By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009
A reorganization of the WRC (Channel 4) newsroom could result in widespread staff cutbacks when Washington's leading TV news station completes the process later this summer, people there say.
The station's reorganization is driven, in part, by a switch to new digital technologies, which make the work of gathering and editing news footage more efficient. But it also reflects the intense financial pressures facing news organizations as the recession -- and intensified competition -- bite into revenues.
The reorganization won't affect News4's familiar reporters and anchors, but will cut deeply into the ranks of writers, editors and technicians who produce the station's newscasts, which have been the most watched in the region for years.
WRC, under budget-cutting orders from its parent company, NBC Universal, is reshaping its news-gathering operations in a way that blends several jobs into one and erases the distinctions among some job categories for the first time.
In its new operation, dubbed a "content center," writers will edit news footage for the first time, and editors will also write news copy. Under the new system, some 30 or so "content producers" will produce news that appears on all of the station's "platforms" -- its TV broadcasts and Web site, or via mobile devices and other venues, such as stadium scoreboards and TVs at gas-station pumps.
Writing and editing were formerly separate jobs, but WRC's new contract with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists permits the station to merge them. AFTRA is the union that represents WRC's writers and producers.
WRC President and General Manager Michael Jack acknowledged that the reorganization would lead to some reduction in the station's newsroom, but declined to offer specifics. He disputed comments by several employees who said the newsroom would shrink by about 30 percent once a complicated series of layoffs, buyouts, early retirements and reassignments is completed over the next few months.
Jack called the station's switch from videotape to a new all-digital system "a great leap forward" that will make news production faster and less labor-intensive. "I believe quality won't suffer," he said. "We believe the viewer will see no difference."
However, the changes sweeping the station have unsettled several newsroom employees.
"We'll be losing some very valuable, longtime employees," said WRC anchor Joe Krebs, a 29-year veteran who is staying put. "It's very disturbing."
Added Krebs: "The bottom line is, fewer people are going to be doing more work for less money. I'm concerned for the quality of what we produce. When you have people doing more things for more platforms, and you have greater time constraints and workloads, the question is: How do you do as good a job as you did in the past? That remains to be seen."
Faced with a serious and sustained decline in advertising revenue, local television stations have been steadily paring their news operations in recent years. All of the four leading stations in Washington -- WRC, WTTG (Channel 5), WJLA (Channel 7) and WUSA (Channel 9) -- have laid off newsroom personnel and made other changes to save money. WRC began the cost-cutting almost three years ago when it severed ties with some of its longtime anchors and reporters.
WRC, WTTG and WUSA said in May that they would share news footage on routine daily stories, creating a local TV news "pool" designed to save money.
And WUSA in December signed new contracts with its labor unions that permit the station to assign employees to shoot and edit their own stories, functions previously handled by a team of staffers.
As part of its reorganization, WRC's management asked its off-camera staff to reapply for jobs on the "content center" desk. The station got 76 applications for 42 positions, according to one employee, who has accepted a buyout. The station began telling employees in mid-June if they would have jobs in the reorganized newsroom.