Picture the scene from The Untouchables: Robert De Niro as a bald and menacing Al Capone, baseball bat in hand, circling behind his associates seated around a table. He talks and circles until, suddenly wham! he beans the Chicago mob's former marketing director.
That's how it's been in the KXAN-TV newsroom recently, as management circles staff and looks to make changes. Veteran anchor and reporter Jim Bergamo? Gone. Jovial weather guy Dan Robertson? Wham! Reporter Silva Harapetian? What ever happened to her? All three on-air staffers disappeared from the NBC affiliate in recent days their bios quietly removed from the station's Web site along with veteran Capitol reporter Rich Parsons, who jumped to a job as Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's press secretary. Even "Chopper 36," the station's helicopter, got whacked, which means no more pretty aerial video of sunsets for KXAN. (On the upside: no more ads touting KXAN as the only station in town with a full-time helicopter.)
The on-air staff shake-up is the latest sign of upheaval at KXAN, once one of the market's most stable news operations. It started in January when Bill Seitzler took over the newsroom, replacing longtime news director Bruce Whiteaker, and hit full stride in May, when general manager Carlos Fernandez was axed.
Seitzler declined to comment on how the recent staff changes fit the station's strategy, but he did say the reporters would be replaced. Earnest go-getter Jenny Hoff is taking Parsons' political beat, he said. The station is also looking for a new morning anchor and recently hired Ellen McNamara from Lubbock as a morning "traffic reporter," reporting on morning traffic jams from KXAN's studio.
Considering the trends in the industry, it would seem safe to suggest that maybe, just maybe the station's next move will be to hire a crop of fresh-faced and eager news hounds from the minor leagues of television, places like Yuma and, well, Lubbock. Stations around the country are making similar moves, trying to get cheaper and younger, as they look to stretch profits from news operations.
Despite the Chopper 36 cutback, Seitzler denied the newsroom is facing a mandate to slice the budget by parent company LIN Television, which has been going through its own turmoil. A new CEO and a $13 million share buyback plan have done little to bolster LIN's stock price, which slid 30% in the last year. In its latest SEC filing, LIN, owner of 30 stations in midsize markets, reported revenues were basically flat at stations it owned at least a year, with sharp declines in network fees and national advertising offset primarily by a booming business in political ads.
Although KXAN's ratings are generally in the middle of the pack, it usually trails ABC rival KVUE, and management is clearly moving to shake things up, leaving staffers tense and irritable. While newsrooms are notoriously whiny and unhappy institutions and staff turnover is as common as "exclusives" in TV news insiders say the situation at KXAN goes beyond staff changes. They talk about a push toward more sensationalism and note that veteran assignment editor Gerardo Lopez holder of a key newsroom position was one of the first to leave earlier this year. And the upheaval is clearly going to continue. The station is advertising for a new producer to oversee its morning show and an executive producer for its evening newscasts.
"I feel like we're headed in the right direction," Seitzler said.