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Beyond Local News Layoffs: The Mood in the Newsroom–Local Newsers Are Scared, Overworked, and Miserable

Since leaving the day-to-day world of reporting for a local television station, I’ve heard from friends a lot of the same kind of comments when I ask, “how is it?”

“Worse than ever,” is what they say.  News has never really been a place where everybody’s happy (why is that?), but with the money printing machine no longer working, the managers letting their intensity to produce turn into dark humor at best and outright boundary crossing at worst, local newsers describe a business that at times seems to have all the fear and chaos of an industry in the turmoil of change, but somehow devoid of the excitement of the dawning of something new.

This lack of inspiration, I believe, is another indication that stations are deeply invested in the television of the 70s, 80s and 90s, and have turned the screws on employees in an effort to make that fading reality somehow work.  It’s as if you could just whip a horse hard enough, you could make the elegant horse and buggy a competitor to the car.

But the horse is miserable, and in many cases, the horse has had it. They want out.

I got to know John P. Wise during our time at WNYW in New York. A smart guy whose talents spread from the written word to a photographer’s eye and a comedian’s dry wit, he always seemed to me the kind of person who makes a newsroom more enjoyable. In catching up recently, I learned he’s lost his heart for horse-and-buggy work.

wisemugDISPATCH FROM THE FRONTLINES:  John P. Wise

(Back when Pat Forde used to write for The Louisville Courier-Journal, he’d begin some of his sports columns with: “Deathless prose.” That’s your warning that this piece is slightly all over the place. Hope you can follow along.)

What a terrible time it is these days to get laid off from your job, what with the sour economy and all.

And getting fired isn’t much better.

But that’s what happened to me about five weeks ago. I actually got over the ego tweak a few weeks prior when I was told I was being placed on a 30-day probation. That very night, rather than plotting a course to try to save my job, I instead came home, after another unappreciated 11- or 12-hour day, of course, and outlined my next project, a nationwide tour in which I’ll cover the upcoming college football season on the road, an endeavor you can already follow now at http://onegreatseason.com.

OK, back to getting fired. I saw a movie recently in which an actor playing a CIA official told an attorney general who was threatening the CIA guy in some way, something to the effect of, “once we realize that life is finite, it becomes easy to accept everything else.” The guy meant that if something doesn’t work out, it’s OK; life shall continue. Just do something else. It’s up to the outgoing to decide if he wants to go out on his feet or on his knees. Will you play by their rules? Or do you need your own?

Now don’t get me wrong; being let go last month was hardly Hollywood dramatic or even surprising. After six years at Internet Broadcasting and nearly three years at FOX — two successful stretches I’m proud to have under my belt — I just lost the passion to be a news guy. I can admit my share of the blame here, which is to say that I’m entirely responsible for my firing. But let me also offer a piece of advice for big media so it doesn’t lose other talented, enthusiastic, once-passionate journalists.

It’s OK to be friendly. It’s OK to have your act together. It’s OK to be honest. These attributes are things you probably desire in those who work for you. So why would you think you don’t need to return the favor to them? While I can admit it was me who lost the passion, perhaps more supportive superiors could have coached me back in.

I know times are tough. Layoffs are all over the place. Bottom lines boast fewer numbers to the left of the decimal. These facts, however, do not allow you to keep a toxic, negative environment in which the vast majority of your people are unhappy. Think about that for a minute. Let go of your corporate instinct and let that sink in: your people are unhappy. And isn’t happiness what we’re all in search of more than anything else?

Yet many of your people feel guilty just for taking the 15 minutes necessary to venture out for a sandwich with which they’ll promptly return to their desks and work while eating — but surely not enjoying — it.

This plate of sour grapes isn’t addressed to one former employer, but to the industry overall. I’ll never understand how in a communication business there are so many terrible communicators. It has astounded me for 17 years, since I got my first stringing job at a major metro daily and was excited to say hello to a veteran columnist as I passed him in a quiet corridor, and didn’t even get a look back in return.

Now I’m not saying that I’ve found zero happiness in the handful of newsrooms I’ve worked in since 1992. But if you work in news, do me a favor today: ask 10 co-workers if they truly enjoy their jobs, their newsrooms, their supervisors. I’ll endorse my first unemployment check over to you if just one of them says yes to all three.

I’ve enjoyed many of my assignments. Shoot, I’ve enjoyed most of my years. I’ve won a Murrow and a couple of SPJs; I was hoping to get my hands on an Emmy one day. But if it means I have to be “very excited” to ramp up, move forward, peel off, reach out, touch base and circle back before the conference call or the managers’ meeting, forget it. I’ll gladly go back to valet parking cars. I’m totally serious, and I’m totally pushing 40.

Most job ads you see for editorial people include a note like “creativity a must.” That’s a laugh. I’ve attended many morning meetings and watched reporter after reporter bring good ideas to the table and get shot down far more often than not. Long before the tedious gathering, the agenda is already set by someone who’s either never walked the beat or hasn’t in at least 20 years.

Stations say they’re looking for new and creative, but they’re not. Instead, they want the apartment building where a fire was put out an hour ago, but since nothing else is happening, they’ll send the chopper anyway to talk to the one person who was injured so mildly that he’ll give you the all-important exclusive interview right then and there. They’ll call it news, and after the commercial they’ll tell you more about a flap or a controversy or a danger or a Jonas brother.

Certainly I realize nothing’s perfect, but your place of employment, where you spend 40 or 50 or nowadays 60 hours a week, shouldn’t be dysfunctional either. I don’t expect a picnic; that’s why it’s called work. But so many good news people I talk to fully hate going to their jobs. And the fact that most newsrooms aren’t even 60 degrees doesn’t help matters.

There’s been no shortage of talk the last few years of the great changes impacting in the industry. Technology is certainly at the forefront of the new frontier, but what about the other changes? The great managers are those who can do more with less, but in the current climate, where staffs have been gutted and gutted again, is it a legitimate expectation to not only try to maintain the same level of productivity, but to increase it? Having editors write scripts isn’t resourceful; it’s just a good way to turn out bad copy in most cases, and perhaps miss slots. It’s one thing to build a staff of multi-tooled storytellers, but in some cases you just have to be realistic.

Maybe it’s CNN’s fault for starting round-the-clock news two decades ago. Like any TV trend, everybody else — national and even local — played follow the leader. And like any fad, TV or not, we gobble it up, shove it down our customers’ throats, try to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible, then try to stretch it out and fatten our pockets for as long as possible, and then act surprised that blue skies aren’t forever. We flatter ourselves into thinking we’re more important than we really are. Does the makeup-cake reporter really need to tag out of her story with driver-safety tips like “wear your seat belt and obey traffic signals and signs” a couple hours after yourtown’s latest fatal car accident?

At this point, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame. The damage has been done, and while exciting changes in technology hog the ink in the trade pubs, other changes in humans will be just as critical if the industry is to survive.

[Wise has left the news business to pursue a passion project he’s been wanting to pull off since 1994. Visit http://onegreatseason.com to find out what it is.]

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Local Newsers: What’s It Going to Be? Innovate or Die? (Huh? You Sure You Don’t Want to Pick “Innovate?”)

3125936268_d71b8a90a1_oIf you haven’t yet read Jeff Jarvis’ excellent book, What Would Google Do?, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy.

Jarvis is a new media guru who produces content across multiple platforms (his BuzzMachine blog is required reading, and his new Guardian podcast is fantastic) and teaches digital media at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism.  His book “reverse-engineers” Google to see what secrets we can uncover, and then implement, perhaps fueling a new style of journalism that will keep all of us working into the next decade.

In a discussion of financial models, and how Google transcended them, Jarvis writes:  the “winner is likely to be a new player, not one trying to protect old revenue streams and assets.”  Think about that for a moment.  Look at your own company.  Is it innovating into the future?  Or desperately, blindly, obsessively trying to make what’s always worked still work?

In New York last week, News Corp announced its latest round of firings and buyouts, cutting twenty staffers at WNYW and WWOR, cuts that affected traditional news operations and the stations’ web team.  That jumped out at me.  The web, without question, is the future.  What does it say about a company making cuts and deciding to pull back on the one area of the business with a clear, huge and critical role in the years ahead?

My answer:  they’re doing whatever they can do to cut costs and stay alive until the economy improves.  Then they’ll go back to that internet stuff.

Jeff Jarvis

Jeff Jarvis

Jarvis calls this the “Cash Cow in the Coal Mine:”  “Cash flow can blind you to the strategic necessity of change, tough decisions, and innovation…How many companies and industries fail to heed the warnings they know are there but refuse to see?”

Local news refuses to see.  As Jarvis writes, station owners are losing their “destinies” because they want to “preserve their pasts.”  And you know it’s true.  As I’ve written here, there is incredible innovation happening in the world of video storytelling and news.  It’s just not being done by television stations.  Newspapers are trying new ways of including multimedia content to make their reporting more impactful, interesting and different. In cities across the country, folks are creating web-based newscasts that look nothing like the stuff stations continue to produce–just the way they always have.

Watch this promo for a new Australian newscast that debuts this month.  Aside from the cliche-ridden nature of the promo itself, is there anything here that couldn’t have been done 25 years ago?

Think about it.  What’s so different about the six o’clock news?  Sure, it starts in some cities at 4.  It’s shot in HD.  And… well, beyond that, it’s the same product we’ve been selling for decades. That reminds me of senior citizens who will buy a new version of the same old car time after time because that’s what they like.  And looking at the demographics of a lot of news, these are the same reliable viewers keeping some local newscasts alive.

Where’s the innovation?  What’s one new thing that would’ve been unimaginable to the Action News teams of the 1970’s?  Doppler radar?  That’s an improvement of the same old thing.  New ways of doing liveshots?  What am I missing?

Take the computers out of the newsroom and put typewriters back, replace the cell phones with hard lines, put the AP wire back into a noisy printer in the corner, and go retro with the set, the over-the-shoulder graphics (FIRE!) and men’s lapels, and this is the same old cereal in a new box.

It’s depressing, when you look at the environment we’re in:  a once-in-a-career time of change, with a life-or-death incentive to innovate, and yet stations still believe in the tried and true rules of innovation in local news:

1)  New Set

2)  New Graphics

3)  New Anchors

4)  New News Director

Seriously, people.  News isn’t dying.  Someone’s going to be making money giving our viewers the information they want.  But there’s no reason to believe it’s going to be us.

I guess times are just too tight to risk taking chances.  And we’ll staff the web team back up when the car dealers start spending again.  Sound good?  Yeah, that’ll work.

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Mike Sheehan Fired After 16 Years: Fox’s WNYW Cuts a Classic New York Character

NYPD Detective-Turned-Reporter Mike Sheehan

NYPD Detective-Turned-WNYW/New York Reporter Mike Sheehan

 

Way back when then-WNEW introduced the 10 o’clock news to New York City, the shop was known as a real New York newsroom: filled with quirky, gritty, honest-to-God New Yorkers, warts and all. They weren’t spit-shined, manicured and pretty, but damn did they know the City. And Channel 5’s newscast was worth watching.

A lot has changed, and most of those characters–and the solid, serious, in your face news that made Channel 5 different and so legitimately New York–have been replaced with fresh faces from El Paso and Orlando and beyond. Even the name–the original 10 O’Clock News (and, to my ear, the best damn news open this side of WABC’s Cool Hand Luke)–has been reduced to “Fox 5 News at Ten,” which could be the name of any newscast in any town.

And tonight comes word Mike Sheehan is out. As the set got glitzy and the wrinkled faces got shown the door…as the New York accents faded and the station’s news turned more and more to American Idol and Lindsay Lohan…Sheehan remained. The NYPD detective who earned his bones breaking cases like Preppy Murderer Robert Chambers was a throwback to the gold old days at 5: an honest to God trenchcoat and pinky ring wearing New York original.

Full disclosure: I worked at WNYW, and my desk faced Mike’s. This is a man who can tell a story over a beer like few I’ve ever known. And I know deep under his gruff Irish exterior, he was proud to do the job he did. Losing his job, as he told the Daily News’s Richard Huff tonight, was “a kick in the chest. Sixteen years I’ve been there. I can’t believe it.”
But anyone who watches local news in New York–or anywhere–shouldn’t be surprised in the least. Longevity is no longer an asset. Years on the job and contacts at One Police Plaza? That got you a big salary and influence back when television stations were powerhouses that could afford such things.

Sheehan told the Richard Huff the station ended its relationship with a letter delivered to his home. This is, sadly, the new normal in our business: nobody tells you to your face. It’s a way of doing business that reduces us all, and it’s shameful.

Yes, Mike has had his problems, including a recent accident involving a police horse and an arrest for reckless endangerment and operating a vehicle while intoxicated and impaired. Whether that’s really why Sheehan got the axe is valid fodder for debate. But believe me, in this environment, people like Mike Sheehan walk tall–too tall–and the networks are moving on.

For years, Mike ended his crime stories with an appeal for folks to “do the right thing” and pick up the phone if they knew anything that could help police. Too bad managers at Fox couldn’t do so little as to pick up the phone and give it to him straight.

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Sharing is Caring…Then, Firing. Fewer Local News Choppers for Gotham?

2 Stations Cover Madoff Live, Just 1 Chopper Overhead

2 Stations Cover Madoff Live, Just 1 Chopper Overhead

Sure, in the beginning it sounds like common sense.  It seems like good business.  Why hover two choppers over Bernie Madoff when one will do?  The suits at FOX and NBC were surely satisfied Thursday as the despicable Mr. Madoff made his one-way trip into court in Manhattan, a bevy of birds overhead to capture any fleeting movement that the army of stills and shooters on the ground might somehow miss.

Could the Baddest Bird in Gotham Be Grounded?

Could the Baddest Bird in Gotham Be Grounded?

When WNBC’s Chopper 4 needed to refuel, Channel 4 never lost a second of live overhead pictures–in HD–thanks to new BFF WNYW, with its sleek SkyFOX HD sharing live images with both stations.  “It’s a great plan to share assets and save money,” a FOX spokesperson told the New York Daily News’ Richard Huff.  Well, yes.  But talk to the local newsers who fly those birds, they’ll tell you what’s good for business almost certainly means somebody will lose their job.

“If the plan works out, one of the stations’ helicopters would be grounded completely and the two stations would share the remaining copter’s costs,” Huff reports.  It’s exactly what’s already happened in markets like Phoenix and Chicago, where “sharing” quickly morphed into “eliminating.”

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Latest Layoffs: Anchor, Longtime Managers Out at WNYW/NY

 

NYs Fox 5:  Spinning in a Vortex of Constant Change

NY's Fox 5: Spinning in a Vortex of Constant Change

The departures at FOX flagship WNYW continue, with former weekend anchor Karen Hepp leaving the station last week, according to reliable New York Daily News reporter Richard Huff.  Hepp’s disappearance from the E. 67th Street studios follows that of entertainment reporter Toni Senecal, who declined an offer of a new contract in favor of a production deal elsewhere.

Behind the scenes, sources say the turnover Tuesday took the jobs of two top managers, Managing Editor Joe Farrington, and early news executive producer Mike Milhaven, both of whom had been with the station for several years.  No comment yet from FOX.

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FOX O&O Layoff Watch: News Corp Reports Massive $6.4 Billion Dollar Loss; Local Stations Declined 44%

The breeze you may have felt along Sixth Avenue Thursday was the massive gasp at the numbers emanating from News Corp headquarters, where the financial report was down, and decidedly so:  “News Corporation had income of $320 million, or 12 cents a share, significantly below the Wall Street expectations. Analysts had forecast earnings of 19 cents a share, according to Thomson Reuters,” reported the New York Times.  

News Corp titan Rupert Murdoch telling the paper: “Our results for the quarter are a direct reflection of the grim economic climate,” he said. “While we anticipated a weakening, the downturn is more severe and likely longer-lasting than previously thought.”

The next shoe to drop may be in the newsrooms at FOX O&O’s, starting on the Upper East Side in New York.  According to the Times, “The company’s local television stations had a 44 percent decline, ‘reflecting a significant overall weakening of the local advertising markets despite increased political advertising revenues,’ the company said in a statement.”  That, kids, sounds like the kind of statement that preceeds another round of cost-cutting, and word from New York tonight indicates at least one well-known Fox 5 face has already left the building at WNYW’s E. 67th Street studios.

Developing…we will post details on the latest layoff at WNYW as soon as we can confirm the details.  Expect an update here on the site overnight or early Friday morning, though the standard bio scrub has already happened on the Fox 5 website.

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WPIX/NY Sports Anchor Calls “Retirement” Story Bogus

Sal Marchiano/WPIX

Sal Marchiano/WPIX

The warm NYC sendoff ended a 14 year career on the sports desk for Sal Marchiano at WPIX/NY:  “Sal made a decision to retire at the end of this year, and last week was Sal’s last week on the air as our sports anchor,” a WPIX-TV spokeswoman told the Daily News in late December.  Now, we’re getting Sal’s version of the story:  ” They told me I was out – finished,” Marchiano told the Daily News’ Bob Raisson.  “They were not renewing my contract.  The order came down from the top.” 

Marchiano says not only was the “retirement” story bogus, he’s hardly ready to walk away from covering New York sports.  “I’m a free agent,” Marchiano says, who tells Raisson he was fully expecting a new contract, was ready to take concessions given the state of the economy, but was instead sent to pasture, complete with a sweet story of retirement Raisson suggests Marchiano only learned about by reading the Daily News.  (Echoes of WNYW main news anchor Len Cannon, who learned of his departure from the NY’s FOX O&O by reading the front page of the New York Post, announcing the multi-million dollar signing of New York legend Ernie Anastos)

Raisson writes:  “Marchiano’s termination is more about what’s happening in the local TV news business than it was about his performance. Industry sources say all six local stations, which for decades were cash registers, are losing money – big money. This has led to cutbacks. It has also led to major players, including local sports anchors making mid six-figures and up, either taking drastic pay cuts or, in Marchiano’s case, being fired. “

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