Many New Orleans TV Photojournalists Fear Losing Their Jobs Because Of Hurricane Katrina

Sep 7, 2005

As if the hardship of enduring HurricaneKatrina and then covering the almost-unbelievable devastation in the storm's aftermath wasn't enough, many television photojournalists in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast are learning that shortly they could also be out of a job.

Corporate television owners are apparently trying to determine if there's going to be anyone doing business in New Orleans in the near future who will buy television advertising. If not, without advertising revenue the corporations will have to foot the entire cost of operating a television station in the devastated market - a tremendous expense that could pull down revenues from their other markets, a cost that most owners are probably going to be unwilling to bear.

Photojournalists at WWL-TVChannel 4, the New Orleans CBS affiliate, were hearing talk early in the week about their jobs possibly ending because theBeloCorporation, owners of the station, was going to "evaluate the situation" in 60 days, and decide whether or not there would be a news operation at all or a "significantly scaled back" news division. Today CareyHendrickson, Belo's vice president for investor relations and corporate communications, toldNews Photographer, "Belo is committed to WWL and its presence in New Orleans. WWL has a tremendous legacy and we are going to do everything we can to restore normal operations. Originally, we told employees that we hoped to have more information about future operations by November 1; now, we believe we are in a holding pattern for approximately six months."

Carey also shared a press release from Belo that says: "To assist its employees at WWL and NewsWatch on Channel 15 who have been severely impacted personally by Hurricane Katrina, Belo Corp. and The Belo Foundation have established the WWL-TV Employee Relief Fund. Belo Corp. has committed $200,000 to the fund initially and will also match dollar-for-dollar the contributions of employees at Belo companies. The general public and business partners are also invited to make contributions to the relief fund. Donations are tax-deductible. Cash or check donations made out to the WWL-TV Employee Relief Fund may be made in person at The Belo Foundation, located in Suite 200 of The Belo Building in Dallas, and checks may also be mailed in care of The Belo Foundation at P.O. Box 655237, Dallas, TX, 75265-5237, with questions answered at +1.214.977.6661. The Relief Fund made an initial tax-free distribution of $1,000 to every WWL employee to meet his or her immediate needs."

A television source from New Orleans told NewsPhotographer magazine that at WVUE-TV Fox 8, a station owned by Emmis Television, employees were no longer working. The station had reportedly been for sale in mid-August before the storm when Emmis announced it had sold nine of its 16 television stations. A message posted on B-Roll.net this week said that WVUE-TV employees were "given $100.00 and sent packing."

A spokesperson for Emmis Television today said "that's not true." Kate Snedeker, director of media and investor relations for Emmis, said, "All employees have jobs. We've made a commitment to employees and we're going to stand by it. The very first message that went last week from Randy Bongarten (president of Emmis Television) made it clear." Snedeker said Emmis has created a secure employee-only Web site for WVUE-TV workers where they can log in and get up-to-date information. That site is at www.wvuehelp.com and if you're an empolyee and don't have a user name and password, you can get one by calling +1.866.366.4747.

Leonel Mendezhas been a photojournalist at WVUE-TV and his wife, Meredith, has been a reporter for WGNO-TV. Over the weekend he posted this note on the B-Roll.net message board:

"We lost everything, including our home, in New Orleans. If anyone knows of any jobs out there... I would appreciate a heads up. I'm open to anything but we do have family in the Washington, DC, area which would make relocation there very easy." The couple left New Orleans and traveled to Meredith's father's house in Memphis, TN, he said, as they search for jobs. Mendez wrote, "Thanks to anyone who can help us with this tragedy. My eMail is leonelmendez504@hotmail.com if you have any leads on reporting or anchoring jobs."

Today in an update to his posting Mendez, in Memphis, told NewsPhotographer, "I have some great opportunites right now. I'm going on a job interview next Wednesday, and everyone's just been great. I've got a lot of eMails and phone calls. In the meantime, we're still getting paid by the station but everyone's worried about what's going to happen to the station. We're not even allowed back in the station because of the water. Some people got to come home this week to take care of their families, my wife's home right now, she's been working out of WBRC in Baton Rouge where her station moved their operations."

"If we don't get jobs, she'll be going back to work at WGNO-TV," he said, "and right now we're pretty worried about the future. Our house was 8 to 10 blocks from where the levy broke, so we're pretty sure the house is up to the roof line with water. Since I'm not working, I've been sitting here looking at these pictures, I have time to look and to take it in. Everyone's been touched, everyone's touched."

Television photojournalist DavidSussman, chief photographer for WGNO-TV Channel 26 in New Orleans, and his wife Diane, their children and their parents, are glad to be alive and to have survived Hurricane Katrina. WGNO-TV is owned byTribuneBroadcasting. While rumors swirl on message boards and in online forums that Tribune may shut down operations in 90 days if there's no advertising revenue, Sussman left a telephone message forNewsPhotographermagazine Monday saying that this isn't exactly the case, and that Tribune continues to stand by WGNO-TV.

The station's other news photographers are still working covering the hurricane's aftermath, and WGNO-TV continues to broadcast today fromWBRZ-TVin Baton Rouge.

Sussman was born and raised in New Orleans and worked in Mobile, AL, and Nashville, TN, before "coming home" to New Orleans in 1996 to be closer to his parents, his wife Diane said. His parents' home, blocks from Lake Pontchartrain, was washed away and they were evacuated to Alexandria, LA. Sussman's wife and their children, along with Diane's mother, fled the flooding and urban anarchy and went to St. Louis, MO. The Sussman's house was spared, and Diane's mother's house was spared – "for now, as long as it's not looted or burned down," she said Sunday.

But many television newsroom employees in New Orleans who are in situations similar to Sussman's have put the word out on the grapevine, and in postings on the online discussion boards, that they're looking for new jobs and for new places to live. Encouragingly, many in the television news community have responded by posting messages online about job openings they've seen or heard about, or stations where there may soon be new opportunities.