Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Channel 2 cuts from the top

Burns, Childers axed in dramatic newsroom purge

After years of telling viewers about job cuts in the steel industry, among automakers, in the airline business and elsewhere, it's now WBBM-Ch. 2 anchor Diann Burns' industry—the media—shrinking. It's now her job lost.

Burns, reputed to be the city's highest-paid anchor, at $2 million per year, was part of the most dramatic single-day newsroom purge in Chicago TV history.

Beyond its lead anchor, the CBS-owned station on Monday cast off lead sportscaster Mark Malone, longtime anchor-turned-health correspondent Mary Ann Childers, reporter Katie McCall, as well as several behind-the-scenes personnel.

All told, the station wide cost-cutting sweep claimed about 18 people from what had been a staff of more than 200, effective immediately. No department was exempt. Channel 2 President and General Manager Joe Ahern would only say the reduction was a "single-digit" percentage of the WBBM workforce.

Some were laid off. Others, including Burns, whose five-year deal isn't set to expire until October, were told their contracts will not be renewed.

What happened at Channel 2 is endemic to nearly all broadcast and print outlets of late. With audiences and advertisers investing more time and money in digital platforms such as the Internet, old-style media have announced cutbacks to offset the slipping revenue.

"It's an industry wide retrenchment," said Ron Magers, anchor at ABC-owned WLS-Ch. 7, where Burns worked before moving to Channel 2 in 2003. "It's really not fair to look at the individual cases. It's gotten tougher for everybody in old media—newspapers, radio, magazines, television, all of it. However, I've seen us go through fits and struggles before."

"The hope I hold onto is that we will all be reporting something somewhere somehow. We just don't know what platform."

WBBM's reductions reflect more than the station's struggles in local news ratings and failure to overtake perennial market leader Channel 7. Cuts have been coming to CBS owned and operated stations across the country.

"We're not unique in the economic environments we're all involved in," Ahern said. "Many, many others have gone through these reviews of staffing and resources in order to adjust to the economic conditions."

Among the many to reduce their workforces of late are the Chicago Tribune and sister Tribune Co. papers such as the Los Angeles Times and Newsday of New York, the Chicago Sun-Times and its dozens of area sister papers, the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, CBS Radio, NBC News and Citadel Broadcasting.

Citadel, owner of Chicago's WLS-AM 890, for example, laid off that station's news director, Jennifer Keiper, veteran City Hall reporter Bill Cameron and several others on the heels of the company's February announcement of weak fourth-quarter results.

News Corp.'s WFLD-Ch. 32, despite the success of Fox's prime-time hits " American Idol" and "House," last month bid farewell to one of its lead anchors, Mark Suppelsa, after he turned down a contract renewal that sources say would have cut his salary by as much as 25 percent.

Cutbacks are being seen in other areas, as well. The New York Times last week reported papers such as USA Today and the Dallas Morning News aren't paying to have staff trail presidential candidates' every move the way they once did.

"We have to rethink how we do business," said Ahern, who hired Burns shortly after he arrived at Channel 2 in the hopes of turning around the station.

"The paradigms are changing in the way in which we do business. Our commitment is never going to change—to do news and programming and community service—but [it will be] in a different way. All our people are being asked to do more and face the challenges of the future. But that's the dynamics of the business and, frankly, most businesses."

Ahern did not say how the station planned to replace Burns, although the station earlier announced the hiring of newscaster Anne State from San Diego.

A likely candidate to replace Malone is newly hired sportscaster Ryan Baker, who just left WMAQ-Ch. 5.

For her part, Burns only issued a statement: "I got to be close to a lot of good people there and we put on a lot of great news together. I wish them well."

Her agent and husband, Marc Watts, who also represents laid-off Channel 2 reporter Rafael Romo, said he was not concerned. "The bottom line is, they're two talented individuals and they're both good at what they do and they'll work again," Watts said. "Both my clients look forward to new challenges in television."

If nothing else, as she collects the $1 million for the remaining six months on her contract, Burns now has something new in common with much of the viewing audience.

"Everybody in every established business in America knows what cutbacks are like, knows what doing more with less is like, knows what being more efficient is like, knows what trying to learn new paradigms is like," Channel 7's Magers said. "So it seems to me, though scary, the natural order of business.

"The scariest thing for me is I just don't know where we come out the other side."

Phil Rosenthal is the Tribune's media columnist.


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