporters go live. You used to need a huge truck and two or three people to operate the truck. Now they have backpacks where you are your own live unit. We’re in the process of researching that and purchasing a couple of those to get started. It seems like as we progress, each piece of equipment is just doing these incredible things that we never expected that we could do.

B_20Q_CathyPircsuk_2_0315 copy_WebNNYB: Has it been hard to keep pace with evolving and changing technology?
PIRCSUK: TV reporters are notoriously poor spellers, because our stuff was never printed. When that changed, we had to really clamp down on copy. Newspaper people have had to worry about spelling and punctuation always, but not so much for TV and radio people, so that’s changed. I started on a manual typewriter, and when we got electric typewriters, that was a pretty big deal. I remember fax machines — particularly if you were in contract negotiations, trying to get contract changes back and forth through the mail — and now you could use a fax machine and get it there within a few minutes. And then having a computer in your hand that you can walk around with and take pictures. No one really thought that was going to be possible. So it’s pretty incredible.

NNYB: How do you cut through all the noise of so many platforms providing information 24/7, and still produce a 30-minute local broadcast that stays true to your values as a newsperson?
PIRCSUK: Those of us who have been in the business for so long joke around, saying, “If only we knew those were the good old days, we would have enjoyed them more.” When I came here, we had one television station, and a radio station, and that’s what we were responsible for. Then we added our Fox station in 2001, which was a tremendous boost for this business and then Facebook and everything else, our website, which is an integral part of what we do. We don’t have any deadlines anymore. Your deadline is now. You want to make sure that you get it quickly to the website, but that what you get to the website is accurate and truthful and has been researched and you can stand by it. That’s the challenge. People are very concerned about being first and being fast. If it’s not correct, then none of that makes any difference.

NNYB: How do you see news media evolving in the future?
PIRCSUK: My hope is that local continues to thrive. You can get national news in multiple places. You need local media for local news. I hope that the community finds that of value. I still think part of our role is to be a community watchdog. It’s the opportunity to stay engaged with your community, and we do a pretty good job of that, collectively all of us.

NNYB: I’ve heard you, on occasion, talk about the funding model for local network affiliates and how it’s changed from the networks paying the local stations to the local stations paying the networks. What drove that? How is that a successful model now?
PIRCSUK: If you try to be an independent television station and purchase programming, it’s very difficult. There isn’t a lot of programming outside of the networks that’s first-run network-quality programming. I think every TV station looks at it when they go into contract negotiations with the network. Some stations have done it, but it’s pretty difficult to do. So you have to find ways to make it work. We were fortunate to have added the Fox station. Now we have two TV stations that we run out of the same building with the same staff. And that has really allowed us to keep the staff the same size and to keep the product.

NNYB: When did you get the feel that you wanted to get more into the business end of things, management-wise?
PIRCSUK: It kind of fell in my lap. I’d been a reporter. Then when someone left and the news director’s position was open, I had been here and knew the area and the market, so it was a natural progression to become a news director. And after that, there was the opportunity to be general manager. I was happy in news, and would have been happy to stay there, but when this opportunity arose, it was the next thing to do. I think if you’re going to stay in a place for 36 years, you need a bunch of different jobs. That’s what made it fun and interesting and fresh and fun.

NNYB: When did you get used to having to think about the bottom line and business side
of the job?
PIRCSUK: I think as a manager, if you have a really good business manager — and I do — that makes your life possible. As a news director, you’re multitasking. You’re worried about the next deadline, who called in sick, what equipment’s not working. You’re constantly multitasking. That was very good training for being a general manager when you have seven departments. My training in news really prepared me well for being a general manager.

NNYB: How do you keep people motivated during challenging times?
PIRCSUK: By always having something new on the horizon. We put a new set on the air two years [ago] now. We had virtually everybody looking at swatches and wood colors and design and color and lighting, and really made it a project. Everybody contributed. We’re great project people in this building. Sometimes the day-to-day stuff can get difficult, but we’re really good when we’ve got a project. I think it helps to add excitement to the day-to-day. We’re always looking ahead to something different.

NNYB: What have you learned from the people you work with in terms of leadership?
PIRCSUK: I’ve learned from my engineers here analytical thinking. Engineers are incredible people because they drill down through all of these layers to find the problem and then the solution. It’s a specific way that engineers think, and I really admire that. My bosses — Ron and Ken out in Wisconsin, the VPs — they listen to what you have to say and then if they disagree, they’ll tell you why. If you have a boss that you can come in and say, “I don’t think this is right because of this, this and this,” and they’ll listen to you and then they’ll either agree or disagree, that’s an ideal situation. When you are afraid to bring an issue to a supervisor or are afraid to discuss a situation, then that reflects poorly not only on you but on the organization, too. So from my bosses, I’ve learned that that open dialogue is critical.

B_20Q_CathyPircsuk_4_0315_WebNNYB: Do you think your employees understand that it’s ok to challenge you effectively?
PIRCSUK: I have very smart managers and, believe me, they challenge me all the time. And that’s good. I’ve always managed that way, with a very free and open discussion. Maybe, if anything, I air on the side of a little too much discussion. But I always felt that that was better than having a place where people were afraid to say anything.

NNYB: Your team includes some familiar faces who’ve made a commitment to stay – Brian Ashley, Ann Richter, Mel Busler, Rob Krone, John Moore, most recently, Jeff Cole and Beth Hall. Is that kind of commitment rare in small markets? What’s the secret to retaining good people?
PIRCSUK: I don’t think it’s so rare in small markets. The key to keeping people is some connection to the area. That wasn’t so unusual in my day. It’s more unusual now, because in this industry, one way to get ahead and to make more money is to market hop; the bigger the market, generally the bigger the pay and the better the exposure. So if that’s what you want to do and that’s your objective, that’s probably the best way to get there. It depends on what’s important to you. We’ve been fortunate enough to have a cadre of local people who have chosen to stay here. Jeff Cole can work anywhere he wants to, and that’s just one example. Most of my anchors could choose where they want to be and they’ve chosen to stay here.

NNYB: Does it make you proud to see that employees have stayed with the station through the lean times?
PIRCSUK: Yes. People are committed to their area, community, schools and kids. With a small staff, everyone works together. They have to. I always say, “The best thing about Channel 7 is that we’ve all worked together for a really long time, the worst thing about Channel 7 is we’ve all worked together a really long time.” We’re fortunate to only have two owners in the entire time the station’s been here. I can’t stress enough how unusual that is in the media business.

NNYB: You recruit a lot of beginners. Talk about mentoring the next generation of journalists.
PIRCSUK: Part of our economic structure is that we have a group of senior people who know where the bodies are buried, and that we pay more. In order to do that, we hire graduates out of college and we teach them the trade. It’s a lot of work because, in journalism, if you make a mistake, you could be held for libel or worse. So a lot of time is spent not only mentoring but checking every piece of copy. On top of that, now we require our reporters to be photojournalists, so they’re shooting video as well. That’s a lot of responsibility for somebody that’s just graduated from college. The cool part is that we hear from them. They’re all over the country. That’s very rewarding. After you’ve done it for many years, I think it can be frustrating to start all over again. But it reminds us of why we got into the business in the first place and those very basic rules of journalism. And it keeps us young.

NNYB: What’s the best advice you’ve ever followed and who gave it to you?
PIRCSUK: My dad always told me, “You can’t afford to save that much money.” And I’d say, “It’s only $30 and I’m saving $5.” He’d say, “You can’t afford to save that much money.” I’ve often used that line on my managers. I think that means just looking at every single purchase you have. Television equipment is incredibly expensive and there are a lot of vendors. We’ve learned how to negotiate and how to really research every piece of equipment that we get.

B_20Q_CathyPircsuk_3_0315 copy_WebNNYB: What’s the most important thing that north county residents should understand when it comes to doing business here?
PIRCSUK: I would say to businesses coming in, just because the weather is challenging doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t move here. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to get commitment from the community, from the chambers of commerce. Look what’s happened with Fort Drum. There’s Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization. There’s AUSA. There’s people that have gotten behind Fort Drum to make it as pleasant a place to live, not only for the soldiers, but particularly the families. We do a really good job of that. So I think we have to keep in mind that sometimes we’re our own worst enemies when we talk about Northern New York. The region has a lot to offer, not only from a business standpoint, but also from a recreational standpoint. And we should embrace it.

The Cathy M. Pircsuk file

Age: 59

Job: General manager and vice president, WWNY-TV 7 and WNYF-FOX 28

Family: Husband, Jim Burr; step-daughter, Laurel; step-son, Jeremy

Hometown: Norfolk; presently lives in Watertown

Education: B.A. University of Missouri, Columbia

Professional: classical and jazz music producer and host at KBIA-FM, Columbia, Mo.; morning DJ at KWOS-AM, Jefferson City, Mo.; news writer and producer at UPI NewsTime, Atlanta.; reporter, assistant editor, news director and general manager at WWNY-TV7 and WNYF-FOX 28, Watertown

Business Book You’ve Read and Would Recommend: “Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life” by Spencer Johnson

— Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited for length and clarity to fit this space.