While the RTDNA/Hofstra survey of television journalism show that TV news employment and profitability were up in 2011 — and are expected to rise again this year, that gain is in comparison to the extraordinarily tough economic times in 2008-09. “These numbers don’t indicate anyone is going crazy but clearly the purse strings are open slightly more than they were and I think that is a good thing,” RTDNA’s Mike Cavender says. And as stations have been adding minutes to their newscasts and expanding their delivery to a growing number of platforms, some contend that there’s a growing need for even more staffers.
Although the latest RTDNA/Hofstra University Annual Survey indicates that things are looking up for TV news, you have to wonder just how good can things really be when the business hit near rock bottom just several years ago.
“Television employment is coming up, but where is it coming up from?” says Steve Dickstein, a Philadelphia attorney who represents TV talent. Dickstein is referring to the survey’s findings that TV news employment and profitability were up in 2011 — and are expected to rise more in 2012.
The way Dickstein sees things, the state of TV news is certainly better than it was, especially considering how things tanked, right alongside the economy, in 2008 and 2009. But that does not necessarily mean that local TV news is on the road to returning to its former glory, Dickstein says.
Rather, in Dickstein’s opinion, there are still too many candidates for too few jobs, many of which don’t even pay very well. Stations are producing more news than they can handle, hurting the quality — and reputation — of the product in the process. College kids with aspirations of breaking into the business are being given false hope by academics erroneously “touting this as a great career opportunity.”
As Dickstein says, “The economy still stinks.”
All of which may be true. But you can’t negate the positive findings of the study, portions of which are being released on seven consecutive Wednesdays. The first two portions, one on hiring and profitability and the other on the amount of news being aired, already have been released. Portions on changing business and technology, the Web, social media, salaries and women and minorities are still to come.
In fact, you’d be hard pressed not to be somewhat heartened by the survey, which found that in 2011 the number of TV news jobs rose to the second highest number on record; TV newsrooms have more employees than ever before; and TV stations are airing record-breaking amounts of news.
Mike Cavender, RTDNA executive director, says he believes the survey points to TV news being in a relatively good place.
“These numbers don’t indicate anyone is going crazy but clearly the purse strings are open slightly more than they were and I think that is a good thing,” Cavender says. “I have never been one to count this medium out by any means,” he adds.
Just as noteworthy: 2012, during which stations will have the added bonus of political ad money, should be even better.
“I do believe that in 2012 we are going to see growth,” says Bob Papper, the Hofstra University journalism professor who oversees the survey.
That hiring rose by 4.3%, or 1,131 jobs, during a non-political year is “exceptionally remarkable,” he says.
That meant TV news operations in 2011 employed 27,653 people, the second highest number on record. The only time the business had even more employees, 28,200, was in 2000, when stations hired numerous individuals for Internet-related positions — a practice that ended when the dot-com boom went bust.
Some of that good news is tempered by the fact that a large percentage of those hires were moves to replace employees, many of who had been cut during tougher times.
According to the study, the average TV newsroom hired 5.4 replacements and added 1.5 new positions in 2011.
Traditional broadcast journalists got a bit of a boost in that hiring process. Reporters and producers — not new media pros — topped both the replacement and new hire lists last year.
Today, Web specialists still appear on the list of top hires (they ranked No. 3 in top new hires and No. 8 among replacement hires). But the medium has matured to the point where traditional TV journalists are expected to have new media skills as well, he says.
Those hires reflect an uptick in stations’ ability to strengthen their news teams by adding staff.
But they also are overdue, Papper says. Stations have continually added more news to their schedules over the last four years, many without expanding staff to produce it, Papper says.
In 2011, the average station added another 12 minutes of news each day, bringing the amount of news to an all-time high of 5.5 hours per weekday. That’s up from 4 hours and 36 minutes in 2008.
Papper says the mini-surge in hiring in 2011 proves his thesis that the practice of producing more news for more stations without more staff could not last. “My argument has been doing more with less is not a long-term strategy,” he says.
“News is not one of those commodities in which technology can replace warm bodies.”
The survey’s finding that in 2011 the average TV news operation employed more people — 38.2 employees — than ever before is another statistic that is not necessarily all it seems at first glance. That number is up from 35.6 in 2010.
But at least some of that growth in news staff size is due to a relatively large number of newsrooms consolidating over the past several years, meaning those larger newsrooms often take the place of two smaller ones.
Because of duopolies and other news sharing arrangements between stations, 725 newsrooms produce news for 967 stations, RTDNA/Hofstra said.
TV has posted a net loss of 26 newsrooms over the last decade, Papper says.
Such moves, though, are apparently paying off for TV stations.
In 2011, 60% of TV news operations made a profit — the highest percentage since 1998, Papper says. In 2010, 48% were profitable.
News still generates 45% of an average station’s revenue. It also is the primary draw for political advertisements, which Papper predicts will account for 8-10% of stations’ revenue this year.
Nonetheless, Dickstein says TV news is still suffering the consequences of trying to do more with less over the last few years. “You have an expansion of the news footprint but are there enough people being hired to make that footprint distinct and well articulated?” he says. “I say no — and you can prove it by watching television.
“Otherwise, hiring is going to be necessary to make a news product that is characterized by the kind of excellence we have come to expect to see.”
Papper, however, says the findings of the 2011 survey on staffing and profitability indicate that stations are, indeed, taking news seriously.
“The fact that stations keep increasing news tells you where stations are betting the future is as well as the present,” Papper says. “None of this says that this is a forever proposition or that news doesn’t have its problems,” he adds.
“But the fact is, TV news is hanging in there.”
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