In the past few weeks, I have seen several posts on LinkedIn either asking where are producers, or appeals from stations and broadcasting groups that frankly as of even a year ago would never have to worry about enough applications. This isn’t a surprise to me, since I talk with producers at all levels all the time, but it is a wakeup call for the industry.
Partner these posts with two more important factors: The rate of employees unionizing in the journalism industry is increasing, and a lot of veteran producers are posting about mental health issues and that they are getting out of the business as result. Now we have a better overall grasp of this issue. For a long time the broadcasting industry has recognized producing is a very difficult job. The industry conceptually understands that a big reason is a lack of training. Part of that happens at some J-Schools because frankly, producing needs to be an entire specialty track not just a course you take in case you cannot get that reporting gig. But there’s a bigger factor: Constant practical training needs to happen during a producer’s first job. Most “starter” newsrooms lack the staff to really do this. So producers have to train themselves through trial and error. Does that take grit and persistence? Yes. Does it weed out the weak of heart. Sure. But this isn’t the 1980’s anymore. The industry needs to understand that adding digital responsibilities along with making your own graphics and editing your own VO’s has made the job even harder than when you “bit the bullet and made it.”
The industry also needs to recognize that just because a producer made it for 3 years doesn’t make him/her an expert necessarily and the support needs to continue. No, these producers no longer need to be trained almost daily, but they do need to brainstorm how to showcase, they need to be encouraged how to make the newscast feel like they accomplished something more than slamming a bunch of stories on the air while barely able to even take a quick bathroom break then know they have to do the same thing the next day. Rising up in the producer ranks doesn’t make the job easier. Managers, you take on more responsibility as you move up. The decisions you have to make every day can be very hard, and draining. But you get to take breaks. You can schedule some downtime in your day to relax. And you should. It keeps you fresh, your brain power strong and your mental health more intact. Producers on the other hand, keep adding more complicated elements to their job. More showcasing, more problem solving about why a certain 5 minute period in their show suddenly is losing audience, more tweaking. It is a constant challenge with no real break. No real stride even if you are constantly putting out best effort as expected. This is a job that doesn’t let down. It gets easier in some ways, but the intense constant deadlines do not let you rest in your day. This has to be understood at higher levels. Your veteran producers are tired. They often feel taken for granted. They sometimes question, “Is this all I have to look forward to?” Eventually most realize, they can work smarter not harder in something other than broadcast news. So just when they are at maximum talent, just when they hit the so called 10,000 hour rule, many who don’t want to go into management, but are a huge talent quit. A loss the broadcast industry, with constant staff cuts, constant new editorial demands and constant pushes for savvier editorial techniques really cannot afford.
So how does the industry fix this problem? First let’s stop talking about journalism as a vocation. Yes, no matter what the work hours alone make this a passion type career instead of just a job. Yes, you need to really care about what you do. The issue is, for profit companies use the idea of this is a vocation to not properly compensate for expertise. The mindset is limiting. Executives in these groups are paid well and often receive bonuses for their advanced understanding of the nuances of this business. Seasoned producers need some caveats also. For years the pay issue has come up. Every excuse imaginable has been made. The bottom line is the news industry’s biggest commodity, largest asset, and greatest offering are the people who make its product, the news, credible. This isn’t just about profits, its about long term product stability. Telling veteran journalists who can offer so much insight to suck it up with yet another 2 percent raise and be ok with that because this is a vocation is piss poor. Without these producers, you have a weak product. Call up a newscast from a large market from 20 years ago, then look at modern newscasts at the same station. The new newscasts have more glitz, but focus on the journalism. There is no comparison in content. Viewers know it, that’s why they are looking online. They want facts. They want to be given real information and tools to analyze what is best for themselves, their families and the community at large. Veteran producers know how to do that and make it look good. You have to invest in that if you want the industry to survive long term.
Let’s go back to the need for producers period. You can shoot great stories from iPhones. You can produce news from anywhere now, with a computer and a WIFI link. It is time to spend a bit less on the latest equipment and invest in your people instead. Some broadcasting groups are hiring producers in training. Yes, it is a start in investing in the future. But this is a drop in the bucket. There has to be more investment in training and compensation from the beginning producing job until the last.
There also has to be more investment in listening to the needs of your producers. A key point of contention: No downtime. The tight constant deadlines make this impossible during a given day. But broadcasting groups could start offering more PTO time for producers. Some groups make you earn your time off as you work. Why not set up 2 weeks guaranteed time off at the start of the year, with opportunities to earn more time off as they put in extra hours for those specials, etc you ask them to do above and beyond their newscasts? Producers cannot just run to the doctor quick then come into work. They have to be there to monitor their shows from start to finish if you want high quality. So they need to take more days off.
To keep producers inspired many newsrooms essentially pit producers against each other in terms of who’s considered the best. It is very rampant and very toxic. There is an easy fix. Each newsroom needs to create mission statements for their newscasts that states purpose of the show, and audience goals. Every hour is a bit different this way. By focusing on the content needs, this helps producers stop demanding all the elements for their newscasts and helps them share more easily. Collaboration is huge if you are a producer. Fellow producers are the only ones who really understand what you go through each day. Closeness needs to be fostered.
There is so much more that can be done, but these suggestions really start to address what I hear most from producers. They need time off to regroup. They need support. They need to have each other to lean on. They need to truly be valued and have it shown by more than an occasional thank you and a “treat” brought to the newsroom once in a while. Those are nice gestures. But they need more. The lack of candidates tells you that in stark terms. So please broadcast industry wake up. Deliver. Everyone wins.
It is no secret that you will likely move several times as a journalist. It can be hard to make a good living at first, and you just have to move to make ends meet longterm. So let’s talk about how to quickly and easily transition into a new market. The goal is to gain credibility and be able to focus more on context and storytelling; with perspective before the common 1 year in market mark.
The very first thing to do is drive the market. And I mean really drive. Don’t just hit up the tourist spots. Don’t just look on a map at the places with weird names and learn how to pronounce them (Although that is very important to do as well.). Really get out there, and see what places are like. Neighborhoods. Schools. Various parks. And when you can, make a real outing of it. Sit down on a bench and observe. Take a walk in a residential area (preferably with a coworker), and soak in the atmosphere. All areas have little treasures that locals know about that you need to discover quickly.
Also call a local historic preservation group. Ask them for lessons in political and racial history of the area. Ask about the state of education long term. Also economic upswings and downturns. This will give you some ideas to delve into perspective more.
Go to a farmers markets and playground. Grab a treat, sit and listen to what people are talking about. Same with mall food courts or gatherings of food trucks in various spots. Try and be culturally diverse in these selections. You want to get a broad perspective. This can be a great way to see ways to differentiate your coverage.
And if you can, try and join an organization to meet people. It can be a great satisfaction to explore an interest outside of just doing the news and a chance to meet people in the community. Many of the groups are meeting virtually as well. You need to try and build a network to source stories, get perspective and start to feel like part of the community you serve. Why not enjoy the process with some social networking too?
Finally remember that the best thing you can do, is watch and listen. Keep watching and listening. The more you do,the more you can relate to the area quickly and the better off you will be.
I recently posted a question on Twitter, “ Should ‘breaking news’ go on the cliche list at this point?” The amount of views on that post was tremendous. So let’s delve in a bit more shall we?
I get asked how and when to use the term breaking news a lot. For good reason. The term “breaking news” has taken on a wild and crazy life of its own in TV news. Its been a long ride. And just like some rides at Disney, it is time for an upgrade.
Breaking news is overused. There I said it. Especially by cable news outlets and some local broadcasting groups. The thinking is if you state immediacy viewers cannot help but watch. Problem is, when you really think about it, most breaking news on TV is dated, compared to digital news. The very fact that newscasts are on at set times, ruins the appeal of using “breaking news” in most stories. (Even cable outlets have set viewers for set time slots.) In fact, viewers know you are likely just exaggerating. Just look at studies about credibility and TV news.
Digital is changing things for sure, and it begins with the use of the term breaking news as a crutch to try and get viewers to stick around and consider newscasts relevant because its “breaking” information.
Especially when you look at the definition of cliche: A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought. (Dictionary of Oxford Languages) This one by Merriam-Webster makes the point more clear: a trite phrase or expression. In other words, used so much that it has become boring, and perhaps lost its original meaning.
Viewers who tend to like news, tend to also look at digital resources. Yes this can even include some Boomers. Especially with more newspapers offering less expensive digital formats than getting the paper thrown into the driveway each morning. So these viewers, are seeing through the gimmick that “breaking news” has turned into. Its become boring, unoriginal and frankly, not worth tuning in for.
If everything is breaking then nothing truly breaks. Memorize that mantra.
So let’s give “breaking news” that makeover it so deserves. First, a made for TV definition: Breaking news is news that started happening during your newscast, and new elements are continuing to present themselves. You are sharing information that has not made air before in other newscasts. This is information you are gathering, right at that moment.
So if a newsworthy event happened two hours before your show, then ended before your show is it breaking? NO. It was breaking for digital two hours ago if you have a kick butt team in that section of your newsroom. But for TV, no. Instead think: latest developments. The story is new since the last newscast, and the goal is to continue to expand on key facts while you are on the air. You are filling in the viewer. It is new, but not breaking.
Is Covid breaking news? There are constant new elements presenting themselves all day each day if you really think about it. I am going to argue, proceed with caution. Breaking news, feels like a gimmick to casual viewers. (The regulars likely tune out the labeling period, still no benefit to you.) So happening right now, or latest update or developing can work in this scenario. Or you could avoid all of these “news branding” phrases and just say what is going on. Viewers still assume you are at least trying to bring them “new” information in a newscast. They give you some points for that effort still. Why not use that to your advantage and save time and energy just telling them the facts without a label at all? In terms of Covid so much is happening, it feels like a tidal wave. The viewers need something to cling on to, perspective. New information isn’t always enough to satisfy audience needs.
Breaking news can have a place in the newscast, but to me it should at least be a strong contender for the cliche list. Avoid. Focus instead on just consistently updating stories, so everything is new. Viewers expect that and frankly many take it for granted. Labeling things new and breaking constantly can shine light on the fact that the rest of your content is likely old. Especially in the digital age. By focusing less on the label, and more on the information itself you will gain more trust with the viewer.
The goal of this article is to spark conversation, much like the article “What is hard news really” did when we first published it. If you attend morning or afternoon editorial meetings chances are you know these phrases well “I am just not interested about that” , “Who cares” or “I don’t care so our viewers won’t either, after all I am the demo.” When cut outs of the key demo figures showed up in editorial conference rooms, it made an underlying issue come to the forefront of decision making: Doing the news I care about instead of what may need to be covered. Presumed biases.
I get what consultants were trying to do, showing off a Michelle or Jennifer cut out of a mom who loves to workout and go shopping. But designing entire brands around getting these idealized people to watch really hurt the business in a lot of ways. People are not caricatures. And to be even more blunt, journalists should never assume most of their audience thinks like them. Sometimes you have to take some time off as a journalist to really get this, but journalists brains sort information and relevance differently after awhile. In other words, you can get jaded. Or you can put too much relevance on an issue in the community with biased reasoning. Getting regular access to research can help you avoid some of this. But research nowadays is done more for the quick fix branding issue than truly digging into community needs. It shows. It hurts credibility. Even worse a lot of companies are dumping research options to “do it themselves.” Then the bias really comes in. The “well I don’t care about that story,” rejections become daily reasoning.
This has been a problem for years. Check out our article on how to get around stories the GM wants, for example. Story selection for the good of the community will never be perfect. There will always be a need to humor the cut out Jennifer a little bit. There is always a desire to get the key demo to watch in order to get the ad revenue to allow your station to do more news. I am not going to say this issue is an easy fix. But I am going to say that more newsrooms need to put stories through a quick viability test that is more profound than the ND or EP or producer saying “ I don’t care about that story, pass.” Journalists step in and out of many communities, many micro worlds so to speak. To be great connectors, investigators and fact finders you must start with wondering why others care about something you don’t find interesting.
Let’s take a look at the tried and true WIFM (What’s in it for me?) consultant story selection strategy that survive has written plenty about in the past, and let’s make it more inclusive for todays newsroom editorial meetings.
The what’s in it for me question is supposed to consider impact with emotional relevance. It sparks a reaction that is immediate and needs validation. The problem is station brands took the “for me” part of the question too far. What if you ask these questions instead about each story pitch: Who benefits? Who is hurt? Why is this happening? How will groups/communities/politicians /companies relate to the event/fact/study/crime etc?
See the difference? I may not personally have an interest in a story about more dogs on the loose in a neighborhood on the other side of the DMA. I may not even like dogs. But I will care if people are being bitten and/or people are pushing for rights to go unleashed. Could this idea spread to my neighborhood?
These simple questions can apply to any kind of news. Road closures, fires, court cases, political debates, medical breakthroughs, tech stories, economic trends. The questions quickly identify the impact. More importantly they can help reduce the influence of personal biases. Asking why others care about a story can help analysis become more objective. Maybe it can even make the viewer feel like you actually do care about them, because you take on a variety of topics instead of easy grabs that truly impact a narrow audience. Your newsroom. Your opinion needs to be one voice. And other conflicting voices might have the better story for the day.