NEWSWRITERS' STRIKE: A PAINFUL FIRST

Times Staff Writer

From his second-story office, KNX-AM (1070) news director Bob Sims could see his award-winning newswriters marching outside the guard's gate. As they plodded by, the rain drizzled off the edges of their Writers Guild of America picket signs and drenched their clothes.

"They're all winners," Sims said softly. "I'll put my editors and writers up against anybody in the business."

Friday evening, Sims and other KNX management representatives planned to sit across the table from WGA members David Singer and Ed Pardo at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, but not to negotiate an end to the 5-day-old strike.

Sims, KNX General Manager George Nicholaw and the two striking newswriters were calling a truce for the evening to share honors at the annual Greater Los Angeles Press Club banquet. Of the 14 radio news categories, KNX won in 12. Pardo and Singer were among the winners, singled out as the best radio newswriters of 1986.

Today, barring a last-minute settlement of the walkout that began at 3:07 a.m. last Monday, Pardo and Singer will be back on the picket line and Sims will be back in the KNX studios, staring out at his award-winning writers on the sidewalk of Sunset Boulevard.

The first broadcast newswriters' strike in Writer's Guild history, which also hit KCBS-TV Channel 2 and the promotion department of CBS Television City here in Los Angeles, is especially sad and bitter at KNX.

"It is the Mercedes-Benz of radio news operations," said Brian Walton, the guild's West Coast executive director. "You can't get in the newsroom, there are so many awards on the walls."

But the issues that brought about the walkout override professional pride, say the strikers, who are among 525 guild members picketing at CBS facilities in New York, Chicago, Washington and Los Angeles. ABC newswriters are also on strike, except in Los Angeles, where they are represented by a different union.

Walton said that the labor dispute is not so much about wages as it is about job security. Guild wages under the contract that expired last Sunday ranged from $274 to $790 a week for news producers, writers, researchers and graphic artists.

Like other guild officials who have been meeting with a federal mediator in New York since Thursday, Walton said that the primary sticking point in the negotiation of a new three-year contract is the networks' demand for the right to lay off and fire employees without arbitration and to use unlimited numbers of part-time and temporary workers, who are not paid fringe benefits.

"We set out nine main issues when we went to the bargaining table, with some supplements that applied to individual shops, like KNX," Walton said. "Of all those issues, we got absolutely nowhere except on one CBS concession. They said (that) beginning in March of 1987, the 10 newswriters at KNX would no longer have to wear ties as part of the dress code. They could appear on the radio without ties."

Despite the WGA contention that CBS negotiators are purposely attempting to destroy their union, the communications giant holds that it has become a victim of diminishing economic returns and must ask for rollbacks on union contracts. CBS spokesman George Schweitzer said earlier this week that cost-cutting measures are tied to a drop in revenues from advertising, which have always been the chief source of income for America's major television and radio networks.

As videocassette recording systems, satellite technology, cable and pay-television have assumed an ever-increasing role in the home-entertainment field, the near-monopoly position that the nation's three major television and radio networks held has eroded. At the same time, their national advertising rates have flattened.

According to the CBS-management position, the WGA has not been singled out in the cost cutting. The painful process of reducing staff and shrinking overhead is taking place across the board.

That was illustrated with the announcement Wednesday of a $30-million cutback in the $300-million annual budget of the CBS News division. CBS News will lose about 200 of its 1,220 positions and will shut down three of its bureaus--in Seattle, Bangkok and Warsaw.

"There has been a minimum of grandstanding or championing of special interests," said Jennifer Sibens, CBS News' Los Angeles bureau chief. "We're all going to get trashed."

The CBS News bureau has nothing to do with the striking writers. The only connection that local guild members have with CBS News is that they happen to work for the two CBS owned-and-operated stations in Los Angeles, which depend upon the CBS News foreign and domestic bureaus for much of their international and national news coverage.

Nevertheless, the bleak economic reality that brought about the $30-million cutback affecting the 51 producers, correspondents and others who work for Sibens is the same dark cloud that is raining on Sims' award-winning local newswriters.

Sibens learned Wednesday that, under the reorganization plan, she would have to close the three-person Seattle bureau. Seattle, along with a three-person bureau in San Francisco and a two-person bureau in Denver, all report to the Los Angeles bureau, Sibens explained.

She said that the reorganization of CBS News has been in the works for weeks. The 11-year CBS News veteran, who took over the Los Angeles bureau in December, said she and other managers have been "horse-trading" with CBS News President Howard Stringer since early February over who would go and who would remain in the current purge.

The one grim solace, she said, is that the layoffs appear to be evenly spread out among old-timers, new hires, men, women and minorities.

The cutbacks are only partially a result of economics, Sibens said. The same satellite technology that has cut into the CBS Inc. advertising clout has also made portions of the CBS News division obsolete.

Two years ago, she explained, CBS' newsgathering philosophy was "to get satellite coverage from everywhere." As a result, the network's seven major U.S. news bureaus (Miami, Atlanta, Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas) began opening smaller regional bureaus in nearby population centers. Hence, Los Angeles opened the small bureaus in Denver and Seattle.

But at the same time the CBS News empire was expanding, increasingly sophisticated satellite technology was at work, making the new bureaus expendable.

"In the past two years, regional 'news services' were also coming into being," Sibens said.

The CBS "news services" are mini-networks that allow CBS affiliates to "swap" video feeds back and forth via satellite several times a day without dealing with the CBS News bureaus at all, Sibens said.

Los Angeles is part of the Pacific Networks news service, for example, which evolved out of the CBS affiliate in Salt Lake City, KSL-TV Channel 5. It is these "news services"--not the CBS News bureaus--that often supply KCBS-TV Channel 2 with short news features from neighboring states.

"They're what we used to call syndication: spinoff feeds for affiliates," Sibens said. "It's a part of CBS News that is booming. They coordinate the feeds and they move tons of videotape every week, uplinking and downlinking on satellites. This has now become highly sophisticated, but none of that existed when the idea of the mini-bureaus were put in place."

Under CBS News President Stringer's reorganization plan, the "news services" and the bureau system will merge, Sibens said, and it will happen very quickly.

"The bottom line is whether . . . when this all is over . . . whether we can pick up morale and continue to be the best damn news network anywhere," Sibens said.

For now, she is leaving that question unanswered.

"Oh, it's real indirect, but yes, the cutbacks (at CBS News) will affect us," said KNX's Bob Sims.

Though KNX's hundreds of national, state and local awards stem chiefly from its presentation of local news, the station frequently uses CBS News reports from around the globe.

"Anytime you shut down a news bureau, it's going to mean you don't have the information from a primary source," he said. "So if they close (the) Bangkok (news bureau), it'll mean we'll have to depend on the wire services, and that increases the importance of Associated Press, United Press International and Reuters.

"If I have to rewrite a story from the wires and it isn't first-hand, it's probably OK," he continued. "But each time you remove yourself as a primary source, it diminishes the quality of the news you report a little more and, ultimately, it's the American people who are the losers."

Since his own local newswriters walked off the job, Sims and the remaining staff have been getting by. Each day, he said, it has become easier to do without them, just as it has become easier for KCBS-TV Channel 2 to do without its striking writers on the other side of the building that the CBS stations jointly occupy on Sunset Boulevard.

As management becomes more proficient at the jobs guild members once held, KNX listeners and KCBS viewers will notice less and less that something is missing from the newscasts.

That doesn't make Sims any happier.

He looked out his window at Pardo and Singer once more and sighed. Neither one of them was wearing a tie.

"I'd put this team of writers against any backroom group of people in the country," he said. "They are the best, by God. They are just the best."

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