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Michelle Turnberg, Published October 21 2011

Turnberg: News quality suffers when profits are main priority

The Forum poll asked, "Are you surprised Robin Huebner quit?" No. Valley News Live was not always a nice place.

I worked at Valley News Live for more than 14 years. I have never publicly said anything derogatory about my former employer. I was awarded a “Prairie Rose” by The Forum for leaving my post with class.

My name was mentioned in the Robin Huebner article, and I feel compelled to comment.

In many ways, my experience was similar to Robin’s. I worked my way from the bottom (I even emptied trash cans in the beginning), to becoming the main female anchor at 24 years old. I had interviews and job offers with other news organizations during my tenure in Fargo, but I was doing what I loved, and I enjoyed my job, schedule and co-workers very much.

I lost my job in June of 2010. It was painful and embarrassing, a bit infuriating, and in some ways a relief. In the ensuing years, many people have asked me what happened. In a nutshell, I believe all of the personnel changes are simply business, and are the actions of a company making as much profit as possible. The mentality is about the bottom line. When that happens, sometimes people suffer.

Most of the changes viewers are seeing began when the company that owned KVLY bought KXJB in the mid-2000s. The new company combined two newsrooms. Among many things, that meant four main anchors needed to be trimmed to two, and included many cuts in staff. The public sees only the anchors, but there were many additional people at the station who were affected by the change.

In the following years, the station changed owners again when Hoak bought the duopoly. Hoak made still more cuts, which changed the face of the organization greatly. My schedule changed dramatically. I went from doing the 6 and 10, to reporting for the earlier newscast, to taping the 10, to doing the morning show, which meant getting up at 3 am. I’ll be honest. At the time it made me wonder if management was trying to make things more difficult so that I would choose to leave. I’ve heard similar stories from some of my former co-workers; some of them eventually put in their notices.

Why are so many in this line of work let go? Why was I let go? My best guess is the money. I was making a nice salary for this market, and that may have irritated some people. The times have changed, however, and the salaries are not like they once were. I believe that I was let go to save money. That’s business, and I get it, but the understanding doesn’t soften the blow.

The way they did it was what really hurt. The general manager, who has since left the station, was condescending. I was never given an opportunity to say good-bye; I was simply told to get my things. Many others have lost their jobs since Hoak took over. Reporters would be eliminated and no one would be hired to fill their vacancies. There were fewer workers, which meant more work for those still employed. Employees’ 401(k)s were cut; raises were not given for years. Even the annual Christmas party went from a nice meal at a local hotel to a noon pot luck at the station.

I understand successful businesses need to make money. And that can mean cutting positions. But in the end, is the product better? Are the viewers better served and happy with the changes?