Not In True Confidence: The Danger Of Becoming The Boss’s Confidant.

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Jul 302013

Because the TV business is so small, the lines can blur sometimes in work relationships inside newsrooms.  Too often managers, especially first time managers, really want someone to talk with and choose an employee.  If this isn’t a clear indication that more mentors are needed in the TV news industry, I don’t know what is.  When you move to a new town, take on a leadership role and work insane hours, it can be hard to meet people.  You can’t confide in your boss because you have things to prove.  But going the employee route is really unfair.

That’s the element we are tackling with this article.  I get DM’s and emails all too often from journalists wondering what to do when the boss starts dishing on the newsroom politics.  This is a catch 22.  If you say, “I don’t want to be part of this” you can make an enemy out of that manager.  BUT getting access to this “knowledge” can lead to you blurting out inappropriate tidbits when you feel backed against the wall.  So let’s talk through what this scenario really means.

Being the Confidant:

* Does not protect your job

* Does not make you more powerful in the newsroom

* Does give you great insight into inner workings of your newsroom

The biggest misconception is that being the confidant means you have more job security.  Many assume that means they must be considered very solid in their own job and that they are “safe.”  Not true.  I witnessed many managers have a session with their confidant, then later throw that same person under the bus in a managers meeting.  This is not an absolute, but it does happen more often than not.  At their core, many managers know using an employee as a sounding board, is not smart on many levels. Instead of correcting the situation, they would prefer the confidant disappears.  Maybe that means putting you on an opposite shift.  Maybe that means dumping you all together.  Do not assume that the manager is protecting you, as he/she confides in you.  In that regard you could really be at a disadvantage.

So this next point now becomes more clear.  You are not more powerful in the newsroom.  In fact you can be more alienated and vulnerable.  Your co-workers do not like that you may know more about what’s happening than them.  If you are labeled a favorite, it is like being the teacher’s pet in school.  A certain percentage will not like you just for that.  They fear you are “reporting” what employees are saying about management in general.  It is never good to be known as the newsroom snitch or a supervisor’s spy.

Your best defense: Listen and never give advice back.  You do not want to snub the manager, and potentially open up wrath, but you DO NOT want to end up in the middle of all the political firestorms.  Listen, and only tell the manager:  “I have full confidence you will handle everything well.”  Then get away as fast as you can.  The manger wants advice and reassurances.  The same statement over and over is a delicate way to encourage the manager to find a new way to cope with the issues.  Long term, you just do not want to be the confidant.

While you are getting the scoop, use it to figure out how the management team deals with each other.  Knowing who the pot stirrer is, who the blamer is and who the martyr is can be very helpful when they come to you asking for something.  Quietly try and sort this out for your own advantage and keep it to yourself.  Stay out of the politics.  If other co-workers ask if you are the confidant, say only that you are just doing your job, and being told how to do it better.  Let the co-worker take that how they wish.  You do not want pressure from the staff to be the person that tells management all the issues in the newsroom.  Nothing good will come of that.

One final but crucial thing to keep in mind, never use the knowledge you have to attempt to curry favor with the ND or another manager you fear is out to get you.  Do not let on that you know anything.  Do not ever bring an issue up with the ND then say, “Well your EP told me (fill in the blank).”   Knowledge is not power if you share that you have inner insight.  It can make you a liability.  Stay out of it all.  If you have an issue that is driving you crazy, DO NOT use your inside knowledge to push your own agenda.  You will pay for it.  Do not say “I know you were warned about these live trucks needing this part by the managing editor on June 10th.” or “I know you were told this reporter is consistently making fact errors by the EP on multiple occasions.”  If you must bring an issue up, make the argument the way you would with no inside knowledge.

Bottom line, your goal needs to be delicately getting out of being the manager’s confidant.  You want to give very little in the way of advice, so the manager moves on.  Long term, as tempting as knowing the station gossip is, you will be better off.  There are too many ways you could set yourself up for trouble.

 

Managing more seasoned journalists.

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Jul 072013

Here’s a situation I am asked about a lot. A young producer is put in charge of a newscast or shift and the seasoned veteran reporters and anchors seem to challenge the producer’s every decision.

I recently wrote an article about earning respect as a young journalist, which can help somewhat.  But let’s delve into more specifics on this scenario.

When a producer, especially a young producer, starts a new job or takes on a new newscast you must lay ground rules quickly.  How?  Sit down with the key players you will deal with each day, one-by-one.  Spell out what you plan to do to help that person in their job, and in turn what your expectation is for that person to best contribute to the team.  Emphasize team from the beginning.

This helps you nicely reiterate the person’s role and that you expect them to also lead by example.  Case in point:  A producer recently contacted me about a longtime anchor in a market who pitched a holy fit on the set.  (Apparently he did not read “Why Don’t You Show Us How It’s Done Then”).  How do you get that person to settle down?  First, know that the anger comes from somewhere.  So, let the person vent to you in a meeting.  Then ask the person to work with you to come up with a solution.  In other words, the person has to take partial responsibility for handling his/her own frustration.  You set up that you are willing to help, but that you are not the sole solution finder.  Then, after you two come up with a solution, reiterate to the anchor how crucial he/she is for building the team for your newscast and/or shift.  Then ask the person if you can call on him/her for help as you grow the team so everyone can get more satisfaction from their jobs.  This, again, nicely and professionally allows you to set your own expectations for the anchor.

If it is a reporter being difficult, you can handle the situation in much the same way.  Sit down and have a “clear the air” session.  Remember, these reporters often have a reason for being angry.  You owe it to the team to listen and try to help.  Talk through a solution together.  Then ask for the reporter’s help to be a role model as you build the team.  Most of the time the reporter:  a) wants to be appreciated b) wants validation that his/her opinion is even considered when decisions are made and c) wants to be part of the team, not just a warm body handed an assignment to execute each day.

Finally, keep in mind, that sometimes the biggest help for managing more seasoned veterans is time.  If you know what you are doing, and effectively perform your job each day, many of these sticklers end up becoming your biggest advocates.  They are just tired of “training” people and resent that management “seems to leave the newscast vulnerable.”  If you know your stuff, you will gain respect over time.  Be patient.  Listen.  Have reasons for the decisions you make.  It will work out.

 

What Mergers Really Mean For “Joe TV Journalist”

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Jun 192013

The recent Gannett-Belo merger announcement was definitely an attention getter.  Many wonder how in the world it will work, what it will mean for the industry and what does it mean for TV journalism?  There are several great articles already tackling some of these issues. (See Dallas Morning news for more on how the deal will work.  And this  New York Times article explains the financial reasons for the merger)

In this article, we are going to look at what average “Joe TV Journalist” needs to consider.  Much of it is common sense but, it bears reminding.

What Big Media Buyouts mean to Journalists:

Fewer options

More opportunities to burn bridges

Mind p’s and q’s

More mergers means fewer options in many cases. Newsroom consolidations  are a trend that is even creating enough concern to start a movement. (Check out this map to see how many stations are operating this way.)

This means fewer options in terms of companies for whom you can work. That is significant because this is not a big business anyway.  Pick a journalist you know, and with little to no effort you can come up with three names of people connected to that person.  A little more effort and you will likely come up with at least ten other names.  So think twice if you get a burning desire to tell your ND to “&^%$ off!”

There are more opportunities each day now, to burn bridges. Companies keep human resource files on you.  Count on the fact that ND’s across the country from one another can hit a few computer keys or speed dial and get the full scoop on you in a heartbeat.  If you hate your situation, gripe in private and quietly move on.

That is all part of minding your p’s and q’s.  Keep in mind, sticking it to the “&*^hole” newsroom and walking out or giving a day’s notice will come back to bite you.  The chances of it happening are greater than ever with fewer companies controlling more of the jobs.  Remember, the fewer broadcasting companies that exist, the bigger the bite.  I know a few journalists right now who decided to just walk out (to get a little revenge on “the man!”) and now they are really hurting.  You will be labeled.  You will raise red flags.  You will lose out on top salary options.  And yes, you could be black balled all together.  It really does happen, especially within station groups.  So, if you love being a part of TV news, suck it up.  Find a job quietly, and put in two weeks notice.  You can do it, your career depends on it.

Bottom line, what this means for “Joe TV Journalist” is that the biz is getting even smaller than it was before.  Play nice in the sandbox, and take the high road even when others around you are not.  Your reputation will count for even more than in the past.  If this trend continues there simply will be fewer options for you to get a second chance.

 

Transitioning to management.

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Jun 092013

One of the hardest things to do when you transition to management is to learn when you jump in and when you back away.  This takes some trial and error, and a few key reminders.

What managers are truly judged on:

Your team’s successes

Your ability to improve others skills

Your time management

Problem solving on your own

The biggest misconception new managers often have, is that the ratings race is now squarely on their shoulders.  This is not true.  If you raise the ratings by either doing everything yourself or leading with a reign of terror you will still get the axe.

Your job is to help your entire team succeed.  A wise GM once told me, “You are considered a great manager, when you leave and the staff still executes as well or better than when you were there.”  Think hard about that statement.  If you believe that to really be true, then your first priority as a manager switches from turning the best newscast everyday, to helping others around you improve themselves each day.

Which leads to our next point:  Your new role as a manager is not to dive in and redo or fix all the mistakes.  Your role is to help others around you improve, so that no one has to routinely dive in and fix others mistakes.  The minute you take a management job, you become a mentor.  It is that simple.  You must know how to help others around you grow and challenge themselves.  You are a cheerleader, a reality checker and in many ways a careful observer.  So diving in and writing an entire A-block or rewriting every reporter script each day is actually a failure on your part.  You are letting your staff down by doing so.  You are preventing your staff from succeeding long term.

You also set the example on how to time manage.  If you work tireless hours, then take it out on the staff around you, for “being such a mess,”  you lose credibility.  If you roll in late everyday, leave early several times a week and take long lunches you also lose credibility.  Understand that the staff around you keeps a close watch on how hard you work and how long.  They take note.  They base a tremendous amount of their respect for you on your scheduling.  You need to show them how to work hard, while still maintaining some semblance of a life.  This shows you are a compassionate, respectful manager who will also honor their hard work and time put in each day.

Finally, if your solution to problems that arise is to go running to the assistant news director or news director for direction, you are dead in the water.  Your staff will consider you a joke, and so will your ND.  You have to problem solve, largely, by yourself. Of course, if there are potential legal ramifications you do need to consult.  But if a reporter is ignoring your orders or a producer is not listening and doing whatever they want, you must fix the issue yourself.  Running to the other “parent” to have them hand out the discipline will destroy any chance you have of building credibility.  This is an extremely hard lesson.  If you try several techniques to no avail, then you need to come to your news director with that list, one-on-one, and provide more suggestions to handle the situation.  Never go to the ND and ask him or her to flat out fix it.  That’s what you are paid to do now.

So there you have it, go lead by empowering others to challenge themselves.  Set up a work routine that you want others to follow.  And when an issue arises, come up with a solution and execute.  Some decisions will be wrong.  Admit it, then fix it.  Your staff will learn from this example.  It will earn you a lot more credibility than running for guidance and refusing to take a stand yourself.

 

Making it stick: how to coach newbie journalists.

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Mar 202013

A big part of my job is coaching, both seasoned and new, journalists.  Lately I have been getting DM’s and email from managers asking, “How do you get through?  I have no luck, especially getting them to understand the importance of a fact error.”

Here are some techniques I used while working in newsrooms.  First, techniques for producers and writers.  I would print out scripts that I knew had errors.  Then I would sit down with the writer and tell them to do a couple of things.  First, take these scripts and circle the 5 w’s.  Then I would ask them to highlight the facts in the script, and the matching facts from the source they used.  This can be a real eye opener, because it forces whoever wrote the script not only to see the error, but to see that answering the 5 w’s, will help avoid errors.  Often if there is a fact error, 1 or more of the 5 w’s either is not in the script at all OR the w’s do not lead to any kind of logical conclusion.  So, the light bulb goes off.  There’s a problem.  Then when the writer looks at the facts from the source, the error often shows up plain as day.

I did this for several reasons.  It forces the writer to take ownership of the mistake.  It also helps the writer think through how the error happened.  After going over several scripts, you can see a pattern where the writer consistently goes wrong.  In some cases, the person is unclear about a legal term.  In others, the person is not clear about the background of an ongoing story.  Both of those things are easy to train and correct, as long as the person recognizes the problem with making the error.

What gets interesting is when the person sees the errors, and is not concerned about it.  I would get, “Well the anchor should have caught that.” Or “you copy edited the script, right?  Isn’t that your job, to know the facts.”  Those producers, writers, reporters etc. then step into phase two of training.  The reality check!

Here’s the biggest differentiator between a newbie journalists and a veteran.  Veterans understand that these stories we put on the TV screen actually impact lives.  We know this for many reasons, not the least being that somewhere along the way, we made a mistake that hurt someone.  In my case, my news director made me a call a family and apologize when I aired the name of a minor who was charged with a crime.  My old station used the names of juvies.  The new station did not.  I did not check the policy at the new station.  I will never forget how horrified I was when I had to call that family and explain to the parents, that I did not ask my manager if it was OK to air a minor’s name.  That reality check changed the way I wrote news.  Period.  Veteran journalists have stories like this, about omissions or assumptions that really hurt.  The wounds are still there, years later.  We never look at the box our work plays in the same way again.  It doesn’t beam into space for us.

If you can set up a scenario so the writer that made the error has to face up to the mistake, beyond saying sorry to the ND, do it.  That reality check may change that newbie’s outlook on news forever.

Now on to reporters.  The technique can be similar.  I used to have them circle the w’s and highlight the facts.  Since I did not always have access to their sources, I would sometimes ask for a name, then have the reporter call and re-verify the facts on the phone in front of me.  If the reporter made an assumption, you could see the sweat on the brow.  It is a great technique to quickly assess how sure a reporter is about a fact.  The ones that double checked, always did it, with no complaints and no concerns.

The other technique I used is printing scripts about a story from each day part.  I would include the script with the error.  Then I would hand all of the scripts over and ask the writer to show me which script was wrong and explain why.  It gets really interesting if you throw in a few wrong scripts from another day part and a writer’s correct script as well.  Then you see how comfortable the writer is with their fact checking.  If the writer figures all of his/her scripts have errors, you know that person is not comfortable fact checking.  That is trainable.

If the writer thinks their scripts are never wrong, you may find the person is more interested in how something sounds, than accuracy.  Go to the “reality check” step if at all possible.

The writer who catches the errors, both from themselves and others probably is just a little overwhelmed by volume.  Start watching that person’s time management skills. This training technique works for reporters, producers and AP’s.

Hope this helps you make it stick, when it comes to training the importance of accuracy.  If you have more training techniques I would love to hear them.  Email me or post them on our FB page.

 

The future of TV news, and therefore our own salaries, is something we all wonder about.  Many journalists took paycuts in the last few years just to keep our jobs.  Veteran journalists are being pushed out, because they now cost too much.  Others are considering taking the paycuts they’re offered to make sure they stay put.  There are plenty of studies out there pointing to fewer opportunities and less money for TV news.  Then there’s Bob Papper’s take.  He researches a lot of studies for RTNDA and is a professor and chairs the Department of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations at Hofstra University.   I recently spoke to him about the RTNDA/Hofstra University 2012 TV and Radio News Staffing and Profitability Survey.  He provided a lot of insight into how he came up with those numbers and what they mean.  We also talked about future trends he sees.

Now keep in mind, this man has contact with every ND in America.  He also calls and checks in with stations that “hire out” their news from other stations.  He even checks in with stations that do not have news, just in case they are in the process of changing their minds.  The trend he sees?  More newscasts are being created in more time slots.  Why is that good news?  One word:  Demand.

Papper says when considering where TV news is heading, do not simply look at staffing.  Other factors come into play, which I will lay out in a minute.  Instead Papper says, “If you want to know (about the future) on a systemic basis in the industry, see how much news they are doing each day.  Stations added news, while cutting employees.  That is not sustainable.  Sooner or later you will have to hire more people.”  Papper is working on the next staffing and profitability survey right now.  He sees more newscasts starting up.  He says quote, “Television is doing really, really well.”

So, why the low salaries?  Plenty of you DM’d me upset that you were not making the median salaries listed in the RTNDA survey.  When I took a closer look, many of the medians measured up to what I made in those market sizes more than a decade ago.  Not good when you consider inflation.  So I asked how we are really doing?  Papper’s answer, “The pay is worse today than 40 years ago.”  Why?  Supply and demand.  Unemployment rates are not helping newsies either.  Stations can get away with paying relatively little.  Papper’s take, “If you are hiring, you are in control right now.”  He says he sees no pressure to raise salaries any time soon, because the rest of the economy is still not doing well.

So is there a light at the end of the tunnel for journalists, grinding out more content, with less help and less pay?  Papper says yes, because those extra newscasts starting up are putting a strain on more than just you.  Stations are feeling the pinch, and will have to plug the holes, because cutting staff while adding newscasts is not a long term solution.  So where are the “relief” hires?  “That’s exactly what took place in 2011, and (is) substantially taking place in 2012,” according to Papper.  Stations are starting to hire more.  So what can you do to make yourself especially marketable in the meantime?  Keep dabbling in new media.  That will make you stand out, and possibly help you command more cash.  Papper’s closing thought for you and me?  “New media skills, really can help you stay employed.  Part of keeping your job is to move with time.”

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Thank you to Bob Papper. He has put together the salary survey for 19 years.  He is a professor, and chairs the Department of Journalism, Media Studies, and Public Relations at Hofstra University.  He also is a former producer and news manager.

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