If you just graduated in May and — if you’re lucky — were hired right as college ended, you’ve been on the job at a television station for about two months now. If not, don’t worry too much. Even in the best economy, it can take a new grad months to get hired as a broadcast journalist. We’re seeing an uptick in the number of TV jobs available and the amount of hiring going on, despite the still lousy economic environment. In fact, the latest RTDNA/Hofstra University Annual Survey found that TV news staffing grew in 2011. And it grew a lot, by more than 4 percent from the year before. So if you’ve got a little talent that can be developed and a lot of drive you’ll be employed soon.
But when it happens, expect a shockwave to hit your body, mind, and spirit.
That first job in a real newsroom where you’re working full-time, overtime — whatever the assignment desk needs! — is exhausting even for those of us who’ve been in the business for more than a decade. You’re probably used to a senior year of a few classes a week, maybe an independent study or internship, perhaps a part-time job to help pay the bills, but all-in-all still enough time to hang with friends, read US Weekly, and watch NBC Nightly News.
Mmmmm, not so much after a news director brings you on-board.
Your official day in the newsroom might not begin until the 9:30 a.m. editorial meeting. But that’s just what station managers write down as your official start-time. You’ve literally got to have something to bring to the table each morning. And that means waking up early to check your local newspaper and neighborhood blogs online, flipping between the network morning shows so you find out what’s going on nationally as well as what your station and its competitors have in their cut-ins, and calling around to “cop shops” and other sources to see if there’s a story that could make a great package. (After you’ve been on the job for a little while, you’ll hopefully develop a long list of sources you can call every morning to once a week for tips that’ll have you scooping the competition.)
When it’s time for the morning meeting, please come into the conference room with at least three doable stories.
I have been on both sides of the table — as a reporter pitching ideas and as an anchor whom management trusted to make calls about which stories to pursue. I can tell you, nothing is more aggravating for your colleagues than for you to come into a meeting with one teensy idea, one that we don’t even know if it applies to our market because you saw it on Good Morning America but didn’t make any calls to local leaders, and then when someone in the room asks, “What else ya got?” You look at us, shrug, and say, “I’m open to ideas.”
No, I don’t think so.
We reporters bring ideas to the show producers, assignment manager, and ultimately the news director for them to approve or turn down. We are the ideas people. Not them. (They will, of course, contribute ideas. But my point is to not rely on them.)
Reporters are reporters because we have a need to know before other people and are naturally curious about what’s happening in our community. For instance, while driving to the mall, you see a patch of land that’s been cleared. You start wondering what’s going to be built there. You start calling City Hall, real estate agents, and developers. You learn it’s where the governor wants to put a small business incubator on a bet it’ll create jobs for your town. She just hasn’t announced it yet. But you don’t need to wait for her news conference because you’ve already confirmed it with local leaders, zoning documents, permits, etc.
The reporter who does this before a morning meeting is in and out the door in under five minutes. And believe me, no matter which side of the table you’re on, you want to limit the amount of time you’re in a morning meeting.
Let’s say shooting this story takes four hours because you’ve got to drive all over your market to get the right people on camera — the people who actually know about the project. You barely have time for lunch. In fact, when you ask your photographer to swing through McDonald’s he says “OK,” with a sigh because he’s already eating his sandwich and wonders why you didn’t bring your lunch, too.
It’ll probably take you an hour to an hour-and-a-half to write a package at the beginning.
Then it’ll probably take your photographer an hour to edit it.
You’re both running late again as you head out the door for your live shot but you make it in time.
You’re live at 5, 5:30, and 6 p.m.
The 11 o’clock producer calls and would like a look live. So you spend another 10 minutes shooting that after your last live shot.
Then you’ve got to drive back to the station and write your web story.
When it’s done, you notice the red light on your desk phone is on. So you spend another half hour returning messages.
By now, it’s pushing 8 o’clock at night and you haven’t even had dinner yet.
And for a person who’s only had part-time jobs before, all this is going to wear you out.
I say that with no judgment. It happened to me during the first three months at my first TV news job. It happens to a lot of people because that’s a long day.
So here are some tips on how to cope:
- Stay in touch with a friend from college so you can both commiserate about what life is like now that you’ve entered what your father, big sister, and the commencement speaker sarcastically refer to as the “real world.”
- Don’t forget to call your best friend. Facebooking is good for little updates here and there. But you want to continue to nurture that deep bond you both have.
- Skype with your parents and/or significant other every night if you have to.
- Keep your apartment full of fruits, vegetables, and the foods you love. Stock-up for the whole week the weekend before, if you have to. (Also, since you won’t be making much money in TV news in the beginning, learn where the Aldi, Dollar General, or other discount store is in your new neighborhood.)
- Have a favorite show? Set that DVR to “series record.” You never know when you might get called out to breaking news. And as TV people, missing our favorite TV show puts us in a bad mood.
- Read for fun. (As in a trashy novel or something else that gives you a thrill.)
- Go to a church/synagogue/mosque if that is part of your tradition.
- Take time to meditate if that is a good outlet for you. Free meditation guides and music are all over the internet. You can find lots of music on iTunes, too, as well as podcasts.
- Be firm with yourself that you will go to bed by 11:30 p.m. even if you’re naturally a night owl. Sleep is so important to your mental and physical well-being.
Finally, don’t forget to enjoy this part of the journey. We are driven, ambitious people. And too often we sign a contract at one TV station and immediately start daydreaming about how big of a market we’ll be able to get to from here.
I’ve made that mistake. So have many of my friends. Sounds like Robin Meade has been there, too.
But you’re going to drive yourself crazy and your contract is going to seem really long if, from day one, you’re thinking about your next gig.
So embrace your market.
Yes, it’s rural. Yes, people here “talk funny.” Yes, there are still places in the United States that don’t have a Target.
These are the memories you will need for the rest of your career. This is the texture and perspective you will be able to credibly add to your banter when you’re a big time anchor in Chicago or to your package scripts when you’re a correspondent at CNN.
Not to sound like those sappy people who spoke at your graduation, but you have begun an incredible journey.
Matthew Nordin is no longer counting down the days until the end of a TV contract. He tells us he is loving it in Cincinnati where WXIX-TV has hired him as an investigative reporter/anchor. Feel free to reach out to him on Twitter @FOX19Matthew.