Read that title again. Interview the station, don’t let it interview you. This probably goes against the grain of what you’ve been taught. But hear us out and you’ll see the logic. Most people assume that news management knows what type of person it needs for a given job. That is not always true. Increasingly news managers want to do only 1 thing, find a warm body to fill a slot. We say this after working in a combined 14 shops; most of them in market 30 and above. Most are places you would think have a clue about how to hire for specific needs. Bottom line: They don’t. Even the 1st place stations with “higher standards” often just want to fill and move forward. Scary? Yes. But you can still increase your odds of becoming a super hire, instead of that warm body destined for doom. It all comes down to how you interview the station.
How to interview the TV station
- Talk to staffers.
- Go it alone.
- Watch an editorial meeting.
- Ask management to spell out its news philosophy.
- Play out scenarios.
- Ask for a writing and ethics test.
Talk to staffers
This is your best shot at crucial intel. Talking to staffers doesn’t just mean talking to the people management chooses for you to speak with. Get business cards off desks of people who are not around and call them after your interview. Ask if you can speak with them when they are outside the newsroom. Better yet, ask current staffers for names of people who used to have the job you are interviewing for. Google them and call those former employees at their new job. If everyone says the place is perfect, say flat out you know that’s not true. Ask what frustrates them about station WZZZ. This is your best shot at seeing if you can handle the weaknesses at the station. And trust us, all stations have them.
Go it alone
Request time during your interview to wander the newsroom and get a feel for the place. If the manager gets hinky, that’s a big sign the place is a mess. Well run shops have no fear of this. In fact many insist you wander and then watch how you react. Newsrooms that are starting to get on track will gladly give you a short stint to walk around. Hell holes will not let you do this. Also, ask for the chance to go it alone, while you are in the interview, not ahead of time. You do not want to give management the chance to stage it. Lastly, if the manager says sure, but provides you free time only when everyone’s at lunch or out on a story, that can be a sign of trouble.
Watch an editorial meeting
“Watch” is the operative word here. This is not the time to pipe in and show off your knowledge of the area. If you want to share any ideas, wait until the end of the meeting and do it one-on-one with management. You want to see how the staffers react to each other and management. Take notes. Do you see snickering and note passing? Do the reporters and producers seem half dead or over eager? All of these are signs the place could be a mess. If the meeting runs smoothly and quickly then this shop may have a vision.
Ask management to spell out its news philosophy
You want the news philosophy to be boiled down to one sentence. Request it. Stations with vision and clear cut standards can easily spell it out. Let the manager say the sentence, then ask for examples of how the shop will execute the philosophy that very day. Ask every manager you speak with the same thing. Do it with the anchors, reporters and producers you meet too. If you get stuttering, stammering answers the place is most likely a mess. Write it off. If you get a sentence, but then get excuses on why there is no execution that day, walk away. Everyone must be on the same page, or you will step into one mess after another. A shop without a clear vision is political hotbed hell and who needs that?
Play out scenarios
Give managers scenarios then ask how the newsroom is supposed to react. A favorite of ours: Ask about an armed standoff with a station helicopter overhead and SWAT team outside. Who makes the call as to how close a shot the station will take on live TV. Who decides when to pull the shot back? Will a manager be in the booth at all times or on the phone? Another good one: Does the station mention social media chatter during breaking news? How is that decided? We also like to discuss natural disaster coverage. For instance, if it’s a hurricane prone area, what is the hurricane coverage plan? Where do crews stay during the storm? How does the station ensure safety? Will you be fed? And don’t forget to ask about more than the ins and outs of news coverage. What if someone loses their cool in the newsroom? How is that handled? What if that person is an anchor? Who has the final say on copy? If it isn’t the manager on duty, chances are the shift boss is a highly paid babysitter who will stab you in the back.
Ask for a writing and ethics test
Yes this sounds insane. But this is the cat daddy for interviewing the station instead of letting it interview you. Blow management’s mind and ask for a writing test and get the bosses to ask you how you would handle specific ethical calls. Well run newsrooms should do this automatically. But we must admit, in all of our years only one television station did both types of tests. You want to write copy and get critiqued. This will show you if your writing style works or can be easily adapted to the newsroom’s style. There is little worse than being “Big J” to the core and ending up at a tabloid shop. You can ask, but few managers will actually admit to an interviewee if the plan is to head down a “flash and trash” road. A critique of your writing style might give you a clue. Also having them set up ethical calls shows you what situations the newsroom often covers or worries about covering. The tests are a key chance to determine if you and management think alike. Having the guts to ask for these might get you the job and MORE MONEY as well.