One thing you need to require of your agent regularly.

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.

Attention, hornet’s nest! Signs the place you are considering working for is bad, bad news.

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.

 

When the interview really counts: Why you must connect with the Assistant ND.

News Directors get all the attention traditionally when it comes to job interviews and station identity.  They set the agenda for the station and have the most connections to help you in the future right?  Not always.  Over the years I have learned that getting along with the assistant news director can be even more important for several reasons.

First it’s a simple matter of exposure.  You will barely see the news director. That person is just too busy any given day.  That means when it comes to review time the person who will weigh in most heavily about you is the assistant news director.  Also, this is the person you will go to first when you want time off, a different shift, have an ethical dilemma, personality conflict issue with a staffer, or are considering asking for a promotion.   If you don’t see eye to eye with the assistant news director your stress level will easily double on the job.

Now, because you spend more time with the assistant news director, you must remember this person is the key influencer about you to the news director.  The AND’s opinion carries a lot of weight.  Yes, news directors can and sometimes do disagree with the AND’s view.  But why risk a potential personality clash with a person that plays such a key role in determining your reputation?

Remember an AND’s reach goes way beyond the newsroom.  Since assistant news directors spend a lot of time recruiting potential employees they are the true networkers for the station.  They are constantly talking with people you want to impress in other markets nationwide.

Assistant news directors are also “in training” most of the time to become NDs.  Very few are happy just to sit in the number two position.  Most are waiting for their big chance to take control of a newsroom.  If you get along with a real up and comer, this person could catapult both of your careers, as much or more than the ND him/herself.

So now that you know what’s at stake, here are some techniques to figure out if you and the assistant ND will get along.

  • Talk news philosophy
  • Ask for the AND’s role models
  • Do a background check

When you interview at a station you always need to figure out the news philosophy.  It is key, and must happen.  (See “Interview the Station” for ways to do this.)   But when you ask questions about news philosophy, you need to really quiz the assistant news director.  Here’s why:  Just because the news director wants a station to go in a certain direction doesn’t mean the assistant news director agrees.  This can be especially true in chronic 2nd, 3rd and 4th place stations.  Often there are philosophical debates raging all the time about what the station’s news philosophy should be.  The assistant news director is usually much more hands on in the day-to-day coverage decisions than the news director.  Time and again I sat in newsrooms where the news director clearly stated one news philosophy, and the assistant news director executed a different news philosophy.  I know that sounds crazy, but it happens A LOT.  You need to make sure you can roll with both news philosophies if that’s the case.  Sometimes you have to try and placate both the ND’s and AND’s expectations on a story.  If the ND starts taking a more hands on approach you need to be able to change your work to reflect that news philosophy.  Same is true if the AND expects a different news philosophy.  If the two of them differ greatly, you need to decide whether you want to walk into a situation where you are constantly caught in the middle and being asked whose side you are on.  You will end up in battles of will between the top two newsroom managers.  You will feel like you cannot win, no matter what you do on any given day.  If you get in this situation, it can be better to execute the AND’s news philosophy because he/she runs day-to-day operations in the newsroom.  You cannot execute that if you don’t know what the AND wants.

Another way to make sure you and the assistant news director will jibe is to talk about your favorite news people during the interview.  Ask who the AND’s mentors are and why.  You will learn a lot about how this person ticks.  Ask if the AND knows some of your favorite journalists and see what the reaction is to those names.  You want a shared connection to start building a relationship if you decide to work with that particular AND.

If you have mutual acquaintances call those people to get more perspective.  Just remember the AND will call also.  Be on your p’s and q’s.  You do not want the mutual acquaintance to say you thought the AND was a jerk, but you are trying to be sure.  If you do not have mutual acquaintances then you really need to contact staffers at the AND’s former stations.  We explain how to do this in The Station Called. The Job’s Yours. Now What?

Remember the AND will be the most influential in your day-to-day existence in a given newsroom.  If you are like oil and water, it will mean you either lose a job or get an ulcer waiting for that AND to move on to greener pastures.

 

6 Months left on my contract, how do I shop myself without ticking off the bosses?

A very talented anchor friend of mine recently asked me this question: How do you shop yourself, when you are six months or so out from your contract end date, without ticking off the ND and/or GM?  Is posting my stuff on Collective Talent okay?  Or, is it likely to make the boss start looking for my replacement?

No doubt you have to tread lightly when deciding to shop yourself, especially if you do not have an agent.  My gut instinct was to put your stuff on Collective Talent, MediaLine or MyAirCheck type websites, only if you are pretty sure you are about to be “on the beach.”  But I wanted to be sure, so I contacted former news director turned agent, Micah Johnson with Media Stars Worldwide.  There’s good news job seekers!  His take is:  Your ND and/or GM expects to see you “putting your work out there.”  Why wouldn’t you want to better your situation?  It’s all about leverage.  Two things Micah said to keep in mind before posting on these type of sites though:

1) If your ND wants to keep you, this will speed up the negotiation process.  You will only get 60 to 90 days to hunt for a new job. Then either sign with the current station, or know you will be let go and must find another gig.

2) If you really like your job, and where you are, you will quickly find out if the station likes you as much as you like the station.  If you post and there’s no push to negotiate, management may not be as eager to keep you around as you hoped.  Keep in mind the ND will see your work on these sites.  They routinely check to see who at the station is potentially looking and who’s on the sites from competing stations.

Not doing anything guarantees your ND is going to try and get you at a bargain.  This is important to keep in mind as well.  When your contract is coming up, if you possibly can, you want leverage.  If you do not have an agent, this is riskier.  It is still doable, but you might want to start networking well before the last 6 month mark on your contract.

So how do you network without an agent when you are considering a move?  For starters, head back to Collective Talent, MediaLine and MyAirCheck.  Check where the people with postings are from.  Chances are this talent is at least casually looking, so their job could come open in a place where you would like to live.  Might be a good time to send the ND at that station a link to your work and an email or letter and disc introducing yourself and letting him or her know when you will be available if a job came open.  Do not write that you saw anchor so and so on Collective Talent and you want that job.  That doesn’t look good. Keep it more general.  Wait a couple of weeks, then follow up with an email asking if you can keep in touch and occasionally send links to some of your current work.  Now earlier I referenced sending a disc and letter.  It’s not because I am a dinosaur.  Email is a great route as well, but I like sending hard copies because ND’s get flooded with email.  It can be easy to miss yours.  An assistant will hand deliver that letter.  Sending a letter, then following up with an email gives you the best of both worlds.  Be sure to include a copy of your resume and link to your work when you do the follow up email, just in case the ND did not get the letter.

If you have a dream market, make sure you make multiple connections with those stations.  Do not limit yourself to the ND’s.  Tweet with producers, reporters and anchors in the market.  Like them on Facebook and check in once in a while.  If these people end up feeling connected with you and can mention you to the boss, it makes you both look good.

Now let’s address the idea of job hunting without ticking the current boss off.  Without an agent, this is obviously a more slippery slope. Again, if you really like where you are the key is to be subtle.  You are playing a leverage game.  But agent Micah Johnson told me something else that really stuck in my head.  When I repeatedly asked what to do, in order to not tick off the ND, he said, “I’m shocked you believe it’s an issue.”  He kept repeating that ND’s expect talent to look.  They usually don’t hold it against you.  If you seem to be getting nibbles, this is actually flattering to the ND’s.  It validates their own feelings about your talent and potential.  If the ND or GM is vindictive about it, you probably don’t want to work for this person long term anyway.

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Thank you Micah Johnson for your insight on job searches.  For more of his views on the TV news biz, follow him on Twitter at @TV_Agent.  His agency is Media Stars Worldwide at www.MediaStars.tv.