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Without A Trace: Local TV news stations leave viewers out when dumping personnel

Goners: former D-FW news team members Clif Caldwell (CBS11); Rebecca Aguilar (Fox4); Jim Fry (WFAA8) and Rebecca Miller (NBC5)

Where's the humanity, let alone any consideration of viewers who wonder about the whereabouts of local TV's suddenly missing persons?

Thousands of people get laid off or fired daily, and television's news team members aren't above that. It happens.

But these also are people in the public eye. Sometimes they've spent close to a generation in the D-FW market. When their time is up, though, no one is more close-mouthed than your basic media outlet. You know, the ones that otherwise are in the faces of alleged wrongdoers, particularly during sweeps periods. The ones that wonder why a person of interest won't talk to them because, after all, "We're just trying to get your side." The ones that try to lure you into their lair with slogans such as "Where You Matter."

Except that you really don't. Because these same purveyors of truth, justice and the American way of profitable Nielsen ratings aren't about to let you into their own inner sanctums. When they fire someone it's suddenly nobody's business but their own. Today's promotable personality is tomorrow's pariah. Don't ask, don't tell. Period. End of story.

Recent events have reinforced my feelings about this odd form of behavior. And the number of reader comments posted on unclebarky.com -- almost 450 at this writing -- indicate that you're more than a little interested in the hows and whys that led to last Wednesday's terminations of Fox4 reporter Rebecca Aguilar and NBC5 meteorologist Rebecca Miller.

Aguilar, a reporter at Fox4 for 14 years, found a pink slip from Fox corporate under her doormat after being on paid suspension since Oct. 16th. No one at Fox4 is talking. My source was the reporter herself.

Miller, who joined KXAS-TV in 1991 before NBC bought the station, was informed after Wednesday's early morning shift that her contract hadn't been renewed. No one in NBC5 management is talking, other than to confirm she's no longer at NBC5. My source was a tipster at a rival station.

Earlier this year, reporter/anchor Clif Caldwell took the gas. He'd been a reporter/anchor at CBS11 since 2001. Before that he was a featured street beat guy for five years at NBC5. No one in CBS11 management would talk about it, other than to confirm he was out. My source was one of his colleagues at CBS11.

Reporter Jim Fry had spent 24 years at WFAA8 before being let go in December of 2006. His picture and bio simply vanished from the station's Web site. No one in WFAA8 management had anything to say. My source was a former WFAA8 employee.

I understand the various sensitivities of "personnel matters." But couldn't stations at least voluntarily put out the word to various media outlets that _______ has left the building? They're not shy about sending press releases on how great their sweeps ratings were. Or about the impressive new hires they've just made. But it's almost invariably a vanishing act when someone is let go. And that's usually when viewers care the most.

Surely NBC5 could have done better than this terse memo from vice president of content development Susan Tully to station staffers, which was leaked to unclebarky.com. It went like this: "I want to inform everyone that today (March 5) was Rebecca Miller's last day with NBC5. If you get any phone calls or emails inquiring about Rebecca, forward them to me. I will respond to viewers. We are now conducting a nationwide search for a morning meteorologist."

Missing were any well-wishes or thanks for 17 years at the station, most of it spent on the very demanding early morning shift. Trash gets taken out with more compassion.

That's the way most media companies are, though. The 110 employes who took a buyout in September 2006 from The Dallas Morning News were given this sub-bloodless sendoff from longtime Belo chairman, president and CEO Robert W. Decherd: "Belo is intensely focused on the right allocation of resources enterprise-wide, building up necessary competitive capabilities, and maintaining marketing and new product investments, while reducing costs wherever possible. Thus far in 2006, Belo has eliminated more than 200 positions Company-wide, with approximately 30 of these reallocated to more Internet-centric roles. We've reduced overall employment and other operating expenses by more than $21 million on an annualized basis, including The Morning News' projected savings related to the voluntary severance program."

No one expects a wet kiss and a garland when the downsizing ax swings or other factors kick in. But media companies are supposed to be different because they sell themselves as public trusts.

In the TV world, though, escalating network ownership of local stations -- including of Fox4, NBC5 and CBS11 in D-FW -- means more dictates from on high and far less autonomy. The Aguilar matter, for one, has been handled almost entirely at the corporate level. It basically reduced her to a bothersome bug to be swatted when the timing was right.

Over at NBC5, the total complement of anchors and reporters is now down to 25, according to the "Meet the News Team" section of NBC5i.com. That's a dozen less than the comparative staffs at Fox4, WFAA8 and CBS11. It doesn't include part-time freelancers, which all four stations utilize on occasion. But how low can NBC5 go while still billing itself as your all-inclusive destination for news, weather, sports and HD that in fact still really isn't whenever the cameras hit the streets?

One primary objective of unclebarky.com is to keep readers/viewers informed on all four D-FW stations' comings and goings. As demonstrated by the response to Rebeccas Miller and Aguilar, you're more than a little interested in what happens to TV news people that you've grown to like or dislike.

Don't expect the stations themselves to cooperate, though. Serving the public comes to a screeching halt -- now more than ever -- when "personnel matters" are at issue. That's when you don't matter -- not in the least.