EXPLOSION IN THE NEWSROOM!

The nation’s news brass meet this week for the Radio and Television News Directors Assn. 50th convention in New Orleans (Sept. 6-9) against the backdrop of a sea change in the news business.

The Fox/New World Pact of a year ago that caused a major upheaval in station affiliation and the influx of more than $250 million in compensation dollars into local markets, coupled with a robust ad market, has caused a local news explosion. Over the last year alone, more than 2,500 new jobs have been created, according to industry estimates.

With all the affiliation switches, stations that were independents became Big Three affils and had to build news staff from the ground up. Meanwhile, stations that wanted to increase their homegrown newscasts into uncharted early morning, weekend and other time periods now had the money to do so.

A prime example is the volatile Phoenix market, where four out of the five stations changed affiliation in the wake of the Fox/New World pact.

“Virtually overnight we went from being a CBS affil to Fox,” says Tom Dolan, news director of KSAZ, a New World-owned station. “We added 30 people and went from doing 3 hours of local news to 6.5 hours. There’s little or no brand loyalty anymore and doing more news, including a primetime hour, was a way we felt we could distinguish ourselves from the pack.”

It’s not just the New World-owned Fox affils that are producing more news. Indeed, Fox brass has been adamant about the fact that its affils which aren’t in the local news business need to be if they want to stay in the network family.

All the growth has caused newsroom salaries to soar. A few years ago, general managers were cutting staff and dumping high-priced anchors for less-experienced, cut-rate talent. But no more. According to industry sources on both sides of the negotiating table, salaries are rising across the board by as much as 20%.

“It’s simple, there are more jobs than people,” says Barbara Frye, director of talent placement services at Frank N. Magid Assn., a consulting group which has more than 100 stations as clients. “Talent really has t he upper hand and stations have the money to pay for who they want. You can go to the 80th market and lower and find anchors making $100,000. That was hardly the case, even two years ago.”

A veteran talent scout, Frye remembers what the situation was a scant four years ago when she told Variety that it was “unprecedented how many people are being asked to take cuts.”

What a difference a few years can make.

“This is a boom time. People are aggressively going after the talent they want,” says Henry Reisch, a vice president of the William Morris Agency. “But there’s still some semblance of fiscal restraint.”

Indeed, while there’s a consensus that salaries are headed skyward, there’s a lingering hangover from the early ’90s, when money was tight.

“It’s certainly a good time for people looking for jobs and bad for us who have to pay them,” says Ron Loewen, general manager of WIS, the NBC affil in Columbia, S.C., the 89th market. “It’s much more competitive for talent. We’ve even created a program to train producers to meet the need.”

A market leader, WIS is a prime example of the local news explosion. In the last year, the station has expanded its ayem news from 30 minutes to an hour, in addition to expanding its nightly and weekend news.

Besides having the money to grow, stations are adding homegrown news product in order to stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace, as well as to cut the cord from expensive syndicated product.

Loewen, for example, boasts that between his expansion into news and other changes, he will have cut his syndication costs by 70%. Meanwhile, he’s projected a record year in ad revenues.

Nationwide scene

The situation at WIS has parallels across the country that will be felt at this year’s RTNDA powwow on the Bayou. Pre-registration for the confab is up 30% from last year’s event and RTNDA organizers are confident that the final tally of newsies who make the trek will easily exceed last year’s 2,019.

“When I went to my first RTNDA six years ago, every seminar seemed to be entitled ‘How do I do more with less?'” says Reisch. Now, it’s ‘How do I find the talent I need?'”

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