Since Sinclair bought ABC affiliate WJLA Washington and its NewsChannel 8 cable channel, there have been staff defections. Some sources say the Sinclair’s conservative bent and statements by CEO David Smith of advertiser importance are to blame. But, Sinclair’s News VP Scott Livingston says those charges are overblown and the company has plans to step up “unbiased and aggressive reporting” at the station and expand NewsChannel 8 nationally.
Ever since Sinclair Broadcast Group announced it was buying Allbritton Communications in July 2013, employees at the group’s flagship WJLA Washington and the companion NewsChannel 8 cable news network have been an unhappy lot.
In addition to the normal angst about fitting into the new owner’s plans, sources close to the station say, many staffers have been concerned about Sinclair’s reputation for mixing news with sales and with the conservative politics of Sinclair CEO David Smith.
The unrest has triggered an exodus of at least three dozen staffers that has continued since Sinclair took over the station in August, according to sources. People “are frightened,” a new phenomenon in a newsroom known for being “safe and stable” in its Allbritton days, one source says.
But Scott Livingston, Sinclair’s VP of news, says reports of newsroom unrest are overblown.
He says that while Sinclair has had to make some “tough decisions” — and acknowledges that there is a certain anxiety that comes with any change of ownership — newsroom fears are being exaggerated.
He says he had not been keeping score of comings and goings prior to Sinclair’s actual takeover in August and that since then only eight have left.
The eight includes the three top managers — General Manager Bill Lord, News Director Doug Culver and Managing Editor Dan Patrick — who were fired as the group moved to impose its own news strategy on the operation, Livingston says.
Another five staffers, three of whose contracts expired, voluntarily left the station, Livingston says. They retired, left for personal reasons or moved on to good opportunities in places in comparable markets. Executive Producer Mike Friedrich, for instance, found work as an assistant news director job with KPRC, the Graham-owned NBC affiliate in Houston.
Sinclair has named Dan Mellon to take over as GM and Mitch Jacob to be the new news director. Both come from WSYX, Sinclair’s ABC affiliate in Columbus, Ohio. A search for a managing editor is underway.
Mellon would not comment for this story.
The Washington Post reported last month that WJLA has taken “a subtle, but noticeable turn to the right” under Sinclair. Among other things, the story says, Sinclair has added commentaries by conservative pundit Mark Hyman and it has partnered with the conservative Washington Times to air the paper’s weekly “Golden Hammer” awards highlighting “egregious examples of government waste, fraud and abuse.”
The Post story also said that newsroom staff was alarmed by comments made by Smith in an introductory meeting. According to several employees, Smith repeatedly said the station’s newsroom would “work for” its advertising-sales department.
TVNewsCheck found one source who confirmed that Smith said that “everyone works for the sales department.”
Livingston says the concerns that Sinclair plans to infuse conservative politics into the news are unfounded. “Our commitment is to be unbiased,” he says. “Our goal is to try to get things back to the center because that’s where most of America is.”
Livingston makes no apology for Hyman’s segments. They are not positioned as news, he says. They are clearly identified as commentaries and are no different than editorials in newspapers, he says.
Livingston also provides reassurances that Sinclair will not be putting ad sales ahead of news ethics, and that the comments attributed to Smith have been taken out of context. “We run a business, but our No. 1 priority is tracking the truth.”
Livingston says there is room for improvement at WJLA as well as at its rivals. They all “do a poor job of dissecting the truth.”
Overall news viewership in Washington is lower than it is in other markets because the Washington stations don’t do the kind of hard-hitting reporting that attracts audiences, he says. In Columbus, for example, local news audiences are 50% larger than they are in Washington, he says.
Livingston says Sinclair plans to fill a void in Washington by providing “unbiased and aggressive reporting.”
“Washington viewers deserve more than the basic who, what and where type of journalism, and our goal is to focus the story on the how and why.”
He isn’t saying just how he plans to do that, only that “in this market we are really excited about our growth and potential expansion of our news presence.”
One manifestation of the new regime was the addition of a 4 p.m. newscast last month.
Sinclair is also in the process of analyzing the workflow, content and technology currently in place at WJLA and how to best improve it, he says. “We are really going to be adding some substance.”
Sinclair has more at stake in Washington than just its position in the news ratings race. When he bought the station, Smith said he intended to use NewsChannel 8 as the basis for a national cable network. Those plans are still extant. NewsChannel 8 generates 15 hours of content a day.
Sources say Sinclair’s ambitions for WJLA are oversized, especially for outsiders without experience in the market — or in a market the size of Washington (DMA 8).
With one of the most educated populations in the country, a large percentage of which is dependent on the government, it takes a certain finesse to woo Washington viewers, says one. “It’s complicated.”