(FYI, the founder of survivetvnewsjobs.com, who is now an agent, did not solicit this article. Matthew Nordin -a regular contributor to the website – submitted this article all on his own.)
It’s the question young television reporters and anchors — and now even producers — often ask me. Having been in commercial TV for more than a decade, they wonder aloud, “Do I need an agent?”
“It depends” is an answer I personally hate to receive. But it’s apt here. I usually ask them about their current career situation, whether they have a long-term partner or spouse, and what their goals are.
I can’t do that with everyone who reads Survive TV News Jobs. So I thought I would give you my thoughts on what goes into my decision to hire an agent for myself and whether to recommend one to friends and colleagues.
Where are you in your career? I got lucky. The late Conrad Shadlen, who represented some real heavyweights in his day, took an interest in me for some reason after seeing stories I’d done while an intern for then-CNN correspondent Brooks Jackson and at Southern Illinois University’s WSIU-TV. Rad signed me right out of college. The credibility of being represented by his New York agency helped me months later get my first paid television reporting job at WSPA-TV in Greenville/Spartanburg, South Carolina. It was then the 35th largest market in the country. I was able to rent a nice apartment and buy food. Hey, that was an achievement. I had no idea at the time, but I have since learned that some of my colleagues have been forced to go on government assistance because their first TV station paid them so little.
If your college’s broadcast journalism program did not produce a live, professional-looking newscast every night that allowed you to build a respectable reel then it’s probably a waste of time and money to hire an agent right out of school. They aren’t going to be able to get you a job in a Top 50 market. Plus, they’re going to be taking 5-10% of your gross salary. That’s not what you bring home in your paycheck. We’re talking about 5-10% of your income before taxes. Can you afford that?
What are your goals? When I was in my 20’s, I put my career ahead of everything. I was single. I just wanted to “get to the network” as quickly as possible. Then two things happened: 9/11 and Mark Sanford’s election as governor of South Carolina. 9/11 changed everything. People my age or a little older who were making tons of money on Wall Street prior to that morning were suddenly calling their significant others, leaving the most beautiful, heart-wrenching voicemails I’ve ever heard. Something clicked for a lot of my friends and me. God, the Universe, whatever label you wish to use, didn’t send us to Earth to make money and spend our lives in newsroom cubicles and live trucks.
The next year, WSPA-TV assigned me to cover this recent congressman from Charleston named Mark Sanford. This was long before he went “hiking the Appalachian Trail.” He was taking South Carolina’s Republican Party by storm, making real connections with voters, beating some big GOP names for the gubernatorial nomination. From the primary campaign through Sanford’s general election victory party at a Sticky Fingers BBQ restaurant in November 2002, I was on the campaign trail. Just like network news journalists, my photographer and I traveled all over the state covering Sanford and his opponents, rendezvousing with our satellite truck late in the afternoon, staying in hotel rooms at night, joking that paying rent in Greenville was a waste because we were never in our apartments. Then it was over. The adrenaline vanished. I was back in my Greenville apartment. And I was all alone.
It has taken me years to take these lessons and create the life and career I want — a life and career I continue to tweak — but I realized the life of a network news correspondent was not what I wanted. When NBC News axed a slew of veteran correspondents in 2008, one of them said that for the first time he’d be able to drive his family to dinner. When he was on-staff at NBC, he’d always driven separately and with a bag packed in the back. He was inevitably getting called away to cover something happening somewhere in the world.
I realized I needed stability. I wanted a dog, a spouse, two children — the works.
In the meantime, Conrad Shadlen’s agency had vanished near the end of his life. I didn’t renew with the agency that bought him out because I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. If I went off and freelanced somewhere, that 10% hit to my limited income might have been unsustainable.
So ask yourself: Does an agent really fit into my life plan? Or do I just want the caché of being able to say I have an agent?
Is your significant other willing to move? Once you’re in a relationship, someone’s career has to come first. You both might decide at this point in your lives it makes more sense to put your TV career first. However, if you become involved with a doctor or lawyer who’s already planted the seeds of a nice little practice, it’s going to be hard for him or her to move. In their world, they may have to start from zero and build-up their practice all over again if you both move.
I highly recommend reading Mika Brzezinski’s book All Things at Once. Whether you’re just out of college and the previous paragraph is the furthest thing from your mind or if you’re mid-career and a sizzling pang of recognition just hit your belly, Mika’s negotiation of her career and her husband’s career (she’s married to WABC-TV investigative reporter Jim Hoffer) along with trying to raise two daughters will hit you at an emotional level that is nearly unparalleled in autobiographies of this type. Remember, Mika hasn’t always been this successful. Before reaching star status with MSNBC’s Morning Joe, she had been fired by CBS News. I will say no more. No spoilers here.
If you’re not willing to move, you may not need an agent. In fact, you may be an agent’s worst nightmare because they want to send your tape all over the country to give you the best shot at a great new job.
If you and your significant other don’t want to move, surely you can get to know all of the news directors in town on your own. Then again, if you’re already working in a major market, you may need to keep your agent to negotiate your next deal at the station or to get a meeting at another station across town if you’re let go. (As you can see, we’re back to “it depends.”)
Ready to hire an agent? Do your due diligence. Just like you would vet a source on a news story, do some checking around on this person who wants to be your representative to the broadcast news world. Interview them. Skype with them. Fly out and meet them if you can afford it. Ask them what they like about you. Ask them how they plan to market you. Ask them how they’ll work with you to improve your skills and marketability for the next job search two or three years from now.
The goal is to find someone who wants to represent YOU, not just another anchor/reporter. And the goal is to only hire an agent if he or she truly fits in with your life plan.