At Wmar, The Likely Wave Of The Future In Television News

December 20, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

WMAR's decision to shrink its newsroom and have its remaining reporters, photographers and selected other personnel double and even triple their responsibilities - in some cases writing, reporting, photographing and editing stories themselves instead of handing them off to others - might prove to be the wave of the future for all of Baltimore's TV news operations.

Although WMAR is the first Baltimore station to focus on what is known in the industry as MMJs (multimedia journalists), they have become the norm in many cities as local TV stations struggle with declining budgets and ad revenue as well as increasing competition from other media. And while officials at Baltimore's other TV news operations say they do not intend to follow WMAR's lead exactly, industry experts see such journalistic multitasking as practically inevitable.

"It's sort of the destination of the present," says Deborah Potter, director of NewsLab, a nonprofit TV journalism resource center in Washington. "We've already seen a lot of local television stations go in this direction."

Since WMAR made a companywide buyout offer about two months ago, more than a dozen on- and off-camera staff members have left, says General Manager Bill Hooper, reducing the station's unionized work force by 18 percent. That included veteran anchors Mary Beth Marsden and Terry Owens (who have been replaced by Kelly Swoope and Roosevelt Leftwich), as well as reporter Delia Goncalves. Meteorologist Norm Lewis, a fixture on Baltimore TV for more than 30 years, is retiring Tuesday.

That leaves WMAR with eight reporters, says Hooper, all of whom will be asked to develop new skills and pick up new responsibilities in the coming months. The same will be true of the station's 15 videographers and editors, he says. Under the new job description, reporters will be setting up their own cameras and editing their own stories, while videographers will be out on the street reporting. While teams might be sent out on bigger or more dangerous stories, WMAR journalists will often find themselves working solo.

"They'll all be going through the training, they'll all become MMJs," Hooper says, noting that WMAR's parent company, Cincinnati-based E.W. Scripps Co., has committed about $1.5 million in equipment and training to the effort over the past two years.

"Our anchors aren't exempt from doing this either. All the anchors are going to go through training," he says. "This will give us the opportunity to be more flexible, to have more feet on the street." At the Scripps-owned station in Phoenix, he says, MMJs are covering about 70 more local stories a week.

WMAR is among the last of the 10 Scripps-owned stations to receive MMJ training, says News Director Kelly Groft. "It's happening all over the country. Maybe in this market we're in the forefront of things, but we're right in the thick of it in the industry."

Unions that represent most of WMAR's employees had to sign off on the changes, says Hooper, who praised the willingness of AFTRA, which represents on-air talent, and IBEW, the technicians union, to work toward an agreement.

"The unions were very cooperative," he says. "They saw the future. Plus, they realized that [their members] are all going to learn new skills, and they're going to be more valuable [employees] down the road."

Marsden, who was a shop steward at the station before accepting the buyout offer, characterized the negotiations as "painful at times," but says members believed in the end that their choices were limited.

"These are issues other stations are going to have to tackle as other contracts come up," she says. "The television newsroom of the future is changing."

Throughout the TV news industry, as in newspapers and magazines, journalists are being asked to take on additional responsibilities, such as blogging or contributing to other social-networking media. But outside of WMAR, which ranks a distant third or fourth in the local market, behind WBAL, WJZ and sometimes WBFF, no other Baltimore station has so carefully delineated those responsibilities.

In all, WMAR lists 16 on-air personalities on its Web site. That compares with 20 for WBFF, 26 for WJZ and 27 for WBAL.

"We are using different technologies to communicate," says Bill Fanshawe, general manager of WBFF-TV, Channel 45. "From tweeting information to sending text messages, using the Internet to communicate. ... The world's changing, and we're using the technology. But we're not going through an overhaul or a restructure similar to WMAR."

Jordan Wertlieb, president and general manager of WBAL, Channel 11, agrees that "we are asking people to provide content on every platform possible." But he says changes similar to those being made at WMAR are "not on the horizon."

Still, says NewsLab's Potter, TV newsrooms are going to be under increasing pressure to adapt. And not all reporters may be able, or willing, to make the transition.

"I've known some stations where 20-year veteran reporters have picked up cameras and gone out and started shooting and loved it," she says. "But there are going to be some people who may get out of the business. You can't simply say, 'We're going to take all of our square pegs and make them round.' You can't do that."

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