The head of Talent Dynamics has been recruiting broadcast talent for over 30 years. In addition to changes in the TV news business brought about by the struggling economy — cutbacks, buyouts, one-man bands — she identifies some positive trends including a resurgant interest by stations in investigative reporting as a competitive edge in their markets. And her take on what it will take to succeed in tomorrow’s newsrooms: Everybody is going to have to know how to do everything.
Black journalists from across the country, along with an assortment of celebs, media notables, and other names from entertainment, sports and politics gathered last week for the annual National Association of Black Journalists convention in Tampa, Fla.
In the crowd, you could also find an assortment of broadcast group reps, recruiters and agents scouting for newsroom talent. Among the scouts was what many news managers consider to be a recruiter’s recruiter, Sandra Connell, president of Dallas-based Talent Dynamics.
Connell has identified, launched and influenced countless newsroom careers over a career of more than 30 years. She and her team of other recruiters and coaches serve a long list of stations, networks, syndicators and broadcast professionals. The video library and database she’s developed over the years includes background information on more than 40,000 broadcasters.
In this phone interview with TVNewsCheck Contributing Editor Tom Petner during the NABJ convention, Connell shares her views on the broadcast business, newsrooms and the job outlook.
An edited transcript:
What’s the turnout like at NABJ?
The floor looks pretty good this morning. It’s relatively crowded. More people are always here than at the other conferences, but certainly not the recruiters. That’s way down this year from what I’ve seen before. I talked to somebody last night who told me there was only one network-owned group here. Gannett and Hearst are here, but a lot of the other groups are just not here.
What’s the talent pool like year? Has the caliber notched up?
There are some young people coming into the business who are unbelievable. Last year, we met a young man named Terrell Brown who was not out of school yet. He didn’t graduate until May of ’09 and we met him in August of ’08 and he went to work for CBS straight out of college. We’re seeing a lot of the schools turning out some really talented, nice young people and they’re getting good jobs because they have the skills to step into some of the bigger markets. If you look at some markets, there are some pretty young folks working in big cities.
Looking back at your 30 years in this business, what do you see as the most significant changes in management and hiring?
The biggest difference that I’ve seen is corporate involvement.
Do you see most of the hiring calls now being made on a corporate level?
They’re not made on the corporate level. They’re still made on the station level, but corporate is definitely involved. There is heavy corporate involvement with the front line talent and the managers in the newsroom, maybe not always a producer or an EP, but certainly for the news directors and number twos because they see those number twos somewhere in the future of the company.
Is the process longer and more difficult?
Probably more difficult. They’re very thorough. Mistakes are expensive. We’ve learned that through the years. I see stations still doing focus groups. They’ve dropped back in research in a lot of areas, but they still are doing focus groups when it comes to their talent hires. That slows the process. I guess the gut is fun, but information is power no matter what you’re doing.
You talk to a lot of group managers. What can’t they seem to find these days?
News directors are hard to find and middle managers are hard to find. There are really plenty of anchors and reporters and sports and weather people out there for everybody. If you talk to people who have openings, they’ll tell you that there are plenty of candidates, maybe not always just the ones they want, but there are plenty of candidates.
How has the hiring process changed?
The Internet has certainly changed the hiring process. Our clients still come to Dallas to do their major searches just like they always have. But when we follow up now, rather than sending a DVD or a tape as we did in the past, we put the candidates and their video into a file on our Web site. Our clients can then click on each person, and they get their resume and who represents them, contact numbers. At the same time, they can see more than one kind of video. So that really has made it much easier. A station can call me and ask for more videos of someone. I can just put it up right then, while we’re talking on the phone.
With all that, why do broadcasters still visit you in Dallas?
They like to break away. They clear their heads and it’s very focused for them that day. News directors can hear about the people and their history right there on the spot. That hasn’t changed. They still see the benefit of coming to Dallas for those searches, maybe not for every search, but for their primary hires.
When you look at candidates, not just on-air talent, but managers, executive producers, is there a quality that’s a hot button for you that’s says this is somebody special?
More and more we’re looking for good solid citizens and leaders, whether it’s on air or off air, people who we feel are committed to the industry. It’s still such a small industry. We get to know those committed, hard-working people.
Do you see people walking away from the business because of job reductions?
We’ve had a lot of people retire and, unfortunately, some have passed on, but a few people have gotten out just because it’s a tough business. It’s gotten harder through the years, certainly.
What part of broadcast newsrooms has taken the most noticeable hit in this economy?
Across the board, it’s salary. Everybody’s taken a hit there. The anchors have taken pay cuts and their duties have increased. In fact, I was talking to a person just this morning who’s an anchor in a top 50 market. He said that a lot of the reporters in his shop are now complaining because they have to turn in two packages a day because of the reduced reporting staff. There are fewer reporters now and he said he anchors four shows a day and turns in one package every day now.
More multimedia journalists, VJs and one-man bands have entered the business and that’s been hard for seasoned reporters. Everybody has had to increase their contribution, which is not all bad.
The people that have been around for a while are finding a new way of working. It’s a new day for them. I would say that most of the people coming into the business are as good and as hard working as ever. They’re passionate about what they do. We probably don’t see as many getting into the business to be a star and make a lot of money because that’s not happening like it used to.
Over the last couple of years we’ve heard and a lot has been written about VJs and multitasking. Is that where the new jobs are? Is that where the future is?
Some stations are trending towards that, but not all. We’ve really seen a trend in the last few months of stations asking for investigative reporters.
Yes. There were years where we got away from specialty reporters, but I think they’re seeing now the investigative side of it and the need in a lot of markets to look a deeper into some stories. Stations are going back into investigative reporting for a competitive edge in the market. So the competitive spirit is still alive and well. I don’t see anyone playing dead yet.
As a former news director, I recall it was customary for some news directors to be in place for maybe perhaps two years or so before moving. Has that changed?
I would say they move around less. In fact, it’s interesting because just this morning, I was I looking at New York and Los Angeles. Several news directors have been in place for a long time — for example Karen Scott in New York and Cheryl Fare and Jose Rios in Los Angeles. So yes, you’re seeing a lot of people staying longer, even in the smaller markets.
Why do you think that is?
People just have a sense of family and putting down roots. That’s important for people now and important to a station. The fact is that people can be more successful when they’ve been in a market for a while.
There are people who say the newsrooms have to be reshaped and jobs have to be redefined. What’s your take? Are there going to be different jobs in newsrooms in five years?
The news gathering process is going to stay the same. This downtrend of the economy hasn’t been very comfortable for any of us, but it’s not all bad. We’ve got a little fat in many areas and we were over-staffed. So I think examining ourselves and working more efficiently, no matter what you’re doing, is always a positive. A lot of things had gotten out of hand, so to look at the business model and make some changes is probably a good thing for all of us.
In five or 10 years, what do you think the newsrooms will look like and what kinds of jobs will be available? If you walked into a college classroom, what would you tell the students to prepare for?
Everybody in a newsroom is going to have to know how to do everything. Everybody’s going to have to be a leader and know how to work as a team player. Stay out of the gossip mill and just work hard. They need to contribute and be creative. The pressures in a newsroom have really increased and it starts at the top. So they’re going to have to go in there prepared to work hard for the people at the top, the ones who sign their checks and help them have insurance and benefits for their families. Every job is your job. Nothing’s too big; nothing’s too small. It’s going to take 150 percent from everybody to make this industry thrive. They need to learn everything in a newsroom and the more they can do, the more hirable and desirable they’ll be.
Are you optimistic about the broadcast business?
Yes, of course. I’m not done with this yet. So I’m optimistic. Think what would happen if we weren’t. This is a great business and I don’t think that any of us are ready to give up. We’re not going to go away. Television news, television, is going to still be around for many years, well beyond me. From what we’re hearing and the people that I’ve talked to, they’re expecting things to loosen up and get better before the end of this year, certainly next year.