NEW YORK — Two weeks ago David Burrington, the correspondent for NBC News in San Francisco, was covering a story--on unemployment among farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley--when he got word that an NBC News executive was trying to reach him.
The executive, Robert McFarland, flew out to San Francisco from New York to have breakfast with Burrington the next morning. At that meeting, McFarland told Burrington that NBC News was going to close its San Francisco bureau as of June 1.
The 60-year-old Burrington, a 28-year veteran of NBC News, was being laid off, along with his three-man crew: Houston Hall, a 56-year-old cameraman who has been with NBC News for 29 years; 39-year-old sound technician John Bruni; and editor Gerald Breese, 55, a 29-year veteran of NBC News.
"It was a shock," Burrington said recently. "I knew that McFarland wasn't coming out to have breakfast for no reason, but I didn't expect them to close the bureau. They certainly handled it in a more humane way than these things usually happen--usually you hear it from your colleagues that you're going to lose your job. . . . Having recently turned 60, I'm eligible for retirement--but I'm not ready for it."
The closing of NBC's San Francisco bureau will leave a large bureau in Burbank as the only NBC News bureau in California.
"The coverage from San Francisco obviously is going to suffer," said Burrington, who has been a correspondent for NBC News in San Francisco since 1982. "When they decide a story is worth it, they'll fly people up to San Francisco and feed out of (NBC affiliate) KRON--or use what KRON gets on a breaking story. But, if KRON is out covering an event for its 6 p.m. newscast, how are they going to be able to get back in time to feed 'NBC Nightly News' at 3:15 p.m. Pacific time?"
Such questions probably are going to be raised in the future as the network news divisions look for ways to cover the country at a time when they are coming under increased economic pressure.
At the end of last year, ABC News closed bureaus in Chicago, Dallas and Boston. Chris Bury, the ABC correspondent in Chicago, now works out of ABC-owned WLS-TV; Dallas correspondent Charles Murphy works out of his home; and, in Boston, the network keeps a producer and videotape editor to work with physician Timothy Johnson, a contributor to several ABC News programs, while hard-news coverage in the Northeast is assigned from New York.
CBS closed its Chicago and Denver facilities at the end of last year, leaving correspondents Frank Currier and Bob McNamara to work out of office space at CBS affiliate WBBM-TV, hiring crews and editing facilities as needed.
Among the broadcast networks, only NBC has maintained its Chicago bureau, with one correspondent there instead of the four that were assigned there in 1984.
ABC News has nine bureaus of varying sizes in the United States; CBS has six; NBC has nine.
"We have reduced our domestic bureaus to the smallest number of people we can have and still maintain quality," said Robert Murphy, ABC News vice president in charge of news coverage. "We still have correspondents in areas where we have closed bureaus; but the luxury of having several staff correspondents, producers and support staff is simply a luxury now that we can't afford."
Such considerations are very different from the glory days of network news in the 1970s. From 1970 to 1977 Richard Threlkeld covered the anti-war movement, the Patty Hearst kidnaping and many other stories from San Francisco as a correspondent for CBS News. The Bay Area was a hotbed for news in those days.
But Threlkeld had counterparts in network news bureaus around the country: seasoned correspondents who were the eyes and ears for CBS, NBC and ABC in their respective regions.
"I would estimate that stories that appeared on the network newscasts were done by the networks' own correspondents 95% of the time," said Threlkeld, who recently returned from covering the liberation of Kuwait for CBS News. "The presumption was that the network guy approached a story from a different perspective than a reporter for the local TV station."
If present trends in broadcast news continue, there are likely to be fewer network-only correspondents reporting from bureaus in American cities. It is likely that the broadcast networks in the future are going to rely more on local affiliates for breaking-news coverage--while their nightly newscasts seek to differentiate themselves with lengthier reports and analytical pieces from specialists in areas such as science and business. But--although local news has grown more sophisticated in recent years--critics say that there would be problems with such a system. Local stations have their own programs to fill. And, some argue, there simply may be no substitute for having your own staff correspondents and producers on the ground.