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Former Worcester Reporter Fired - To File Grievance Against WJAR

Friday, February 21, 2014

 

At first glance, the dismissal of Julie Tremmel may not seem to amount to much. A young reporter is dismissed from a local TV station… and so?

So a lot, actually.

For one thing, the Tremmel-WJAR affair is not over – not by a long shot.

In her first public statement since her dismissal from the local TV news leader – a GoLocal Prov exclusive – the former night-side reporter for the 11 o’clock news fired off a combative statement that can be seen as a first shot across the bow of her ex-employer:

"I was terminated without cause from WJAR and my Union and I are fighting it through the grievance and arbitration process in our Contract with the Station,” Tremmel tells me in an email. “That is all I'm prepared to say at this time.”

Tremmel is consulting with a lawyer whose identity she declines to reveal.

Chris Lanni, the station’s news director, didn’t respond to a request for comment. Neither did a representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1228, which represents WJAR broadcast employees.

Industry-wide issues

But the dispute goes far beyond a face-off between an ambitious and flamboyant broadcast reporter and her now former bosses but speaks to a wider culture clash in the news business.

For those just tuning in, Tremmel is the former general assignment news reporter for WJAR’s NBC 10 News at 11 who became virally famous from a piece last July in which she gave tips on what to do in the event of a bear attack (there had been bear sightings in the region) and did so in a way that some found funny and many others, preposterous. The video is here.

Going viral

The bit went viral, briefly turning Tremmel into an Internet celebrity and the talk of the media world. The piece was picked up Huffington Post and many other media-related and other sites.

The enormously popular Buzzfeed website did a GIF series, which is here:

A Fox affiliate in Grand Rapids, Michigan mocked the piece by remixing it to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”

The video created internal fireworks at WJAR which surfaced when Jim Taricani, the station’s longtime and respected investigative chief, posted a note on Facebook in response to the bear-attack piece, calling it a “smudge on our station’s reputation.”

Last week, Tremmel was dismissed from the station after she had performed a handstand while doing a light stand-up piece about the NBC show “America’s Got Talent.” That video is here.

Culture clash

The Tremmel affair can be seen as mini-allegory of the travails of old-line news organizations as they struggle to navigate an era of digital disruption the likes of which news managers, owners, producers, and reporters have never seen in their lives. A long-term decline in viewership and revenue has led to a day-in, day-out struggle for relevance as media consumers turn to an exploding array of platforms, content providers, and devices for their news. Most terrifying of all is the demographic challenge as a new generation of audience members grow up having never read a printed newspaper and wondering why anyone would ever want to wait for 11 o’clock to hear the news – if they’re interested in news as it is traditionally presented in the first place.

At the same time, TV stations’ website are becoming increasing an important part of their operation, particularly as they take traffic from drastically weakened newspapers, like the Providence Journal. That makes attracting digital traffic, generating buzz, and occasionally going viral more of an imperative.

The changes have sent mainstream news organizations scurrying for a new formula and led them to experiment with new styles and younger reporters.

Struggling to adapt

And, according to a person familiar with the situation, Channel 10 is no stranger to these problems. The station’s management has struggled – like most stations – to navigate the new digital environment, arbitrating between new and the old, trying to demonstrate its relevance to a younger demographic while holding on to older viewers who provide the bulk of its viewership, this person says. The problem has been how to appear in synch with the ironic, sharp, and loose, and click-bait aesthetic of the Internet while maintaining traditional journalism values and standards. These days, this person says, marketing terms are more likely to find their way into Channel 10 newsroom discussions, and greater latitude is allowed for informality.

“Some reporters are willing to go a little bit across that line into self-promotion,” this person says. “And the culture allows for some of this to take place.”

Despite her youthful appearance and occasional on-camera demeanor, Tremmel doesn’t lack for journalistic skills or training. She is 36 years old and has been in the business 15 years. A native of Marlborough, Mass., she graduated from the University of Tampa with a journalism degree, did a stint at the St. Petersburg Times as sports writer, among other papers. After interning at Fox 13 Tampa Bay, she earned two broadcast-related masters degrees from Southern Illinois University and pursued in career in broadcast that took her to jobs at in Carterville, Illinois, Sarasota, Florida, the New England Cable News in Worcester and Boston, WWLP – NBC in Springfield, Massachusetts, Fox 23 in Albany, New York, before arriving at WJAR about 15 months ago. As a night-side reporter, she worked three to midnight, covering anything that came up: crime, politics, local government, and lighter features.

Tremmel, seen here in her famous "bear attack" video.

Self-promotional

While her bear-attack and handstand pieces were probably her most flamboyant stunts, and she was certainly capable of serious reporting, it’s fair to say she represented a more informal, self-promotional style many mainstream outlets believe appeals to younger viewers. Unlike traditional news culture, it is comfortable with the idea self-promotion and creating a personal brand alongside the brand of the larger news organization. This new style is heavily influenced digital culture: fast, witty, self-conscious, ironic, and informal, sometimes to the point of juvenile.

WJAR, meanwhile, is the granddaddy of Rhode Island broadcasting operations, having gone on the air in 1949 as a unit of the Outlet Department store, a pillar of the downtown Providence business community. WJAR was the station that broadcast Providence College and URI basketball games in the 1970s. In 1980, then under the leadership of future Rhode Island governor Bruce Sundlun, Outlet left the department store business and went on a period of rapid expansion, with WJAR as its flagship. In 1994, Outlet Communications merged with NBC, and in 2006, it was among NBC-owned stations sold to media conglomerate Media General, its current owner, based in Richmond, Virginia.

Old-line news

Throughout, WJAR has presented itself as the sober establishment station that -- while engaging in plenty of happy-talk, to be sure -- eschewed some of the flash displayed by local TV rivals. Its anchors stay for decades – Patrice Wood has delivered the news there for 30 years. But its public face has been the tight-lipped, self-effacing Taricani, who for decades has reported on political corruption and organized crime and whose on-camera style is more a throwback to TV news’s post-war golden age than to the digital age.

Reached this week, Taricani didn’t have a comment.

Behind the culture clash, of course, is the digital revolution.

The migration of local advertising to Internet giants Google, Facebook, Craigslist and others has wrecked havoc on mainstream media finances, newspapers especially, but local TV most certainly included.

Big picture

But here is the big picture via a few graphics, courtesy of the Pew Research Center, that show at a glance what’s been happening to the news, and local broadcast in particular.

Longterm viewership in local TV is steadily declining down, while local TV ad revenue is down even if it has stabilized at current levels. Here is the viewership trend:

 

The viewership declines have put pressure on local news outlets to find ways to reverse the trends. Their options are limited. Either they can bolster news staffs, which has not been the norm, or find ways to increase their visibility and relevance, particularly among younger viewers using the same size or smaller staffs. This has fed a general trend toward a more sensational, and some believe, less deeply reported news reports.

And while traditional platforms are down across the board, many viewers have been migrating toward digital sites and platforms. This added another “news hole” to fill for already stretched staffs as they are now asked to produce more content for their websites. Here’s TV news plotted against other media:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One result has been that newsroom productivity levels have been never been higher, as more stories are being produced for daily broadcast. The combination makes for a higher stressed staff and, often, a lower-quality product. That graphic is here:

 

Adding to the pressure has been long-term demographic issues. Local TV news has traditionally skewed older than the general population, but those trends have accelerated in the digital age. The Pew survey found that in 2012 only 34 percent of audience members in the 18-29 age range said they watched any local TV news the day before, compared to 49 percent in 2006. By contrast 65 percent of those in the 50-64 age range said they watched local news regularly, a rise of two points from 2006. The chart on that is here:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Questions remain

All of the above has spurred a wave of experimentation as local TV news outlets try to stabilize these trends and find news ways to increase audience share, particularly among younger viewers.

The extent to which the big picture has played a role in shaping the Tremmel-WJAR employment battle is unknown. But the backdrop is crucial to understanding the new landscape for local TV news.

Also unclear is how much at the details of the dispute will ever see the light of day. Typically, labor disputes are negotiated in private. And of course the inter-personal dynamic between Tremmel and her supervisors is a crucial element that is unique to this dispute. But among the questions left hanging by the matter are these:

  • What expectations did WJAR have when they hired Tremmel, who at the time had more than a dozen years on the air?
  • What kind of guidance Tremmel received, particularly after the bear-attack piece.
  • To what degree was a culture of informality encouraged?
  • And, finally, where and how WJAR decides to draw the line between fun and foolishness.

 

Dean Starkman is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and also currently serves an editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, running its business-media section, called The Audit, which offers review and comment on business news. He recently published a Book, The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism , released January 2014.

 

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