In Depth

Push for Work: Job Seekers Must Be Willing to Do More for Less

By Dinah Eng

The outlook for television news jobs in 2010 is brighter than it was last year, but the key to getting hired is having multimedia skills and the willingness to do more — for less money.

News executives and talent agents say that industry changes and continued economic uncertainty have created newsrooms that require on-air talent to be multifaceted on the job, with the greatest demand being for those who are comfortable delivering news online. Happily, as the economy has improved, hiring has started to pick up.

“Going back to this time last year, stations were feeling the economic squeeze, eliminating people and instituting hiring freezes,” said Barbara Frye, vice president of talent placement services for Frank Magid Associates. “Over the last three months, positions that went unfilled are now being filled, but there’s a catch to all that. Many stations are looking for people at a reduced salary, and for people who can do more than one task.”

She said, for example, if a station’s looking for a meteorologist, that person must also be able to do reporting. Reporters must be willing to shoot their own stories.

The decrease in salaries, she said, applies across the board for all positions.

“A station that was willing to pay $60,000 for a meteorologist in 2008 is now paying $35,000 to $40,000,” Frye said. “In this economy, a reporter that was once paid $30,000, is more likely to get $25,000. The days of spending whatever it takes to hire an anchor are over, and I don’t think they’ll ever come back.”

She said that in 2009, a significant number of high-priced talent lost their jobs because of station budget cuts. The jobs themselves were not eliminated, but the salaries attached to the positions were cut.

Job openings are fewer, she notes, because if people are happy where they are and satisfied with their salaries, they’re less likely to move, even for a job in a larger market. Economic uncertainty and a housing market where homes are not selling easily contribute to the desire to stay put.

“If they have a spouse, and the other person has a good-paying job, they’re less likely to move,” Frye said. “In 2008, stations were caught off guard by the decrease in advertising dollars, and they had to react swiftly. I’m more optimistic now than I was this time last year.”

Kirk Varner, vice president and director of news at the LIN TV-owned duopoly WTNH-TV and WCTX-TV in New Haven, Conn., said signs of an economic upturn are on the horizon, and as we head into an election year, that should help the bottom line for the television industry.

While his station is fully staffed at the moment, he hopes to have more positions later this year. He advises all job applicants to upgrade their resumes as much as possible.

“We need people with as diverse a skill set as possible,” Varner said. “We’ll be looking for people who present portfolios that show content produced explicitly for the Web, not those who can just do on-air work.”

The ability to pitch in whenever and however needed is increasingly valued as stations attempt to do more with fewer resources. When a terrorist attempted to blow up a plane headed for Detroit on Christmas Day last year, Deborah Collura, vice president of news for Post-Newsweek Stations, said its Detroit station [WDIV-TV] called upon its holiday staff to multitask to cover the story.

“We had one of the investigative producers pick up a camera and go into the field and interview passengers,” Collura said. “Our news operations manager got into the helicopter and shot exclusive video. We took him live, he did a couple of cut-ins, and he did fine. The lines are more blurred between the reporter, assignment desk and producers.”

Collura said in an age where viewers want content when and how they want it, stations have to be able to harvest content and deliver it 24/7, whether that delivery occurs on air, on the Web, or on cell phones. Managers are looking for people with multimedia skills who can do multiple jobs, she emphasizes.

“The other thing that will be crucial to staffing in 2010 and beyond, is that news managers are going to have to hire very carefully,” Collura said. “It’s the A and B players who will survive for the future. We can no longer take mediocre people, because there are fewer openings, and there are more people to pick from.”

What will make an applicant stand out from the crowd? Collura cites great cover letters, a DVD or tape that’s a montage of an applicant’s best work, and follow-up phone calls that are not annoying.

“Aside from the resume, I want someone who’s passionate about the business, smart, engaging, dynamic, and who looks at this as a career, and not as just another job,” Collura said.

Tim Geraghty, vice president and news director of News10 for Gannett-owned KXTV’s in Sacramento, Calif., said while there is always a demand in specialty reporting areas like weather and sports, many people forget the job opportunities that exist behind the camera.

“I’m fascinated by the fact that no matter how many college kids I talk to, when you ask them what they want to do, 90 percent-plus always say they want to be on-air,” Geraghty said. “There’s a tremendous supply of people who want to be on-air. On the off-air side, there’s demand and not nearly the supply.

“In most markets, you can probably start on the assignment desk or as a producer, if you have the skill sets. Our market is not a starter market for people on the air, but it can be for people behind the scenes.”

Most of the hiring in 2009 occurred in small- and medium-sized markets, said Mendes Napoli, president and owner of Napoli Management Group in Los Angeles, who expects that trend to continue through 2010.

“We’re weeding out some people who are frustrated and tired, which will continue to create job openings,” Napoli said. “I see stations replacing people in 2010, but no new positions. There are fewer people being placed at the network level. The trend is toward multimedia journalists who can report and shoot their own stories.”

Napoli said most midsize market salaries remain stable, but significant cuts have been made in salaries in the larger markets. Anchor salaries, he said, are down 10 percent to 15 percent on average, and positions that once paid $300,000 to $500,000 are disappearing.

“For male anchors, they’re looking for younger, hipper, more of a reporter-anchor type, and not as much of a behind-the-desk person,” Napoli said. “Some of the same is true for female anchors. Diversity is a definite concern. For example, Salt Lake City’s Hispanic population has grown, and they’re trying to reflect more of the population on air. The people we represent are representative of the marketplace.”

Napoli’s company tracks the movement of jobs through various sources, and he said between January 2009 and November 2009, there were 301 job placements in the TV industry, compared with 419 for the same period in 2008, and 573 in 2007.

“The demise of the business is overexaggerated,” Napoli said. “News will continue to be more and more important to stations. Communities rely on stations for local news. How it’s delivered is changing, but who you get it from is not.

“I think we’ll see more jobs in news departments as the platforms emerge. Economically, I don’t think it will be as lucrative to work in the business, but there will be many more jobs to come.”