Three months after acquiring WJLP for a reported $62.5 million, the new owner has shaken up the station's New Jersey news operation.
Chicago-based Weigel Broadcasting Co., which operates MeTV, declined to pick up "Jersey Matters," a weekly, half-hour, public affairs program, and instead has launched "New Jersey Politics" with a new host in its place.
"We're committed to doing the best job we can covering New Jersey content going forward," said Steve Farber, senior vice president of operations for Weigel Broadcasting.
Weigel bought the Fairfield-based station last October from Wall-based Press Communications LLC as part of a move into the New York City market.
Its decision to not include the station's news operation rekindled long-standing concerns among elected officials that a national broadcaster would view the Garden State as little more than a suburb of New York City and Philadelphia, cutting back on local news coverage.
The company, however, assured lawmakers, including U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker, that it took seriously its obligation to serve as a public trust.
Last weekend, Weigel started "New Jersey Politics," a weekly half-hour show hosted by veteran New Jersey journalist Laura Jones. And on Monday, it started a website, updatenewjersey.com, which featured daily news updates and Twitter feeds of state and local government agencies.
Weigel takes over a station that got its start in 2014 after PMCM TV, a division of Press Communications, bought the license for WJLP from KVNV Channel 3 in Ely, Nevada, and moved it to New Jersey, giving it access to the New York market with a reach as far south as Mercer and Ocean counties.
It became an affiliate of MeTV, owned by Weigel, featuring a lineup of television shows that baby boomers and their children grew up with. And it launched "Jersey Matters" with Larry Mendte, a veteran Philadelphia television news anchor.
The station also partnered with Gannett's New Jersey newspapers, including the Asbury Park Press, to share content, and with Monmouth University to produce shows.
Robert McAllan, president and chief executive officer of Press Communications, didn't respond to a request for comment.
Employees from WJLP's newsroom said their last day was Jan. 7, and they have been saying their goodbyes on social media.
Among them: Kimberly Kravitz, a reporter who started at WJLP eight years ago, shortly after graduating from Monmouth University in West Long Branch, covering everything from political conventions to the New Jersey Hall of Fame inductions.
"To work in my hometown was a gift from God, and they became my family," Kravitz said in an interview. It was "so much more than a job. It’s where I wanted to spend all my time."
The ownership change drew the attention of Menendez, Booker and U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., who have been vocal critics of WWOR-TV, one of New Jersey's only commercially licensed broadcast stations, for scaling back news coverage and selling its Secaucus studios.
The Federal Communications Commission requires broadcasters to serve the public interest.
The trio has introduced a bill that would clarify the FCC's rules and require license holders to broadcast local news programming, consult with local leaders, and make it easier for the public to participate in the license renewal process.
They wrote to Weigel Chairman Norman Shapiro in early November, urging him to continue local news programming.
"At a time when the residents of New Jersey are starved for local news, and as more and more newspapers and other media outlets downsize or shutter outright, it is imperative that stations like WJLP continue to provide local coverage of the issues that matter to the Garden State,” they wrote.
Shapiro assured lawmakers that it takes seriously its obligation to serve as a public trust. He said the family-owned company is "a Main Street company in a Wall Street world" with a culture that includes providing free public affairs programming in its markets.
"We commit to provide at least the same level of local New Jersey news and public affairs coverage as WJLP does today, and I'm confident that there will be opportunities to do even more," Shapiro said.
Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy and health care industry for more than 20 years. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: MeTV owner drops 'Jersey Matters,' launches 'New Jersey Politics'