by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
The glitz and glamour of being a local African American television personality—from WPXI-TV’s Lisa Sylvester, to Michele Newell, to Erin Clarke.
They’re recognized wherever they go, signing autographs, taking selfies with fans, emceeing the most Dapper Dan, the most exclusive events in the city.
Then there’s Tracie McKinney, a newcomer to Pittsburgh who is seldom seen or heard—except by Sylvester, Newell, Clarke and the rest of the WPXI news team.
They all answer to her.
McKinney is the new managing editor/assistant news director at WPXI, a position that no other African American woman holds among Pittsburgh’s three local news stations.
The assistant news director position, the number two position in a newsroom, is a position, along with news director, that’s rarely held by an African American in local TV news, though data from a 2018 study from Hofstra University shows the number of African American news directors across the country has risen to 6.7 percent.
In the Pittsburgh market, KDKA-TV and WTAE-TV both have a news director, assistant news director and managing editor. All are Caucasian, except WTAE managing editor Regis Bobonis Jr., who is African American.
WPXI has a news director, but designates the managing editor to be the de facto assistant news director.
“Tracie was the best candidate, period,” WPXI news director Scott Trabandt, who is Caucasian, told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “Her experience, her passion, and her ability to help craft stories with creative thinking will make WPXI better across all of our platforms. The fact she has tapped into and covered minority communities in places like Detroit, Tampa and St. Louis will only help her dig into the unique, vibrant communities here in Pittsburgh that we need to do a better job covering.”
McKinney began her new position at WPXI on Oct. 9.
She’s not exactly “new” to Pittsburgh, however. Back in her days as a young reporter in Clarksburg, W.Va., in 1994, she found herself traveling to Pittsburgh to—you know, the usual—“get my hair done, buy makeup,” she recalled.
Clarksburg wasn’t exactly a mecca for African American culture. McKinney said she made history as the first Black woman in a full-time on-air capacity in local news in Clarksburg in 1994, one year removed from her graduating from Howard University.
McKinney then spent two and a half years as a reporter/anchor in Roanoke, Va., before returning to her hometown, St. Louis, as an overnight writer at KTVI-TV in 1997.
Over the next 16 years, McKinney was almost never seen on television—but realized the true power in local TV news was behind the scenes, as, say, an executive producer, assistant news director or news director. People in those positions call the real shots—what stories should be covered, what angles should be the focus, where the story falls into the broadcast, what reporters are best equipped to cover the story, etc.
The higher-ups at KTVI began to see McKinney’s potential. She went from an overnight writer to consumer producer, supervising producer, executive producer of special projects, and ultimately, executive producer of the late-night newscast, where she grew the newscast’s ratings and impact.
McKinney’s efforts did not land her the assistant news director position at KTVI when it became open, so she did a “LeBron James” and “took her talents” to another team—“across the street” to competitor KMOV-TV.
There, she held stints as executive producer for the late-afternoon/early evening and late-night newscasts. She grew ratings for both programs.
That’s when corporate came calling and offered McKinney the assistant news director position at sister station WVEC-TV in Norfolk, Va., in 2013.
It was the call McKinney had been waiting her professional career for. A position in upper management, where she could help set the tone for an entire news operation with the skills she had acquired over the past 19 years as a person who’d “done it all” at a TV station—reporting, writing, anchoring, editing, producing, etc.
She could also use her full array of leadership skills—helping young reporters become better at their craft, or carefully teaching a young producer the ins and outs of what makes a great newscast.
McKinney also had stops in Tampa and Detroit as assistant news director, before landing her first news director job—at KTNV-TV in Las Vegas in 2018.
After leaving KTNV in February 2019, she went back to St. Louis for a time of reflection. Twenty-five years in the local TV business, 15 years as a manager. Was there something else professionally that McKinney wanted to pursue? Was this “a turning point,” as she called it?
When Trabandt gave her a call a few months ago, she realized that “I do want to get back in, this is what I love.”
As McKinney spoke with the New Pittsburgh Courier from her office at WPXI on Oct. 30, she said the time off in St. Louis between February and October gave her a chance to understand just how much she loves the TV news industry.
“I got into this business all those years ago because I wanted to incite change and the communities that we serve, and that passion is still within me,” she said. “We have an awesome privilege to serve our communities.”
McKinney said oftentimes, the local TV news industry gets wrapped up in chasing the “bad news,” or just “filling time,” or “doing stories that we think viewers want.” But she now understands how important it is to truly “listen to our viewers.” And that can be achieved through social media, “and to really connect to them. They’re our customer,” she said. “Find out what’s important to them and do stories that matter and are impactful to our communities.”
McKinney said that she and Trabandt are “very compatible” when it comes to their leadership style and news philosophy.
“We both want to do stories that matter, we both want those stories to be compelling and interesting and engaging,” she told the Courier. “We have a commitment to getting back to storytelling—that’s something that TV does well and probably better than most because we have all the tools; video, sound and content.”
It’s no secret that Pittsburgh is one of the most competitive markets in the country when it comes to TV news ratings. All three stations have a proud history and heritage, and have enjoyed success with top-ranked newscasts over the years. There’s not one station that dominates every time slot with every demographic.
“Chasing all of the bad news of the day is easy, but it’s not necessarily impactful,” McKinney said. “We have a commitment to really serve this community.”