On the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 21, John Wallace, the president of NBC Universal’s local media division, stood in a television studio on the sixth floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and spoke to a room full of employees about the future of local news.
The space, which decades ago served as the studio for The Tonight Show (that is, until Johnny Carson decamped for the West Coast), now serves as the broadcasting home of Sue Simmons, Chuck Scarborough, Len Berman and the rest of the WNBC News Channel 4 team.
Shortly after 2 p.m., WNBC staffers convened in the studio in part to hear management’s latest take on their future livelihood at 30 Rock. According to a staffer who attended the meeting, Mr. Wallace spoke of the challenges facing news organizations—problems compounded by the recent developments on Wall Street.
He called the situation a “perfect storm.” The way out, he suggested, was to focus on both journalism and aggregation and to do so on multiple platforms.
On the whole, said our source, “the mood was somber.”
The afternoon get-together was the latest in a series of town-hall-style meetings, organized by NBC corporate executives, to explain to WNBC staffers the radical (and, some say, depressing) transformation of their workplace, which has been unfolding over the past five months.
The upheaval began back in May, when NBC executives announced that they would be restructuring WNBC’s newsroom. As part of the transformation, NBC would be creating a new 24-hour local news channel, a revamped local news Web site and increased services for mobile news consumers.
To feed the expanding platforms, network executives said at the time, they would be morphing the WNBC newsroom into something called a “content center”—a newfangled organization for the gathering and aggregating of local news that would supposedly increase the division’s efficiencies and better cater to the shifting consumption habits of New York viewers.
On the heels of the announcement, change came fast. Crews of construction workers swiftly descended on the seventh floor of 30 Rock and began extensively renovating the WNBC newsroom, knocking down the conference room, for instance, and constructing a new TV studio.
In an interview with The Observer on Monday afternoon, Tom O’Brien, the station’s president and general manager, said that those renovations are now roughly two-thirds complete. On Monday, Oct. 27, WNBC will unveil its new Web site, http://www.nbcnewyork.com. Sometime in the next couple on months, once work is completed on the new studio, WNBC will kick off its 24-hour local news station (details about what the channel will ultimately look like remain scarce).
“We’re doing the final section as we speak,” said Mr. O’Brien. “Basically it’s part of a 10-plus-million-dollar commitment to transform the operation into a newsroom of the future.”
For years, thanks to its high profitability, WNBC enjoyed a large amount of autonomy at 30 Rock. Several sources, who spoke to The Observer on the condition of anonymity, said they believe that the network is now capitalizing on the generally miserable climate for news organizations to justify the reigning in of the news division and its costs, which, they admit, swelled at times in recent years.
“They’re pretending that this is a transformation to take local news into the next century,” said one former employee. “They think they can throw out a bunch of buzzwords and impress everybody. In the meantime, they’re cutting, cutting, cutting.”
According to several sources, 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, according to our sources, 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 to do it,” said one current staffer. Mr. O’Brien, the general manager, said to date that roughly 80 people have gone through the retraining courses on how to use the new software program, which is made by a company called Dalet. Mr. O’Brien said that the software will help streamline the production of news stories across multiple platforms. It’s the same software, he said, that the employees at the cross-platform celebrity news organization TMZ have used in recent years to succeed on the Web and on TV.
“It really simplifies things,” said Mr. O’Brien. “A lot of our work ends up being redundant processing. This kind of eliminates a lot of the overhead—not necessarily the cost overhead. But overhead as far as the time it takes for us to make shows.
“People have generally been excited when they come out of training,” he added.
That said, since May, a number of longtime WNBC employees have departed. Other veteran employees, according to sources, are on their way out, including WNBC’s managing editor Peter Facini; Today in New York senior executive producer Kim Gerbasi; and longtime New Jersey bureau chief Felix Martinez.
And recently, an old rumor has reignited—namely that management will soon replace Sue Simmons, the longtime, beloved and highly paid anchor on the 11 p.m. news, which she currently co-anchors with Chuck Scarborough. A company spokesperson said that there’s absolutely no factual substance to that claim.
According to sources, 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 roughly 10. “If you don’t have people to take pictures and you don’t have people to edit pictures, then you’re not delivering visual news,” said the source.
When asked how WNBC can expand its coverage of the tristate region—in particular, its 24-hour news channel—with a significantly smaller number of cameramen (and assignment editors) on staff, Mr. O’Brien said that it’s unfair to compare an old process to a new process.
“The reality is that there’s content coming from all over,” said Mr. O’Brien. “There’s video out there. We have content producers that can pick up video. We have photographer-reporter combinations who can gather video.”
Over the summer, workers erected a temporary wall, made of sheet metal, a few feet in front of WNBC’s assignment desk. According to one source, disgruntled colleagues have gradually turned the barrier into a mini “Berlin wall,” covering it in hand-scrawled graffiti, conveying “veiled messages of depression.” One doodle suggested a scene from the Titanic. Another, more questionable scrawl read “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
Historically, the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians has represented a significant number of the off-air employees at WNBC. Currently, NABET representatives are in the early stages of renegotiating their current contract with NBC Universal, which is set to expire on March 31, 2009.
Mr. O’Brien acknowledged that the “content producer” jobs were not covered as part of the comprehensive union agreement. But he dismissed the idea that there were any union-busting attempts going on. He also dismissed the suggestion that WNBC is conducting a widespread replacement of its older, more experienced workers with young, cheaper employees.
“We have one of the most experienced news teams in the city of New York,” said Mr. O’Brien. “We are going to have one of the most experienced news teams in the city of New York.”
When asked by The Observer if the budget for the “content center” will be greater or smaller than the previous budget for the WNBC newsroom, Mr. O’Brien said, “It’s going to be different.”
“A lot of what we’re doing here is trying to work out the inefficiencies of the process,” he added. “With that, we’re going to see some benefits of productivity.”