Media Scene

Ex-WCNC reporter claims age bias in firing

Stuart Watson, a longtime investigative reporter at WCNC (Channel 36) whose contract was not renewed this year, has sued the station and its parent company for age discrimination.

In his suit, Watson says he was told Jan. 9 that he would no longer be employed by WCNC and that his $116,000-a-year contract would continue to be paid into May, when it expired. Watson says he was told by station manager Deborah Collura that WCNC was going “in a different direction.”

Watson says that the station and Gannett Broadcasting, now called Tegna, fired him because he was old. Watson is 56.

After the station began hiring reporters in their 20s last year, Watson says, he was called to a meeting in November 2014 and told he was not productive enough. Watson says he increased his production of stories but was still terminated in January.

WCNC denies the allegations. In a court response, the station says that Watson was a contract employee whose contract was not renewed and not covered under provisions of “at-will” workers.

Emmy nominations cited

Watson also says that on the day after the November meeting, he learned he’d been nominated for five regional Emmy awards, but management never announced it to staff or on news broadcasts. Ultimately, the five categories were won by others in the region.

“In the past, news that an employee had received an Emmy nomination had been shared internally and externally with great enthusiasm,” Watson’s suit says. WCNC denied the allegation, though it acknowledged the nominations were not broadcast.

In all, the suit says, WCNC has hired four journalists in their 20s while three workers over 40, including Watson, have left since the station was taken over by Tegna in December 2013. WCNC disputed the allegation in its response.

Station making changes

WCNC, which has long run a distant third in news ratings behind WSOC (Channel 9) and WBTV (Channel 3), has been rebuilding its team under Tegna, including recent hires of Fred Shropshire and Beth Troutman in key anchor positions.

Watson, who is represented by attorney Luke Largess of Charlotte, seeks reinstatement, back pay, benefits and punitive damages. WCNC, represented by attorney Frederick Smith of Charlotte, says he is not entitled and has asked that the case be moved from state to federal court because of the age discrimination claim.

Watson came to WCNC in January 1999 from WRAL (Channel 5) in Raleigh. Among the best-known stories he broke was in 2008 when he learned that then-United Way CEO Gloria Pace King was making more than $1 million in pay and benefits. Donations plunged, and Pace was replaced.

Researcher Maria David contributed to this report.