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WPGH fires 10 in Sinclair shake-up

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

At least 10 employees at Sinclair-owned WPGH were told yesterday they will lose their jobs as the company integrates its News Central concept at the local Fox affiliate.

At the same time, the station will launch a half-hour, Monday through Friday 11 p.m. newscast on June 9 to compete against KDKA, WPXI and WTAE.

Among those let go: Weekday meteorologist Matt Morano, weekend sports anchor Matt Fine and reporter Bill Clack.

In addition, three or four photographers, one editor, two production staffers and one associate producer were given pink slips.

Station manager Alan Frank would not confirm who was let go, but he acknowledged the staff reductions. Previously, the news and production staff at WPGH numbered about 40, making Monday's announcement a 25 percent reduction.

The moves come as Sinclair attempts to create a new broadcast model using News Central, a centralized news operation in Hunt Valley, Md. From News Central, Sinclair will provide national and international news blocks for WPGH's newscasts that will be integrated with local news.

News Central also offers full newscasts to stations in smaller markets that don't have their own local news operations. The company has plans to add newscasts in some cities.

"We're building a mini-network that will include as many as 40 markets," Frank said.

WPGH began using weekend weather reports from Elizabeth Hart at News Central in January.

"We were told it was not going to happen in Pittsburgh, that Pittsburgh was going to thrive and we were going to be OK," said Pat Bridges, the weekend weathercaster who lost her job in January but has continued to work at WPGH as a freelance, fill-in weekday forecaster. After she was let go, "that gave everybody a sign of things to come. It's not a good thing."

Morano said he was not surprised that WPGH will rely on News Central for weather seven days a week.

"Since January, I have felt I had a target on my back," Morano said.

For all those let go, their last day at the station will be May 27. News Central kicks off on May 28. Morano said his last day of severance will be June 20th, his 41st birthday.

A format for the revised 10 p.m. newscast is still being finalized, but Frank said it's expected to have as much as 12 minutes of national and international news from News Central. Saturday's newscast, which is currently only 30 minutes, will be expanded to one hour beginning May 31.

"Sinclair is very committed to the News Central model," Frank said in a prepared statement. "It's a multi-million dollar venture aimed at creating a new way to present news."

When News Central premieres on WPGH, the station will get a new set that matches the News Central set in an effort to make transitions from Pittsburgh to the Maryland studios seamless.

Sheila Hyland, who has anchored with fill-in co-anchors since the departure of Jay Harris earlier this year, will anchor both the 10 and 11 p.m. newscasts solo. Alby Oxenreiter remains as the station's sports anchor.

"The local staff is freed up to focus primarily on local news," Frank said.

The addition of an 11 p.m. news in an already-crowded field came as something of a surprise, staffers said. Frank said 11 p.m. newscasts have the ability to generate more money than those in other day parts.

"If we can take a couple ratings points out of each [competing] station, we'll do very well," he said. "It will take time to build, but we think we have a great product."

Frank said employees who were let go will be given the opportunity to apply for jobs at Sinclair stations in cities that are getting ready to start newscasts that integrate local content with News Central. Frank said those markets include Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Birmingham, Ala.

"It's all positive, actually," he said. "It's going to help the company and it gives people the opportunity to get jobs at start-up operations. If someone is a reporter here, they'll have an opportunity to be an anchor in a smaller market."

While Frank can see the silver lining, one employee said the staff was in a daze yesterday.

"It's a shame," said Bridges, who now works full-time as a counter manager for Estee Lauder at the Kaufmann's at South Hills Village. "These are great people who work here. I guess Sinclair is doing what they feel they need to do."

Acting news manager Sharon Ritchey did not return a call seeking comment.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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