WUSA-TV, the CBS affiliate in Washington, D.C., will become the first station in the nation’s capital to replace its news crews with one-person multimedia journalists, who will shoot and edit news stories single-handedly.
The change, reported by the “Washington Post,” will blur the distinctions between the station’s reporters and its camera and production workers. For decades, TV journalists have worked in teams, with the lines of responsibility regulated by union rules or simple tradition, according to the newspaper.
The transition is driven by increasing financial pressure on TV stations, as advertisers disappear from nightly newscasts and audiences scatter to the growing number of channels and Web sites.
WUSA, owned by Gannett, also plans an across-the-board cut in reporters’ salaries as it increases their responsibilities. Multimedia journalists will earn 30 to 50 percent less than what traditional reporters have been earning, with salaries topping out at around $90,000 annually, according to the newspaper’s sources.
The station will switch to the new system early next year, becoming one of the first stations in a major market to revamp its entire newsroom. Its agreement is with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which represents on-air reporters, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents production employees. Union members said they expect the agreement to be ratified.
A competing station, WRC-TV, Channel 4, is expected to begin phasing multimedia journalists into its newsroom later next year as part of a sweeping cost-cutting effort by its parent, NBC Universal. WJLA-TV, Channel 7, has already used some of the work of multimedia reporters employed by NewsChannel 8, the cable station that is owned by the parent of WJLA-TV, Allbritton Communications.
Veteran television journalists told the newspaper their concern isn’t the quantity of news that can be produced but the quality, because not all TV journalists are skilled enough to do a job formerly handled by specialists.
“There are some people who will be very good at this, and some not as much,” said Bill Lord, WJLA’s news director. “If you’re forcing everyone to do things against their skill levels and desire, your product suffers.”
Lord says stations in Nashville and San Francisco have used multimedia journalists on an experimental basis in recent years but have backed away because of “falling quality” and declining ratings.
The upcoming changes at WUSA have soured veteran reporter Gary Reels, who began working at the station in 1980. Reels has decided to take a buyout offer from the station and will leave Dec. 23. He doesn’t know yet what he’ll be doing next. “It takes a lot of time to shoot and edit and write and prepare a story, and if you have one person doing all that, something has to give,” he said. “For those people who want to take the challenge of adding all that to their workload, my hat’s off to them. But it’s not something at my ripe old age that I care to venture into.”