Talking TV: News 12’s Self-Inflicted Wounds
The news has gotten a lot worse at News 12.
In June, TVNewsCheck’s Michael Stahl first reported on accusations of workplace toxicity and a compromised news product at the Altice-owned company’s New Jersey channel. The story resulted in the firing of the Jacques Natz, the company’s GM at the center of many of the story’s accusations.
This week, Stahl is back with a more sweeping follow-up in which over a dozen sources, including current and former News 12 employees, allege the problems were far more systemic at the company than originally reported. Sources identify a wider circle of upper management who they say have bullied scores of senior staffers into resigning, habitually berating many more.
These sources also say that Altice has fundamentally damaged News 12’s hyperlocal news brand by defaulting on its promise, offering instead an unacceptably high barrage of sponsored content and generic features that favor scalability over substance.
In this Talking TV conversation, Stahl lays out the litany of accusations against Altice and several top News 12 managers, how the company has responded and the longer-term implications for its brand.
Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.
Michael Depp: Back in June, TVNewsCheck reported on a concerning situation at News 12 New Jersey. Numerous sources shared with us stories of toxic workplace conditions that led to the resignations of many of the channel’s newsroom leaders. In response, owner Altice launched an investigation which led to the firing of News 12’s General Manager Jacques Natz. TVNewsCheck reporter Michael Stahl wrote that story and he’s back this week with a follow-up that reveals News 12’s problems extend far beyond New Jersey to all of its metro area New York newsrooms. Many more sources have come forward to share with him deep concerns about micromanagement, abuses and an erosion of News 12’s fundamental value proposition of providing hyperlocal news to its New York markets.
I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV, the podcast that brings you smart conversations about the business of broadcast. Coming up, a conversation with TVNewsCheck’s Michael Stahl about what his reporting has revealed about News 12 and what that means for the future of a news brand in the country’s number one market.
Welcome, Michael Stahl, to Talking TV.
Michael Stahl: Yeah, thanks for having me. It’s an important story, happy to be here.
It is. Michael, your first story on News 12 in New Jersey revealed some very adversarial working conditions under Jacques Natz, the general manager for the entire network at the time. But according to your sources across the company who’ve approached you since that first piece, it seems that conditions were much worse and much more widespread than you initially revealed. What’s the crux of the problem there and who is experiencing that?
I mean, there’s so much to unpack here. My sources have told me that ostensibly they believe that Altice, since they took over News 12 in 2016 — they purchased it from the Dolan family — they feel that they, the new company, has wanted to cut costs. And one big way that they’ve looked to cut costs while also driving up revenue is to hire younger, cheaper labor, but at the cost of sort of pushing out experienced, trusted news people out of their newsrooms.
And allegedly they’re not they’re not firing them. They’re pushing them out there, making conditions untenable for them to stay, as these sources allege.
Yeah, precisely. And the reason for that approach, apparently, again, according to sources, is that the Dolan family sued Altice in 2018, if memory serves, over mass layoffs, and the Dolans contended that in their sale agreement, Altice had promised to maintain the integrity of the News 12 brands, and they felt that unloading a large portion of staffers, experienced staffers compromised the integrity of the News 12 brand.
Shortly after that, perhaps to the surprise of nobody, Pat Dolan, who was the president, was removed from News 12. And the lawsuit was settled a year later. Pat Dolan at the time said that he was happy with it. But it seems as though Altice has kind of moved in a different direction with the same endgame. And like you said, they’re looking to make life difficult for people, especially the most veteran of reporters, the most veteran of staffers, because they command a lot of money.
And so, what these people are telling you, they’re being micromanaged, being bullied at work. A lot of harsh words there, sort of a litany of quality of workplace condition concerns that they have.
The worst charge that I’ve heard is that Altice, or upper management in Altice at News 12, are kind of trumping up charges of poor performance and what they deem are fireable offenses that really have no bearing in reality. Again, allegedly according to sources.
How bad is morale at this company right now?
From what I’m gathering, it’s very poor across the entire landscape, it seems, because people feel as though that they’re not trusted to do their jobs. People feel as though, you know, nothing that they can ever do is good enough because at the slightest little error that is at least perceived by upper management, they’re going to be berated. So, I’m sure there are some people that work there that are happy. We do have sources in the story that that say that and they’re doing good work.
But, you know, a lot of people came out of the woodwork for this one. We have more than a dozen sources for this piece alone, and we had three for the first one. And I’m not even including them. And these are also sources from, I think, a total now of four of the seven newsrooms.
Now, Altice, the parent company, did take action after your first story was published, and they fired Jacques Natz, the group’s GM, who seemed to be at the heart of many of these problems. But is this problem bigger than him, bigger than one individual manager?
It appears to be. The assistant vice president of news, Audrey Gruber, who was hired by News 12 after some reports from her time in New York 1, came out about her being, you know, not exactly the most likable character from a management perspective. She was hired by News 12. And even at the time, a lot of people were kind of like a lot of workers in News 12 were sort of questioning the judgment of Altice and upper management leadership in hiring her. Someone that came with that kind of baggage, they felt as though, you know, their best interests weren’t really a top priority in terms more.
More than even her baggage was that there has been, sources tell you, friction that she brought with her into this new workplace.
Yeah, exactly. Again, you know the way that she kind of began, allegedly, according to sources, she speaks to people sort of very condescendingly, is something that I’ve heard a lot about. She kind of has this air about her as though she knows better than everybody else.
And then there’s another person that was named by a few people, Amy Waldman, who, similarly to Gruber, had some baggage from her time at WPIX here in New York. She was hired by News 12 shortly before Jacques Natz. But she’s implemented some very heavy handed, rigid sort of management, has had a very rigid, heavy handed management style that people have not taken to.
- So, what does Altice say to all of this?
They say that they value News 12. Well, they value the brands. They say that they’re investing in News 12. They say that, you know, that they want the people at News 12 to feel comfortable. They want the people in News 12 to continue to deliver good news at a hyperlocal level. You know, that’s another big thing that you and I haven’t discussed yet here. But, you know, a lot of people feel as though some programing changes have been made to, at least in Altice’s mind, to boost revenue.
Let’s discuss that now. A key element of the story that’s going to be of interest to all of News 12 ‘s competitors in the New York area is that potentially a news brand is suffering here in all of this, according to your sources. I mean, they say that sponsored content has crept up to well beyond a healthy amount. Hyperlocal stories are being replaced with these more generic, anodyne stories that can play across all of its channels in the area. I mean, on the one hand, it looks like they’re cutting costs by creating more scalable content. They’re driving up revenue opportunities. But on the other, staffers see this as self-inflicted damage to a very well-regarded news brand up to this point.
As one source put it, it’s become watered down. And the more that you work in these sort of anodyne, non-market, specific stories that can air across multiple markets, across the News 12 networks, it doesn’t really serve the communities that they have been serving, in some cases for over 30 years. And then you also throw in the sponsored content. They all say, look, we understand we need sponsored content. This is how our salaries get paid. They get it. They just feel that it’s become excessive. They feel that sometimes it’s producing kind of poor taste that serves to sort of de-legitimize the news value of the brand.
And all of this, the sponsored content, the general interest segments. All of that takes time away, broadcast time away from impactful, community-based stories that has been a hallmark of the News 12 brand, again, for more than 30 years.
Well, to be equivocal about this, this is a hard line for any news organization to walk. You’ve got to have sponsored content as a part of life at almost every station. They’ve got some level of it. It’s just a question of where you draw those lines. But I mean, amid all of this, News 12’s ratings are up, aren’t they?
We have some evidence of that. And I think what Altice has pointed out, even besides ratings, Altice is very quick to point out that at the very least, they have widened the number of broadcast channels. You know, they have streaming services, all kinds of OTT services or platforms where News 12 can be seen now. So, brand exposure, they seem to feel, is at an all-time high. They’ve also said ratings are up as well. But just generally, brand exposure is growing. So, from all sides, that’s true.
But there’s a caveat there that they had a big distribution pick up as well, via Fios, that brought in whole flanks of viewership in a new platform that they didn’t have before. And so that’s made it sort of hard to where do you factor that in. How much of the bump can be attributable to that?
And that was controversial, too, because what happened was Fios One News was terminated by Optimum or Verizon, I always get them confused. Verizon terminated News One, excuse me, and then wound up partnering with Altice, which had previously been a rival as News 12 was on Optimum. And now News 12 is also on Verizon. So as a matter of fact, a number of local politicians came out and said that the elimination of Fios News One was eliminating voices and free press and could have an impact on democracy.
Well, for News 12 it’s certainly a hell of a boost to get. So, we have to factor that in to see to what extent the bump is attributable to that as well. So, what’s likely to happen next here? I mean, do you see more upper management heads rolling potentially? What are sources telling you?
Well, I really don’t want to speculate. I feel like I have to give credit where credit is due. And when I spoke to [Altice’s] spokesperson about this, I said to her, I said, hey, you know, you already exhibited that you don’t want to put up with what amounts to, in some cases, bullying by firing Jacques Natz. But there are some very troubling stories coming out of this report about some other upper management figures. And if what they’ve done is true and I have reason to believe it is because, again, multiple sources have confirmed all these stories, I think some punitive measures should be taken because as another source from outside the company said, this is something that is happening a lot, they believe. This was a recruiter. This is something that they believe is happening a lot throughout the industry and it needs to change because the news is suffering.
Well, other shoes may yet drop in this story. And there’s lots more to read, of course, in your story. A very long story, very, very detailed out this week, Michael. So, I would encourage everybody watching and listening to this podcast to do so. We’ve got a link to the piece in the deck for this podcast, so do check it out.
Now, if you’re working in a newsroom where you see abuses happening and your concerns are falling on deaf ears with management, reach out to us. The industry won’t sustain itself by allowing unsustainable working conditions to flourish. So, talk to us. And alas, that’s all the time we have this week. So, I want to thank you, TVNewsCheck reporter Michael Stahl, for joining me and for your very important work here.
You can watch past episodes of Talking TV on our videos page of TVNewsCheck.com. And remember to check with us throughout the day for continuously updated industry news. You’ll also find our video podcast and other video content on YouTube, and I encourage you to like and follow us there. See you next time.