Why Your Best Young TV Journalist Just Left
I won’t say her name because there are so many just like her.
While she was still in high school, her father — a friend — asked me to talk with her about her ambition to someday be a great journalist, perhaps on the Today show.
As I always do in such cases, I told the truth. It’s a hard business. You start in a small market for terrible pay. Each step up the ladder puts you in competition with an ever-stronger pool of people who want the same thing you do. You will probably never make a fortune. At some point you might even get fired, possibly through no fault of your own.
Of course, my speech did no good. It never does. Everyone believes they are the exception.
Because she was smart and talented, she got into a good university with a strong journalism program, coming out well prepared to go to work.
Being determined, and willing to sacrifice both geography and money for a start, she got that first job and began to learn her trade.
I occasionally went to her station’s website to see how she was progressing. She was a quick learner and making great progress. I wasn’t surprised when she called a few years later to say she had been offered a promotion to a bigger station within the same company.
She had one reservation. The new job paid more, but not as much as one might expect for the market size. She tried to negotiate, with no success, but ended up taking the job anyway because it was the right next step.
Over the following years she became a seasoned reporter, a go-getter who brought value to her station. She was even given the chance to do investigations, always a good sign.
Then one day I got another call. Her contract was up, and she had been offered a renewal, but not at the salary level she expected.
She shared the details and asked if I thought her expectations were out of line. I said no. Because of the market size and her track record, I could see her making that kind of money, but I also cautioned that because her ask was so far above the station’s offer, she was unlikely to get there. Did she want to look for something in a bigger market?
The answer was no. She had met someone she was serious about, and he could not easily move. She also felt that her salary was a matter of principal. She could make more working in public relations.
Over the next few weeks both her news director and general manager told her how valuable she was and how much they wanted her to stay. They did raise the offer, but explained they simply could not pay the kind of salary she wanted.
In the end, though she loved her job, respected both her news director and general manager and wanted to stay, she left and went into public relations. I looked at her Facebook page the other day and she seems to be doing well. Of course, that doesn’t mean she is doing what she loves.
Every general manager and news director can tell you similar stories to this one I just shared. Solid people, the kind you want to keep, lost over a few thousand dollars. The pattern repeats and repeats. Another young talent comes in, and then leaves, only to be replaced again and again.
Now let’s rewind this story to our first reporter, before she left.
In the fictional rewind, the GM and the news director figured out a way to pay a more reasonable salary. Perhaps they shuffled money around, or the GM made a well-reasoned pitch to the company’s CEO for more salary room. Regardless of how they managed it, they paid the talented reporter and she stayed.
She developed into a fearless investigative reporter. Her passion for the market in which she chose to remain only enhanced her reputation. She started a family and became heavily involved in a number of charities, and her profile grew.
The station also made the right promotional moves. They made similar decisions to put good talent around her, and they ran a great operation.
Eventually, her ability, commitment and reputation led the station to choose her as the right person to anchor their highest profile newscasts. Viewers responded by tuning in to her newscasts, consuming her online content and following her social feeds.
Her reputation and appeal spread to others at the station. Her co-anchors and the meteorologists benefited from the halo effect of being next to a beloved long-term personality. Advertisers, who also loved her, favored the station in their ad buys.
The station’s brand now meant more to the community. When the station launched content on new platforms, the community followed. Ratings stayed high. Revenue followed.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, this little rewind scenario is a bit Pollyannaish. Perhaps it could happen, at least to some degree. But be certain of this: There is only one scenario where this tale would never happen, and that is the one that actually took place.
Over a few thousand dollars, a valued reporter left the station. And undoubtedly the decisions that led to her departure will be repeated. The treadmill of turnover will never stop, a reflection of both station and company values.
Our business can sometimes be paralyzed by corporate pressures, by an attitude that always puts immediate profit over long-term investment and by fear of the future. But making every decision a short-term one does not build a lasting company.
Keeping that sharp young talent at your station, despite the short-term cost, could be the best decision for the long term. Could the rewound fictional scenario above have happened? Yes, it could. But it would have taken a news director, GM and possibly a CEO willing to see past the pressure of today and invest in people who have the potential to turn fiction into reality.
Hank Price spent 30 years leading television stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett while concurrently building a career in executive education. He is the author of Leading Local Television and two other books.