- The Washington Times - Friday, September 20, 2002

Allbritton Communications Co. and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists reached a new labor agreement yesterday, avoiding a stalemate that threatened the merger of the company's two local television operations.

The one-year deal paves the way for ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7) to move to Arlington this weekend, where it will set up shop with local cable network NewsChannel 8.

Allbritton is spending about $2 million to unite the two operations at the Twin Towers office complex in Rosslyn. NewsChannel 8 moved into the building this month, but WJLA delayed its move until it reached a new union agreement.

Between 30 and 40 WJLA staffers, primarily reporters and anchors, are union members. They were expected to ratify the deal last night.

Allbritton began negotiating with the union in May, but a handful of issues primarily reporters' salaries and workload kept the two sides from reaching a deal. Negotiators brought in federal mediators last week.

According to knowledgeable sources, Allbritton wanted the starting salary for reporters to be about $35,000 a year, a figure union leaders felt was much too low for Washington, the nation's eighth-largest television market.

The sources declined to say if the union succeeded in boosting the starting salary.

"Everyone was smiling when we shook hands," said one person who was at the bargaining table yesterday.

Another key issue involved how many NewsChannel 8 reporters will be allowed to double as photographers. Currently, two reporters serve as so-called one-man bands, but the deal gives Allbritton the option to hire at least one more.

After the merger, anchors and reporters at NewsChannel 8 which is not currently a union shop will be allowed to join.

Representatives for Allbritton and the union declined comment. In a joint statement, the two sides hailed the agreement as "groundbreaking" because it covers workers for a joint broadcast and cable news operation.

"Both [parties] expressed satisfaction with the outcome and are looking forward to a continued positive and productive relationship in the future," the statement said.

The merger will create the largest local television news operation. Roughly 180 people will work in its newsroom, or about 60 more than the typical big-city TV newsroom.

Under the new arrangement, WJLA and NewsChannel 8 will share reporters and behind-the-scenes staffers, but not anchors. In other words, WJLA anchors Maureen Bunyan and Kathleen Matthews will be seen only on that station, but reporters will pop up on both channels.

An exception will be made during big stories such as election coverage and snowstorms, when the anchors may cross over to the other station.

WJLA will move to Rosslyn tomorrow. Its final newscast at its current studio in upper Northwest will air tonight at 11.

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