Channel 7 news director Bob Reichblum resigned yesterday, citing philosophical differences with the station's top management.
Since early this year, senior executives at WJLA have been conducting an "intense" review of all operations at the Allbritton Communications-owned station in anticipation of severe belt-tightening when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Reichblum said yesterday he believes that in the process, the overall role of the news division at the station will be diminished.
"My feeling was not to sit around and wait until those decisions are made; the process is flawed. It does not recognize that news is a distinct and separate entity."
Since Reichblum's arrival 22 months ago from WDIV in Detroit, where he had been executive producer of news, he had overseen an 8 percent reduction in the news roster to 92 current employees and effected about $500,000 in cost reductions.
Implicit in Reichblum's decision yesterday was the expectation that further cuts in both personnel and news programming will result when the review is completed later this summer.
WJLA President Michael Moore said yesterday that no decisions have been made, but confirmed that "it's been an intensive process made more intense by the storm signals we received earlier this year about the softening of the local economy, which affects ad revenues, as well as the long-range challenges all broadcasters are facing in the light of increased competition from cable and other outlets."
In addition, the anticipated boost from the "Oprah Winfrey Show," acquired by WJLA last fall, failed to materialize. The show has not produced the same audience it had for Channel 9, perhaps reflecting the general decline in viewership, and Channel 7 has not profited from it.
"We're trying to do a heads-up job getting this place ready for a storm if it's coming," Moore said. "We are certainly doing some serious creative thinking about facing the future. It could mean some cuts. But again I want to emphasize that no decisions have been made."
Moore said that since the surprise departure of executive vice president and general manager John Long last month, the review process has been intensified. "I thought I could reel Bob in," he said yesterday, "but he had his mind made up."
Reichblum has given Moore 30 days' notice. He said yesterday he has no plans at this time but that "I feel lucky that I have friends in the business and we'll see what happens."
Moore said the search for a replacement will begin immediately.
Reichblum -- at 32 one of the youngest news directors in a major TV market in the country -- has had a generally favorable report card at Channel 7.
He is credited with boosting morale and beefing up the news operation's second-level management team.
During his tenure he has overseen the creation of news half-hours at 5:30 and 6:30 a.m. (while the station dropped its noon news) as well as "In Person" at 5 p.m. and, most recently, "Marion Barry: His Day in Court," the 15-minute weeknight report at midnight on the trial of the D.C. mayor. He also recruited co-anchor Jim Harriott.
The station has seen a rise in early evening news ratings but has not been competitive at 11 p.m., in part because of poor lead-ins provided by ABC Entertainment.
According to one highly placed source at the station, Reichblum had not been willing to bend sufficiently during the most recent "group process" meetings of senior management.
"The lifeblood at any station is called 'sales revenue,' " this source said. "Community service is the heart of the operation. But there are those in news who think news is all-important.
"My guess," said this source, "is that several in senior management believe that the station is the 'party' and that the news is the celebrity guest, the one with the lampshade on his head who tells the jokes and smokes the cigars. News is part of the mix but it has to do its share when it comes to making the changes we all are going to have to make."
In a memo to the staff yesterday, Reichblum said, "I was asked to take part in a group process to restructure WJLA -- a process that so far ignores what I believe the community has come to expect and deserves from News 7. I could not accept this and I have submitted my resignation.
"I led a fight for a recognition that in this process the news effort of this station must be a basis for and not a consequence of, planning. There is no failure on the part of any news manager to recognize industry trends -- and to act on them. We have made hard choices during the past 22 months. But this department is a salmon swimming upstream. It needs one strong, cautious hand guiding it to fertilization ..."
In his memo to News employees, Moore said, "for the past two years Bob has been an important part of the senior management of this station. Under Bob's leadership new and innovative news programs have been developed and implemented. He has assembled a solid news department of dedicated professionals.
"As you are all aware," Moore continued, "our senior management team has been involved in a process of closely analyzing current and future station operations in a challenging economic environment. While no decisions have been made as yet, Bob had philosophical differences with this planning process and has chosen not to participate. This process, which continues, is very important to the future of our station. I join with all of you in wishing Bob well."