An Anonymous Reporter Speaks For Many
Last week a reporter published a column in TVNewsCheck that spoke frankly about the low pay and difficult working conditions reporters and producers face at many television stations. Because such frankness could impede the author’s career, TVNewsCheck’s editors agreed to publish the column anonymously.
Some in management will dismiss this reporter’s treatise as one person’s bad experience, but before you do that, know that I’ve heard versions of the same story from multiple others. And don’t mistake this for just another millennial problem. Most of those I’ve talked with are second-job professionals who have worked hard to earn their current positions. This discontent is not the case in every company or television station, but enough to matter.
Certainly, our entire industry is exhausted, something I’ve heard from all levels, but this problem runs deeper. Top tier television stations, no matter the market size, run on energy, competition and pride. Success always begins with leadership, but no leader can change station dynamics if key employees feel undervalued.
This is not a sudden or new problem. It has been coming for many years.
From the very beginning of local television, there were so many new college graduates seeking jobs that the law of supply and demand kept entry salaries down. Small markets offered a start and critically important experience in exchange for very low pay. Candidates knew that barely livable wages were the price of admission and accepted that reality. I did this myself and can confirm that even in my day struggling to make ends meet was a tough burden.
People accepted the system because those who stuck it out and learned their trade well could count on making it to medium markets where the rewards were better, and those who excelled could make even more money over time. Some of the best would even end up in major markets.
Over the past few years, things have been changing, especially in the medium markets. Many reporters and producers now feel their salaries no longer reflect their experience or job responsibilities, and the problem is not limited to those positions. Some news directors say the same thing about their own salaries. When enough staff members feel unappreciated, other problems always arise. The first casualty is usually momentum.
Then there is the other salary-related problem: The well of qualified new applicants no longer runs deep.
Many of today’s best college graduates in journalism and communications don’t think of television as their first career choice. Hearing of low pay and a hard future, they seek jobs in the alternate media they have grown up with, a route perceived as more exciting and lucrative.
It’s hard for those of us who love broadcasting to acknowledge that working in our business is no longer every student’s goal, but that is the new reality. One dean at a prominent journalism school recently told me that many students now have trouble learning to read a teleprompter because they are not used to watching television news.
As our anonymous columnist pointed out, why should someone take a low-paying, long-hours job, when they can try to become a social media influencer or TikTok star? If that fails, there are many other avenues to explore. And it’s not just new graduates, mid-level professionals are leaving for the same reasons.
Then there is the question of quality. Sure, it’s possible for an MMJ to shoot, write, edit and voice multiple stories in a day, not to mention do live live shots, but it is very difficult to do all those things while also producing a first-class product. Assuming a reporter wants to do great work, and most do, the burnout factor of what I’ve been calling assembly line journalism is high, especially when a person feels underpaid.
The pressure on producers can be just as great. Producers are one-person show planners, writers, story re-editors, font and graphic producers, assistant producers, talent hand holders and one of only two people in most control rooms. That makes them also assistant directors, live shot coordinators and any other job the director cannot handle. By my count, over the past two decades producers have taken on the jobs of at least five other people.
As I said earlier, these issues have been building for a long time, so why are they arising now? We seem to have reached a tipping point. I think the pandemic has something to do with it, but that is not the only reason. Some stations appear to have lost their sense of mission, their expectation of greatness and that important, but hugely underrated element called fun. When I speak with people, even some general managers, I often hear “the fun has gone out of it.”
Everyone gets the fact that technology has changed jobs and there is no going back. What they don’t get is why employees are not rewarded for their increased responsibilities and workload.
There are, of course, exceptions. One leading company, known for treating employees well, reviews every employee’s pay and adjusts when needed to make sure staff members are properly compensated. Another company has recently increased producer salaries in many stations. There is no question that this kind of proactive fairness results in major dividends. Employees who feel valued and appreciated return that loyalty many times over.
Now would be a great time for other station owners to listen thoughtfully to what their employees are really thinking. Do key workers feel they are paid fairly? Do stations have a top tier of professionals who set the pace for others? Do people believe they are working for a career company worth staying with?
Thanks to the interconnection of social media, employees already have these answers. Even new college graduates sometimes tell me which companies they hope to work for and which they would like to avoid.
Like so many other things, all of this comes down to a CEO issue. If anything is to change, it must start at the CEO level. If CEOs take this problem seriously, they will find out what is really happening in many of their newsrooms. I hope they do, because the future of our industry is at stake.
Hank Price is a media consultant. His second book, Leading Local Television, has become a standard text for television general managers. In a 30-year general management career, Price led TV stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett, including WBBM Chicago, KARE Minneapolis, WVTM Birmingham, Ala., and both WXII and WFMY in Greensboro/Winston Salem, N.C. Earlier, he was a consultant with Frank N. Magid Associates. Price also spent 15 years as senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center. He is currently director of leadership development for the School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.