In the days following 37 job cuts at KY3, KSPR and the Ozarks CW, Springfield Business Journal has learned the downsizing moves were greater than television station employees expected.
A handful of job reductions at the shared 999 W. Sunshine St. office were predicted by former employees interviewed for this story, some on the condition of anonymity. Restructuring had come in waves since 22-year station owner Schurz Communications Inc. sold the company in February 2016 to Atlanta-based Gray Television Inc. (NYSE: GTN) for $415.3 million.
Jeff Phillips, an online news producer for KY3 and KSPR, was among the Aug. 18 cuts – now being referred to as “Red Friday” by some and “KY3’s Black Friday” by others.
Phillips, who has worked in TV production since 1989 and at KY3 a total of eight years, said about 20 were laid off during two rounds in the second half of last year, and eight more were not replaced after attrition or transfers to other markets.
In all, Phillips and other former employees estimate 65 positions were eliminated over the last year, representing over a third of the roughly 150 workers at the three stations.
Gray Television and KY3 officials say the moves streamline news production, with the use of studio automation technologies.
The latest staff losses were signaled Aug. 17, Phillips said, when employees received text messages instructing them to come to one of a series of mandatory meetings the next day. Those who were called to morning meetings were terminated, he said, and those who attended afternoon meetings stayed on board.
On the day of his 8:30 a.m. meeting, Phillips said he arrived at work, noticed 17-year anchor Jerry Jacob already had emptied his desk, and he decided to pre-emptively move his own things to his car.
“I didn’t want to make the ‘walk of shame’ with an arm full of stuff,” he said.
This round was the second time Ricky Smiley left KY3 after cutbacks. He was among those laid off in April 2016 but was rehired in November. When discussions of staff reductions began circulating in the office again this summer, he decided days earlier to add his name to a list of those who would leave voluntarily.
“It was a bit of a roller coaster,” said Smiley, who had been with the station since 2003.
He only expected 16 people – mostly master controllers and studio workers – to be laid off due to increasing technological automation. But he was shocked at his 11:45 a.m. meeting to learn many more were laid off – including Jacob, photographers and a secretary.
Smiley and another former staff member described how employees who attended the earlier meetings were led to a room with KY3 Inc. General Manager Brian McDonough.
They say McDonough was visibly upset as he explained the termination and severance package processes. An armed police officer was on hand, and empty boxes awaited fired employees to carry their property out of the building.
Others laid off, confirmed by SBJ on individual social media posts, include Tom Mast, a 30-year media veteran; KY3 News Director Scott Brady, with 31 years of experience, nine at KY3; online news producer Gene Hartley, a journalist since 1979; Scott Puryear, a journalist since 1985 and at KY3 since 2016; and Robert Wallace, a newscast director with the company since 1974.
A manila envelope given to each person included the list of those laid off and those who agreed to leave voluntarily, the anonymous source said. About 90 people were listed as staying with the company. Each person’s age and job title also was listed on a document with the language “in accordance with the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.”
By Phillips’ count, he was among a dozen people terminated over the age of 50.
Former employees told SBJ they were asked to sign contracts agreeing they wouldn’t make disparaging comments about the company in connection with the severance packages offered.
Phillips signed the contract the day of the terminations but decided to rescind Aug. 23 – within the seven-day cancelation window – effectively forfeiting three weeks of pay in exchange for the right to speak freely.
High tech and expectations
The changes at KY3 mostly are intended to implement policies already in place at KSPR, Smiley said.
Many roles in the studio were combined or automated. For example, the master control position, which managed the timing of programs and placement of commercials, now is mostly automated.
In the past at KY3, Smiley said about eight people performed various tasks during a newscast: master control, audio, directing, graphics, teleprompter, plus three camera operators. Under the new system, two or three people – including a producer and a new position called a technical media producer – can handle those duties with newer software and remote control cameras.
“KSPR ran really smooth with it,” Smiley said, suggesting it was even better than what KY3 ran with more people.
He believes the remaining staff members are more than capable to handle the transition.
“It may be bumpy for the next couple weeks,” Smiley said. “I believe in those people, and I’ve worked with them.”
Gray currently is advertising jobs online for many of its 100 stations nationwide that indicate the consolidation of work.
Technical media producers, aka TMPs, will handle multiple duties, including master control and directing tasks during broadcasts.
News stories developed outside of the studio, which formerly required a reporter and another employee to operate a camera, edit and deliver the content remotely – will now be done by a single multimedia journalist.
Dubbed MMJs, one position is available at the KY3/KSPR station, according to Gray’s website.
A news release issued Aug. 18 indicated the Springfield stations consolidated newsrooms, but it didn’t mention any layoffs. McDonough claimed the new structure would allow for better news coverage.
“We will double the number of people on our staff who are actively pursuing local news stories on a daily basis,” he said in the release, which also detailed broadcast changes at the stations.
KSPR now produces two news programs per weekday, at 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. The combined KY3 and KSPR staff would produce the daily 10 p.m. newscast, as well as the evening broadcasts and the weekday morning news.
McDonough and officials with Gray did not return multiple calls and emails for comment.
According to GlassDoor.com, a jobs and recruitment site with reviews of employers, Gray’s approval rating by employees has trended down over the last 18 months, to 2.6 stars out of 5 from 3.1.
“KY3 was great. When Gray took over it changed,” Smiley said.
Meanwhile, Phillips said Gray leaders received bonuses amid this round of layoffs. In January, Atlanta Business Chronicle reported three Gray executives were given $4 million combined in extra compensation for “further strengthening the company’s balance sheet, and in delivering continued strong performance in total shareholder return over the long term.”
The publicly traded company recorded $812.5 million in 2016 revenue, up from $597 million the year before, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
For now, Smiley doesn’t plan to pursue work in TV news. He started a home-based record label to produce music full-time.
Phillips said the ownership transfer changed the culture of the organization, which historically had little turnover. He referenced staff meetings in which management sought cost-cutting measures, citing how the station was Gray’s highest revenue producer but spent more than any other office.
“I’ve had a lot of jobs in broadcasting and Schurz was far and away the gold standard of what I have worked with in my 33 years of broadcasting,” he said. “They were very much not top-down management. They let local decisions be made locally. … I knew that when we got word that they were selling that those days were over. And a lot of people were going to suffer.”
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