The thing you have to know about local news is that if you ask people who were there, it was always better in the past. The Washington Post Style section? You should have seen it when Judy Bachrach and Sally Quinn were tweaking DC’s bigwigs. Radio? Nothing compares to when Petey Greene talked our town through the ’68 riots. Local TV? So much better when Jim Vance was anchoring at 11 on Channel 4.
Vance, who still heads the 6 pm broadcast, did bestride this narrow world like a Colossus during local TV’s heyday, driving his Porsche 130 miles an hour through the Virginia countryside, agonizing publicly that his daughters were growing up bougie, and counseling Marion Barry about his drug use. So when Vance’s decades-long run as an 11 o’clock anchor ended, the question wasn’t so much who would replace him as it was whether anyone could.
Last April, the job of trying to do just that landed on Jim Handly. Handly, who is 55, has been in DC a pretty good amount of time himself—the Florida native came to Channel 4 from Hartford in 1992. He began anchoring the station’s 4 pm newscast in 1994 and added the 5 o’clock in 2007. He’s known as a highly skilled newscaster, and his upbeat demeanor—he’d be in deep trouble if affability ever became a crime—is pitch-perfect for TV.
All the same, Handly is unlikely to be the subject of a Foo Fighters tribute (as Vance was in 2015) or to appear in this magazine on a Harley (as Vance, a two-time Washingtonian cover subject, did in 1994). That’s no fault of Handly’s: Ours is an age when local television news audiences are shrinking, meaning it can be difficult for anyone to achieve the kind of fame that hometown anchors had 20 years ago.
“If you grew up here, you know Vance is an icon, and they are huge shoes to fill,” Handly says. True, but given how the medium has changed, Handly may be just the anchor Washington needs.
It’s a beautiful fall day in Tenleytown, and Handly has just left the station’s 3:30 meeting, where, over barbecue from Rocklands, reporters Shomari Stone and Jackie Bensen talked with a producer and an editor about the 5 o’clock newscast that Handly hosts with Wendy Rieger. They went over possible stories—a motorcycle crash in Leesburg, a meeting about I-270, a possible candlelight vigil for a woman killed in an argument on a Metrobus the day before.
It’s standard fare for local news, dating back to Ron Burgundy’s era. But look closely and it’s striking how much stuff mentioned in the meeting came from social media. Handly says that’s by design—station management has encouraged him and his colleagues to meet the audience on social platforms as much as they can. So there he was at Nationals Park the afternoon before the team’s season ended, conducting fan interviews designed to appear on . . . Facebook.
“Hundreds of thousands of people watched our stuff,” he marvels. “It’s also tough because we’re not all used to it. If you’re sitting there and forget it’s on, somebody will say, ‘Sit up, Jim, you’re slouching.’ It’s instant back-and-forth.”
All the same, broadcast news—the kind that comes into your home at set times each day—is still fundamentally a one-way medium, which used to be built around larger-than-life stars like Vance. As with all forms of media, it has faced disruption. The audience for newscasts across the industry has declined in every time slot over the past nine years—by more than 20 percent for late-night newscasts alone.
It turns out that Handly’s pleasant exterior is an industrial-grade vacuum for the audience that’s still around. The newscasts he anchors are both number one in their time slots, and the 11 pm is up over 2015. For a peek at why, I shadowed Handly while he prepared to do the 5 o’clock broadcast.
Sauntering to his desk in the newsroom, he pulls from a mountain of ties on his desk before heading, jacketless, to the studio. He stops outside the door and makes a phone call. “Hey, it’s Handly,” he says. “Can we make it a few degrees colder?”
TV studios always used to be cold to balance the heat coming off lights, and he still likes it that way (as does anchor Doreen Gentzler, he says). Coincidentally, he’s doing a “cold read” for this newscast; thanks to the time wasted with me, he hasn’t had time to edit the copy he’ll read. “We do this all the time,” Rieger says, making a comic face at me before they check themselves in the make-up room.
In the studio, Handly—who somehow has a jacket on now—and Rieger hot-swap positions at the glass-topped anchor desk with Pat Lawson Muse and Chris Lawrence, who are now finishing the 4 pm newscast standing up. As commercials play, Handly takes a big pull from a bottle of water while Rieger talks via earpiece to a producer about adjusting the language introducing a packaged report: “Where it all went down” sounds like a too-breezy way to talk about the scene of a murder, she says sternly.
Over the next hour, the pair effortlessly wrestle what seemed like an amorphous collection of tweets and dashcam videos into high-quality television. A young woman enters the studio every few minutes with papers for the anchors, who chat between segments, joke with each other, then immediately get to business when the cameras are on, talking about an “ugly accident” or “a sigh of relief in Montgomery County today.” Smartasses have always snarked about TV news, and yet watching it live, you can’t help but marvel at the skill required to knock out newscasts.
It’s just that nowadays an anchor has to be content doing knockout work without necessarily getting to become a region-wide big shot.
Earlier, I asked Handly whether Vance had offered him any advice when he moved into the big chair. “Well, the first few months, he was having trouble adjusting his clock back and I was having just the opposite,” Handly said.
On this day, he was up at 7, played tennis in Virginia at 9, took his dog to the vet, and made his way to work in the afternoon. After we spoke, he was headed to a book signing by Beach Boy Mike Love at the Georgetown gift shop A Mano before returning to another meeting at 9:30, then the 11 pm newscast. Afterward, he’d be up till at least 2 am winding down. Tomorrow, probably some more tennis early.
Handly used to play his favorite game against beloved Channel 4 meteorologist Bob Ryan, who he says has a “cannonball serve.” I have to ask: Does he ever play with Vance, who’s also a tennis nut?
“No,” says Handly, “but we play in similar circles.”
This article appears in the December 2016 issue of Washingtonian.