Changes bring discontent at Channel 11

SOME PEOPLE AROUND the Channel 11 (WBAL) newsroom call it "the brain drain." They refer to the departure -- both voluntary and forced -- of perhaps a dozen people in the year since Tom Hauff became news director.

The moves haven't been as dramatic as those of a year and a half ago when Dick Gelfman, Rudy Miller and Norm Lewis left the station, the last two taking verbal swipes on their way out. That's because only a handful of the departures have been on-the-air personnel, and those were people such as Mark Stultz, Maureen Tighe and Bill Britt, not the front line performers who left in 1989's summer of discontent.


But some would say that this round has actually been more damaging because it has stripped the newsroom of some of its most talented and experienced behind-the-scenes personnel. As a telling blow, many point to the recent departure of 12-year veteran John Surrick, who had been an award-winning producer and who most recently was on the assignment desk.

But the list began months ago. Respected producer Joe DeFeo went to Channel 5 (WTTG) in Washington and has since joined the nascent news operation at Channel 45 (WBFF). Longtime executive producer Frank Traynor left for Fox's fledgling national news service.


Diana Rosborough, who was producing WBAL's 5 o'clock program and widely regarded as the station's best producer, has also left for Channel 45 where she will produce the 10 o'clock news that will begin in May.

Arienne Fenton, daughter of CBS' Tom Fenton and an eight-year veteran at Channel 11, is leaving this week. Several others on the production assistant and news writer level have also left or been fired, at least one with what was described as an invective-filled shouting match with news director Hauff that caused management to change the locks on the newsroom door.

"I think everyone around here thought it had to get better after Frank Graham," said one longtime on-the-air employee who asked not to be identified, referring to the much-maligned news director during that summer of discontent. "But I think everyone would be happy to see Frank now if he walked through the door."

"I've never seen morale this low," said another longtime employee. "Except for the recent hires, I think everyone on the staff is looking for a job."

"I can't believe that," said Joe Heston, WBAL's station manager, when told of complaints of low morale. "I think morale has made a 175 degree change between a year ago and now."

"Morale is a relative condition," Hauff said. "If things are going well for you, then your morale is fine. If they're not, then your morale is bad.

"When we took over, the ratings had fallen 25 percent over the previous five years. WJZ continued to be the dominant station in the market and Channel 2 was beginning to beat us in some time periods. What do you think? Obviously changes had to be made."

Hauff described a news organization top-heavy with management and burdened with regulations that he has tried to change into one that has what he called the "front line personnel -- reporters, anchors and producers" more involved in the decisions as to what goes in the newscast.


"We had promotion saying one thing and ferns on the set saying something else," Heston said. "We had to get everybody working in the same direction. And I think we've done that. That's not to say that that's shown up in the ratings. That takes a long time."

Indeed, Channel 11's news ratings, which bottomed out after the 1989 summer and began to climb slightly, have now dipped even lower than before.

Some of the discontented question Hauff's journalistic standards, going back to a story that aired just after he got here featuring Jell-o wrestling, to the reported posting of a map in the assignment desk area listing where Nielsen diaries had been distributed with orders to assign stories in those areas, to a recent piece from Saudi Arabia in which new reporter Lorraine Jewett took a shower on camera.

"He doesn't even like to say that we're journalists," one staff member said of Hauff. "He says we're in the news business."

Also up for mockery is Channel 11's highly promoted 24-hour news operation. One reporter is at the station all night but, due to union regulations, the on-air reports have to be less than 30 seconds or a cameraman and director would also have to be present. And in that 30 seconds, the reporter has to identify him- or herself and the station, give the time and temperature and sign off, leaving probably less than 20 seconds to give any news.

And sources report that as late as this past Sunday, there was a major newsroom dispute involving anchorman Rod Daniels' discontent with the commentary spot given to co-anchor Pat Minarcin.


"That was the type of dispute you could have any time in a newsroom over the content of a newscast," Heston said of the decision to pull Minarcin's commentary. "It was talked about, a decision was made, and it was over with."

The situation seems something like what the Japanese call a Rashomon. From one view there is the studied, heartless dismantling of a respected news organization. From another there is the necessary rebuilding of a moribund news operation.

The third view belongs to the viewers and thus far they have been rejecting the on-air product. Which is not surprising since, despite Hauff's and Heston's claims that they are getting everyone working in the same direction, WBAL's news programs have seemed erratic and rudderless, hard-hitting one night, fluff and froth the next, all layered over with extensive cosmetic changes, like the 24-hour news and the pairing of various anchors on various nights of the week.

Hauff's two most visible hires highlight the problem. There's the studied and controlled Carolyn McEnrue and the frantic and excitable Lorraine Jewett. Such poles apart styles seem to be tugging at every newscast and, without the stability of the veteran producers who have abandoned the newsroom, it might be that the center cannot hold.