While there are no shortage of applicants for on-air jobs, TV stations across the country are always looking for producers. For a rookie, the job comes with a lot of responsibility. Producers make decisions like which stories run and when, how much time is allotted to them and what an anchor’s role is. And good ones are in demand. The down side is the pay — the median salary for a first-time producer is $24,000.
Being a small or medium-market TV news producer may be one of the best ways to start a career in the TV business, yet such jobs sometimes go begging.
“There is such a dearth of producers; we have a hard time filling the job,” says Kevin Finch, the news director of Scripps-owned WRTV, the ABC affiliate in Indianapolis (DMA 26).
While a reporter opening may attract 100 applicants, he says, a producing position gets closer to 10, he says. And, he adds, he is more likely to hire a produce with just one previous job on the resume than he is a reporter or anchor. They need not apply until they have experience at three or four stations.
It’s a situation affecting Scripps stations companywide, he says. At last month’s RTDNA/SPJ convention, when Finch met a University of Missouri journalism student whose goal was to be a producer, “I said: ‘Follow me.’ I practically took him by the hand and walked him downstairs to the Scripps recruiting booth. I felt it was important to not let him slip away and let him know he is valued and there are jobs for him.”
Ron Krisulevicz, assistant news director at WBOC, a Draper Holdings-owned CBS affiliate in Salisbury, Md. (DMA 144), says his ears also perk up when someone says producing is a career goal, rather than a stepping-stone to an on-air job. ”You want someone who wants the job and someone who is coachable,” he says.
All of which is sort of mind-boggling when you hear people like Don Pratt, GM of Fisher’s CBS affiliate KBOI Boise, Idaho, describe the status of producers — even those fresh out of school — in a TV newsroom as “the captain of the team.”
“The producer is the person who is going to answer the question, ‘What do I do now?’ ” says Pratt, who worked as a producer early in his career. Producers make decisions like which stories run and when, how much time is allotted to them and what an anchor’s role is, he says. “You have a leadership position.”
While there is often a break-in period for new TV news recruits, complete with a dose of grunt work, “a surprising number” start working as producers right off the bat, “which means they’re making real decisions,” says Hofstra University journalism professor Bob Papper. “With help, of course, but there can be a real baptism by fire aspect to the job.”
In addition, producers can move up the TV news ranks — in management or market size — faster than reporters or anchors, largely because there are fewer of them, news execs say.
“TV stations are always looking for strong producers, and if you are good … there is a great deal of job security,” Pratt says.
But being behind the scenes does not have the same allure as being on-air to budding TV journalists. “Of course part of the disparity is due to how many students and would-be anchors and reporters simply want to be stars,” Papper says.
Most of the students in Ava Thompson Greenwell’s broadcast producing, writing and reporting classes at Northwestern University’s Medill School are interested in on-air jobs.
“Maybe 10% are actually interested in producing,” according to Greenwell. She says the school has been encouraging students to consider producing careers because there’s “more power and control and that’s where there’s more longevity.”
The industry may also not be giving the job proper play. “I guess we are not selling it well enough and explaining that the producer is in charge of the newscast,” Finch says.
But Poynter’s Al Tompkins says there is a more institutional problem at play. “The most important firewall between the newsroom and the viewer is the most undervalued and has been for years. Without question, the producer influences and touches more content than anyone else.”
But, Tompkins adds, “The fact of the matter is they are paid no more than they were paid 15 years ago. It’s just horrible and it’s been horrible for years,” he says. “They just don’t make money.”
According to Papper, the median salary for a rookie producer is $24,000, just slightly higher than the median starting reporter’s salary of $22,500.
And the job isn’t getting any easier, given that stations are grinding out several newscasts each day and feeding the insatiable 24/7 appetites for news on-air, online and on social media.
“News producing has become much more mechanical,” Pratt says. “Automation, digital video playback, graphics. are all a producer’s domain. In some operations they build graphics, check live shots and more, in addition to getting the show on air on time. Many producers also post to Web pages and social media during their shift.”
Mike Goldrick, the news director of Cox’s NBC affiliate WPXI Pittsburgh (DMA 23), says he usually recruits producers with some experience and has noticed an uptick in interest in the job. “Thankfully, I’m starting to see more and more young people come out of school saying they want to be a producer. That’s encouraging. A strong producer is critical in this business.”
Eight years ago, when News Director John Dearing arrived at WBOC, he devised a system for recruiting producers directly from area colleges.
“We make regular trips to — or at least have regular contact with — the bigger universities in our region,” Dearing says. “We pluck producers right out of school.”
Professors also submit names of possible candidates, he says. Dearing also insists on a degree in journalism. “And I always ask for their GPA. Those lacking a high GPA … are asked to explain their grades.”
If they pass that hurdle, he says, they are asked to rewrite “boring” wire copy and given a current events quiz. Next are interviews with all the news managers. Only then, he says, will a job be offered.
Once hired, the newcomers spend three to four weeks in “boot camp,” an intensive training program “that is partly indoctrination and part mentoring,” Dearing says.
Boot campers sit in on story meetings, work in WBOC’s Delaware satellite news bureaus in Dover and Milton, go out on stories with reporters and photographers and eventually work their way to producing newscasts, with supervision.
Boot camp spreads the training among most newsroom employees, not just management alone, Dearing says.
Jim DePury of WBRE, an NBC affiliate owned by Nexstar in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa. runs a newsroom that airs newscasts on three stations: WBRE, WYOU and WOLF. He just hired a recent Temple University graduate to fill an open producer’s slot. At other times he may hire someone who has worked in a smaller market and wants to live in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (DMA 54) because of family ties.
Training is “OTJ,” says DePury, a 30-year TV veteran. It consists of the new hires writing and assembling newscasts under supervision until they are ready to go solo.
Former CBS and CNN correspondent Deborah Potter, now president and executive director of NewsLab, the Alexandra, Va.-based organization that trains television news personnel, says that in order for producers to learn their coverage area, they should think as journalists and be thought of as journalists.
“One of their jobs should be getting to know their community and they ought to be able to report that,” Potter says. “They ought to be able to get out, meet people, talk to them, understand what’s going on, and do it as sort of a journalistic exercise.
“It is going to take a producer a longer time to learn the ins and outs of a community if they are hired with the idea that they are needed only to put stories in order and to get in and out of a show on time.”
TVNewsCheck correspondent Rich Mates contributed to this story.
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