- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 19, 2003

The merger between ABC affiliate WJLA-TV (Channel 7) and NewsChannel 8 created the largest local television newsroom in the Washington area, but almost one year later, the jury is still out on whether the union is working.

The two operations moved into an Arlington office tower last September, creating a newsroom with about 180 employees, or 60 more than the typical big-city TV newsroom.

The merger was designed to make newsgathering more efficient. Instead of WJLA and NewsChannel 8 each sending a crew to city hall to cover a mayoral press conference, for example, the combined operation would send one crew that would be responsible for filing separate reports.

Proponents said this would free up other reporters to do more stories. Some predicted covering the region more thoroughly would lift the ratings for both stations, particularly the long-struggling WJLA.

It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.

Viewership for both stations grew during the last major ratings period in May, according to Nielsen Media Research Inc., but NewsChannel 8 saw the biggest growth. WJLA’s numbers were up at 5 p.m., 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., but it still trailed its rivals.

Uniting broadcast and cable-news operations proved tougher than the architects of the merger envisioned. In the beginning, some WJLA reporters griped that their NewsChannel 8 colleagues weren’t ready for prime time.

In recent months, the relationship between the two stations has loosened. WJLA reporters are being given more time to work on stories for Channel 7 and aren’t required to spend as much time reporting for NewsChannel 8.

“The goal now is to realize the potential. We have made significant improvements. We have a long way to go,” said Bill Lord, a veteran broadcasting executive who joined the operation in February as senior vice president of news.

His biggest challenge may be completing WJLA’s glass slipper-style search for a new anchorman. Presumably, this person will be paired with Maureen Bunyan on the station’s 11 p.m. newscast, although other anchor configurations are said to be possible.

CBS’ Harry Smith toured the Arlington newsroom and talked to management about the job before deciding to stay in New York, according to individuals familiar with the situation. CNN anchor Leon Harris and MSNBC anchor John Siegenthaler have both tested for the job and remain contenders, the sources said.

Doug McKelway, a respected local veteran who has been anchoring with Miss Bunyan for the last year, remains a candidate, too.

Another goal: Developing distinct identities for WJLA and NewsChannel 8.

Mr. Lord is credited with picking up the pace of WJLA’s newscasts, mandating that stories shouldn’t be longer than one minute and 15 seconds.

He has also introduced some old-school “60 Minutes”-style theatrics into its newscasts. One example: consumer reporter Ross McLaughlin, who helps disgruntled viewers confront merchants who cheated them through the recently revived “Seven on Your Side” segment.

And even though WJLA’s celebrated “I-Team” investigative unit was disbanded after the merger, Mr. Lord said the station will continue to do enterprise reporting. The station has a small unit of behind-the-scenes staffers, called “diggers,” who help producers and reporters uncover untold stories.

Some WJLA staffers believe management’s attempt to jazz up the station has resulted in too many crime stories. One staffer compared the 11 p.m. newscast with a televised police blotter.

“What you are seeing is a news director who makes a point of doing a show with energy. Is there a plan to become the crime station in town? That’s definitely not the case,” said Robert L. Allbritton, whose family owns WJLA, NewsChannel 8 and eight other ABC stations around the country.

WJLA is making staffing changes, too. In recent weeks, Mr. Lord put WJLA’s public- affairs program “Capital Sunday” on hiatus and pink-slipped its producer. At least two WJLA reporters, Darryl Carver and Susan Roberts, have been told their contracts will not be renewed.

The station is also talking to former WMAL-AM (630) host Tim Brant about a job, possibly as a commentator.

NewsChannel 8, in the meantime, has continued to serve as a kind of video version of a community newspaper, where stories about school board meetings, planning commission hearings and churches are common.

The network still produces three separate newscasts in the afternoon and early evening for viewers in Maryland, Virginia and the District. Eventually, Mr. Lord wants to bring this “zoned newscast” approach to early mornings.

Mr. Allbritton acknowledges the key test of the merger will be WJLA’s ability to improve its ratings. “We should be a solid second place in a couple of years,” he said.

Around the dial …

• WMAL, an ABC-owned news and talk station, has hired Randall Bloomquist as operations director. Mr. Bloomquist, a Washington-area native, comes to WMAL from a cluster of Clear Channel Communications-owned AM stations in Richmond.

• WTNT-AM (570) has moved Michael Savage’s syndicated talk show from weeknights at 10 p.m. to weeknights at 7 p.m. The Clear Channel-owned talk station will carry repeats of Mr. Savage at 10 p.m. until a permanent replacement is named.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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