Local TV News’ Recruitment Problem Has A Solution

Across the country, open positions at TV newsrooms stay vacant or draw a drizzle of poorly equipped, unimaginative applicants. Changes at journalism schools and compensation, along with reframing how we think of applicants, could be among things to change that.

Sean McLaughlin

Remember the days when you dreaded posting a reporter or anchor opening? Those old U.S. Post Office plastic crates full of tapes that would engulf your office? Narrowing it down to the best 10 or 15 candidates would take hours. If you would have described the hiring reality that we face in 2024 to me back then, I never would have believed it.

Two issues have come to a head at once in the current recruiting challenges. Unless it is a sports job, there are very few qualified candidates. In many small markets, forget qualified. It’s not uncommon to have zero applicants at all. Second, the people who are applying for traditional starter jobs are not prepared. They often lack basic storytelling skills, know-how on getting basic story information and ethics and legal guidelines. Don’t even get me started on the writing.

What I hear from many small market (and increasingly middle market) news directors and see in watching their products is it’s just plain bad. At a growing number of stations, it’s rare to see any story from a reporter with more than a year or two under his or her belt. Many of these newscasts are simply hard to watch.

Local news leadership has been complaining about this trend for years, but it has reached a point of critical mass. There has been a lack of producers for almost 15 or 20 years, but now the problem is much more widespread. We have a critical shortage of photographers, technical staff, managers and even on-air roles, especially reporters and multimedia journalists. The impact on the quality of our products is hard to miss.

A few things need to happen to start fixing this: Journalism programs at colleges and universities need to improve and modernize, and stations need to make the jobs more appealing, while also offering better onboarding and training for those with little or no experience.


In my corporate years, I have talked to students graduating from the traditional top programs and been on campuses to watch them in action. My expectations were that I would find an uber creative young journalist there dying to break the mold of local media news operations. I naively thought I would emerge from those visits with some great new thinking in evidence there, unencumbered by the old-school inclination toward “the way we’ve always done things.” What did I usually see instead? A rehash of exactly what I found back in 1995 when I began my own first job at KAAL in Austin, Minn. So little had changed, leaving me surprised and disappointed.

The biggest challenge may come from who is teaching these students. Often the ones with industry experience have seen decades pass since they last worked in a newsroom. A lot has changed since then, and many programs aren’t keeping pace. What worked 20 or even 10 years ago doesn’t really apply today. Staying current for these educators is critical.

Journalism schools need to teach new approaches, not just in the way the content is presented, but how reporting itself is done. Many of the people coming to our newsrooms from these programs don’t know how to be a journalist. They don’t understand how to cultivate sources, come up with impactful story ideas or ways to make stories work journalistically across platforms. They don’t know legal basics, how to handle stress, getting facts during breaking news, and above all else, writing.

And the writing has gotten unacceptably bad. While understanding how to do a standup or live shot is important, it doesn’t matter at all if the reporter’s journalistic foundation is inadequate.

As to making the jobs more appealing, part of this is about adjusting compensation to deal with the new reality: People are no longer willing to live at the poverty level in small market America as a penance prior to earning their way into a bigger market. Moving has completely lost its appeal to most young people, and in some of the smallest markets the cost of housing has become a barrier to relocation. I’ve heard countless stories of a job being accepted, but the prospective employee can’t find a place to live on the small wages offered.

Adjusting compensation at a time of shrinking budgets is tough. It involves a complete reprioritization of how money is used inside the newsroom. It also involves sacrifice. Something else has to shrink or go away in order to make this investment. No matter where you go, there will be pushback. But if quality reporting isn’t at the top of your list of priorities, what is?

And what about the job itself? Back in my Austin, Minn., days, everyone in town loved us. We couldn’t go anywhere without people commenting kindly on how much they liked us or the station. Fast forward to today and things are much different. Fragmentation has made most on-air people invisible to the community at large and polarization has led to as many boos as claps when a news car comes rolling into the neighborhood. These dynamics diminish the appeal to many would-be local TV journalists.

The workload is also a tough sell. The hours have always been bad. The support from a shrinking team of managers is harder to come by. All of this has led to high numbers of young newsroom staffers unable to deal with the demands of the job with many resorting to mental health leaves of absence or exiting the business altogether. Every news director in America is now a therapist in addition to everything else on an overflowing plate.

Our industry needs to do a better job of selling local journalism as a career path, as a craft and a mechanism for making society better. Journalism in 2024 has been defined mostly by a hostile political climate. The image of local journalism is one of political bias, crime coverage and other predominantly negative stories.

We need to underscore that this industry is so much more than that. It’s powerful and rewarding to cover a community, dig up information and get people to share their stories, not to mention all the creative ways these stories can be edited, packaged and distributed in a multiplatform world.

Many young people dismiss the idea of a local journalism career because they see stories on local news that are predictable and boring. They don’t need to be. Those are choices we make as newsroom leaders, and currently these choices are killing our ability to attract new talent.

One last question to consider: Is it finally time to change who we consider eligible to be a reporter? There has always been a narrow path to this role, following a traditional journalism school to a small market, then a moving to a larger one and maybe a larger one after that. If the value viewers see in local news reporters comes from deep and unique community understanding, maybe we hire for that and teach the journalism afterwards? I don’t know if that would lead to plastic boxes full of tapes, but it might increase the applicant pool.

Sean McLaughlin is vice president of news for Graham Media Group’s local media hubs.

Comments (7)

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timeshavechanged says:

April 26, 2024 at 8:51 am

Blaming media’s recruiting problems on Universities is comical. Recruiting problems are based on compensation. We no longer get the best or brightest. We get whoever will take the job for the same pay we offered in 1998. It’s a joke.

26YearsInMedia says:

April 26, 2024 at 12:22 pm

Disclaimer: I have worked in all facets of media for the last 24 years, from local television to national digital content (across newspaper, radio, cable and television industries).

I empathize with the author’s attempt to illuminate the current state of newsrooms. However, it’s crucial to address the pressing issues that often go unspoken, such as the challenging wages and the uncertain trajectory of the media industry.

What’s new is that the high cost of college education today saddles many graduates with substantial student loan debt. Taking a low-paying job at a small market station is a big ask when housing prices are high and you must cover student loans.

Noting the trajectory of media (and the continuous fragmentation), other industries offer jobs for those with journalism degrees and higher starting salaries (Public Relations, etc.) Those jobs tend to have more predictable advancement opportunities and improved work-life balance than entry-level positions in local TV news (there are some rough shifts).

I’m back in college at the age of 50. While I’m not pursuing a journalism degree (Information Technology), younger students have more options beyond journalism (game development is substantial where I am) and choose degrees with better long-term prospects.

Additionally, the ongoing fragmentation and disruption of traditional media have diminished local TV news roles’ perceived prestige and impact. What’s more, advertisers (where the money comes from) can spread their dollars more efficiently across nontraditional mediums now, which often means smaller ad buys in traditional media each year.

Lastly, the brand of a television station or network has diminished in the age of social media, digital news sites, podcasts and other emerging platforms; local broadcast journalism has a different cachet than it once did. When I first began this career, a manager told me (when I challenged him to get a raise) the social capital of being able to say you work at KXYZ was part of the compensation. This doesn’t hold true today.

Pointing the finger at journalism programs and newsroom operations is missing the big picture. The high opportunity costs and risks associated with pursuing local TV news or a journalism career, in general, are likely keeping many promising young college graduates from applying to newsrooms or traditional media sources.

I think the only path forward is hubbing news resources into a central location. Use this collective savings to help pay for journalists in local markets and promise them a career path that is longer than a few years.

johnbobel says:

April 26, 2024 at 2:29 pm

There are great j-schools, good j-schools and wanna be players. But the best j-school is the news director who takes the time and has the skills to mentor younger reporters.

Too often, the “newbie” reporter is thrown into the grist mill of early news, or weekend news and cover this or that news conference or fire/accident. It’s a survival environment, not a place to learn and get better. Scripps-Howard is addressing this somewhat by appointment some staff as “senior reporters” who will assist other reporters refine their craft.

And its the stations that have active PAID internship programs, so the student journalist can learn on site. These internships can’t be minimum wage. Many internships with ad agencies and other similar firms are paying interns up to $30 an hour to assist and learn. In many cases, that’s more than beginning reporters are earning in small to medium markets.

It boils down to VALUE. What is the value of the news organization that becomes known as a place that mentors young reporters so get get better and refine their craft. As opposed to some that just grind them down and spit them out, knowing there will always be someone who wants a shot at being on TV.

News directors and groups have to be willing to collaborate in educating the journalists of the future. The Blame Game is just an excuse for a news department’s own mediocrity.

Dave Kovic says:

April 27, 2024 at 6:22 am

You are 100% right.

Hopeyoumakeit says:

April 27, 2024 at 10:51 am

wall street only cares about retrans profits. content is on the side of a cereal box.

RealtalkD says:

April 28, 2024 at 9:02 am

Real talk- this all sounded great until you said News Directors are therapist. From what I gathered the author wasn’t a nice person when he held leadership roles and that comment secured my suspicion. Newsrooms are toxic cesspools run by predominantly white management like you Sean. There’s zero diversity and the quality in it shows every time it airs, you also fail to mention this point in this article. Do you know how detrimental that could be for people trying to make it in this industry? I guarantee you if local stations added more people that look like their community it was ignite attention especially in management.

LifeOutsideOfTVNews says:

May 3, 2024 at 1:04 pm

I worked in TV news as a reporter, producer & anchor in a small-market straight out of a respected journalism school (during the pandemic) and i immediately noticed that although there’s effort of creating a universal way of writing and delivering news, one simply doesn’t exist. Write about a local story and then present it to your producer, co-worker, news director and each one of them would argue with eachother on how it should be written based on their experience/education. Universities can teach the great principles of storytelling & writing and the workforce will disagree and call their starter journalists “uneducated” “can’t write” & “can’t tell stories”

Nonetheless, i know the perfect solution to this! Vice Presidents of News at every station in the nation should take a pay cut and divert the money to new upcoming journalists to encourage their growth & recognize their potential value. Why would any new journalist be encouraged to learn how to write and tell better stories on 28k a year? Only to see a bump to 32k at the end of their starter contract? Paying people more in the news industry will always be the #1 solution, except to those at the top.