Sinclair Shutters Five News Markets: ‘We Just Turned Off The Lights For Many’
Five Sinclair Broadcast Group stations will cease all local news broadcasts in two weeks after layoffs eliminated most or all of their respective news teams. The affected stations are WNWO Toledo, Ohio; KTVL Medford, Ore.; KPTM Omaha, Neb.; WGFL Gainesville, Fla.; and KPTH Sioux City, Iowa.
Instead of regularly scheduled local news, starting May 15 the stations will air The National Desk (TND), programming that, according to a Sinclair statement, “provides real-time national and regional news from Sinclair’s television stations across the U.S.
“We’re changing the way we produce news in these markets to ensure their long-term success,” the company statement also said. “TND has grown exponentially over the last year, reaching nearly 3 million viewers per week, across all dayparts. [The programming] offers an alternative choice for news, and there will be an opportunity for local news cut-ins in the newscast.”
Sinclair did not reveal the number of employees let go across the five stations. Some of them may be reassigned to other positions within the company. According to a local digital publication in Oregon, Medford Alert, Sinclair is expected to reveal more details about the layoffs prior to the news broadcast changeover.
TVNewsCheck reached out to several employees from each of the stations. Most interview requests went unanswered and two were declined, but three sources from within two of the stations were responsive. They did not wish to reveal their identities out of concerns that Sinclair might take legal action against them or thwart future job opportunities. Collectively, they said 28 people in the two markets lost their jobs.
“I’m still in shock, and just really sad,” said one of the former news team members. “We were all in a room together when a person from Sinclair announced news was not meeting ratings expectations and therefore not appealing to high-dollar sponsorships. Immediately, someone brought up union rules and that they were owed 90 days’ notice. HR replied that they spoke with the union and didn’t say anything else about it.”
“I’m trying to stay positive,” said another source. “It is hard because we, as a smaller newsroom, were very, very close to one another. We considered ourselves a lot more like family than we did coworkers, so it’s been especially hard to see the people I care about hurting as well and knowing there’s nothing I can do to make it feel better.”
“Some of us have seen this coming,” a third person said. “We couldn’t hire anyone, the quality of work was diminishing and some of us, like me, were doing three positions.”
The news outlet shutterings arrived six weeks after the Diamond Sports Group, a regional sports broadcast company owned by Sinclair, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. According to a CBS News report from March 15, Diamond “is negotiating a new agreement that will eliminate most of its roughly $8.67 billion debt.” That prospective pact will see Diamond separate from its parent company.
Sinclair purchased Diamond from the Walt Disney Co. in 2019 at a reported cost of roughly $10 billion. CBS blamed much of Diamond’s financial woes on the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down professional sports for a time in 2020.
Local news is also paying a price.
“Very valid issues and complaints have been brought up against major corporations for doing the things that they’re doing right now within the news business,” said one of the dismissed Sinclair news team members. “To know that there is a big story out there right now … and not be able to [report it] is a challenge because the public deserves to know. I have my hands tied. It’s painful.”
“It’s a huge blow to a very vulnerable group of people,” said another axed employee from a station in a different market, which they noted served “some of the most impoverished citizens in the country.
“Free local news is paramount for many of our elderly and poor to stay aware, safe and educated,” the person continued. “Information is power, and we just turned the lights off for many.”
Recent layoffs in Sinclair newsrooms have not been limited to these five stations ending all-local news broadcasts. A current employee at NBC affiliate WEYI Saginaw, Mich., which serves the northeastern part of the state, tells TVNewsCheck that morning and weekend news shows were eliminated within the past month. Now, WEYI airs local news only at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. The station also produces a 10 p.m. local news broadcast for its sister Sinclair station, Fox affiliate WSMH.
“One producer, one reporter, one digital employee, two photographers and one long-time production person were laid off,” said the source, adding that they were awarded severance packages and that some are reapplying for other openings.
“We seem to be handling the news of the day well,” the WEYI employee continued. “I’m not sure what will happen when we have a big, breaking news story.”
The WEYI layoffs were first reported by FTVLive in mid-March. The publication also noted that Sinclair laid off newsroom employees at WACH Columbia, S.C.; WGXA in Macon, Ga.; and KAEF Eureka, Calif. Those stations also replaced local news shows with The National Desk.
TVSpy followed up on FTVLive’s reporting the same day and obtained a statement from Sinclair that said, “the station group was not planning mass layoffs or closing newsrooms but will be making some changes to the way it produces news in a few of its markets.”
Apparently, the company decided to change course.
“To their credit, they were all very nice about everything. Or they tried to be,” said one recently discharged worker, who admitted they couldn’t help but become a bit “petulant” in what turned out to be their exit interview. They said Nielsen ratings, which were cited as a reason for their newsroom closure, are “a joke.” The person also said they’ve never met anyone in TV news who has “filled out a Nielsen book.”
But the leadership at their station did not require the signing of nondisclosure agreements. Details were “foggy” in terms of noncompete pacts, they said, and they expect some former coworkers to move to another Sinclair station in a different market.
“I get the impression they aren’t looking to be cruel,” the source added about their Sinclair station leaders. “They truly did wish me the best, and I believe that [it was sincere].”
The former employees of the other station interviewed were not as positive on the subject of Sinclair.
“[I have] no idea what’s next, but I hope the people we leave behind as far as viewers go know we did our best,” said one. “And as far as the company that let us go knows, it’s not like any of us would think of going to another station of theirs.”
“We’re really passionate about producing good, local news coverage within the parameters that we could as a corporate-owned station,” said the other. “Everyone I know is taking this really hard with what it means to the community.”