By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 24, 2009
WJLA (Channel 7) laid off 26 staffers yesterday, including several prominent on-air reporters, in what parent company Allbritton Communications characterized to the dismissed employees as a financial necessity in light of economic straits.
The local ABC affiliate, which has been gaining viewers but losing advertisers, severed ties with several reporters including Andrea McCarren, Sarah Lee, Alisa Parenti, Emily Schmidt, Jennifer Donelan and weekend sports anchor Greg Toland, with most dismissals taking immediate effect. Further, newsroom directors said in an afternoon staff meeting that there would be a 3.9 percent pay cut for all remaining positions, a subsequent salary freeze, and the company would halt contributions to 401(k) plans.
Calls to Allbritton, which owns television stations across the country, and WJLA management were not returned last night. It was unclear how the changes would affect NewsChannel 8, which is also owned by Allbritton and shares some personnel with Channel 7. Allbritton also owns Politico, but that multimedia outlet was not included in the job cuts.
"I was called before work this morning and told there were massive cuts and that I was among them," said McCarren, a 26-year veteran who left network news in 2001 to return to local reporting to stay closer to home, her husband and three children. In 2006, she was awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. She had worked for the station for nine years.
"They said I didn't need to come in today," McCarren said. "I'm not bitter, but I am sad."
Reporter Sarah Lee, who is pregnant, said she was called during her early-morning shift and asked to come into the office, where she was told of the decision. She said last night that she will be allowed to work until her contract expires at the end of next month.
"I think the company held on for as long as they could without compromising the news product," Lee said. "I don't take it personally. My contract was up, and I was legally eligible to be let go."
WJLA has been running second in local news ratings to perennial leader WRC (Channel 4), but in the November ratings period had closed the gap to a few percentage points.
"It's just amazing [to] think how things were 20 years ago in this business and how they are now," Parenti said. "I loved my job, the people I worked with. It's like losing everything at once."
Staff writer Paul Farhi contributed to this report.