Saturday Rant: Saving the Fat, Cutting the Muscle

I get it.  Times are tight.  Advertisers aren’t spending.  The local TV money machine isn’t functioning the way we’ve come to expect.  So budgets must be cut.  It would seem to be the responsible thing to do.  When less money is coming in, you’ve got to adjust the budget and start spending less.  But I question the way some station managers and corporate execs are choosing to trim.  They’re not going for the fat, they seem to be targeting the muscle.

When WJLA/DC hired Leon Harris from CNN, he told reporters the lure was “working with great co-anchors and an excellent, focused news team.”  It wasn’t the cool spinning 7 logo or the nifty treats in the break room. “The resources and commitment that WJLA brings to bear on news coverage are simply phenomenal,” Harris said.

At that time, Robert Allbritton, Chairman and CEO of WJLA’s corporate owner, Allbritton, said spending the money on Harris was “yet one more indication” of WJLA’s plans to be the “dominant TV news station” in the D.C. area.  Makes you wonder.  When Mr. Allbritton went about cutting his budget, he did as others have done in recent months, keeping the familiar face out front (in this case, Mr. Harris;  in New York, Chuck and Sue) but just below the billboard names, it was well-compensated experience that took the hit.  Andrea McCarren at JLA.  Jay DeDapper at WNBC.

We could–and we should–assemble a roster of what’s been lost.  Tally up the names of the A list, experienced veterans of local tv news–the people who went network and came back, the people who chose to stay in a community where they’d built ties and sources, and did the work that drew us into journalism in the first place.  Not to get our mugs on tv, but to truly “report” and tell stories that matter.  

Any kid can cover a car wreck.  But when the story is big, when it requires a little depth of knowledge about City Hall or the history of a community, where will those reporters be?  WNBC kept Jay DeDapper on the payroll–and the political beat–until the end of the election season.  Too bad his insight and knowledge of Albany’s no longer there to delve into the appointment this week of Kristin Gillibrand.

I know I’m naive and I don’t have to balance the books like GMs do.  I know that experience comes with a hefty pricetag, especially experience that has a “name.”  And I know the business is rapidly changing.  But when the advertising comes back, what will these “dominant news teams” really look like?

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