Assessing J-School Product

Sep 13, 2004  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Hall

Special to TelevisionWeek

Bob Freeman can describe a good newsroom candidate in three words. “They get it,” said Mr. Freeman, news director of NBC affiliate WFIE-TV in Evansville, Ind., the 99th-largest television market.

“People who get it come in with a good understanding of where they want to be in two or three years. They are open to constructive criticism and they have a burning desire to learn everything they can about the business,” Mr. Freeman said.

The disparity between what news directors say they want in prospective entry-level employees and what the market presents to them has never been greater, said Robert Papper, professor of telecommunications at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

“They want kids who can write and who know about current events. Yet they remain appalled at how many kids come out of school knowing neither,” Mr. Papper said.

Good writing skills and a decent working knowledge of world events and politics remain atop the list of objective traits news managers say they expect. But much of the hiring decision remains highly subjective. Several managers interviewed for this story referred to “gut instinct” as a primary determinant.

“I look for initiative,” said Jill Jensen, news director at KQTV, an ABC affiliate in St. Joseph, Mo., market No. 201. One woman got the nod over several other candidates because on her resume she mentioned that after having trouble finding a summer job she started her own business giving swimming lessons to children. “To me, that screams initiative,” Ms. Jensen said.

Unable to match the starting salaries offered by stations in larger markets, Ms. Jensen seeks out what she terms “on-air wannabes,” people who settled for producer jobs when they were unable to find an anchor or reporter position.

“My sales pitch is that we will teach them everything they didn’t learn in college. It’s like postgraduate work, only they get paid for it,” Ms. Jensen said.

The Money Crunch

Paid, yes, but not much. Research published in 2002 by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation listed the median salary for a TV news reporter in markets 150 and smaller at about $18,000. Producers earned slightly more-about $20,000.

News managers in smaller markets also note a trend in which larger stations hire less-experienced people at lower salaries. “They seem to be holding out the big bucks for their main talent, so they cut corners a little when it comes to reporters,” Ms. Jensen said.

Entry-level salaries for TV jobs are about as low today on an inflation-adjusted basis as they have ever been, said Mr. Papper, who conducts the salary research for RTNDF. That fact alone sends hundreds of talented students into other fields each year.

“We see a lot of kids who go through the [college] program and then choose not to go into the business, and a lot of that is because of the money, or lack of it,” he said.

On the one hand, that robs the industry of some gifted individuals. On the other, it opens the door for many people who may not possess the raw talent but who are willing to work harder.

“These are entry-level positions and with that comes entry-level salaries,” said Kari King, news director at NBC affiliate KFDA-TV in Amarillo, Texas, market 129. “They have to love this business in order to be in it.” Ms. King has had a good deal of recent experience trolling for talent. In the past two months her station has posted nearly a dozen openings for anchors, photographers and producers.

Know the Territory

Style is often a critical component. News directors may say they are looking for a particular “look” or “feel” to a reporter’s presentation. Some stations portray a tabloidlike “in-your-face” tone, while others prefer a more traditional approach.

Rick Gevers, a talent agent and former news director, says it is critical for job seekers to understand the distinction. He counsels clients to tailor their audition tapes to the needs of the individual station and sometimes discourages them from applying for jobs where the chemistry may be lacking.

“I have to tell them, ‘Look, you are very good at what you do and they are very good at what they do. You just don’t do the same things,”‘ Mr. Gevers said.

News directors typically are not terribly specific about what they’re looking for, at least publicly. A job listing cannot state a gender preference, for example, but the industry has developed a lingo to work around that restriction. One recent listing on an Internet job board stated that the candidate “will work with our established female anchor.” In conversation, a news director might casually say, “The person who left was male.”

“Anybody with more than five minutes’ experience in this business knows what that means,” Mr. Gevers said.

News managers acknowledge they see a constant inflow of applicants. “For my last reporting opening I got three huge boxes full of tapes and at least 100 e-mailed resumes,” Ms. Jensen said. “There are still a lot of people who want to be in this business.”