After 21 years on-air at Baltimore's WMAR, Mary Beth Marsden, the face of Channel 2 news, is leaving the station. Taken with Sally Thorner's planned retirement from WJZ next month, Marsden's exit marks a changing of the guard on the local airwaves.
It also signals big changes ahead in personnel and presentation for Baltimore's last-place station. And in a larger sense, some analysts see her departure as one more indication that we are witnessing the end of an era in TV news when anchors spent decades at the same station and became a valued part of viewers' lives through the nightly ritual of presenting them with the day's news.
The 48-year-old newscaster, who now anchors the station's 5, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts solo, said her last day will be Dec. 2. Marsden, who is also a union steward, said the reason she is leaving now is that she is taking a buyout offer made to union employees at the station.
"It's probably in the end as mutual a decision as you can get," Marsden said Thursday. "I would call it an amicable divorce — if there is such a thing. Thank God, we don't have any children together."
Marsden, a University of Maryland, College Park graduate, has provided a solid and steadying influence on-air at WMAR as the station goes through a major downsizing and realignment of its newscast. The station is without a dedicated sports anchor or reporter and has canceled Saturday and Sunday night newscasts in recent months. Marsden has been reading sports news herself on-air.
Channel 2 has been an also-ran in the local news ratings for years. And while the station's fortunes have improved a bit with the introduction of local Nielsen People Meters over the summer, it still finishes well behind WJZ and WBAL overall.
Marsden was one of the few links left to the station's better days in the 1980s and 1990s.
Praising Marsden for the sense of stability she has provided in recent years, WMAR General Manager Bill Hooper said, "Mary Beth has been the quarterback of the newsroom for many, many years, and she's been a solid rock through lots of changes of news director and general managers."
There is certain synchronicity in Marsden leaving now. She was the young reporter tapped to replace Thorner as the lead anchor in 1993 when Thorner jumped to WJZ in a highly publicized move.
"Mary Beth has been such a huge part of us, that when we look at this [resignation], it's just the shock of it all," said Kelly Groft, WMAR's news director. "I grew up here, and I remember the early days of both of the women. But we're still going to continue, and we're still going to put on news."
Responding to questions about a replacement for Marsden and direction of the news operation, Hooper said, "We will be working to revamp the news presentation, and that will be coming sooner rather than later."
Groft and Hooper declined further comment on the matter.
"There is definitely a pattern here," said Deborah Potter, executive director of NewsLab, a nonprofit TV journalism resource center in Washington. "I think we've seen a lot of senior anchors getting out of the business — not just leave for another station, but take a buyout and say, 'I'm going to do something else.'"
Potter says there are several reasons.
"One, the economy is still bad and these are your most highly paid people. So there's an incentive for employers to encourage these people to leave. It's very public when it happens in broadcast journalism, but it probably happens in all kinds of businesses," said Potter, a columnist on broadcast news for American Journalism Review.
"And I think a lot of people are just ground down. It gets to be very hard when you're working in a newsroom with fewer and fewer colleagues to do the work. And at some point, particularly if you have children and are tired of never seeing them, this might be a time when people are saying a change is needed."
Marsden said she is looking forward to spending the holidays with her family. She and her husband have three children, ages 8, 10 and 11.
After the holidays, she says, "I'm open to possibilities. ... I still love what I do."