By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
Even before the VJ model was introduced, writers, field producers, and control room technicians were being let go. "If someone quit or went out on leave, they weren't being replaced," says Knapp, the new elder statesman among on-camera reporters remaining in the newsroom. "Looking around, compared to how it was before, it's almost like working in a morgue."
Some complain the station has also changed in other ways.
Last month, for example, its morning news show aired a weeklong series of segments extolling Australia as a tourism destination after having sent two anchors and three VJs to the country for two weeks all of it, as it turns out, paid for by the Australian tourism ministry. Antonitis defends the segments, along with other so-called "product integration" deals the station has forged of late, citing economic necessity. "I've got to find money where I can because I don't want to lay off any more people," he says.
Others cringe, calling the Australia junket the most embarrassing episode since the station was fined two years ago after a performer from a stage troupe flashed his genitals during the morning news show.
It's a far cry from the golden era of the '80s and early '90s, when under the tutelage of Chronicle Publishing, controlled by the wealthy heirs of Chronicle co-founder M. H. de Young, the station enjoyed a sterling national reputation; the kind of chops that enabled it in 1985 to entice the likes of Sylvia Chase to leave ABC's 20/20 and join KRON as a news anchor. At the peak of the station's prestige in the late '80s, when it operated the four news bureaus, KRON boasted a staff of 175. Today, the bureaus are long gone and there are fewer than half as many editorial employees.
The station's heyday was also important in another way.
KRON propped up the Chronicle financially in the newspaper's circulation war with its longtime rival, the old Examiner. "Even so, the de Youngs were good about plowing profits back into the station," says Lindgren, the television consultant. While de Young heir Nan Taylor McEvoy carved a reputation as the newspaper's chief protector, her nephew, Frances "Rani" Martin III, held sway at the station's bunker-like headquarters on Van Ness Avenue, keeping an office on the third floor.
"It was really important to Rani, and to others of the de Young family, to have a TV station they could feel proud of," says Mike Ferring, who was news director from 1981 to 1987. "Whatever good things we were able to do, much credit has to go to the de Young ownership."
That changed in the mid-'90s when the increasingly dysfunctional family dynasty imploded in internecine warfare. An ascendant new generation of de Young heirs eager to cash out the family fortune helped force McEvoy off the Chronicle Publishing board (Martin had already been deposed from KRON, after an earlier tiff with McEvoy.) The coup set the stage for the sale, first of the newspaper, to the Hearst Corp. in 1999, and then the TV station, to Young, the following year. "The ownership change was everything," says Lindgren, the consultant. "Nothing has been the same since."
The new paradigm has generated winners and losers. For every traditional newsperson alienated by the VJ concept, there's someone else for whom it has meant a career boost.
"I feel liberated and free," says VJ Gabriel Slate, 27, who, besides loving the creative aspects of the work, points to another reason why he prefers it over his old job as a cameraman. "I never have to be stuck in a [news] truck all day with someone who bosses me around like I'm a servant, or whose perfume is too strong."
Sometimes, as when VJs on deadline must scramble to find a coffee shop or other Wi-Fi hotspot from which to transfer their video, the challenges can be unpredictable. VJ Will Tran was chased from a Starbucks in Oakland after the manager didn't approve of his plugging his battery-depleted laptop into a wall socket. "It turned out OK," he says. "I went to a nearby hotel lobby to finish up."
In the newsroom, it isn't unusual to see reporters swapping story ideas in exchange for technical help from former cameramen and video editors. "It's a two-way street and people have been good about helping each other," says Managing Editor Andrew Shinnick. "The learning curve has been phenomenal."
But there's also an unsettling undercurrent.
On-air reporters in the Bay Area typically earn salaries in the neighborhood of $125,000 a year, compared to $80,000 for cameramen and technical editors. In instituting the VJ model, management has cleverly exploited the difference.
AFTRA, the union that represents the on-air people, has long had a contract that prevents the station from using non-AFTRA personnel to do the work of its members. That means, for example, that a cameraman, whose union is the IBEW, could not be an on-air reporter. In the pre-VJ world, it was a potential conflict that rarely arose. But it has been four years since AFTRA last negotiated a contract with KRON management, and, in the meantime, the company has done an end around.