Remembering a legend in Northwest media, Phil Sturholm
Thanks to Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, discussions have been underway about creating a standing exhibit on the rich history of Northwest TV and radio. If this project moves forward, it would perhaps be a way to memorialize the talent and legacy of Phil Sturholm, a giant in Seattle media who recently passed away at 80.
When I started at KING 5 News in 1983, Phil became my mentor and coach. “You need to let the story breath,” he said, noting that sometimes it was best for the reporter to shut up and let the sound and pictures tell the story. Wise advice for a TV wanna-be. Even wiser advice for a potential public official, as I’ve since become.
Sturholm taught scores of us about TV news. And life. The former KING 5 News Executive Producer, never in front of the camera, was a legend at the NBC station, and in TV newsrooms across the nation. Now he’s gone. And so, largely, is the style of television journalism he so passionately championed.
“Don’t forget to get me the ‘Big Damn Wideshot’ while you’re there,” Sturholm would jovially admonish as crews scrambled out of the newsroom.
The wideshot was a metaphor. Phil wanted you to get the whole story, and shunned sensationalism, ratings-driven hype, or goading someone to cry for the camera. His core integrity helped shape how KING 5 News covered events and how he dealt with everyone over his long career.
Phil was a great bear of a man, with a hearty laugh and a fondness for cigars. He was folksy, not trendy. Most comfortable in chinos and a plaid shirt, he’d routinely don Mickey Mouse ears as he marshaled a newscast. He didn’t yell or scream. He would guide, coax and, when necessary, cajole.
In those few minutes you had during that night’s broadcast, Phil wanted you to tell viewers a story about their town, this region, the world around them. Sturholm was an innate storyteller, and his stories almost always centered around people. That wasn’t surprising. Phil loved people. In contrast to the often cutthroat business of TV news, his very humanity won him a legion of lifelong friends.
Station photographers, often a cynical lot, talked about Sturholm in almost reverential tones as “Chief.” Who was he? Former reporter Linda Byron arrived at KING in 1987, and soon found out. She recalls that “Phil adopted me just as he did so many young other journalists, and what a gift! Over the years he would call me, and later when e-mail came along shoot me a message, offering criticism, support and good old fashioned mentoring.”
“I'd been a reporter for twenty years when I landed at KING-5 in 1977,” adds Bob Simmons, “but I learned more about telling stories in the first year of working around Phil Sturholm than I had in the previous twenty.”
Sturholm had an eye – for photography, of course, but talent as well, even if it meant knocking down some barriers. A young Mary McCormick seemed like a hard worker to Phil, so he helped her become the first female shooter in the previously all-male bastion of KING 5 photojournalism. “I never wanted to disappoint Phil,” “McCormick remembered.
That wasn’t a unique feeling. Sturholm instilled a deep sense of mutual loyalty and respect. Stevan Smith, a photographer/show producer, remembers rejecting some Sturholm advice how to format and pace a newscast. Sturholm wasn’t angry. Smith wondered if he was going to be fired. No, Phil said, he was just disappointed.
“Fire me please,” Smith thought, “but to disappoint Phil Sturholm was so much worse than being fired.”
Times and technology were different then. Sturholm so loved the look and feel of film that KING was slow to convert to video newsgathering, and he hated the mindless live shots that video made possible. And like many of us, he worried in recent years about the obsession in TV newsrooms about technology, Twitter, and the rush to go live.
Former KING news director Paul Steinle notes four important factors that influenced broadcast news era of Sturholm: Station ownership, content, style and competition.
Phil Sturholm arrived at a KING TV owned by the proud and determined Bullitt Family. Dorothy Bullitt was a local icon deeply tied to the community. Today, not one of Seattle’s network affiliates is locally owned. Community ties are distant and more fragile.
Content has changed, too. KING 5 once had City Hall, Olympia and Washington, DC bureaus. KING staffers generated most stories, as opposed to using video beamed in from some far-flung location. “His photographic emphasis was on accuracy, clarity and visual acuity,” Steinle says of Sturholm.
Given that emphasis, it’s little surprise that KING 5 was repeatedly named Station of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association, featuring Sturholm-mentored shooters like Bill Fenster, Ken Jones, Randy Partin, George Stark and Steve Dowd.
The style of news has changed, Steinle observes. Technology drives newscasts today. So often, it is live, everywhere and anywhere. The emphasis is on speed – on the air and online – even if only scant facts are known. Storytelling takes too long. Twitter teases and web hits become a measure of success. Sturholm worried that TV news was losing the human element to be replaced by the need for speed.
The greatest change perhaps, offers Steinle, is the rapidly evolving competitive landscape. Once it was just KING, KOMO and KIRO going head-to-head, with occasional competition from the newspapers. No more. Now it is Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, anyone with a smartphone, bloggers, and internet feeds from around the world 24/7.
On his way to teaching at North Seattle Community College, Phil Sturholm taught us all about TV and life: Every good story is built around people. He taught us to tell those stories honestly, with integrity, with an eye on both the pictures but also using TV to illuminate not merely titillate. He taught us that TV news, much like life, is a collaborative effort. No one gets on the air by themselves.
KING photographer Dave Wike already has a little Sturholm memorial in his locker at the new station – a note from Phil reminding him: “Don’t forget the Wideshot!”
Of course, we all know that Phil is smiling down on us, and musing, “Now that’s the Wideshot I’ve been talking about.”