Paul Douglas, longtime WCCO weatherman and one of the Twin Cities' best-known media personalities, was released from the station Friday as part of nationwide cuts by CBS in response to dwindling ad revenue and TV viewership.
Douglas joins at least five WCCO employees, including weekend anchor John Reger, who were told their services were no longer needed as CBS reacts to a sluggish economy and stiff competition from the Internet.
"Times are tough, many people are losing their jobs and I am not exempt from this troubling trend," Douglas said in a letter e-mailed Friday to close friends. "I was the target at a time when there are systemic, long-term challenges."
At 29 stations owned and operated by CBS, more than 100 positions have been cut recently, including many high-profile, high-paying personalities such as the top female anchor at WBBM in Chicago, Diane Burns, and KPIX San Francisco mainstay Rick Quan.
Douglas' departure wasn't announced until Friday because he was out of town caring for a sick relative and is now in New York. In his letter, Douglas said no attempt was made to negotiate a lower salary. He added that his only regret is that he did not have a chance to say goodbye on the air.
Douglas has served the Twin Cities market for 22 years, starting at KARE. He took a break to work in Chicago, a decision he came to regret. He joined WCCO in 1997. In his letter, Douglas said that he's going to stay in the area.
"We are dedicated to Minnesota," he said. "Our Chicago experience proved to us that bigger is not necessarily better. Minnesota is an extraordinary place, and we are here for life."
Douglas has had success in other arenas. Last year he sold his wireless weather-information provider Digital Cyclone to Garmin Ltd., an international communications-devices corporation, for $45 million. A story on the transaction in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal ran with the headline, "World's Richest Weatherman?"
Douglas' future as a daily contributor to the Star Tribune's weather page also is unclear.
"We'll have to look at the situation and assess what it means to us," executive editor Nancy Barnes said on Friday.
More cuts coming?
Douglas' departure is unlikely to be the station's last. WCCO has offered members of the photographers and engineers unions a buyout package with 25 weeks of severance and some extended medical coverage. Union steward Dave Chaney, a longtime station photographer, said they have about five weeks to respond.
At the station, some employees are saying that few employees will bite at the offer, which means further layoffs are more than likely in the next couple of months.
The nationwide cuts should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied the landscape of traditional media in recent years. Except for Fox affiliate KMSP, all of the Twin Cities news stations saw viewership fall by double-digit percentages in the February sweeps compared with the previous year. Almost every newspaper and magazine in the country also has cut staff in recent years.
"There's tremendous competitive pressure to figure out how to keep up the profit margins and keep up the stock prices," said Ken Auletta, a New Yorker columnist and author of "Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way."
"Oftentimes, the answer from the business people is to cut costs."
ABC and NBC have made similar broad cuts in the past couple of years, but CBS, which posted a 14.7 percent revenue decline in the fourth quarter, appears to have more challenges than its competitors. Its evening news program is mired in third place despite the hiring of Katie Couric, who was supposed to bring in waves of younger viewers and women. That hasn't happened, Auletta said.
"On the evidence, they made a classic mistake," said Auletta, who notes that the average age of CBS News viewers is 61. "They brought her in and softened the show. It made her controversial and unattractive to some people. They've hardened up the show since and it's noticeably better, but the odds are against her recovering."
CBS is also hampered by the lack of a powerhouse morning program. "Today" and "Good Morning America" are huge cash cows. The same can't be said for "The Early Show."
"CBS' morning show has never competed at that time. It's never come close," said Neil Hickey, a contributing editor for Columbia Journalism Review. "The locally owned stations are all in the same pool for resources and cash flow, so they become part of that picture."
Shelby retirement looming?
WCCO is still considered a shining star in the CBS firmament as it continues to provide aggressive competition for KARE, the local NBC affiliate. But it faces another looming problem in the years ahead: Don Shelby's retirement.
The longtime anchor's contract expires at the end of 2010, and he said that it's unlikely he will sign a new one.
"My wife and I have discussed it," he said Thursday. "There's the possibility that if they needed me, if I was in the midst of something that only I could do, then I would feel compelled out of loyalty to help. I can't imagine a scenario to that degree."
The loss of Shelby would almost certainly be a blow to loyal viewers -- but it might make money handlers breathe a sigh of relief. According to Minnesota Monthly, Shelby pulls down $1 million a year, the kind of salary that's becoming rare in local broadcasting. In fact, many people believe this latest round of cuts is another signal that the day of the high-priced anchor is coming to an end -- and that means anyone is vulnerable.
"I don't know how they made the decision to let me go," Reger said as he prepared to travel to California to pursue job opportunities. "All I can surmise is that there's no way to guess who's next."
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