A Better News Division, Rockefeller Money Can’t Buy

On the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 21, John Wallace, the president of NBC Universal’s local media division, stood in a

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, 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.

A Better News Division, Rockefeller Money Can’t Buy