Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Truth about TV News Employees

You probably think you know a great deal about TV reporters.  Really, you don’t. 

My statement may seem surprising and my claim hard to swallow given the fascination our society has for TV news people.  They’re the subject of much pop culture fascination.  But I speak as someone who is in a unique position to know what he’s talking about.  I spent my adult life in TV news, and spent half of that as a TV news director—hiring, firing, mentoring, coaching, and on a good day inspiring TV news reporters.  I’ve had a role in launching or boosting countless careers.  I know what I’m talking about when I say that you really don’t know these people.

Part of the problem, of course, is that pop culture views of TV news employees are filtered through the broken and distorted lens of, well, pop culture.  Like all stereotypes, the worst ones directed at TV news types contain more than a dollop of reality for flavor.  Yes, I’ve known a Ron Bergundy type or two in my life before.  Those are rare. 

So what’s real?

You know why I’m talking about this, of course.  I did not know Alison Parker or Adam Ward, the two TV news journalists shot to death during a live report for WDBJ in Roanoke.   I have worked with probably hundreds of people who do what they do, however.  I know the culture and I know what drives these folks.

Roanoke is a mid-sized TV market.  Both Alison and Adam fit the profile of the kind of TV news employee you’d expect to be working there—specifically, they’re young, fresh faced, clearly passionate.   The worst stereotypes—and reporters and even those behind the scenes endure these accusations throughout their careers—would paint all TV news employees as ratings-grubbing left-leaning “lamestream” sensationalists who are about nothing other than advancing their careers, and are willing to invade anyone’s privacy, step on anyone’s toes, and slant any news story to get there.

It’s not true.  In light of the tragedy, it’s worth taking a moment to understand exactly what motivates these folks and why they’re there for you.   And to understand what drives them, first you must understand the challenges they face.

First, like anyone getting out of college today, they’re going to face debt—a mound of it.  Yet they have chosen careers that are uniquely brutal on beginners.  Ask almost anyone who’s taken the traditional TV news route—that first job likely is going to be in a very small town and food stamps might be part of the equation.  Getting help from family almost certainly will be part of the deal.  Those jobs simply do not pay well enough for a professional—especially one who has to look good on TV—to survive.  But such low-paying jobs are part of the TV news industry’s economy, and it’s a very simple equation.  Small stations command small audiences, which command small advertising rates.  Small advertising rates lead to small revenue streams, which means less in the way of resources for journalism.  Those entry level jobs are learning experiences one is not meant to survive on long term.   The idea is that the journalist will work there for a while and then move on to a better paying job in a bigger town once he or she has gained the necessary jobs skills and racked up the on-air experience to do so.  Both the journalists and the stations understand this rule and accept the deal.  Typical turnover time is anywhere from 12 to 24 months depending on the job.

And by the way, in going to a small market where one can barely eke by, the TV news journalist completely gives up perks and privileges the rest of us take for granted, such as being able to take holidays off (the news doesn’t stop for Christmas) or being able to take time off for a friend’s wedding (no time off during ratings measurement periods).  Further, TV people are on call pretty much around the clock.  When the news happens, they must be ready.  Dinner tonight with the significant other?  Sorry.  You’ve got a homicide to cover.  Regrettably the killer did not check in with the assignment desk scheduler before rudely deciding to commit the crime.

Behind the scenes jobs in TV are competitive.  On-camera jobs are brutally so.  To get that first job and begin the privilege of paying off those college debts the entry level candidate will face competition from anywhere from 50 to 100 other reporters in similar situations.  Harried news directors make these decisions, and they start by playing back a reporter’s demo tape.  The typical news director—who is probably in the shop on his or her own personal time to cull through demos because he or she couldn’t find time during the week—is not going to stop and linger luxuriously over each and every demo.  The typical submission will get about ten seconds.  Yes, all that study and all that college preparation and all those college tuition bills that have been racked up come down to a ten-second viewing in some dimly lit office.  The game is brutal and  unfair and it’s all there is.  Play it or don’t.   The applicants play it.  For every applicant selected, ten or more highly qualified applicants go begging—and many, many more with mediocre skills ultimately will have to find something else to do in life.

What do those selected face?  If they’re talented and somewhat lucky, that second job may begin to pay the bills but it’s going to be tight.   But that means succeeding in the first job.  The third job may begin to bring a measure of personal comfort in terms of income—which of course means succeeding in the second job equally as well if not better than the first.  And remember, by “success” I mean standing out in a role that requires multiple overlapping sets of job skills, including on-air performance (the movie star in you); excellent writing (channeling your inner Ernest Hemingway); journalism craft skills (can you dig out a story--and get it right?); and a high degree of charm in being able to work with people in the newsroom and in the field.

Who does this?  And who is willing to put out the effort it takes to succeed in such a brutal arena?

Let me say that no one—absolutely no one—dedicates himself or herself to a journalism career because of a passionate desire to boost a TV station's ratings or bottom line.  Some, admittedly, are simply nice enough people who want to be in the limelight.  But the vast majority are people who want to make a difference.  Those fresh faces you see belong to fellow Americans who’ve perceived a chance to do something positive for the community—and yes, perhaps even some day, for the world at large—and are willing to sacrifice to be in a position to carry that out.  The sense of personal fulfillment that comes with airing a worthwhile story that frees someone from jail, or puts someone in jail, or reunites a family, or rewrites a law, is hard to describe, but it makes it all worthwhile.  The desire to have fulfillment of that nature be part of one’s life is a worthy one.

Having said that, I would venture to guess that many go into this without a full understanding of the sacrifices that will be demanded to arrive at those kinds of stories.  In a lot of stations reporters are expected to shoot their own video and even set up their own live shots.   Dispatching a lone reporter to a crime scene late at night or early in the morning presents daunting security concerns.  That’s something no one really thinks about when training in college.  Here’s another:  A potentially huge emotional issue they’ll face is that the agendas young college graduates don’t always align with the agendas of employers in terms of the kind of stories that make a difference and how to go about getting them.  TV news managers, faced today with ever-shrinking revenue streams, need compelling stories cranked out in a hurry, which for the most part means crime, crime, crime.  Those are not the stories that tend to have the most impact in terms of making a real difference for the community.  Reporters have to fight for the time to be allowed to pursue the truly meaningful pieces, and increasingly they’re finding those battles hard to win.  But speaking personally, one good story about a family successfully fighting city hall or a beating a corrupt business or end-running an insensitive bureaucracy is worth ten police chases.  TV news still does turn out those kinds of stories.  What you may not realize is that those are the stories that keep the reporters coming back—and, in my opinion, the viewers as well.  Those are the stories that drive our young idealists. 

Put another way—in terms of making a difference, TV news wields one of the most powerful weapons known to man—the TV transmitter.  On a good day a reporting crew gets to borrow that and put it to good use.   The feeling one gets when everything clicks and something good pops out over the air is hard to describe.  But it’s what drives the best of us.

We don’t often think of them that way, but TV news employees are first responders.  They’re almost always among the very first to the scene, and they do have a duty to serve the public, although in a different way from the other first responders.  There’s danger in that.  There shouldn’t be danger in the type of story Alison and Adam were covering that day.  But long time observers have known something like this would happen sooner or later.  Alison and Adam were the victims of two converging trends—the increase in the number of madmen with guns, and the increase in live on-air attacks (usually in the form of pranks but not always) on TV crews live on the air.  News departments will no doubt will be doing some soul-searching about on-site security for live shots going forward, and this will be a concern from now on.  But in the end little will change for the better, and the dangers will continue to grow in the long term.

TV news types certainly are not the only employment group that’s been willing to show a willingness to  sacrifice in order to pursue a worthwhile profession, of course.  Teachers spring to mind.  But we do take journalists for granted, and we really shouldn’t.   Sad to say, a lot of the best journalists don’t make it.  They wind up getting into related fields that will provide more in the way of economic security but less in the way of soul satisfaction precisely because the sacrifice is so daunting.  I’ve seen the profession lose countless incredibly valuable players that way.

Yet someone is always springing up to take their places, equally passionate to make that difference.  Why is that?  It’s not because our society is particularly deserving of having such people.  Such people are here because our society hasn’t completely lost track of what public life is supposed to be about.  I can say proudly that some of the finest human beings I’ve known have been television journalists, and every one of that group of people shared a common denominator:  the desire, and ultimately the ability springing from craft skills and talent, to make a difference.

I hope that the next time you take in a TV newscast that you might think of what I’ve shared with you—especially when it comes to the younger folks.  Trust me when I say that we are blessed to have them.


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9 comments:

  1. Uh...News director...hello? You got Alison's name wrong. It's Parker not Walker. Ironic, huh? Plus, it's Ernest Hemingway, not Earnest. (Surprised you're still working with that kind of fact checking.) My news room experience is that they are hotbeds of bullying (like junior high.) Then there's the substance abuse. I am sorry for what happened, but newsroom environments and bullying management created Bryce Williams.

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    1. Jeez, Gigi. Who died and made you queen?

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  2. Forrest - I was a news director for 16 years and can vouch for everything you wrote. I can't say enough about the smart, funny, selfless young people I had the privilege of working with. I wish more people could see how hard ALL local TV journalists work - (producers, photographers/editors, assignment desk editors never get the recognition they deserve) - and for such little financial reward. Thank you for your eloquent post. Renai Bodley

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    1. Renai, thanks for your thoughtful reply. I will say that I really came to admire the best of those I've worked with over the years. I have a special place in my affections for the young folks whose careers I helped shape, many of whom have kept in touch with me over the years. Every group has its problems, of course, but I think TV news people by and large stand out as exceptional. We need more who are willing to make the everyday sacrifices that they do. And believe me, they are not doing it for the money, not during those first few years.

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