When Bob Reichblum resigned as news director of WJLA-TV to protest plans to lay off 10 percent of the station's staff, reporters and producers at the city's third-rated newscast were stunned.

"I felt the major domino blocking any continued deterioration of the news product was gone," says Arthur Wood, a senior producer who quit after WJLA reassigned him to the midnight shift with two hours' notice.

Reichblum's July departure -- he was by some counts the 11th person to hold the job in 12 years -- has further depressed morale at the station and sparked questions about its commitment to news.

By dropping one news show, adding more commercials to the newscast, scaling back investigative reporting, shuffling anchors and repeatedly changing the news operation's focus, critics say, the station (owned by banker Joe L. Allbritton) has failed to establish a clear news identity as it struggles to escape the ratings cellar.

Reichblum, 32, now news director of WPLG-TV in Miami, says he resigned because the cutbacks at Channel 7 were "Draconian" and that "the station's ability to compete in news was not going to be protected."

Gina Fitzgerald, a former producer for WJLA's investigative unit, says: "I had felt for a long time there was not a commitment to investigative reporting, but I also started to question whether there was any commitment to news, period ... The whole place was just a demoralizing place to work. They just decided {investigative reporting} wasn't a good crop anymore, so they switched to something else, like soybeans."

But WJLA President Mike Moore, who recently announced his resignation, says the cutbacks were "on the margins ... We do not believe we have taken actions in relation to economic realities that prevent us from being competitive, hotly competitive."

"We have a super lineup of experienced journalists," says Gary Wordlaw, who started this month as news director. "I'm pumped."

Asked why the ABC affiliate added four people in sales and promotion while laying off 26 in news and other divisions, Moore says: "We're in the business of selling advertising time. That's how we have the resources to invest in news and entertainment programming."

Among other cutbacks, 10 paid interns have been dropped from Paul Berry's consumer segment "Seven on Your Side," which may discontinue its practice of responding to viewers' letters. The 5:30 a.m. news show has been eliminated, leaving WJLA with 2 1/2 hours of news each day, less than any other station in town.

Management is also shaking up the anchor teams by dropping Jim Harriott and pairing Susan King with 12-year mainstay Renee Poussaint. Movie critic Henry Tenenbaum and weatherman Steve Udelson were among those cut.

Even its competitors say Channel 7 has a solid journalistic core in consumer reporter Roberta Baskin, education specialist Kathleen Matthews, crime reporter Gary Reals, District Building sleuth Del Walters and others. But they say a weak, overmatched staff has made the station a nonfactor in the war between top-rated WUSA (Channel 9) and second-place WRC (Channel 4), with even Fox's WTTG (Channel 5) posting better ratings for its 10 p.m. newscast.

Says a rival news executive: "There's a train wreck and everyone's there but Channel 7. The mayor does something and everyone's there but Channel 7. They miss major stories all the time and have for 2 1/2 years. They're always playing catch-up." This person has received numerous phone calls from WJLA reporters looking for jobs.

The elimination of assistant directors, the tape librarian and other support staff have caused repeated technical problems, a veteran employee says. "You have a lot fewer people doing a lot more jobs, and they're tired and cranky."

"We basically can't make mistakes," says an on-air reporter. "Everything's got to go right for things to get on the air."

Another staffer says management makes unrealistic demands: "Someone in a meeting will say, 'We want all the pieces in by 4 o'clock.' That's not news. News happens today. What happens when you have a 4:30 press conference with President Bush?"

The layoffs have rankled some employees who say that management showed insensitivity by wielding the budget ax disproportionately against black and Jewish staffers. The 26 people dropped included 10 blacks and eight Jews, leaving a half-dozen Jewish employees in the news department, by the station's count. About half the staffers laid off were women.

"I felt my responsibility as news director was to create a management team and news staff that had as much diversity -- ethnically and geographically -- as the market we were covering," Reichblum says of his 22-month tenure. "I was surprised that that very concerted effort seemed to be ignored."

Moore says the layoffs were made primarily on the basis of seniority. He points to the hiring of Wordlaw, a veteran Baltimore news director who is black, and notes that the station's overall staff is 32 percent minority.

Moore calls any suggestion of discrimination "scurrilous. I think it was handled as sensitively as possible ... We have had some real success hiring minorities in the last couple of years, and the other side of the coin when you have an economic downsizing is, they're the junior staff members."

That view is not universally shared. "Some of it was a bit shabby," says Wood, the black producer who resigned after his transfer and is now at a Baltimore station. Women and minorities, he says, "had to bear the brunt."

Questions about racial hiring and promotions have dogged the station for years. In 1986, Penny Mickelbury, a black assistant news director, filed a $10 million racial discrimination suit against WJLA, saying she was unfairly passed over for the news director's job and that the station was trying to harass her into quitting. The station's lawyer would not discuss the status of the suit.

WJLA's news operation has struggled since Texas banker Allbritton bought the station, then part of the Washington Star Co., in 1975, changing the call letters to match his initials.

Allbritton is chairman of Riggs National Bank, whose profits have dropped 78 percent in the first nine months of this year. His privately held Allbritton Communications also owns TV stations in Tulsa, Okla.; Little Rock, Ark.; Charleston, S.C.; and Lynchburg, Va. Allbritton is worth an estimated $500 million, according to Forbes magazine.

By all accounts, Allbritton has little to do with the daily operation of WJLA, which is believed to be worth at least $275 million. Instead, the station has been run by corporate officials with little background in broadcasting.

Marvin Shirley, head of Allbritton's broadcast division, is a professional accountant who later joined the management of two Southern television stations. Moore, who has a master's degree in business, started out as controller of Allbritton's Houston bank in 1977 and plans to continue serving Allbritton in another capacity.

Sitting in his sixth-floor office at WJLA's futuristic headquarters on Tilden Street NW, Moore, 45, says he had a "news orientation" from his service as head of Allbritton's newspaper group. But in an era of austerity, he says, "the belief was that experienced management deserved more emphasis than experience in the industry."

A former executive sees it differently: "To them it's just a business and we're all hired hands. Whether we were getting beat on stories, they didn't care."

For example, sources say, Reichblum angered his superiors by refusing to join a corporate management retreat shortly after Mayor Marion Barry was arrested for cocaine possession, despite his insistence that the story was more important.

Tom Doerr, who resigned as news director in 1988, says he felt "bogged down" by Moore. "He's a pretty pleasant individual, but he was not a broadcaster," Doerr says.

At the same time, says Doerr, now a news director in Houston, his reporters "looked at the news directors as short-timers. I don't think they felt any overwhelming need to be supportive. You have an awareness that so many people have warmed the seat you're sitting in."

"There was a feeling it was all pretty simple," another former news director says of management, "and if someone can't get it right, you fire him and bring in someone else to work the magic."

Fitzgerald, now an NBC producer, says the constant turnover meant endless tinkering with news coverage.

"You'd have people who covered the District or Montgomery or Fairfax for 10 or 15 years," she says, "and some new news director blows in out of the Midwest and says, 'We're going to cover hearings on the Hill now.' "

Reporter John Spiropoulos, a 14-year veteran laid off last year in a cost-cutting move, says: "I was supposed to cover the economy, the government. Too often I got pulled off to do other things. I didn't want to cover homicides and fires. The cops and the firemen would say, 'What are you doing here? This is not a money story.' You lose credibility, you lose sources."

In similar fashion, the top brass lost interest in the "I-Team," which won 13 Emmy Awards for investigations after its 1981 creation but was phased out and eventually dropped.

"We were told they were no longer interested in long-form investigative stories," says Fitzgerald, who left the unit in 1986. "What they wanted were quick hits. They wanted 'down and dirty.' They wanted semi-news that they could put the I-Team banner on."

That philosophy led to what Fitzgerald calls "the low point of my career" -- filming a buffet at a Washington Bullets game for a story on reporters' freebies.

Reichblum, who cut eight staffers and $500,000 in costs, says he tried to preserve investigative reporting. "People who only see the world as line items have difficulty understanding why it takes an investment to win in news," he says. "A cost-benefit analysis wouldn't come out very favorably, but it helps establish a sense of you as a station."

Some reporters say WJLA has been the poor relation of local television for more than a decade. "We were way behind technologically," Spiropoulos says. "They did not spend the money on the hardware to make us competitive. We didn't have as many live trucks and live cameras as everyone else."

But Thomas Cookerly, WJLA's general manager from 1971 to 1988, dismisses such criticism. "Our budget was comparable to what the other guys had," he says. "We paid our talent as well as the others. Our equipment was as good or better. You can't blame it on money ... We felt we were putting on a good news show, the kind that would be considered outstanding anywhere else in the country."

As for the future, Wordlaw offers a basic prescription: "The focus will be on news you can use."