Tom Appleby

Tom Appleby knows firsthand that nice guys and newsrooms don’t mix. More than twenty years ago, when the present-day News 12 anchor was a fledgling newsreader at a start-up cable news channel, Appleby found himself abruptly pulled off the air by a senior producer, no explanation offered.

In 1983 executives at that same network, Satellite News Channel in Stamford, told Appleby he was a big part of their future, even as they quietly planned SNC’s dissolution. Appleby finally found out what they knew a week after he and wife Ilana made a down payment on their Rowayton home.

By 1984 he was a struggling freelance newswriter taking piecework at WCBS/Channel 2 in New York. Literally. Each week a taciturn assignments editor, “a nasty, nasty man,” would dump a scrap of paper on Appleby’s desk to inform him which days the following week he would be required to come in to earn the money needed to help support his wife and baby daughter. It might read, in its entirety: “Tuesday–Thursday.”

“That was my life,” Appleby remembers. “If you said, ‘I can’t go because it’s my kid’s birthday,’ you wouldn’t get any more work.”

The wheel of life turns slowly, but it turns. A few years later, that same assignments editor presented Appleby with another piece of paper. This time Appleby was the boss at Cablevision’s News 12 and the ex–assignments editor, a humble applicant.

“We had an opening for the production manager down here, a blind-box ad,” Appleby recalls. “And this guy shows up. I found myself holding his résumé!”

Appleby flashes a pirate grin as he jumps from the chair behind his desk, crumples the imaginary résumé in his hand and spikes it into an imaginary wastepaper basket with a delighted flourish.

It’s an uncharacteristic sight for those who are accustomed to watching his signature anchor role on News 12, to see him so animated. While staffers describe Appleby, not only the featured face of News 12 since 1984 but its head of operations and chief editor, as a ready font of humor, his on-air image is unflappably professional and scripted. “You can’t ad-lib the news,” he declares.

Appleby may have known his share of not-nice guys, but it hasn’t rubbed off, if the minutes leading up to another live 5 p.m. broadcast at the Norwalk newsroom are any indication. There’s no stereotypical ripple of fear following the wake of the managing editor. As Appleby passes by, a young man with thinning hair pecks at his computer, one eye on a TV monitor over his head. In a nearby editing booth, a reporter stands over her producer’s shoulder as they debate which precious seconds to cut from a report that will take a minute and a half of air time.

“We’re a loose crowd, but Tom has this style that radiates around the office,” explains reporter Jim Murphy, News 12’s longtime man in Hartford and a TV news veteran since the 1970s. “I’m not sure if you have to spend time doing this, or if it just evolves, but Tom understands what it is to be the boss without being bossy.”

Going by the metric of correspondent turnover, News 12 seems a happy ship. Courtney Chamberlin, hired in August 2003, was still the newest reporter on staff nearly two years later.

“He offers positive, constructive criticism,” Courtney says of Appleby. “He’s very hands-on, whereas some other station managers I worked for never let you know what they think of the job you do, and that is more disconcerting.”

Appleby admits to having had his Lou Grant moments, but says that after two or three times, he realized it wasn’t worth the trouble. “When you do it, everyone in the newsroom loses focus and you lose stature,” he says. These days he will send private text messages expressing concerns, “little notes with my initials.”

When a reporter asks the boss to use his corner office to record a phone interview, Appleby nods agreeably, his mouth creased in a perpetual half-grin accented by narrow eyes, a fine-boned face, and faint freckles somewhat obscured by the olive tint of his skin and the makeup he wears on-air. You wouldn’t guess he was sixty. All seems right in his world, because he’s doing what he wants to do in life, where he wants to do it.

He and Ilana still live in the same house in Rowayton where they have raised three children: Lara, now a graduate student studying biology; Ian, a college student; and Keith, in high school. Appleby enjoys the ties he has developed within the Norwalk shoreline community and insists that no one there makes a fuss over him.

“On my block you’ve got Andy Rooney,” he says with a dismissive flick of his hand. “If you’ve got Rooney, you don’t need Appleby.”

But with all due respect to Rooney and others who ply their craft on national airwaves, no one else has carved as ubiquitous a presence in southwestern Connecticut — News 12’s designation of its service area — thirteen lower Fairfield County municipalities from Greenwich to Bridgeport (including Darien, New Canaan and Norwalk) and three adjacent New Haven County towns. For decades now Appleby has been the voice of storm warnings, school closings and sundry other events that before News 12 came along, went unreported by New York– and Hartford-based TV stations, which treated the area as a sleepy hinterland.

Former Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp remembers when he was handing out campaign literature for a U.S. Senate candidate at Stew Leonard’s in Norwalk back in 1982. He was approached by a woman who demanded, “What’s wrong with Moynihan?” Knopp had to admit that he had no problem with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, other than the fact that he served New York and this was Connecticut.

“All the attention back then was devoted to the New York market,” says Knopp. “Cablevision has really
contributed to the growth of a much more well-informed local community, even though we remain under New York television domination to some degree.”

During his tenure in city hall, Knopp  always advised News 12 when he wanted to go public with some new initiative, something that the mayor of another key market city, Dannel Malloy, still does.

“New York stations still rule in Stamford, but people go to Channel 12 for local news,” Malloy says.

Appleby grew up with a strong Gold Coast identification. His parents owned a summer house in Westport, though his formative years were spent largely in Boston and the Riverdale section of the Bronx. After graduating from Dartmouth and getting his master’s degree in literature at the University of Michigan, Appleby worked in the mid-1970s as a tenured lecturer at City College in Manhattan. “Then they eliminated my department,” he recalls. “They said they’d give me another job in the City College system, but I decided that was a message and moved on.”

What he moved to, while simultaneously working on a doctoral thesis and newly married to Ilana — today a commercial Realtor in New York City, then studying for a doctorate of her own — was a Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program for the unemployed that specialized in broadcast news. CETA paid a minimum wage for twelve weeks while training people in a specific field, with the understanding that they find a job after the training period was over.

“I loved shooting film and video,” Appleby says. “I thought I had an eye.”

His instructors, wizened camera operators and producers from local news stations, noticed their student’s apparent interest with concern. By then Appleby was about thirty-five. “They said, ‘Do you really want to be lugging a camera in your forties and fifties?’ I couldn’t see that far ahead at the time. They said, ‘Look, you’re not bad-looking. Why don’t you try working in front of the camera?’”

Though perhaps not ranking up there with a Knute Rockne pep talk for inspiration, the words struck home. Back when he was ten or eleven, Appleby  sometimes sat at a desk pretending he was in front of a camera and microphone. Buried under years of lectures and a never-ending John Fowles thesis, a flame still flickered.

Appleby wound up getting his doctorate, but by that time he had already embarked on a career where it was of little obvious use. “I would never go by ‘Dr. Tom’ unless I was a weatherman,” he confesses. “But at least I got a doctorate so I could live with my wife. If she had one and I didn’t, it would have been insufferable.”

His first broadcasting gig came on public television station WGBY in Springfield, Massachusetts. A pale sister to the Boston powerhouse WGBH, WGBY was so small it didn’t have a half hour to call its own, dividing its thirty-minute nightly newscast evenly with a feed from WGBH. Appleby was a reporter there for only a couple of weeks when opportunity knocked.

“When they hired me, they also hired a news anchor,” Appleby remembers. “He was terrible. A wonderful journalist, but he didn’t belong on the air. So they made him news director and me the anchor. I’m in the business two weeks and I’m an anchor. It took me a couple of months just to realize I needed hair spray.”

Every broadcast professional remembers with stark clarity the first time they had an on-air meltdown. Appleby is no different: “For some reason, the tapes [for WGBH’s cut-in] didn’t roll. And they didn’t tell me what to do. I had to find things I hadn’t already read. Remember that scene in Broadcast News when Albert Brooks was sweating on-air? That was me. I was literally dripping. They had to come in with paper towels and pat me down.”

Finally he came to a script on a story, ironically, about mental health, which he realized he had already read. “And so I say, ‘Now that you know everything you want to know about mental health, we’re going to take a break.’ I just tossed it — I was finished. That was my worst moment.”

But Appleby had good moments, too, enough to get hired by Satellite News Channel, a start-up twenty-four-hour news channel backed by ABC and Westinghouse Communications’ subsidiary Group W, which in 1982 was locked in a furious winner-take-all battle with rival Cable News Network. Starting this time as a writer, Appleby found himself again drafted to an anchor desk. By late 1983 SNC was running roach-spray commercials. Appleby was worried, rightly.

At the same time CNN was winning its end of the cable revolution, Cablevision of Connecticut was shoring up one of the nation’s wealthiest areas as its service region. While creating a news operation to serve Fairfield County viewers was undeniably good public relations for licensing purposes, it also made business sense.

“One of the reasons Cablevision won the franchise rights was they realized this area was traditionally ignored by the New York and Connecticut markets,” Appleby explains. “It was fringe in terms of advertising dollars. They just didn’t care. So [Cablevision CEO] Chuck Dolan, who is an incredible visionary in this industry, said, we will give you broadcast-quality news.”

By the time Appleby arrived two years later, there was already much turnover. Cablevision’s partnership with Scripps Howard, which helped launch News 12, was being dissolved. “It was a time when a lot of familiar faces were leaving,” recalls Rebecca Surran, a News 12 reporter from the beginning and today the channel’s other bedrock anchor. “We went from essentially a co–news director team to Tom taking over. He had the task of furthering the branding of News 12 and helping a fledgling operation continue to grow.”

A year into his tenure, News 12 was tested by its first major story under Appleby’s watch. “Hurricane Gloria did a job on this region,” Appleby remembers. “We just did Monday-to-Friday then, but it hit on a Friday. We decided to go live on Saturday.”

It was the first time News 12 broadcast on a weekend, something it was doing regularly by the end of 1985. Then in 1995 News 12 took another step forward when it went to twenty-four-hour programming — “the big one, no question,” Appleby agrees. While many of the thirty-minute news shows aired continually each day are repeats, there are thirteen live daily broadcasts, including a pair at 5 and 5:30 p.m. which Appleby co-anchors. There’s also the ability to break in live whenever circumstances require.

Appleby takes great pride in the technological sophistication his channel brings to bear, including four trucks and a state-of-the-art set that includes five robotically operated cameras and a pedal-operated text crawl that anchors control themselves. Smart new graphics, too, which he says “shouldn’t count, but do.”

“We’re up against the New York stations, the biggest market there is, and the Connecticut stations, no slouches either,” he says. “If you’re flipping on the cable dial and get to Channel 12, and you think this is bargain basement, you’re not going to stop, even though we’re the only ones giving local news. But you look at us now and we look like the other guy, plus we’re giving you something no one else does.”

Appleby makes sure the station lives by its motto, “As Local As Local News Gets.” He typically comes to work at 7 a.m. and stays until 7:30 p.m., overseeing story meetings, reviewing copy, deciding what to cover each day.

“You try to do what’s important, what matters,” he says. “There’s no question an accident on I-95 is important — especially if it held you up an hour and made you late for work. We will cover that. But I could fill up the whole first part of the show, my A-block, with accidents.”

Instead he aims for a diversity of stories, spotlighting each of the municipalities News 12 covers. “I know when I’m giving the counts for the budget vote in the Amity school district in Orange, there’s someone watching with their eyes glazing over, saying, ‘I live in Redding!’ But I think they understand that we also give Redding news.”

Thus News 12 manages to accomplish a “pan-regional” identity that daily newspapers haven’t been able to develop. News 12 may be based in Norwalk, but there is little on-air evidence of its being a Norwalk station, unlike WTIC/61 in Hartford or WCBS/2 in New York.

News 12 Marketing Director Deborah Koller-Feeney says twice-yearly phone surveys conducted by Nielsen Media Research show that the channel frequently tops the list among area viewers when asked where they turn for local news.

“If you’re an advertiser looking for big numbers, you’re not going to get them in Darien,” Appleby says. “You’ll get them in the cities. But we’re in every town covering the news. And we’re live throughout. We’re not going to stop a broadcast to go back to CSI.”

Appleby keeps an eye out for Rowayton. “I will remind the newsroom when Shakespeare on the Sound is being performed,” he says.

He and Ilana like to walk the neighborhood, enjoying the many new houses and home improvements sprouting throughout Rowayton. Sometimes Tom and Keith do a bike run that inevitably winds up at Rowayton Pizza, “where we undo all the good work we’ve done.” He has never thought of moving elsewhere.

“Rowayton is a very unassuming community despite what people think,” he says. “Like we think Rowayton’s not part of Norwalk, or that it’s a stepping stone to Darien. But people here like where they are, the sense of a small town, almost a village. Yes, they are improving their homes, but they are staying.”

So is Appleby, who insists he doesn’t pine for the kind of market where he can choose from six murders every day. Local identification is strong at News 12, for better or worse.

“We happened to do a story once on someone who inadvertently ran over a child. A tough story under any circumstance, especially when you have children of your own. Then someone in the newsroom realized he knew the child’s father. That’s when it hits you, how local it is here. It’s my community, and I care about it.”

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