TV News Layoffs, Rumored Layoffs, And Backpack Journalists

By Donald R. Winslow

© 2008 News Photographer magazine

DENVER, CO - NPPA's recently-crowned Best Of Photojournalism Video Editor of the Year Shawn Montano was among nine KCNC-TV CBS4 employees who this week were laid off, or asked to take early retirement, or told their contract would not be renewed, at the Denver station.

There seems to be a lot of that going around: in TV news departments around the country there are layoffs, or rumors of layoffs, taking place in cities like Minneapolis, Miami, Cleveland, and Denver. If not layoffs, there's certainly big change in the air.

At one award-winning Denver station with a reputation that spans decades for excellence in traditional television photojournalism, there's a slow but noticeably steady influx of "backpack photojournalists," the "one-man-band" that's been talked about for so long. And in a reverse of tradition, at least two newspapers have hired veteran broadcast television photojournalists to leave television news behind to come over to "the other side" to shoot video for the newspaper's Web sites. Scott Utterback left WAVE-TV to join the photography staff of the Louisville Courier-Journal, and out west Pete Soby left KETV-TV to be a video photojournalist for the Omaha World-Herald.

Then today a source at a CBS owned and operated station in the southeast confirmed that the 29 CBS O&O stations have been told, across the board, to make cutbacks as quickly as possible after a big drop in 2007's fourth quarter profits.

Added together, these developments paint a picture of a shifting and uncertain future for broadcast photojournalists that's not all that different than the uncertain future their still photography peers face today as newspapers continue their mad dash to publish on the Web instead of on paper, and to put video on the Web, and to figure out a business model that somehow makes more money than it loses.

Part of that uncertainty comes with determining who will be doing what, and whether one person can do a job that's traditionally been done by at least two, or three, other people.

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At the CBS owned and operated KCNC-TV some of those lost their jobs this week in Denver in addition to Montano include a producer (Jen Hall), a writer (Carol Svoboda) an assignment editor (Melinda Dionne), and a weekend morning anchor (Arturo Santiago). And the KCNC-TV CBS4 staff has heard that by today, four engineers will be picked for layoffs or asked to take an early retirement.

These nine newly-released KCNC-TV employees can be added to the two photographers who recently resigned and whose positions, Montano said, will not be filled, bringing the downsizing to a total of 11 so far.

Which is surprising when compared to what KCNC-TV's general manager Walt DeHaven told The Denver Post just four months ago when the November 2007 ratings sweep put the station on top for the first time since 1998, finishing first in total households, in prime time and at 5 p.m., and being only 1 rating point away from perennial champion KUSA-TV Channel 9 in the coveted 10 p.m. slot.

DeHaven told Post television critic Joanne Ostrow (who made note of how the strong CBS national line-up had benefited KCNC-TV locally, along with another boost from the "Oprah Winfrey Show," and NBC's recent ratings decline) that the "overall health of the station helps" with the ratings gain.

"Growth in prime time and 'Oprah' is great," DeHaven told Ostrow, "but the growth in local news has a lot to do with the work we've been doing and the brand we've been building. It's hard to say which is the dog and which is the tail. Right now, it's all going the right way."

Ostrow reported that the 10 p.m. news slot is the "most lucrative newscast" for the Denver stations and that KCNC-TV had closed the gap from 3 rating points a year ago at the same time to just 1 rating point. She quoted KCNC-TV's news director Tim Wieland as he gave credit for those gains: "We have the most veteran reporting staff of any station in town. That does allow us to take the news of the day and use our sources and experience to do a smarter job covering the news."

If KCNC-TV's gains in the 10 p.m. news slot against rival KUSA-TV were as lucrative as they've been reported, then why would this week's cuts come in the news department if that's the factor in making the difference in the ratings gain?

"Maybe it wasn't as lucrative as they thought," Montano said.

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"I was shocked that this happened," Montano told News Photographer magazine. "I understand that the station needs to do what it needs to do to survive, but I was shocked that it was me. But I live by the philosophy that everything happens for a reason, including this. I've taken a voluntary layoff before, I've left jobs before, and it always leads to something better. So I'm hoping this leads to something better as well."

Montano said there had been rumors flying around the KCNC-TV newsroom for a while, and that "pretty much every rumor was correct except that there was only one editor laid off. The rumor had been two." The news director told Montano that the layoffs were "purely a financial decision" and had nothing to do with what kind of work the employees had been doing, or what kind of employee they had been, he said.

"Last Wednesday they had a party for me in the newsroom, with cake, to celebrate my [NPPA] editing award, and my news director spoke about how valuable I was to the team, about the extra effort and time that I put into stories, about how well I work with reporters," Montano said. "So I just think it's truly ironic that last Wednesday I was being praised in front of the newsroom, and this Wednesday I was brought into the office and told to go away. A high, and a low, in just seven days."

On the rumor mill in Denver layoffs have been discussed at various stations, Montano said, but up until now it seemed that it had only gone as far as someone not being replaced when they retired or moved on - which only added to the level of surprise he experienced this week when he got the word from his boss.

"Jen had been there about five years, Carol for 12 years, Santiago for about two years, and Melinda had only been there about 10 months, and now she's done in May," Montano said. "They were going to make cuts in the photography department, but two people resigned in the last two weeks so that pretty much took care of that."

This next June would have been Montano's five year anniversary at KCNC-TV. He's looking for opportunities in Denver first, and if there are no positions available in the Mile High City he says he may have to start looking elsewhere. Before KCNC-TV he worked as a freelance editor, and before that he was with KUSA-TV.

Until recently Montano was the director of NPPA's Cutting Edge workshop for video editors, and he'll be speaking at NPPA's Convergence '08 in Louisville in May. "But now, I'm going to have a whole new topic," he said.

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While many of the layoffs or threats of coming layoffs currently seem to be at CBS owned and operated stations, one of the more interesting rumors floating around the Internet this week involves Denver's perennial television news powerhouse KUSA-TV, which is owned by Gannett. The juicy rumor said that "everyone over there has been told they're going to be working as a one-man-band."

KUSA-TV news director Patti Dennis was out of the office and could not be reached for comment, and other managers referred News Photographer magazine to Dennis for a response. But it's clear the rumor may have been fed by a recent visit from Dave Lougee, the president of Gannett's Broadcasting Division, who spoke at KUSA-TV and talked about the changes that he sees coming in the future. But someone who heard Lougee's presentation said that the conversation was all about diversifying skills and about thinking of different ways to do things going forward, and not that everyone was going to be turned into a "one-man-band."

While that may be true, one staff photojournalist at KUSA-TV says that he and his peers have noticed a steady influx of "backpack" journalists being hired, some of them into positions that were previously filled by a journalist who was doing only "straight reporting, no shooting."

"There seems to be a slow evolution to eventually transition to 'backpack' journalists," the photographer said. "It looks like there's a push right now for new reporters' positions to be filled with people who shoot and report instead of just reporting. Already there's one 'backpack' journalist for sports who reports and shoots, and there's an opening for a second one. The community relations reporter they just hired is a 'backpack' photojournalist, and Heidi McGuire already reports and shoots [on general assignment]."

"Our fear is that if a photographer's position opens up they won't hire someone who's a straight photographer, that they'll fill it with another 'backpack' journalist. There's a lot of uncertainty about the future here and what's going on right now," the photographer said.

Whether it's a slow evolution or an overnight revolution (like the one that happened at KRON-TV in San Francisco more than two years ago under the direction of Michael Rosenblum), the outcome at some stations eventually may be an increase in the number of "VJ's" on staff or a total switch to "backpack" journalists. The sinking economy is going to be a big factor in what develops, it appears, more-so than a news director's philosophical metamorphosis to the "VJ" way. And then it may be true, what Burton Benjamin wrote: The Future Is Now.

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The layoff angst and belt tightening isn't confined to Denver, and at some stations they've even found a way to blame national politics and the presidential candidates for their economic problems.

At WCCO-TV, the CBS owned and operated station serving Minneapolis-St. Paul, there's a report today that four or five employees were laid off Thursday including - suprisingly - one high profile-name, anchor John Reger. A company spokesperson said the layoffs were "across the board" and that buyouts were being offered. "We have maximized the opportunities within the union contract," she said. Also in Minneapolis four ENG live truck technicians were laid off from KARE11-TV recently, where photographers may soon be running their own trucks.

In Pittsburgh at KDKA-TV, the CBS owned and operated station serving western Pennsylvania, between 6 and 10 people have been laid off.

In Miami this week, the CBS owned and operated station CBS4 has reportedly laid off 12 people, including chief photographer Curt Calhoun, editor Dan Roujansky, a two-decade veteran reporter, Evan Bacon, Robin Cross from CBS4's bureau in Broward, and staffers in sales.

In Sacramento, CA, another CBS station said they're "letting go" of some employees due to "the consequences of new technology" that allows for more automation of production and editing. Station manager Bruno Cohen would not tell the Sacramento Bee how many employees were affected, but he assured the newspaper that the result would be "invisible" to viewers.

In early March, the "budget squeeze" was blamed for staff cuts at the CBS owned and operated WBBM-TV Channel 2 in Chicago. Reports say that program manager Diane Kotin, art director Neal Weisenberg, creative assistant producer Angel Holmes, and morning news supervising producer Stacy Friedman lost their jobs.

And at about the same time at the NBC affiliate in Huntington, WV, three full-time and five part-time employees at WSAZ-TV lost their jobs.

In Cleveland there is a hiring freeze for at least three of the local stations, and photographers have heard rumors that there may be a round of layoffs at one of the stations in the near future. One Cleveland TV station recently had their National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET) contract held up over a dispute about how many "backpack" journalists the company will be allowed to hire, and back in February at WKYC-TV the photographers lost the personal use of their company car.

"This isn't really a surprise," WOIO-TV operations manager Kim Fatica said. "When I was the operations manager at WKYC-TV the general manager, a couple of years ago, was talking about taking away the private use of the cars to save money. Every TV station in Cleveland has allowed the photographers to take home their vehicles up until now. But now everyone's cutting back to save money. It's a belt tightening issue."

Fatica says a big part of the current economic problem for Ohio television stations is - believe it or not - the presidential race.

"It's because of the political money that they were all expecting. They budgeted for this year thinking that there was going to be a lot of money spent here buying TV advertisements for presidential candidates [in the general campaign, after the primary]. But because of what's going on in the Democratic race, because there's not a front-running contender, the political parties are not buying TV advertisements. We're being told that because the presidential advertising money was budgeted as coming in by now, and it hasn't come in, that now we're going to have to make money-saving cuts."

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"Years ago when I was fired from a job I took it personally," John Gross at KSTP-TV said this week while he was talking about how someone as talented a video editor as Montano could be the victim of a newsroom budget squeeze. "It was years later when I finally realized that they weren't firing me, they were firing my salary." It was the curse of being a well-paid veteran employee.

More recently Gross did a story about a book Harvey MacKay wrote about how to deal with being fired or laid off. It's called "We Got Fired! And It's The Best Thing That Ever Happened To Us." The book profiles 28 celebrities and they offer their experience and best advice on coping with the loss of a job and how to go about getting not only another job, but the job you really want.

"I did a 10-minute story on the book and you can watch either the long version, or a 1.5-minute version, on the KSTP-TV Web site," Gross said.