Skip to main content

WNBC struggles to transform news operation

John Wallace, the president of NBC Universal’s local media division, stood in a television studio on the sixth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza on Oct. 21 and spoke to a room full of employees about the future of local news.

Standing in the historic studio once used by Johnny Carson for “The Tonight Show,” Wallace spoke about the challenges facing news organizations — problems compounded by the recent developments on Wall Street. He called it a “perfect storm.” The fix, he suggested, was to focus on both journalism and aggregation for multiple distribution platforms.

The “New York Observer” newspaper said the afternoon meeting was the latest in a series of town-hall-style meetings, organized by NBC corporate executives, to explain to WNBC staffers the radical transformation of their workplace, which has been unfolding over the past five months.

As part of the transformation, NBC will be creating a new 24-hour local news channel, a revamped local news Web site, and increased services for mobile news consumers. The WNBC newsroom will turn into a “content center,” an organization for the gathering and aggregating of local news that will supposedly increase the division’s efficiencies and better cater to the shifting consumption habits of New York viewers.

Soon after the announcement, construction workers began renovating the WNBC newsroom, knocking down the conference room and constructing a new TV studio. That work is now about two-thirds complete. Sometime in the next couple of months — once work is completed on the new studio — WNBC will begin its 24-hour local news operation. Today, the station will unveil its new Web site

It’s all part of a $10 million-plus investment by NBC to transform the operation into a newsroom of the future. But many employees see it as the end of an era, with the dumbing down of news made by a new group of lower paid “content producers.”

According to the newspaper, over the summer, the majority of the off-air employees (video editors, assignment editors, producers, etc.) at WNBC got the message that their jobs might no longer exist in the future. They were told that NBC would soon be hiring a new caste of employees, known as “content producers.” They were encouraged to apply for the new positions. In order to do so, they would need to simply participate in a retraining program and, afterward, pass a related test.

Some employees bristled at having to apply for new jobs after decades of service. Others, who were potentially game for the retraining, say they were frustrated by questions about the new positions that management seemed to refuse to answer.

“They won’t tell you how much money you’ll get paid,” said one current staffer.

In recent months, a number of senior cameramen have either taken early retirement packages or jumped to rival stations. Their vacated positions have not been refilled. According to one current staffer, the number of cameramen on staff has dropped in recent months from roughly 25 to 10.