Ron Lombard, Spectrum News Central NY news director, was there in 2003 to launch the first and only 24-hour news station in Central New York. Still at the helm, he reflects on his career, history of TV news in the region and more
By Mary Beth Roach
Ron Lombard’s name and face may not be recognizable to a lot of Central New York television viewers.
Nevertheless, he has shaped the news in the area for three decades and arguably has changed the way we watch regional TV news.
He was a key player when Time Warner Cable launched the area’s first and only 24-hour news station in 2003, and 14 years later, Lombard is the director of news and programming for Spectrum News Central NY, the company that joined with Time Warner Cable several months ago.
When he first joined Time Warner Cable, his job was to take the model that the company had used in other cities and make it local.
“Make it play in Syracuse and Central New York and the North Country and places where we were initially,” he said.
And he and his team have made it play — and grow.
The station has picked up a larger market, both in terms of geography and viewers. Around 2006, Time Warner Cable merged the Syracuse division with its Binghamton division, but they soon realized that airing news about people and events from the North Country into the Southern Tier wasn’t going to work. So in early 2007, they unveiled a completely separate channel for the southern area with news-gathering teams in Binghamton and Corning.
Now, Lombard is responsible for a staff of approximately 70 reporters, photographers, assignment desk editors and producers. The coverage area has more than 600,000 cable subscribers within roughly 15,000 square miles, 25 counties and the northern tier of Pennsylvania — from southwest Steuben County to northeast Clinton County, about a 7-1/2 hour drive.
He believes that his ability to handle this large a task is, in large measure, to the fact that he is a native Central New Yorker.
Home Grown Talent
Lombard, who turns 58 on Oct. 30, grew up in Lakeland and graduated from Solvay High School and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications in 1981, and has worked for area radio and television stations for his entire career.
“I’m a hometown guy,” he said. “I’ve often felt part of my effectiveness is the fact that I’m from here. I know a lot of people. I know where everything is. I’ve visited most of the towns we’ve ever reported on.”
He had been a reporter for several years with local radio stations and the then-WIXT, now News Channel 9, but a fateful cocktail party one evening about 15 years ago led him to then-Time Warner Cable and the opportunity to change television news in Central New York.
Lombard was working at WIXT and serving as president of the New York State Associated Press Broadcasters Association. In this latter role, he had wanted the organization to do something for up-and-coming journalists preparing to enter the industry. So they arranged for a seminar at his alma mater and brought together a number of experts in the field as panelists for the program.
The night before the seminar, there was a cocktail party for the guest panelists. Channel 9’s then-general manager was in attendance.
He pulled Lombard into a corner and told him that the TV station was being sold, and that it would be announced publicly within a few days. Later, in that same corner, one of Lombard’s close friends and mentors, Larry Rickel, who had heard the news of the impending sale, encouraged Lombard to begin looking for another job.
Later still, another friend and an Associated Press sales rep, Bob Feldman, pulled Lombard into that same corner and said Time Warner Cable was preparing to start a 24-hour news channel in Syracuse. The company was looking for a general manager, and had been unable to find one.
He suggested that Lombard would be the perfect fit.
“‘That’s a pipe dream. Twenty-four hour news will never work in Syracuse,’” he recalled telling Feldman.
Undeterred, Feldman introduced Lombard to Kirk Varner, who was vice president for news for Time Warner Cable. A few days later, Lombard got an email from Feldman telling him to contact Varner immediately, which he did.
The phone interview, done right on the spot, lasted 45 minutes, after which Lombard was fairly confident he had the job. It took another couple of months, Lombard said, for him to be hired, and he started work there in February of 2002.
Lombard, along with his team, was determined to make 24-hour news in Syracuse work. Time Warner Cable had been doing similar launches in other parts of the country and had the systems and technology in place. Syracuse was the final launch of a group of stations that went on the air in 2002-2003, including those in Albany, Raleigh, N.C. and Charlotte, N.C.
“The proudest moment of my career was being the one to push the button to put News 10 Now live on the cable system back in 2003,” he said.
With their format, Lombard admitted that the stories do repeat, but added broadcasts are not designed to be watched for hours at a time.
“Turn us on, check us out for 20 minutes, click it off, come back a little bit later in the day. Check it out again. See what’s new. See if the forecast had changed. That’s really the right way to watch us, and I think that’s how people have learned how to watch the channel and really use it as a tool.”
His start in the business might not be defined as “fun,” but it was certainly memorable.
After graduation, he was not finding any work in local television news although he’d been trying for several months. Remember, this was 1981, and options were limited.
There wasn’t cable news to speak of, and CNN was just starting. Each market had only three broadcast stations, but radio news was still popular back then.
So he began looking at radio stations within a two- to three-hour range from Syracuse, and finally got a call from the owner of WCBA in Corning, Dean Slack.
He met Slack on a Saturday and was hired. Slack explained, however, that he was letting go of the guy that Lombard was to replace on Tuesday, so Lombard could start on Wednesday morning.
While relieved to have found a job, Lombard recalled, with a chuckle, “I knew that there was a message — if you don’t work out, the same thing’s going to happen to you.”
It was his second day at WCBA, and he was covering a story about a body that had been found frozen in a river in Corning.
He was reporting live from the scene, and calling it in from a phone booth in a nearby Burger King, since this was, of course, long before cell phones.
“I was doing this live shot, my very first one professionally, second day of work and I’m on the air, and I ended the live shot, and I waited ‘til they cleared me, and I hung up the phone and everyone in the restaurant cheered.”
At WCBA, he was the news department, and as such, his regular work week was six days, often seven, and 12-15 hours a day.
The radio station’s entire staff numbered 13 people. He would start his day at about 8:30 a.m., record a couple of newscasts that would run throughout the morning; cover stories all day; come back and put those together; anchor the afternoon news; cover night stories; return to the station and package those up for the morning news reader, who also served as the mid-day jock.
Lombard would anchor Saturday mornings from 6 a.m. to noon. He made $135 a week. His rent was $135 a month, he had to drive his own car, and there was no mileage allotment.
“I probably lost money,” he said, laughing. “But that’s what we did back then. Dean was a newsman, a career newsman from Vermont and he really taught me a lot. It was a real news station. They really tried to cover stuff, go in-depth, and do series as much as you can. It was really a great learning experience for that first job out.”
The Corning-Elmira-Elmira Heights area will also hold a special place in Lombard’s heart not just because it was his first job, but it was also where he and his college sweetheart, Deb, became engaged. They planned a wedding for the summer of 1983.
Road gets winding
He was eager to return to his hometown, where Deb was working, and where the two planned to make their home. But his career path in the Syracuse market started out a little bumpy.
He accepted a job offer as a reporter with local radio station WFBL, and WCBA hired his replacement. But the day before he was to start at WFBL, he received a call that the station had been sold, and the new owners were not going to be doing news. The job he was hired for was eliminated and the rest of the staff was being laid off.
He was back to knocking on doors. He tried WSYR Radio, and although it didn’t have any openings at the time, it took his resume.
He then got an appointment with the local news legend, the late Bill Carey, who was news director at WHEN Radio at the time. Dressed in a three-piece suit, he sat eagerly waiting to meet Carey. A half-hour later, a staffer came out with a box of doughnuts and said, “Hey, Bill sent me out. He can’t come out and meet you, he’s too busy, but he said, ‘Have a doughnut before you leave.’”
He didn’t end up at WHEN, but ironically, Lombard would later have the opportunity to hire Carey twice, the first time stealing him away from a competing news station to work at Channel 9 and then later, as they were ready to start News 10, he brought Carey in on the ground level.
And the doughnut story became a running joke between the two for years.
Although Lombard was only offered a doughnut at WHEN and not a job, he persevered, and finally landed a part-time spot at $3.35 an hour with WSEN, which was a country radio station in the mid-1980s.
Several months later — the day before his wedding — Lombard got a call from the then-news director at WSYR, Jack Sheehan, who said he had an opening and thought Lombard would be a good fit. The call had come in about 9 a.m. on the morning after his bachelor party.
He explained his current condition, Sheehan chuckled and told him to call the station back when he returned from his honeymoon, which he did.
But in the interim, WSYR had hired a new news director, John Butler, and all hiring was on hold. Eventually, several months later, Lombard would be hired on at WSYR as a part-time reporter, and then full time.
He remained at WSYR for four years, and while there, created a new job for himself. He suggested to Butler that he be the assignment editor, and got the OK as long as he still did his five stories a day.
After taking on dual roles for a while, Lombard said he began to consider a management position in the industry.
Then in 1987, out of the blue, then-news director at WIXT-TV, asked Lombard to leave radio and become the assignment editor at the TV station.
He was later promoted to assistant news director, working under Dan Cummings, but in 1991, Cummings suggested a job change to the station’s general manager.
Cummings would become managing editor and anchor of the new morning newscast Channel 9, and Lombard would become news director. So, at the age of 31, Lombard became the news director and stayed at the station for the next 15 years before taking the helm at the now Spectrum News Central NY.
While he may be adept at technology, his major focus is leading a solid team of journalists and fostering in them the need for accuracy — one of Lombard’s touchstones.
“I still think that certain media organizations might be too fast to jump on something, to be first. And I’m still a huge proponent — be right, not first,” he said. “It’s great when you’re first, but make sure that you’re right, if you’re first. I still do that. When it comes down to it, it’s still your reputation; we’re still journalists — there’s still an expectation. If you’re seeing it on my channel, it’s credible, it’s correct, it’s accurate.”
Lombard understands that a majority of people hired by the station is new in the business, and his ability to mentor them is one of his strengths.
“The markets that he oversees in Central and Southern New York, they are some smaller markets,” said Bernie Han, Spectrum Networks Group vice president of news. “He’s hiring reporters and producers right out of college, giving them real-world experience.”
“We’re very nurturing,” Lombard said of his staff at Spectrum. “We understand that we’re by and large hiring people who are junior in the business. Typically, they’re usually on their first or second job, maybe.”
“And we know that we need to bring them along, we need to be patient with them. We try to hire a lot on upside potential. As long as it’s not a fatal mistake, I’m a big proponent of letting people make a mistake. I think that’s a very effective way for people to learn. Just show me that slow, steady growth and you’ll be just fine. And before you know, your career’s launched and you’re on your way,” Lombard said.
For example, the seminars he started with the AP board and several Newhouse professors back in 2001 have continued. The first few were called “Electronic Journalism Seminars,” and they were held every other year.
Newhouse has since renamed them as “State of the Field,” and although he turned over the leadership role to a colleague in New York City in 2014, he has been involved in an advisory role.
Steve Osterhaus, the assistant news director at Spectrum, began working for Lombard not long after graduating from college.
“I have learned just about everything I know about the business from Ron, from the basic details to how to tell a story to how to manage people. I hate to be cheesy, but he leads by example,” Osterhaus said.
“Ron is very detail-oriented. He’s also quite possibly one of the most organized individuals I’ve ever worked with, but even though, that’s more for the accuracy and making sure we’re getting things right because obviously in the business we’re in, we need to make sure we’re correct,” he said.
Once stories are pitched and people have been assigned to cover them, Osterhaus said, Lombard will step back and let the staff develop the stories on their own. And he realizes that errors will be made. As long as they’re not damaging or producing anything with inaccuracies, he lets people make mistakes knowing that they’re only going to become better each and every day after that, he added.
Finding the right balance
That Lombard is a hometown guy is not only evident in his career, it’s also the reason he stays involved in various community organizations.
He went through the Leadership Greater Syracuse class in 2006, and has remained on the board ever since he graduated. “We have 2,000 graduates who are engaged in this community, who are serving on boards, who are giving back. That’s important for a homebody like me to know we’re fostering that kind of community leadership,” he said.
In addition, he has served on the board of the McMahon/Ryan Advocacy Center, which helps abused children, and he has been involved in his church, Brewerton United Methodist, having served on a number of its various committees over the year.
He is also the lead singer in a contemporary Christian cover band that plays every other Sunday.
This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to any of Lombard’s friends, since he has been musically inclined for years. He played trombone in the Syracuse University Marching Band, and that’s where he met his wife, Deb, who was in the flag corps.
Lombard refers to Deb as his rock, saying that she has been with him every step along his career path. The pair will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary next year, and they have one daughter, Abby, who lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Lombards have lived in Brewerton for many years, not too far from Oneida Lake and the marina where they keep their boat, which provides Lombard with his stress relief in the summer, he said. But the couple loves to travel and vacation as well, exploring new locales. They own time-shares in Florida and often use them to trade.
“Sometimes we pull up a map and say, “‘Let’s go here,’” he chuckled. “This fall, it will be Hot Springs, Ark.”
They don’t know much about the area, but they enjoy going places just to see what’s there, he said.
His career has been a crazy but rewarding ride, he claimed.
“I’ve had so many people along the way who have helped me get there, who’ve trusted me to run things and manage things and take initiative. There’s so many people I owe a debt of gratitude to, and to be able to do it in my hometown all these years,” he said.
But he isn’t ready to put the brakes on that ride and retire anytime soon.
“What I hope, for the foreseeable future, is to do everything I can to ensure the news channel remains highly successful long beyond the time I decide to call it a career,” he said.
Switching Careers Early On
Although Ron Lombard, the director of news and programming for Spectrum News Central NY, has been in broadcast news for several decades, he had originally planned on a career in newspapers.
“I started out being really interested in newspaper. That’s what I really wanted for a career,” he said. “I always enjoyed writing, so I figured I maybe should do something like that career-wise and gravitate toward that.” While in high school, he was on the newspaper staff and was elected editor his senior year.
He entered the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications as a newspaper major. But in his freshman year, he explained, the Newhouse curriculum included a course in broadcasting.
“Probably with the first broadcast course I took, I said, ‘Hmm, wait a minute. I could do TV or radio and maybe have more fun.’ So when I declared my major, I declared for broadcast journalism,” he said.
Spectrum: New Projects in the Works
As the media continues to evolve, so does Ron Lombard’s role with the cable station, according to Spectrum Networks Group Vice President of News Bernie Han.
“We are still actively building on what we have in Upstate New York,” she said. “At the end of the day, the goal is to produce content that is informative, entertaining, and engaging to our audience. Ron, being a lifelong Syracusan, understands the market so well, and he plays a key role in anything we do in that part of the state.”
Presently, the company is creating an investigative documentary unit that will create more in-depth reporting pieces by reporters from around the country, accompanied by follow-up features that offer a local perspective. One such program, Lombard said, aired in May and was titled “Immigration in America.” It dealt with the human stories of the immigrants and refugees who have come to this country, and of the businesses that rely on migrants for their livelihood.
Following the national broadcast, Upstate New York Spectrum stations aired a statewide town hall meeting with panelists from major Upstate cities to bring the topic home and discuss what this means for New York state and issues here.
As the development of this documentary unit ramps up, Lombard said his role will be to pitch stories, provide resources as needed, and to help coordinate the town halls and panel discussions.