Hard times for news consultants

Feb 18, 2002  •  Post A Comment

With the economy in recession, the once high-flying news consulting business has taken a hit.
“The consulting business is hurting,” said Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “I talk to news directors and consultants every day, and I can tell you, the dynamic of the relationship is changing. There’s a sense that consultants are selling generalized information, and stations are asking, `Why should I pay for that?”’
“A number of them [consultants] lost considerable business because they’ve been preaching a gospel of cookie-cutterism that stations are starting to resent,” said Tom Dolan, owner of Dolan Media Management.
One station group that got fed up with the cookie-cutter approach was Hearst-Argyle Television. For all intents and purposes, the company no longer uses news consultants. Instead, three group news executives coordinate coaching and consulting functions for all 24 Hearst-Argyle stations.
Fred Young, senior VP of news, leads the group of news executives. He played a key role in the decision to take consulting inside.
“It’s worked,” he said. “The expense was less. The distractions were fewer. We don’t have to sell anything to keep our jobs. And if we’re going to serve multiple stations, they may as well be our own.”
Brian Bracco and Candy Altman, longtime news directors at Hearst-Argyle stations in Kansas City, Mo., and Boston, are the other two group news executives.
“When you think of a consultant, you think of someone walking in, giving their best advice and walking away.” Mr. Bracco said. “Our role is different. We have a vested interest in the success of each one of the stations we work with.”
He points to Hearst-Argyle’s Olympics team as evidence that inside consulting serves the group effectively and economically. Mr. Bracco coordinates staff members from 10 Hearst-Argyle newsrooms who are in Salt Lake City to provide coverage for all 24 stations. Under the direction of the group news executives, Hearst-Argyle stations take a “one for all and all for one” approach when covering political conventions, natural disasters and big events such as the Olympics and the Super Bowl, Mr. Bracco said.
“The typical and traditional consultant-station relationship is undergoing change,” Mr. Gottlieb of Project Excellence said. “But that doesn’t mean outside research won’t be done.”
Mr. Young agrees. “We haven’t turned our backs on those folks, the Hearst-Argyle executive said. “They still provide a valuable role for our industry. We just use them for specific needs now. Some for research and some for headhunting.”
Industry observers agree research is the mainstay of broadcast consulting and recruitment is an emerging growth area.
Dr. Craig Allen, author of the book “News Is People,” is regarded as one of the nation’s foremost authorities on broadcast consultants.
“Some of the gimmicks and ploys that consultants have been known for have come and gone,” Dr. Allen said. “The major firms are resting their fortunes on research functions that they are still the best to provide.”
Demand for talent recruitment and coaching kept Talent Dynamics strong despite the financial problems of its parent company, Media Advisors International, said Sandra Connell, president of the agency.
In the past, station executives often flew to the Dallas studios to view the talent library. Now the agency mails more tapes for viewing at the stations.
“We want our clients to understand we care about their bottom line, too.” Ms. Connell said. “I’m not going to tell you we didn’t tighten our belts and brace for what might happen in the industry, but thank goodness it’s business as usual.”
Dolan Media Management was one of the first agencies to focus on recruiting and training media managers.
“Management placement is a high-demand niche that will weather a tough economy, because you always need good managers,” Mr. Dolan said.
The forecast for broadcast consulting is not entirely gloomy.
Brent Magid, president and CEO of Frank N. Magid Associates, said the company has added five markets in the past 60 days. The Iowa-based company is the largest and oldest broadcast consulting company in America, serving clients in 37 countries.
“Certainly the marketplace has changed dramatically,” Mr. Magid said, “but we have been well-prepared.”
Mr. Magid sees branding strategy and the development of new streams of revenue as vital services in the economic downturn.
“We’ve developed very powerful tools that help stations generate revenue,” said Brian Greif, Magid’s senior VP of North American television. “As a result, we’re adding business.”
Broadcast Image Group owners Larry and Stephanie Rickel said so far in 2002, they’re traveling as much as ever, if not more, to service their clients. Several, Mr. Rickel said, are seizing this time to expand news product.
“We’ve found you can’t replace working hand in hand with your clients and their staffs,” Mr. Rickel said. “Stephanie and I believe there will always be value in an informed outside view that offers perspective, introduces new ideas and challenges current thinking.”
“It’s always been about keeping the gravy rich,” Ms. Rickel added. “It’s not how many clients you have, it’s about personal relationships, smart solutions and long-term partnerships.”