When we outlined how to tell when a station is a great place to work, we got a few messages asking, “How do you tell when a place is really bad?“ Fellow journalists, this is a tricky one! We may all be great at digging up dirt, but in many cases the leaders of the hornet’s nest, hell holes are better at covering it all up. There are a lot of bad shops. So many, in fact, you might say to yourself: “I’ll just go to the crappy place if it’s in the city where I want to live.” Whenever possible avoid the hell holes. It will increase your chances of actually keeping your job for more than 2 contracts. Trust us, moving gets old after a while.
Now the all important list of tell-tale signs that a station is a hell hole:
1. Chronic 3rd or 4th place in the ratings
2. Goes through news directors every 2-4 years
3. People in the business cringe when you tell them the general manager and/or news director’s name
4. Managers who tell you they plan to showcase you as the key figure or example to “set the new standard of excellence” at the station
5. Consultants come in regularly to re-define news philosophy
6. Management holds “emergency” meetings to discuss last night’s numbers on a regular basis
Explain this list you say? Sure.
First, you should always check out the ratings of the station you are considering. If it is a chronic 3rd or 4th place station you need to understand that turnover is easily twice as high as other stations in town. Chronic 3rd and 4th place stations almost always do one thing very well. Jump the gun. They constantly change philosophies and shift their balance of power. The news director who hires you will likely not last the term of your contract. Hired guns are often brought in to clean house. Then “The Fixer” shows up, and often works you to death then brings in fresh faces to make his/her mark on the station. The odds are very high you will get axed by one of these management teams. If you do survive you will then face the company man/woman who will do anything corporate says and is often an expert at shifting blame. This type of ND likes to prove he/she has a set by gunning for at least one old timer to prove he/she really isn’t a puppet. The higher up you are on the food chain, the more you are at risk. So, bottom line, even if you do survive you will become a paranoid nutcase and will probably shorten your life expectancy and/or develop bleeding ulcers!
This can happen a lot at second place stations as well. But, if the news director has been in place for 4 or more years, odds are higher that upper management thinks the person has a clue. That’s what you are looking for as long as you can handle that particular person’s style.
Which leads to our next point: If people in the business cringe when you tell them who the general manager and/or news director is, beware! Do some research and find out why though. You may have just met a person who got fired and has an axe to grind? Keep in mind that every news director and general manager has enemies. That’s why you need to ask for specific reasons why these people are hated. That will help you figure out if you met a few immature folks or if there is a legitimate cause for concern.
If you are told that you will be the new “gold standard” for quality at a station do not go there. We made this mistake several times. (Hey, it stroked our egos!) We learned the hard way that this sets you up for a very lonely and paranoid existence. Most of the time management will hold you up as the poster child for all that is good. Instantly you are as hated as the “Internal Affairs” detectives on every cop show you’ve ever watched! Part of working in news is dishing about how much you wish management would change things. If you are the example of what management wants, then to everyone else, you are management without the salary or backing. It just plain sucks and you don’t want to live it.
In the article “Interview the Station“, we recommend you ask management to clearly define its news philosophy. Here’s a more detailed explanation of why. Many stations don’t have a true, clear, news philosophy. That’s why many stations pay a lot of money to consultants. To be fair, some stations use consultants as another way to coach and define their philosophy. But in most cases the only time you hear anything about a news philosophy is when the consultant comes to town and gives all of the staffers a seminar. This is not ideal because you end up having to prove yourself to essentially another set of management. Consultants are often telling upper management whether your bosses suck. They often will judge you on one or two newscasts in a year, so you cannot have a bad day when they show up. They will let upper management know if they think you suck also and it could mean demotions or worse. So how do you determine if the station consulting team is a potential disaster? First find out how often they are at the station and whether they do one-on-one training with producers, reporters and anchors, each time. Once or twice a year usually means the consultant is an extra set of eyes for corporate. More than that means they are actually teaching the staff what to do because management isn’t getting the job done. That sets you up for a scenario of having to humor an additional set of “bosses.”
You also need to find out if the station you are considering is reactionary rather than pro-active. The number one clue: Constant meetings involving news managers, the general manager, and often promotions and sales managers to decode last night’s ratings. You find out if this is the case by asking. Executive producers will often tell you if you ask. Regular staffers will tell you this also. (Yet another good reason to get several names and make after hours calls to get the scoop!) Reactionary stations panic over their ratings and are often disorganized with little vision. They break into a panic during breaking news. They are often poor planners. They tend to look for people to shift blame onto, other than management itself. Basically, these stations exist in “cover your ass” mode 24/7. That means longer hours for you and more potential to trip on a political hot wire and get cut off at the knees. All stations have meetings to go over numbers. If a station has a particularly bad day, expect to see a meeting. The stations you need to worry about are the ones that meet every Monday, each week or every day during a ratings period without exception. They are not sold on their product and ability to pull off quality news and promotion. They will constantly switch things around on the fly to look for a hit. You are constantly at risk of being labeled the problem child. The odds of making it long term at that station are not good. Avoid the situation if you possibly can.
One last thought on hell holes. If you do mistakenly get into one and really don’t want to move remember, these places do tend to go through managers quickly. With a little luck you can hang tough and survive until a good manager shows up. Just be prepared to take a lot of antacids while you wait it out.