Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Zurik leaving WWL; contract negotiations broke down, both parties say

Posted By on Wed, Sep 2, 2009 at 1:08 AM

Both WWL news director Chris Slaughter and the station's investigative reporter Lee Zurik confirmed this afternoon that Zurik intends to leave WWL when his current contract expires Nov. 5. (Full credit to the Times-Picayune's Dave Walker, who broke the story.) The reasons why are murkier.

Zurik, reached at home, said the move stemmed from his desire to work a weekday beat and have weekends off; he's currently the station's weekend anchor and a weekday reporter on the highly-rated Eyewitness News Nightwatch. It was a decision he made, Zurik says, for both "personal and professional reasons."

"This is so hard," Zurik added, citing long-standing relationships with coworkers at WWL, particularly his good friend Mike Hoss, whose own career path from sports desk to news desk preceded Zurik's.

Both men confirmed that Zurik's contract with the station contains a clause prohibiting him from negotiating with other stations during his employ there. Asked if he had offers from other local stations, Zurik said, "No one's talked to me." Asked if anyone had negotiated on his behalf, Zurik referred the question to his lawyer, Rick Carr, a Denver-based attorney.

"I've been representing Lee and trying to find the best situation for him," Carr said tonight, stopping well short of the world "negotiations." "We've been having conversations but nothing that rises to the level of a signed agreement. He has decided to end his tenure with WWL, but what he will be doing is still not decided." Asked if he had approached or been approached by other New Orleans television stations, Carr declined to comment: "It's never a good idea for a station or an individual to say anything before anything is final. I'm looking for a situation that best takes advantage of his ability."

Moving to a weekday anchor job would seem a natural move for Zurik, whose sterling investigative work earned him one of journalism's highest honors, the Peabody Award, in May. In the last several years, Zurik has also married and had a daughter, which he says contributed to his decision to change his working hours.

But WWL has no natural weekday or weeknight vacancies for an up-and-coming male anchor; its weekday and weeknight anchormen -- Eric Paulsen, Dennis Woltering and Mike Hoss -- are all longtime fixtures of the news desk, well-respected journalists and consistent ratings winners in their time slots. And WWL, which has a decades-long track record of producing newspeople who become celebrities of sorts in the Crescent City, has always emphasized the team effort behind their product rather than their "news stars" -- a strategem that's kept their ratings steady after other high-profile defections, including that of Hoda Kotb.

What's certain? Zurik confirmed that he had no interest in going into print journalism, and laughed when asked about political plans or consultancy. "I want to stay in New Orleans," he said. "My family's here."

If he does stay in New Orleans, Zurik will be bound by a "non-compete" clause, a piece of boilerplate in TV reporters' contracts that prohibits them for going to work for a competitor immediately after leaving a job. Most non-competes are three to six months in duration; according to sources, Zurik's non-compete is six months, which would mean that any local TV job would keep him off the local airwaves through the beginning of March 2010.

If he did stay in New Orleans, where would Zurik land? The answer isn't obvious, but adding to the drama are a couple of high-profile defections of former WWL employees to competitor WVUE-TV, which was purchased by Saints owner Tom Benson last year. Since then, WWL's former assistant news director, Mikel Schaefer, has moved to WVUE, where's he's become news director, and former WWL assignment editor Chris Finch followed suit. Under its previous owners, Emmis Communications, WVUE was notorious for its penny-pinching ways, but that may be changing under Benson. (Another WWL-WVUE connection: WVUE lead anchor John Snell, who moved to the station from WWL in the 1990s.)

WDSU would seem to have no vacancies for a weekday anchor, but it's been on a hiring spree lately as well, hiring Orlando anchor (and New Orleans native) Scott Walker to helm a new 4 pm newscast scheduled to begin Sept. 14. But any news director in town would certainly be open to talking to Zurik, who just last week claimed another scalp when he reported that a program director for the Housing Authority of New Orleans may have been taking advantage of the Section 8 housing program he oversaw. The manager, Dwayne Muhammad, resigned one day after Zurik's report aired.

For his part, Slaughter says, he's willing to reopen negotiations: "I'll meet Lee whenever and wherever," he said. "I'll meet him at two o'clock in the morning at Café Du Monde in good faith and we can pick up where we left off if he wants."

Carr, Zurik's lawyer, said, "What they've been willing to offer is not a package that was worthy of commiting to. I wouldn't want to close the door on that station (WWL) entirely. But this is about what's best for Lee."

Asked if he would be amenable to reopening negotiations with WWL, Zurik demurred.

In the meantime, it seems to be business as usual, no matter how strained; Slaughter says he expects Zurik to fulfill the two months remaining on his contract, and Zurik says he'll do so.

He is scheduled to return the WWL newsroom on Thursday.

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