The local media's holiday season just got a little bluer. The Star Tribune told its staff Thursday that it will eliminate up to 25 newsroom jobs through buyouts or layoffs. KSTP-TV, the Twin Cities' ABC affiliate, is expected to announce major cuts this morning during an all-station meeting. Insiders project at least 18 of those layoffs will come from the newsroom. The casualties confirmed Thursday include producer Dana Benson, who recently filled in as news director, and investigative reporter Kristi Piehl, who has won two Emmys during her three years at the station.
"I was told that my news director and other people went to bat for me, but that this was a decision made by Rob Hubbard," said Piehl, referring to the independently owned station's general manager. "I do owe him and his family a lot. They gave me the opportunity. I'm not angry, just surprised." Piehl will best be remembered for her series on the "Smiley Face Killers," which landed her a guest appearance on "Good Morning, America."
Hubbard and current news director Lindsay Radford did not return phone calls Thursday.
Others that were given their walking papers include photojournalists, producers and technicians.
The news came on the heels of layoffs of at least seven people at WCCO-AM radio, including sports reporter Dan Terhaar and part-time reporter Roshini Rajkumar.
The buyouts at the Star Tribune are part of $30 million in cost cuts by the company, a figure that includes $20 million in labor savings from its unionized workers.
"As you all know, the Star Tribune is under severe pressure to align its costs with its revenue in what is clearly the most challenging economic environment any of us has ever faced," Editor Nancy Barnes said in an e-mail distributed to the news staff. "Those efforts are already under way in every corner of the company."
On the national front, Viacom, which owns several cable channels, shed 850 jobs (about 7 percent of its workforce) and NBC Universal is expected to eliminate 500 positions.
While almost all media outlets are adjusting to a rough economy and changing audience patterns, at least one expert believes that local TV news stations face the most challenges.
"At newspapers, the total audience in many cases is growing because of their websites, even though they're not making much money," said Tom Rosenstiel, director for the Project For Excellence in Journalism, a nonpartisan, Washington-based group that analyzes the media landscape. "Local TV does not have the same situation. Their websites aren't as robust and they don't have big enough newsrooms to provide the same content."
Rosenstiel said that local stations also didn't get the windfall they might have expected from the presidential candidates this past political season.
"Because Barack Obama had so much money, he actually bought network time rather than going local, and John McCain followed," he said. "Obama did it from a position of strength and McCain did it out of desperation."
KSTP's announcement comes exactly eight months after CBS-owned WCCO-TV announced major cuts that triggered the departure of weatherman Paul Douglas and weekend anchor John Reger.
KARE may face some tightening of its own in the coming months.
The NBC affiliate is owned by Gannett, which is in the midst of the largest layoffs in newspaper history with more than 2,000 jobs expected to be eliminated.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431