WJLA News Director Steve Hammel is leaving Channel 7 at the end of the month, forcing the station to find its third news chief in just over four years.

Hammel, who's been with WJLA since May 2000, said yesterday that he is leaving the Allbritton Communications-owned station to take a job elsewhere but declined to provide any details.

"Our staff has grown both in professionalism and size, and I certainly think that what has been created is the foundation of excellence," Hammel said in an interview.

"He's well respected and liked by his staff and respected by his competitors," Station Manager Chris Pike said yesterday.

Hammel oversaw the station's coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks, the anthrax scare and, most recently, the sniper shootings, as well as starting up a new noon newscast in September. But the station's news operation continued to lag in the ratings race during his tenure.

"We still have miles to go before we sleep," Hammel said, adding that he's proud of the news division's "basic journalism excellence and improved morale."

Hammel also played a hand in the merger this past summer of the newsrooms of Channel 7 and NewsChannel 8, also owned by Allbritton. His departure had nothing do with that move, Pike said. "It's entirely unrelated," he said.

Approximately 30 employees of NewsChannel 8, including its news director, Wayne Lynch, lost their positions following the merger.

Pike said he will conduct a "complete industry-wide" search and hopes to name Hammel's successor in early to mid-January.

In the process of replacing Hammel, Pike will appoint a vice president to oversee the combined news operation of Channel 7 and NewsChannel 8.

In the interim, the news division will be managed by three executives: NewsChannel 8 News Director Jim Church, WJLA Assistant News Director Bill McFarland, and Alex Likowski, who is director of news operations for both stations.