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.

I get a lot of tweets about what it takes to get into larger markets.  That’s always the goal right? The bigger you go, the better the money and the easier the job because you will have experienced co-workers around you.  You have to aim high.  Or do you?

When I graduated college, I quickly had an opportunity in a good station in what was market 28 at the time.  I was intimidated but a professor of mine said, “Newsrooms are all the same, just go for it.”  Guess what?  They are not all the same.  I have worked in small, mid and large markets.  Small markets have a high novice factor usually.  Large markets have some novices, incredible rising stars, people burning out and veterans enjoying the professional success they have.  There is definitely more of a cut throat feeling (at least in my experience) in large markets.  However, I learned the most from them because of that diversity of people.

Mid markets are often little gems many people overlook.  Nowadays many mid markets pay more than large markets.  Yes.  You read that correctly.  The mid markets appreciate their talent and try to encourage them to stay, so the newsrooms are often more stable.  Small markets know they are largely revolving doors, training grounds for reporters and producers.  Large markets know everyone wants to come work there.  Competition is fierce getting there, and doesn’t let up once you arrive.  It can be thrilling, until you want to settle down and have a family.  Mid markets realize this and tend to offer very talented journalists nice contracts and more stability.  You get to live in a place that’s great for raising kids and you get respect for who you are as a journalist.  That can be harder to come by in small and large markets, though not impossible.

So when considering a market, focus less on the ADI size and more on whether the place will fit well with your lifestyle and, if applicable, whether it’s a good place to raise children.  You may end up a lot happier that way.

I’m guessing the title of this article got a few sarcastic chuckles.  If you have had at least one job in TV news, it has probably has happened to you.  First you move and give up everything familiar.  Then you get to the station and boom!  “Oh you thought we hired you to do the 5pm?  No, you are actually producing the noon.”  “We’ve made a few changes since you interviewed.  You won’t be on our special projects unit, you will be dayside reporting.”  “Yes, we hired you to anchor the weekend shows, but so and so is leaving so you will be on mornings.”  I can honestly say, a third of the time in my career, I arrived at stations my first day and was given a new, unexpected assignment.  When asked what happened to the plan that I would produce XY or Z, the answer was always the same, “Well we just need you here now.”  It sucks and makes you hate the boss right away.   Thankfully, there was a silver lining for me.  Every time, I ended up with the show I came there to produce.  I would sit down with management and ask what it would take to get the newscast I wanted.  Then I would deliver what they said.  Sometimes it took a few months, sometimes a year.  The key is saying, “I am here to help. I will do what you ask and give my all, but I came for a specific reason.  At some point, I want that addressed.”

Request specific parameters you must meet to get the gig you were promised.  This is going to be easier to pull off for producers and reporters.   Write those parameters down in front of the boss, then repeat them back and date it.  That way you have documented the conversation.  I know that sounds silly and technically would not hold up in court.  But it is not a document most managers want sent to human resources in a few months, along with a letter explaining how you were promised XY or Z.  It can sometimes help you leave early if you end up in pure hell.  In one case I saw a producer that was promised a weekend shift and ended up on mornings, turn in a document like this and get the weekend gig.  Another producer I knew used a document like this to get a gig I was promised.  We were both told we would get the same show!  We were hired within a week of each other.  Each of us were put on different newscasts than what we were promised.  She had several conversations with management about it, turned in documentation to human resources and got the newscast first.  It took me several months of bouncing around newscasts and raising ratings to demand I get a turn.  It worked out and I got the gig.  But if her ratings had been higher, I would not have, because she documented right away.  I also knew of reporter who was able to leave a station before his contract came up because he was placed on a different shift.  He did not have an agent by the way.  But he did have documentation.

Don’t sit and complain everyday about the screw over.  It will alienate you from the staff.  Besides you moved there and you are probably stuck for a while.  Sometimes the new shift actually works out better.  Try and keep an open mind.  Again, I speak from personal experience.  It can be hard to let go of the initial screw over.  Instead of dwelling on the situation, set goals for yourself of what you want out of this job.  Then do all you can to get more out the place than it gets from you.  What I mean is that if you focus on improving your skills one of two things will happen.  Either the station will see your growth and promote you, or you will gain a new or improved skill set and leave for greener pastures.  You will end up the winner in the end. Remember that.  Also remember that many journalists come to newsrooms for a certain job, get the gig then, lose it.  There are no givens in the news business.  At least if another shift change is presented to you that you don’t want to do you can try and say, “Hey I already took one for the team.” It might provide more long term stability.

I have to admit, I have been surprised by the amount of questions Survivetvnewsjobs.com gets about agents.  The most common being, who do you recommend?  By asking a few follow up questions, it is clear that finding out about and hiring agents seems intimidating.  It should because these reps take a significant amount of your salary (sometimes up to 10%) and can have a profound effect on your career.  Often journalists looking for an agent worry it the agent will be willing to take them.  But let’s turn the tables a little bit.  The question should actually be:  Can this agent really help me advance my career?  This isn’t an ego thing.  This relationship should benefit both parties.  When you hire an agent just because you are glad the person is willing to take you on, you are selling yourself short.  You need to clearly see how your career will benefit.  Otherwise you will be writing checks for years, to someone you don’t believe in.  That’s too costly a mistake!

So how do you select an agent?  It takes more than finding out what agent represents the main anchor at your station or another reporter in the ranks.  Those personal endorsements are great and important, but a small part of the picture.  There are several other things to consider.

When selecting an agent consider his/her:

  • Reputation
  • Ability to work with ND’s and GM’s
  • Understanding of industry trends and traditions
  • Ability to coach
  • Solid legal support

Getting those ringing endorsements from other reporters, producers and anchors is a great start toward figuring out an agent’s reputation.  I would suggest cold calling clients listed on the agent’s website and asking what this agent has done to help that person in the last year, 6months, 3 months etc.  There are different types of agents.  Some excel at placement.  Some shine as coaches.  Some offer more individualized attention.  Some agents are known as serious advocates for their clients if a problem arises.  You need to know the agent’s reputation so you have an idea of what type of representation you will get.

A key to reputation, is how the agent handles ND’s and GM’s.  The last thing you want is to hire an agent that MANY ND’s and GM’s have blacklisted.  This does happen.  Bridges can be burned and you don’t want to be caught in the flames too.  This is especially crucial if you have a dream market in mind.  You don’t want to get a call from your dream station, only to find out the ND will not work with your agent.  So how do you check this out?  Talk with your former NDs.  If you are first starting out, ask a professor if he/she knows of any ND’s or GM’s you could call.  If you have a dream market in mind, you might want to call the AND, and see if he/she has a minute to talk.  Tell him/her your goal is to get to that station one day and could that person recommend any good feeder stations and agents that the station works with.  You might be surprised how much information the AND will provide. (For more on why making connections with the AND is so crucial read “When the interview really counts”) Now this is going to sound strange at first, but you don’t necessarily want an agent the ND or AND just loves and gushes over. That agent may not be very aggressive at getting great deals for clients.  You want an agent the ND or GM says is fair, and decent to work with.  That means the agent probably has good insight into how much positions in the market and within that station group pay.  You want an agent who isn’t a hothead, but is persistent and will fight for the best deal with business savvy.  Also, remember agents and ND’s will not always get along.  If you hear from one ND that the agent is awful, check with at least two other ND’s before making a decision.  Personality conflicts happen to all of us.  The only exception being if you are absolutely 100 percent sold on a particular station.  If that ND says he/she refuses to work with an agent you have some thinking to do.  Not just about the agent, also the ND.

I feel so passionately about vetting an agent’s understanding of industry trends and coaching, I dedicated a whole article to these topics called “The one thing you need to require from your agent regularly.”  Read it please if you are considering hiring an agent.  This is the payoff for the up to 10 percent of your salary you are giving up.  If you want an agent to be an advocate for you, the person must grasp what industry leaders are looking for and be able to see what’s coming next.  This is particularly huge with the eruption of social media’s influence on television news.  There is even less focus on training in newsrooms.  Managers are more concerned with how to compliment newscasts on television with web based elements.  The economic downturn means less money to pay for training sessions and in some cases less money for more seasoned talent that can mentor in newsrooms.  You need someone in your corner that can give you constructive criticism so you can grow in your job.  Agents are becoming the go to people you need more and more.  Make sure your agent can actually provide advice about producing newscasts, writing packages and being a backpack journalist to name just a few things.

You also want an agent that has solid legal support.  Why?  Contracts are getting more and more complicated, especially when it comes to social media clauses.  That non-compete you signed could become an issue too.  What about sections demanding you stay a certain weight?  You want an agent that has a direct line to an attorney so you can get answers fast if a problem arises.  These are issues that an agent should be able to advise you on.  I have known of agents that say, “You will have to hire an attorney for that,” while negotiating contracts.  Seriously?  What is the 10 percent you are paying for if you cannot get any advice on legal elements of your contract?  When interviewing agents ask what legal support is provided.

One last thing to keep in mind, make sure you feel comfortable speaking with the agent.  You may need to have very frank discussions.  Agent contracts often last longer than station contracts.  You will be probably “stuck” with this person a long time for better or worse.  Make sure you can get along with them!  Remember agents have a lot to gain retaining you, so don’t sell yourself short.  Look for the kind of representation you really need to advance your career.

 

Whether to hire an agent is an age old debate in the TV News biz.  People have strong feelings about agents and their role in the business.  As the industry trends toward turning more content with less people, agents are becoming more essential in my eyes.  The reason may surprise you.  It is not because there are less jobs.  Bottom line if you have talent, you will find work.  So why are agents becoming more essential?  They are advocates for you, not only when looking for work but also while you work the job the agent helped you find.

Here’s what I mean.  Of course, agents keep tabs on where the jobs are and what type of skill sets managers want.  But they also keep tabs on trends in the industry.  So a good agent should be able to look at your skill sets and let you know what elements you need to focus on to grow and become even more marketable.  This is a mutually beneficial relationship.  The agent should want to help you not only get a good job, but grow in that job so you can eventually move to another, bigger, job.  Both of you win.  Both of you make more money.  Both of you make names for yourselves in the industry.

This is why when you vet an agent you need to make sure that this person will regularly critique your work, and that news managers think this person has a clue about identifying and training talent.  Yes, I said training.  Over the years, the pitfalls I found with agents were that many had connections to get you a job, but were not respected in the industry as able to help journalists grow.  If you want a headhunter to place you, hire a head hunting type service.  If you want someone to just look over a contract, hire an attorney.  If you want a good agent, hire someone who regularly provides insight into the news business and will regularly critique your work to help hone your skills.

That, my friends, is the one thing you should require of your agent.  You want regular critiques of your work.  Make your requirement clear before you hire your agent and hold them accountable.  There are agents that already do this as a general rule and truly feel they are an advocate for you throughout your career.  This is the kind of agent you want.  Ask for this upfront, and demand a clear explanation of how you will get these critiques.

So what does requiring regular critiques of your work really mean?  It means more than an occasional newsletter listing industry trends and an article or two about things like what to and not to wear on air.  It means the agent actually reviews some of your recent work, then sends back thoughts on what you did.  It means setting up regular conversations where you decide together what skill sets you want to improve on in the next six months, the next year, by the end of your contract, etc.  This person will then review your work and let you know how you are doing at improving those skills.  The agent and you should also have conversations about what job you want to have in two years and/or five years.  What will you do and what will the agent do to try and make those goals reality?  An agent cannot promise to get you to the network in five years.  But an agent can help you identify what makes your writing and presentation skills unique so you can build on your assets to increase your chances.

Remember, making sure an agent will provide regular critiques and work with you toward your goals is your responsibility to set up.  Agents offer different things.  You need to make sure you are getting what you want, when you want it.  You need to research and make sure the agent you are thinking of hiring can deliver on your expectations.  Then requiring critiques should be a simple matter of scheduling when you will talk next.

When we outlined how to tell when a station is a great place to work, we got a few messages asking, “How do you tell when a place is really bad?“  Fellow journalists, this is a tricky one!  We may all be great at digging up dirt, but in many cases the leaders of the hornet’s nest, hell holes are better at covering it all up.  There are a lot of bad shops.  So many, in fact, you might say to yourself: “I’ll just go to the crappy place if it’s in the city where I want to live.”  Whenever possible avoid the hell holes.  It will increase your chances of actually keeping your job for more than 2 contracts.  Trust us, moving gets old after a while.

Now the all important list of tell-tale signs that a station is a hell hole:

1.         Chronic 3rd or 4th place in the ratings

2.         Goes through news directors every 2-4 years

3.         People in the business cringe when you tell them the general manager and/or news director’s name

4.         Managers who tell you they plan to showcase you as the key figure or example to “set the new standard of excellence” at the station

5.         Consultants come in regularly to re-define news philosophy

6.         Management holds “emergency” meetings to discuss last night’s numbers on a regular basis

 

Explain this list you say?  Sure.

First, you should always check out the ratings of the station you are considering.  If it is a chronic 3rd or 4th place station you need to understand that turnover is easily twice as high as other stations in town.  Chronic 3rd and 4th place stations almost always do one thing very well.  Jump the gun.  They constantly change philosophies and shift their balance of power.  The news director who hires you will likely not last the term of your contract.  Hired guns are often brought in to clean house.  Then “The Fixer” shows up, and often works you to death then brings in fresh faces to make his/her mark on the station.  The odds are very high you will get axed by one of these management teams.  If you do survive you will then face the company man/woman who will do anything corporate says and is often an expert at shifting blame.  This type of ND likes to prove he/she has a set by gunning for at least one old timer to prove he/she really isn’t a puppet.  The higher up you are on the food chain, the more you are at risk.  So, bottom line, even if you do survive you will become a paranoid nutcase and will probably shorten your life expectancy and/or develop bleeding ulcers!

This can happen a lot at second place stations as well.  But, if the news director has been in place for 4 or more years, odds are higher that upper management thinks the person has a clue.  That’s what you are looking for as long as you can handle that particular person’s style.

Which leads to our next point:  If people in the business cringe when you tell them who the general manager and/or news director is, beware!  Do some research and find out why though.  You may have just met a person who got fired and has an axe to grind?  Keep in mind that every news director and general manager has enemies.  That’s why you need to ask for specific reasons why these people are hated.  That will help you figure out if you met a few immature folks or if there is a legitimate cause for concern.

If you are told that you will be the new “gold standard” for quality at a station do not go there.  We made this mistake several times.  (Hey, it stroked our egos!)  We learned the hard way that this sets you up for a very lonely and paranoid existence.  Most of the time management will hold you up as the poster child for all that is good.  Instantly you are as hated as the “Internal Affairs” detectives on every cop show you’ve ever watched!  Part of working in news is dishing about how much you wish management would change things.  If you are the example of what management wants, then to everyone else, you are management without the salary or backing.  It just plain sucks and you don’t want to live it.

In the article “Interview the Station“, we recommend you ask management to clearly define its news philosophy.  Here’s a more detailed explanation of why.  Many stations don’t have a true, clear, news philosophy.  That’s why many stations pay a lot of money to consultants.  To be fair, some stations use consultants as another way to coach and define their philosophy.  But in most cases the only time you hear anything about a news philosophy is when the consultant comes to town and gives all of the staffers a seminar.  This is not ideal because you end up having to prove yourself to essentially another set of management.  Consultants are often telling upper management whether your bosses suck.  They often will judge you on one or two newscasts in a year, so you cannot have a bad day when they show up.  They will let upper management know if they think you suck also and it could mean demotions or worse.  So how do you determine if the station consulting team is a potential disaster?  First find out how often they are at the station and whether they do one-on-one training with producers, reporters and anchors, each time.  Once or twice a year usually means the consultant is an extra set of eyes for corporate.  More than that means they are actually teaching the staff what to do because management isn’t getting the job done.  That sets you up for a scenario of having to humor an additional set of “bosses.”

You also need to find out if the station you are considering is reactionary rather than pro-active.  The number one clue:  Constant meetings involving news managers, the general manager, and often promotions and sales managers to decode last night’s ratings.  You find out if this is the case by asking.  Executive producers will often tell you if you ask.  Regular staffers will tell you this also. (Yet another good reason to get several names and make after hours calls to get the scoop!)  Reactionary stations panic over their ratings and are often disorganized with little vision.  They break into a panic during breaking news.  They are often poor planners.  They tend to look for people to shift blame onto, other than management itself.  Basically, these stations exist in “cover your ass” mode 24/7.  That means longer hours for you and more potential to trip on a political hot wire and get cut off at the knees.  All stations have meetings to go over numbers.  If a station has a particularly bad day, expect to see a meeting.  The stations you need to worry about are the ones that meet every Monday, each week or every day during a ratings period without exception.  They are not sold on their product and ability to pull off quality news and promotion.  They will constantly switch things around on the fly to look for a hit.  You are constantly at risk of being labeled the problem child.  The odds of making it long term at that station are not good.  Avoid the situation if you possibly can.

One last thought on hell holes.  If you do mistakenly get into one and really don’t want to move remember, these places do tend to go through managers quickly.  With a little luck you can hang tough and survive until a good manager shows up.  Just be prepared to take a lot of antacids while you wait it out.

 

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