Sympathy For The News Director
Editor’s note: This marks Emily Barr’s debut column for TVNewsCheck. She is the former president and CEO of Graham Media Group.
News directors are too busy for their own good. Consider the typical local news director in today’s frenzied world: They are responsible for their station’s news coverage, obviously, but on any given day, they are attempting a bit of a high wire act, delivering news via broadcast, social, OTT, digital, You Tube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and myriad other delivery mechanisms (think podcasts, electronic kiosks etc.), some of which fail to generate a meaningful audience and the attendant revenue required.
Amid the constant demands of the next newscast, they are also expected to interview, hire, coach, discipline, counsel and sometimes fire employees, all while keeping a watchful eye on the product, the promotion and the ever-changing technology surrounding its delivery.
The good ones, and there are many, are on call 24/7 fielding phone calls and texts from nightside and weekend producers and reporters needing some direction or a second opinion. Add two-plus years of covering COVID, racial unrest and growing political division and it’s a wonder how they do it.
According to Bob Papper, RTDNA researcher and adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, the average tenure of a local news director is 5.1 years, just a hair lower than it was 20 years ago when RTDNA first started asking that question. The median tenure has held fast at three years. Somehow, these individuals have endured despite the chaos around them. They are a special breed indeed.
As a young intern way back in 1979, I recall marveling at the hum of the newsroom and the buzz that always seemed to center around the assignment desk. I was so impressed with the speed with which decisions were made, packages researched and reported and stories making it to air “just in time.” We were doing a half hour in the early evenings and a half hour following primetime programming back then. I do not recall if we even aired a morning newscast. Today, that sounds positively quaint. Most stations now are delivering a steady drumbeat of newscasts all day and night with hardly a moment to process what comes next.
There is no question that no news director does it alone. Producers, reporters, photographers, editors and a bevy of support personnel from engineering to HR all play a vital role in delivering the news. But it is the news director who is held responsible for ratings declines, even though one could argue the fallibility of Nielsen and Comscore methodologies make the accuracy of the ratings questionable at best.
It is the news director who is likely dealing with an angry viewer/user or perhaps a local politician who feels maligned by a story that legitimately needs to be told.
It is the news director who must contend with questions from a general manager (many of whom have never worked one day in a news department) who is, herself, likely feeling pressure from “corporate” about why revenue is not as high as it should be.
It is the news director, along with their dedicated teams who must respond to the likes of Uvalde, Buffalo and Highland Park to name but three of our most recent unspeakable tragedies that inflict so much damage on local communities. While critical local coverage always continues long after the national outlets have come and gone, the mental health toll on newsroom employees is palpable and real.
And it is the news director who has had to manage a growing workplace malaise that has made it harder to recruit, hire and retain than any time in recent history.
I am in no way suggesting that insensitive or incompetent individuals in charge of newsrooms be given a pass, but I am asking for a bit more understanding and compassion for the individuals leading what is usually the largest and most complicated department inside a television station.
If you are a GM running a station and have not provided counseling in the aftermath of a tragedy, you need to consider the consequences. What are you doing to help teach and grow newly minted news directors so they are properly prepared when a disaster strikes? Are you visiting your newsrooms regularly, not to tell them what to do but to encourage their efforts and applaud their victories? Have you given your newsroom leadership the opportunity to attend conferences such as RTDNA, IRE or LMA so they are able to glean from fellow managers the best way to handle a crisis that is surely coming without warning?
If not, you must stop thinking about the unbudgeted cost of doing so and start considering the consequences of an ill-prepared workforce and the impact their decisions might have on your community, your staff and your brand.
And if you are a corporate news director or perhaps a broadcast group manager, how often are you picking up the phone or dropping in for a visit that does not involve a budget meeting? If you cannot recall the last time you hung around one of your newsrooms, you need to stop by now. Your presence means the world to these folks and will generate goodwill that is beyond measure.
In most cases, news directors have more than paid their dues, working their way up the ladder into management only to discover a hornet’s nest of responsibilities that can be overwhelming to say the least. Let’s give the backbone of local broadcasting the tools they need to keep covering the news rather than the heavy burden of responsibility absent the ability to execute. They have earned our gratitude and respect.