First published:

SF Weekly | April 12, 2006

In a first-of-its-kind move by a local TV station in a major market, KRON is jettisoning traditional reporters for "video journalists," aka VJs or "one-man bands," who report, edit and shoot their stories solo

"There's nothing wrong with one-man bands. That's why God created Bakersfield"

Above: KRON sportscaster Gary Radnich. His on-air barbs poking fun at the VJ experiment make for nervous humor.

 

Below: Anchors Tom Sinkovitz and Catherine Heenan

 

|Paol0 Vescia 

 

 

KRON's Last Gasp

How a once-proud San Francisco television station became ground zero in the nation's most controversial experiment in local TV news.

 

 

By Ron Russell

 

Time was when KRON (Channel 4) was at the top of the television news heap. Its newscasts were among the most watched in the Bay Area. Its anchors were stars. Its owners, San Francisco's blue-blooded de Young family, who also owned the Chronicle, were beneficent stewards who had nurtured the station from its infancy in 1949. In a medium often derided for car chases, talking hairdos, and ratings-week sensationalism, KRON's news department in the '80s and for the first half of the '90s was widely considered to be the gold standard for local television news. While local news operations around the country were turning silly, KRON stuck to its knitting, earning a reputation as a place where serious news still mattered.

 

Management thought nothing of dispatching teams of reporters across the country, or abroad, for the sake of a worthy story. The station maintained news bureaus in Washington, D.C., Sacramento, the East Bay, and the South Bay. It attracted top talent and regularly won prestigious national journalism awards, including the DuPont-Columbia, Peabody, and Polk, not to mention a slew of local Emmies.

 

But that was then.

 

These days the once-proud San Francisco station is an also-ran in the local news race. It has been that way ever since its current owner, Young Broadcasting Inc., forked over a whopping $825 million to buy the station in 2000. New York-based Young then watched helplessly as the NBC television network, which had wanted to own KRON, yanked its network affiliation and — in the ultimate indignity — bestowed it upon a then-obscure Bay Area rival, San Jose's KNTV, Channel 11.

 

Now, with the independent KRON struggling financially (the parent company's stock has plummeted from $65 to $3 in six years) and the station's news programming mired in fourth place among the Bay Area's five competing news stations, management has launched a bold — some say, desperate — attempt to rein in finances while purporting to rebuild the franchise.

 

In a first-of-its-kind move by a local television station in a major market, KRON is jettisoning the traditional way TV stations report the news — that is, with two-person teams consisting of a reporter and camera operator, backed up by videotape editors and sometimes field producers. That team is being replaced with so-called "video journalists," aka VJs, or "one-man bands" — a breed of all-purpose (and generally lower-paid) news hunter-gatherers equipped with handheld digital video cameras and souped-up laptop computers enabling them to report, shoot, and edit their stories solo.

 

The results so far have been less than stupendous.

 

With its 35 or so VJs, KRON is able to put more bodies in the field compared to when it deployed about a dozen traditional news teams. (It still relies on two or three such teams for most newscasts.) But transforming former reporters, camera operators, assignment editors, and even a tape-rewind person or two into VJs who report, shoot, voice-over, and edit a story, has, overall, been no picnic. As discerning viewers have undoubtedly noticed, the results at times are more akin to home movies than news programming broadcast to the nation's sixth-largest TV market.

 

Cameras are sometimes angled clumsily, or are ill-focused, or the sound is a little off. News pieces that are shot well often lack acceptable editing, or writing, or both. Often there's no time for the VJs to include archival material to provide context. Some of them sound more like coal miners or shoe salesmen than television enunciators. And even when the reporting is first-rate, the video can be distractingly bad, as with the anti-death-penalty rally at San Quentin State Prison in December at which rapper Snoop Dogg's face was obscured by tree branches.

 

While insisting publicly that the move was made primarily for journalistic reasons, company officials acknowledge the cost savings inherent in having one person do the job of three or more people. Mark Antonitis, KRON's general manager, who was sent in from a station in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to oversee the transition, also acknowledges the rough spots. "We're a work in progress. These things take time," he says. "A year from now, two years from now, you're going to see a remarkable transformation."

 

Predictably, the experiment has set off a firestorm in television news circles, and especially at KRON, where management has pitted the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the union representing anchors and on-air personalities, against the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), composed mostly of cameramen and other traditionally back-of-the-camera professionals. The result is a kind of survival of the fittest to see which employees make the cut in the brave new world of the multipurpose "one-man band."

 

Early reviews have been less than glowing.

 

"Considering the competitive environment out there, this isn't the time to retrench on quality, which is clearly the way the VJ experiment is being perceived," says Bruce Lindgren, a consultant to about 25 TV stations across the country. Dan Rosenheim, news director at KPIX (Channel 5), and who held the same post at KRON in the early '90s, agrees. "It's not something that we have under consideration," he says of the VJ campaign. "But at the same time, I think all of us have to realize that the [media] world is changing very rapidly."

 

Others are more vehement.

 

"You can call the VJ experiment anything you want, but a pig is still a pig," says former television journalist Hub Brown, who heads the communications department at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. "When you shove a camera and editing equipment into everyone's hands and expect them to do it all, you devalue the entire news-gathering process."

 

At KRON, meanwhile, "there's no question that people are running scared, and who could blame them," says Greg Lyon, a longtime former reporter who left the station before the VJ initiative, but who nonetheless is pessimistic about the kind of journalism it has wrought. "There's no way you can ask one person to do the work of three people at the same time and expect that quality won't suffer, and it has," he says.

 

He and others acknowledge the "fear and anguish" at Young's applying the one-man-band concept — long common in small markets among stations with meager resources — to a major market like San Francisco. One staffer, echoing what some of his colleagues are saying privately, brands the move as "horrifying," adding: "There's nothing wrong with one-man bands. That's why God created Bakersfield."

 

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Terisa Estacio is running late. The veteran reporter-turned-video journalist is supposed to be at an apartment building in the Tenderloin, where Mayor Gavin Newsom is making an appearance to showcase a housing initiative, but she's stuck in traffic.

 

By the time she arrives, a phalanx of news crews from other stations have staked out positions in the lobby where Newsom is speaking. Putting aside notebook and handbag — not to mention her ego — Estacio, 41, a former CBS News correspondent who also covered the Clinton White House for Tribune Broadcasting, pulls out a puppy-dog-sized video camera. Then she does something that no TV news reporter outside of small-town markets whose stations can't afford otherwise could, until recently, ever imagine: Instead of focusing on reporting, she's shooting her own news footage. She's still at it after the mayor leaves, pressing a tenant for a tour of the new apartment he shares with his teenage son. Then, camera rolling, she interviews a city housing bureaucrat before rushing outside for a "wide shot" of the building. She even manages to shoot her own "stand up" — a clip of herself speaking into the camera — as if someone else is operating it. She does it by carefully positioning the camera atop a concrete planter.

 

Back at the newsroom, after transferring the video onto a laptop computer, Estacio settles in at a communal desk beside other VJs and hurriedly edits her story in time for the 5 p.m. newscast. As "shooter," reporter, and video editor, she has done the work of three people. "Do I get snickers [from the other stations' crews]? Sure, sometimes," she says, answering her own question. "It's more fear than loathing."

 

The fear among some in the TV news industry is that what KRON is doing may take root at other major-market TV stations, here and elsewhere. "People at large-market stations all over the country are looking at KRON and wondering if it can happen where they are," says Cathryn Poff, a producer at Voice of America in Washington, D.C., and a KRON alum.

 

Estacio hears it all the time. "I've had people from other stations say to me, 'It's nothing personal, but I sure hope you fail.'"

 

Willingly or not, she has become a poster girl for what KRON management hopes the VJ enterprise becomes. But, so far, at least, she's more the exception than the rule. In the heady days of last summer, when management brought in VJ guru and former CBS News producer Michael Rosenblum to train its eager-or-not-charges, the prevailing mantra was that — far from being solely about cost-cutting — VJs would give the beleaguered station the chance to do more with less.

 

Instead of a dozen or so traditional two-person news teams, mostly working under daily deadlines, the station would have up to 50 VJs. That, in theory, would make it possible to produce more daily content, as well as free up some of the VJs to develop the kind of in-depth pieces that require more time to produce.

 

The economics of the move are unassailable.

 

Equip the VJs with handheld digital cameras that retail for under $5,000, give them a high-powered laptop that costs less than $2,000, making it possible to edit and transfer video via the Internet from any Wi-Fi hotspot — or from home for that matter — and voila! Gone is the need for videotape analog editing booths that run $50,000 apiece and traditional cameras that cost upward of $25,000.

 

As for those TV trucks stuffed with expensive microwave and satellite equipment? Swap them for Pontiac Vibes, the station's economy car of choice for its VJs. And, of course, that doesn't begin to address the payroll savings derived from training one person to assume multiple jobs.

 

Yet, nearly six months into the new era at KRON (and slightly longer at much smaller WKRN-TV, a Young sister station in Nashville, Tennessee, which has also gone one-man band), reality hasn't quite matched the corporate ballyhoo. Much of the VJ material that makes it to air features the disembodied voices of former cameramen, assignment editors, and behind-the-scenes players such as tape editors who probably never dreamed of being on-air.

 

The product often looks good, sounds good, or is written well, but seldom all three. Then again, in fairness, probably not even Edward R. Murrow could excel at three jobs at once. "Reporters don't necessarily make good shooters or [video] editors, and people who've worked behind the camera don't necessarily know how to convey a story," says Greg Lyon, the former KRON staffer.

 

Of the approximately 35 people at the station who underwent VJ training and who've remained (another 15 who were trained either didn't make the cut or left voluntarily), only about half a dozen have sufficiently mastered the complexities of their new roles to turn out news pieces on a daily basis. Most of them, including Estacio and veteran newsman Don Knapp, whose resume includes a dozen years as a CNN correspondent, are from the ranks of traditional reporters.

 

As a result, the news programs continue to rely heavily on "live shots" from the handful of two-person crews the station still deploys, with many VJ pieces relegated to back-burner status. Neither has the VJ campaign helped improve KRON's anemic news ratings. Up against a ton of competition from other stations and from cable, even the station's nightly 9 p.m. newscast, its most-watched news show, seldom attracts more than single-digit percentages of Bay Area TV households.

 

Last summer, the station's then news director, Chris Lee, boldly proclaimed that by putting an army of VJs on the streets the station would leave its competitors in the dust.

 

But Lee resigned last month, sounding somber. In an e-mail that made the rounds of KRON's pared-down and dispirited newsroom, the ex-news honcho said he needed time to "detoxify" after the "constant layoffs, downsizing, and calculating at just what speed the sky is falling."

 

+++

 

Forty-five minutes into KRON's bread-and-butter 9 p.m. newscast, with the serious stuff safely out of the way, Gary Radnich, the station's resident alpha male sportscaster and its biggest star, is up to his usual mischief. His guest, his wife Alicia, has come on the show to read questions from viewers, and as part of the schtick, the ever-jocular Radnich is pretending to give her the star treatment. "OK, honey, I've given you a break to let you on the air here, but no matter what happens, you're not going to become a VJ," he tells her.

 

It's the latest in a barrage of good-natured jibes delivered by Radnich since the VJ model was unveiled (which includes his on-air needling of the station's "crack VJ coverage" and lightly mocking references to weekend sports anchor Vernon Glenn as "VJ Vern") that he shares with viewers as a kind of running joke.

 

And it's contagious.

 

At the end of the segment, after Radnich pitches it back to co-anchors Tom Sinkovitz and Pam Moore, and Moore allows as how she thinks Alicia is going to be "a star," Sinkovitz pulls out a phone from behind the anchor desk and chimes, "KPIX is on the line."

 

It's yet another inside joke for a station than can definitely use the humor. As KRON's fortunes under Young Broadcasting have declined, at least two dozen staffers have wound up at KPIX. "KRON has had some wonderful people, and we're lucky to have gotten some of them," says Dan Rosenheim, the KPIX news director, who was managing editor at the Chronicle before getting into television. So many KRON people have gone over to Rosenheim's station, whose downtown offices are near the eastern waterfront, those left behind refer to it as "KRON East."

 

Among those making the switch was veteran reporter Linda Yee, who shuffled to Channel 5 last November rather than stick around to see how the video journalism phenomenon unfolds. "I have lots of friends at KRON and they're doing what they have to do, but I didn't want to work there anymore because of the VJ thing," she says. Like other departed KRON staffers who do not have a high opinion of the VJ concept, she's reluctant to openly criticize her former station. "I still think of it fondly," she explains. Yee is part of a diaspora of veteran on-air talent who've fled KRON since the VJ model was first rumored. Other notables include investigative reporter Joe Ducey, who left for Phoenix, and reporter/anchor Ross Palumbo, who went to Los Angeles.

 

For many, the biggest blow came in January, when, after 33 years on the job, award-winning reporter Vic Lee, the dean of the KRON newsroom, left for KGO (Channel 7), even after management, in a bid to keep him from walking out the door, offered to exempt him from VJ duty. "When Vic left it was really crushing to a lot of us, both personally and professionally," confides Sinkovitz, the prime-time co-anchor.

 

Official word of the VJ switch arrived last May when Mark Antonitis, the station manager, gathered the troops into a first-floor conference room to break the news. "The station jammed the VJ thing down our throats," recalls an attendee, who didn't want their name used. "[Antonitis] pitched it in the name of improving the journalism, rather than cost-cutting, but that didn't impress many people."

 

Antonitis acknowledged that not everyone would embrace the VJ concept and for those who couldn't, "there is no dishonor in leaving," one attendee recalls him saying. "The higher-scale veterans took it as a clear signal to go and find other jobs," recounts one ex-staffer, who describes the video journalist program as "more the start of a purge than something visionary."

 

+++

 

To lay the groundwork for the change, the station brought in Rosenblum, the New York-based consultant and self-professed evangelist of the VJ concept. Rosenblum had conducted similar training for the British Broadcasting Corporation and for several cable stations, including NY1, the all-news cable channel in New York, but never at a major-market local news operation. For two and a half months, from September into November, he and his team conducted six-day "boot camps," training about a half-dozen people at a time. The sessions lasted 12 hours a day. "They even brought in our food; there was never a letup," recalls one participant.

 

Morale in the newsroom sank.

 

Many who were able left for jobs elsewhere. "People were walking around in a daze," says one newsroom employee. "I'm talking about talented professionals who gave their heart and soul to this place and were suddenly eliminated because they didn't fit the scheme."

 

A female employee tells of walking in on a colleague crying in the restroom. By the time the training rounds wrapped up, people were dropping like flies, says another staffer. "They generally fit into two camps: those who were let go and those who could see it coming and voluntarily jumped off the cliff." One newsroom veteran learned that she hadn't made the VJ cut via a voice message left on her home phone two days before Christmas. "It was brutal," she says.

 

As a perennial also-ran in the local news ratings wars, KRON arguably has little to lose in retooling its news operation. (KTVU, Channel 2, the Fox affiliate headquartered in Oakland, is currently the undisputed leader of the Bay Area pack.) The once-high-flying station has struggled almost from the day that Young Broadcasting — which owns nine other stations in smaller markets scattered across the South, Midwest, and Northeast — outbid NBC to buy it from Chronicle Publishing Co. in 2000.

 

The $825 million price tag stands as the most money ever paid for a TV station in the United States. Some critics viewed it as an insane amount, even considering that the Bay Area was at the epicenter of the dot-com boom and local stations were brimming with advertising money. But shortly after the sale, the dot-com bubble burst and advertising dried up.

 

That was only the start of KRON's troubles.

 

Spurned in its earlier bid to acquire the station, which for years was an NBC affiliate, the peacock network renewed its quest for KRON with the winning bidders at Young. When the sides couldn't come to terms, NBC played hardball. The station's network affiliation agreement was set to expire at the end of 2001. The network turned the tables, demanding "reverse compensation" for its programming — insisting that if Young wanted to keep the station in the NBC family, it would have to fork over millions of dollars for the privilege.

 

Then came the zinger.

 

After Young balked at the "reverse compensation" plan, NBC cut the deal with KNTV in San Jose, whose over-the-air signal was so weak it couldn't even be seen by nearly 400,000 people in the North Bay. As part of the deal, the network was given the option to buy the station, which it did early in 2002. By then, the network had already made good on its threat to yank the affiliation from KRON.

 

Life as an independent hasn't been kind. Without network programming to attract viewers, KRON has had to rely heavily on a mix of reality shows, infomercials, and syndicated re-reruns. To try and remedy the problem, Young announced last month that KRON will join the as-yet-to-air MyNetworkTV, a startup controlled by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which also owns Fox. The new network plans to unveil 12 hours of weekly prime-time programming in September, with a heavy reliance on guilty-pleasure miniseries akin to the Spanish-language telenovela concept.

 

Meanwhile, KRON continues to pay dearly for syndicated lead-in shows such as Dr. Phil and Sex and the City, in an effort to lure viewers to tune in to its flagging newscasts. The newscasts generally compete against those of KNTV — its usurper as the NBC flag-carrier — for the dubious distinction of avoiding last place among the Bay Area's competing news stations.

 

With KRON a giant monkey on its back, Young Broadcasting lost $91 million last year, more than double the $44 million in red ink from the year before. At one point, its stock price plunged as low as $1.70. Debt service alone on the KRON purchase drains $60 million a year from Young's coffers. Its credit rating has been reduced to "junk bond" status.

 

Within broadcasting circles, it's no secret that Young has for at least two years stood ready to entertain offers for the station. "As KRON goes, so goes Young, and right now we're obviously not doing very well," says a station insider, who asked not to be identified.

 

Against that backdrop, the bloodletting in the news department has been relentless. The station killed off its award-winning investigative unit in 2002 and ditched its special projects team the next year. More recently, it has jettisoned both its medical unit and a popular Contact 4 consumer team, whittled the staff of its weekend news programming, and placed its Sunday morning public affairs show, 4 the Record, featuring Chronicle political gossip Phil Matier and former Mayor Willie Brown, on hiatus.

 

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Even before the VJ model was introduced, writers, field producers, and control room technicians were being let go. "If someone quit or went out on leave, they weren't being replaced," says Knapp, the new elder statesman among on-camera reporters remaining in the newsroom. "Looking around, compared to how it was before, it's almost like working in a morgue."

 

Some complain the station has also changed in other ways.

 

Last month, for example, its morning news show aired a weeklong series of segments extolling Australia as a tourism destination after having sent two anchors and three VJs to the country for two weeks — all of it, as it turns out, paid for by the Australian tourism ministry. Antonitis defends the segments, along with other so-called "product integration" deals the station has forged of late, citing economic necessity. "I've got to find money where I can because I don't want to lay off any more people," he says.

 

Others cringe, calling the Australia junket the most embarrassing episode since the station was fined two years ago after a performer from a stage troupe flashed his genitals during the morning news show.

 

It's a far cry from the golden era of the '80s and early '90s, when under the tutelage of Chronicle Publishing, controlled by the wealthy heirs of Chronicle co-founder M. H. de Young, the station enjoyed a sterling national reputation; the kind of chops that enabled it in 1985 to entice the likes of Sylvia Chase to leave ABC's 20/20 and join KRON as a news anchor. At the peak of the station's prestige in the late '80s, when it operated the four news bureaus, KRON boasted a staff of 175. Today, the bureaus are long gone and there are fewer than half as many editorial employees.

 

The station's heyday was also important in another way.

 

KRON propped up the Chronicle financially in the newspaper's circulation war with its longtime rival, the old Examiner. "Even so, the de Youngs were good about plowing profits back into the station," says Lindgren, the television consultant. While de Young heir Nan Taylor McEvoy carved a reputation as the newspaper's chief protector, her nephew, Frances "Rani" Martin III, held sway at the station's bunker-like headquarters on Van Ness Avenue, keeping an office on the third floor.

 

"It was really important to Rani, and to others of the de Young family, to have a TV station they could feel proud of," says Mike Ferring, who was news director from 1981 to 1987. "Whatever good things we were able to do, much credit has to go to the de Young ownership."

 

That changed in the mid-'90s when the increasingly dysfunctional family dynasty imploded in internecine warfare. An ascendant new generation of de Young heirs eager to cash out the family fortune helped force McEvoy off the Chronicle Publishing board (Martin had already been deposed from KRON, after an earlier tiff with McEvoy.) The coup set the stage for the sale, first of the newspaper, to the Hearst Corp. in 1999, and then the TV station, to Young, the following year. "The ownership change was everything," says Lindgren, the consultant. "Nothing has been the same since."

 

The new paradigm has generated winners and losers. For every traditional newsperson alienated by the VJ concept, there's someone else for whom it has meant a career boost.

 

"I feel liberated and free," says VJ Gabriel Slate, 27, who, besides loving the creative aspects of the work, points to another reason why he prefers it over his old job as a cameraman. "I never have to be stuck in a [news] truck all day with someone who bosses me around like I'm a servant, or whose perfume is too strong."

 

Sometimes, as when VJs on deadline must scramble to find a coffee shop or other Wi-Fi hotspot from which to transfer their video, the challenges can be unpredictable. VJ Will Tran was chased from a Starbucks in Oakland after the manager didn't approve of his plugging his battery-depleted laptop into a wall socket. "It turned out OK," he says. "I went to a nearby hotel lobby to finish up."

 

In the newsroom, it isn't unusual to see reporters swapping story ideas in exchange for technical help from former cameramen and video editors. "It's a two-way street and people have been good about helping each other," says Managing Editor Andrew Shinnick. "The learning curve has been phenomenal."

 

+++

 

But there's also an unsettling undercurrent.

 

On-air reporters in the Bay Area typically earn salaries in the neighborhood of $125,000 a year, compared to $80,000 for cameramen and technical editors. In instituting the VJ model, management has cleverly exploited the difference.

 

AFTRA, the union that represents the on-air people, has long had a contract that prevents the station from using non-AFTRA personnel to do the work of its members. That means, for example, that a cameraman, whose union is the IBEW, could not be an on-air reporter. In the pre-VJ world, it was a potential conflict that rarely arose. But it has been four years since AFTRA last negotiated a contract with KRON management, and, in the meantime, the company has done an end around.

 

Last fall, as the station put the first wave of VJs on the streets, and as contract renewal negotiations with AFTRA languished (they still are), management struck a deal with the IBEW in which its personnel assumed on-air roles as VJs, a clear incursion of AFTRA's turf. And who could blame the IBEW employees? For some, it meant a sizeable raise. AFTRA has a pending grievance before the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the station of unfair labor practices. But in deference to Young Broadcasting's precarious financial condition, the union, after considerable hand-wringing, decided not to stage a walkout.

 

"If we'd chosen to strike, it would have played straight into the company's hands," says one deflated staffer, convinced that Young management would have merely accelerated the VJ transition. "As it is, people are just trying to hang on, to see how this ultimately plays out, and to survive."

 

Survival also weighs on management's minds.

 

Station boss Antonitis, who acknowledges that the personnel changes brought about by the VJ switch have been "gut-wrenching" — and whose company is swimming in red ink — is less than reassuring.

 

"I'm never going to say the turmoil has completely passed," he says. "There are always going to be other challenges."