To Reduce Costs, Local TV Stations WRC, WTTG, WUSA Create Newsgathering Pool

Longtime anchor George Michael was among the talent to leave WRC over the past two years.
Longtime anchor George Michael was among the talent to leave WRC over the past two years. (Wrc)
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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009

Three local TV stations -- Channels 4, 5 and 9 -- will create a common newsgathering operation that will share daily news footage, in another sign that the financially pressured industry is moving to reduce its costs.

WRC (Channel 4), WTTG (5) and WUSA (9) said yesterday they will begin operation of the local TV news service next month. Each station will contribute two news videographers to produce "pool" footage of breaking news stories and news conferences. The stations will then be free to use the commonly produced footage on their newscasts, which will continue to maintain their own newsgathering operations. No reporters or anchors from each of the stations will be involved in the cooperative.

The agreement among the three Washington stations is the most extensive to date in the market; in January, NBC-owned WRC and Fox-owned WTTG began sharing the cost of a news helicopter. That follows a similar news-sharing operation in Chicago that involves three stations. In addition, the NBC- and Fox-owned stations in Philadelphia have been sharing some coverage since January.

As advertising dries up and news audiences scatter, local stations have been frantically searching for ways to save money. Over the past two years, they have been cutting costs through layoffs, salary reductions and other arrangements.

"We're in an economic time when [we] have to look for every efficiency we can," said Duffy Dyer, WTTG's general manager. "It's never made a great deal of sense to have 15 cameras at some scheduled news event or ribbon-cutting. This is a good place to start making some inroads" in the news budget.

WJLA, Channel 7, which already shares newsgathering resources with NewsChannel 8 (the two stations are owned by Allbritton Communications), is not participating in the pool service. "We prefer to go our own way and remain as independent as possible," said Bill Lord, the stations' vice president of news. "I'm not convinced it's more efficient to [cover news] as a pool. I can't think of a story I want to share with anyone."

Financial pressures led WRC, whose newscasts have perpetually led the local ratings, to release several of its on-air reporters and anchors over the past two years; longtime sports anchor George Michael left the station because of deep budget cuts. WJLA laid off 26 news staffers in January. WTTG has reduced its employee count through a combination of layoffs and attrition. In December, Gannett-owned WUSA -- the lowest-rated among Washington's four largest news stations -- signed an unprecedented agreement with its labor unions that will do away with multi-person news crews, and turn most of its news staff into solo cameramen and reporters, with each journalist handling sound, photography, reporting and editing on stories.

In announcing the new cooperative operation, to be called Local News Service, the stations said management of the service will be "independent" of the stations, and will determine which stories are covered each day. LNS will be housed in the basement of WUSA's building on Wisconsin Avenue NW.

The arrangement foretells a day when images of a major traffic snarl, parade or news conference are standardized, appearing the same way on three stations.

But Camille Edwards, WRC's news director, said the pool will make more footage available to all the stations and enable them to free their own reporters for stories that are unique to each station's broadcast.

The Washington Post has a cooperative news-sharing agreement with the Baltimore Sun in which the two newspapers make non-competitive stories available to each other.

Greg Guise, a shop steward at WUSA for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents the station's videographers, was skeptical of the agreement. "This is much greater in scope than what was discussed" in contract negotiations last year, he said. "We have to look at the it. The devil is in the details."

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