Old Story, New Twist  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   December/January 2004

Old Story, New Twist   

While layoffs are never easy, a Vermont TV station proves after closing its newsroom that its possible for a company to take the high road.

By Jill Rosen
Jill Rosen is AJR's assistant managing editor     


Newsroom layoffs, depressingly, are nothing new. But one hopeful flicker in a story that's otherwise tired and typical is how station executives are rallying to find workers jobs after the ABC affiliate in Vermont, WVNY, shuttered its news department.

When the station told its couple-dozen newsroom workers in September that their last broadcast would be a week later, the announcement took the staff by surprise--though most of them had an inkling that the financial situation there wasn't great. The news operation was only four years old.

But WVNY News Director Peter Speciale, whose own job evaporated, didn't bother fretting about the what- happeneds--he jumped right onto the what-nows: He took it on himself to get his people re-employed. He contacted every broadcasting group and appropriate job board he could think of, putting the word out that though his news department was unfortunately no more, a crop of talent was available for the taking.

Speciale says more than 100 e-mails came to him saying, "We've got these opportunities, we need a female anchor, we need a photographer--whatever." He logged every possible job into a database then sent the information to his displaced staff. He kept this up for weeks. In mid-October, for example, Speciale posted a notice on the TV-news e-newsletter Shoptalk letting people know that another of his people found work, but that "plenty of talented people" were still available. Call him. E-mail him.

"Anything I can do to help them," says Speciale, who in November was still looking for work himself but had a temporary gig at a Hartford, Connecticut, station.

While Speciale was doing all that, the station, WVNY, the sole TV property owned by Straightline Communications, kept the newsroom open for a month so the staff could use its phones, computers and other resources to job hunt. It brought in a human resources expert to help people draft résumés. It handed out credits for a mailing service to offset the cost of sending out tapes, which they also provided for free. It posted everyone's résumé on the station's homepage. And there was some severance; exactly how much depended on people's tenure at the station.

Station Manager Erik Storck says he'd heard horror stories about industry layoff tactics but that he decided, "we weren't going to do it that way." "I want to offer our way as an example to the industry as the way to go."

In just two months after the shutdown, half of the news staff has found new jobs--a feat in this economy. Andrew Catalon was one of them. The 24-year-old, who was WVNY's sports director, starts in December as weekend anchor for Albany, New York's WNYT.

When he heard his job was gone, Catalon says it felt like "his whole world turned upside down" and that he'd better call his parents and tell them he was moving home. When the station told him and the others that they'd help, he thought, "Yeah sure." But, he says, "They really sincerely, especially Peter, proved they meant that."

In the weeks after the news department closed, Catalon says Speciale was relentless in his quest to find him and the others work--he said it was like "his mission." "He would probably send us, no joke, 15 or 20 e-mails a day. You'd check your e-mail and they'd all be from Peter."

"He put himself secondary," Catalon says. "You don't see this kind of selflessness, especially in this business."

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