KRON's Last Gasp

How a once-proud San Francisco television station became ground zero in the nation's most controversial experiment in local TV news.

Time was when KRON (Channel 4) was at the top of the television news heap. Its newscasts were among the most watched in the Bay Area. Its anchors were stars. Its owners, San Francisco's blue-blooded de Young family, who also owned the Chronicle, were beneficent stewards who had nurtured the station from its infancy in 1949.

In a medium often derided for car chases, talking hairdos, and ratings-week sensationalism, KRON's news department in the '80s and for the first half of the '90s was widely considered to be the gold standard for local television news. While local news operations around the country were turning silly, KRON stuck to its knitting, earning a reputation as a place where serious news still mattered.

Management thought nothing of dispatching teams of reporters across the country, or abroad, for the sake of a worthy story. The station maintained news bureaus in Washington, D.C., Sacramento, the East Bay, and the South Bay. It attracted top talent and regularly won prestigious national journalism awards, including the DuPont-Columbia, Peabody, and Polk, not to mention a slew of local Emmies.

But that was then.

These days the once-proud San Francisco station is an also-ran in the local news race. It has been that way ever since its current owner, Young Broadcasting Inc., forked over a whopping $825 million to buy the station in 2000. New York-based Young then watched helplessly as the NBC television network, which had wanted to own KRON, yanked its network affiliation and — in the ultimate indignity — bestowed it upon a then-obscure Bay Area rival, San Jose's KNTV, Channel 11.

Now, with the independent KRON struggling financially (the parent company's stock has plummeted from $65 to $3 in six years) and the station's news programming mired in fourth place among the Bay Area's five competing news stations, management has launched a bold — some say, desperate — attempt to rein in finances while purporting to rebuild the franchise.

In a first-of-its-kind move by a local television station in a major market, KRON is jettisoning the traditional way TV stations report the news — that is, with two-person teams consisting of a reporter and camera operator, backed up by videotape editors and sometimes field producers. That team is being replaced with so-called "video journalists," aka VJs, or "one-man bands" — a breed of all-purpose (and generally lower-paid) news hunter-gatherers equipped with handheld digital video cameras and souped-up laptop computers enabling them to report, shoot, and edit their stories solo.

The results so far have been less than stupendous.

With its 35 or so VJs, KRON is able to put more bodies in the field compared to when it deployed about a dozen traditional news teams. (It still relies on two or three such teams for most newscasts.) But transforming former reporters, camera operators, assignment editors, and even a tape-rewind person or two into VJs who report, shoot, voice-over, and edit a story, has, overall, been no picnic. As discerning viewers have undoubtedly noticed, the results at times are more akin to home movies than news programming broadcast to the nation's sixth-largest TV market.

Cameras are sometimes angled clumsily, or are ill-focused, or the sound is a little off. News pieces that are shot well often lack acceptable editing, or writing, or both. Often there's no time for the VJs to include archival material to provide context. Some of them sound more like coal miners or shoe salesmen than television enunciators. And even when the reporting is first-rate, the video can be distractingly bad, as with the anti-death-penalty rally at San Quentin State Prison in December at which rapper Snoop Dogg's face was obscured by tree branches.

While insisting publicly that the move was made primarily for journalistic reasons, company officials acknowledge the cost savings inherent in having one person do the job of three or more people. Mark Antonitis, KRON's general manager, who was sent in from a station in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to oversee the transition, also acknowledges the rough spots. "We're a work in progress. These things take time," he says. "A year from now, two years from now, you're going to see a remarkable transformation."

Predictably, the experiment has set off a firestorm in television news circles, and especially at KRON, where management has pitted the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the union representing anchors and on-air personalities, against the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), composed mostly of cameramen and other traditionally back-of-the-camera professionals. The result is a kind of survival of the fittest to see which employees make the cut in the brave new world of the multipurpose "one-man band."

Early reviews have been less than glowing.

"Considering the competitive environment out there, this isn't the time to retrench on quality, which is clearly the way the VJ experiment is being perceived," says Bruce Lindgren, a consultant to about 25 TV stations across the country. Dan Rosenheim, news director at KPIX (Channel 5), and who held the same post at KRON in the early '90s, agrees. "It's not something that we have under consideration," he says of the VJ campaign. "But at the same time, I think all of us have to realize that the [media] world is changing very rapidly."

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