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Doesn’t Matter Who You Are, How Long You’ve Been There, What You’ve Done: Peabody Award Winner Shown the Door in St. Louis

LATEST LAYOFFS:  KMOV/St. Louis reporter John Mills would seem to be the kind of guy a station likes having around:  hard-working, good in the field and as a fill-in anchor;  and a journalist with credentials:  A Peabody, and Edward R. Murrow Award, and, just last fall, the local “Riverfront Times” named Mills “Best Reporter.”  He seems the the kind of guy you build a strong bench by keeping in the dugout.  Oh.  Except, these days local TV station are playing baseball with one marquee name, maybe, and a smattering of little leaguers willing to play pro ball for very little money, and agree to clean up the stands after the game.

Mills lost his job this week.  After thirteen years at KMOV, he was laid off, and his award-winning bio got the traditional trip into the local news memory hole.  Mills, though, had a few thing to say, via his personal website, and amazingly, the guy took the high road (just like Andrea McCarren, and Randy Price, and Carolyn Gusoff, and Jay DeDapper…) “if any St. Louis companies or organizations are interested in a loyal and dedicated employee, I would very much appreciate their consideration,” he wrote.  “I’m not bitter.  In TV, this was an incredible run.”

Too bad companies like KMOV (and WJLA, and WHDH, and WNBC…) aren’t willing, able, or interested any longer in “loyal and dedicated” guys like John Mills.

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Laid Off by WJLA/DC, Andrea McCarren Finds Her Faith “Renewed”

Andrea McCarren

Andrea McCarren

At this point, every one of us in this business knows someone–likely, a few people–who’ve lost their jobs since this time last year.  They are smart, they are dedicated, they are the people we liked working alongside, gossiping with, bitching about the business with, and now–they are gone.  From tape room operators in the smallest markets to anchors at the top of the game, there’s an all-star team sidelined by an economic situation that’s threatening to change local news forever.

Some get to say goodbye, but most, like WHDH’s Randy Price, get to write quick farewell emails to co-workersin the newsroom computer, but have to rely on the local newspaper to relay their gratitude to viewers. As local news stations, we cover the closing of every factory and mill, and never miss a chance to use the down-arrow gfx when job loss numbers are released, but folks who still get news, weather and (for now) sports from local stations rarely get any explanation of the latest layoff at the station itself.  

Longtime WJLA/DC reporter Andrea McCarren wrote in the Washington Post recently, “It’s hard to say whether getting pink-slipped in the public eye is better or worse. When you work in local television news, strangers treat you like family. We on-camera reporters are their friends, their confidants. After all, we’re in their living rooms and kitchens, in some cases every day.”

Andrea McCarren and Co-Workers at WJLA

Andrea McCarren and Co-Workers at WJLA

“In a sense, these people are my “family,” too. Over the years, they’ve shared my life’s high points — getting married, having kids, even being promoted — and they’ve been there for the low ones, sending condolence cards after my father’s sudden death and, now, the loss of my job.”

McCarren never got to say goodbye to her tv “family” on tv, but those viewers who felt they knew her have been letting her know they care–in the form of more than 400 emails and letters, some, she told me, “were heartbreaking; others were filled with optimism. Hundreds came from other experienced, hard-working people like me who loved their jobs and were also laid off.  Many came from people who had been through the ordeal of being abruptly terminated and bounced back, landing in a place where they were happier than ever!”

So while I’ve been accused of being a web-based harbinger of doom for relaying the layoffs day in and day out, I wanted to share Andrea McCarren’s words as well;  that while the loss is painful and huge, the support, the friendship and love is too.  “This whole experience has renewed my faith in humanity: the kindness of strangers, and the compassion of Americans to lend a hand in troubled times. It’s also revealed just how many talented and dedicated people are out of work right now. We’re all in this together,” McCarren told me.

McCarren says she’s still figuring out what her next step will be.  The economy’s down, but her spirits are certainly up, and she says she’ll immerse herself in volunteer work as a way to pay it forward, and to “keep everything in perspective.”

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Andrea McCarren: Not “Angry or Bitter,” Just “Sad for Our Industry.”

Andrea McCarren

Andrea McCarren

Former WJLA/DC reporter Andrea McCarren says her recent layoff really sunk in at the gym, the day after she was called at home by station managers and told not to come in to work:  “The morning after I was fired, I went to the gym. The moment I walked through the door, I spotted some employees from a local radio station doing a promotion. “Hey, it’s Andrea McCarren!” one of them yelled. “From Channel 7!” My heart sank. I offered a weak, “Hey, how ya doin’?” and headed to the exercise machines. I hadn’t anticipated how it would feel, after so many years, not to be “from Channel 7″ anymore.”

Writing in the Sunday Washington Post, McCarren says she has no grudges;  in fact, she wrote her bosses thank you notes the day after her layoff, thanking them for the chance to cover stories around the world and have a “front seat to history.”  And she says she understands the economic rationale for the cutbacks costing so many local newsers their jobs:  “I’ve covered plenty of stories about our faltering economy. So the call I received that Friday morning wasn’t completely out of the blue. I know that my employers held on as long as they possibly could. I’m not angry or bitter. Mostly I’m sad for our industry and our viewers.”

Read McCarren’s entire story here.

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Andrea McCarren, You Say? Hmmm… Not Ringing a Bell, Comrade

Andrea McCarren

Andrea McCarren

I’ve always felt that, in a perverse way, local television stations are a lot like the old Soviet Union. There’s the cult of personality; the way we line our hallways with oversized smiling photos of our dear leaders on the 6 and 11, and the way we shoot those heartwarming promos at the holidays showing the loving newsteam–all outfitted in holiday sweaters, whether the station’s in Minneapolis or Miami. We’re constantly using words like “family” to describe a group of employees. At least, until something goes wrong.

A beloved family member gets busted for DUI, or a contract doesn’t get renewed, and–poof!–it’s like they never existed. No farewell mention on the news; the picture just vanishes off the wall of heroes in the lobby, and the holiday image promo gets a quick re-edit. Just like Stalin used to do after a purge: cut the pictures out of the history books, and carefully remove the comrade who has fallen out of favor.

Josef Stalin

Josef Stalin

And so it is, in this season of layoffs, with local news websites, where the top banner’s usually reserved for a smiling collection of anchor heads–the Action News “family,” and inside pages have glowing bios describing the health reporter’s love for rescued puppies, and the sports guy’s years of participation in the Big Brothers program. 

But as Neal Zoren writes in the Delco Times, the last place you’d want to go for information on what’s happening to the members of your favorite news team–would be the station’s web site. Think of them as promotional vehicles with a few pop-up ads, some news content, and a striking resemblance to a Soviet history textbook. Because when you fall out of favor–no matter how many chili cook-offs you’ve attended over the years in your Channel 7 polo shirt–you just vanish without a trace: “At a volatile time when layoffs are adding to the missing persons lists, there should be a handy place to find out who, so to speak, is on first,” Zoren writes. “Between firings, resignations, and transfers of market, voluntary and involuntary, station personnel has shifted a lot in the last few weeks.”

But the websites–they just keep on with their family first and all’s well approach. The WJLA/DC website, for instance, would not be your best source on information regarding Andrea McCarren’s layoff. As the cliche goes, her “picture has been removed from the station’s website,” usually an immediate indication that you are no longer part of the family. Ditto for Jay DeDapper at WNBC, and, back in Philly, the notorious departures of Alycia Lane and Larry Mendte.

Alycia Lane/NBC 10 Photo

Alycia Lane/NBC 10 Photo

Until a week ago, Andrea McCarren, a well-respected and high-profile journalist was a key player at WJLA. Today, enter “andrea mccarren” into the search box on the WJLA website, and you get no news story explaining her departure, only a list of stories, presumably reported by McCarren, the most recent of which dates to 2007.

To its credit, the revamped “NBC Philadelphia” website, if prompted by entering “Alycia Lane” in the search box, will cough up a series of articles on the legal wrangling between Lane and Mendte. So maybe there’s hope? Maybe we local newsers will start actually reporting honestly about the stories that involve, you know, us?

Or, then again, maybe not. What was that name again? McCarren something? Nope. Not ringing any bells.

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Latest Layoffs: Lee, Peters Among 15 Cut in Birmingham

The Allbritton budget cutting that swept through Washington’s WJLA and Little Rock’s KATV hit the Heart of Dixie Friday, with 15 layoffs at WBMA/Birmingham. (Initially, station officials had said 20 jobs were cut, but the number was revised downward later in the day, amid the obvious confusion and emotion inside the station)

Reporter Melissa Lee and weather anchor Brian Peters were the only talent cut, according to the Birmingham Newswbma_midday, which quoted ABC 33/40 General Manager Mike Murphy as saying “”It’s a very difficult time. We regret that it had to take place.”

The newspaper said Murphy cited decreasing advertising revenues as the major reason for the layoffs, but he declined to comment further.

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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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WJLA’s “Massive” Talent Layoffs: “It’s Like Losing Everything at Once”

Some were called at home with the news, like 26 year veteran journalist Andrea McCarren.  “They said I didn’t need to come in today, McCarren told the Washington Post.

Andrea McCarren/WJLA Photo
Andrea McCarren/WJLA Photo

“I’m not bitter, but I am sad.”  

Reporter Sarah Lee was in the field, working the early morning shift.  She got a call telling her to come directly back to the newsroom.  “I don’t take it personally,” she told the Post.  “My contract was up, and I was legally eligible to be let go.”  Lee is pregnant, and will be out of a job when her contract expires at the end of February.

WJLA/DC’s 26-employee layoff was described by some as a “bloodbath,” and spread to other Allbritton-owned newsrooms across the country.  WJLA reporter Alisa Parenti told the Post’s Neely Tucker, “it’s just amazing to think how things were 20 years ago in this business and how they are now.  I loved my job, the people I worked with.  It’s like losing everything at once.”

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