Kayla Smith, a junior at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, has envisioned a career in TV news since she was a little kid. She'd watch Today with her father, and dad and daughter alike would daydream about Kayla someday making like Katie.
“He'd say, you should be just like Katie Couric—then I'll be able to see you every day,” says Smith, taking a break from walking the floor at the RTNDA show in Las Vegas last week.
Job prospects are certainly dimmer than when many of this group of journalistic hopefuls declared their majors. Station groups have laid off lots of workers, and the past year has been especially cruel to on-air talent. And while attendance was relatively light in Vegas last week (the NAB confab was down about 20%), scores of college students still turned up at RTNDA to pick up reporting skills, chat with news directors and hang their resumes on the overflowing corkboard.
The students know full well that they'll have to catch a serious break to land a job, a fact of life they say their professors remind them of almost daily. While most seem to project optimism about their career prospects (ah, to be 20 again), Smith, who paid around $750 for airfare, registration and hotel, is taking a realistic view. She's lightened her class load a bit to put off graduation until, she hopes, the economy improves. She's also minoring in business—and may even boost it up to a double major. “That's my safety net,” says Smith, dressed in a neat blue suit as she monitors activity at the resume board.
Many remain confident that their ability to shoot, edit and file for the Web suits them well in a local TV world where a high-priced anchor is frequently dumped in favor of a cadre of cheaper multimedia journalists. “It's a scary time, but the industry is changing, and college students are armed with a lot of knowledge that a lot of [news veterans] may not have,” says Cal Poly senior Courtney Meznarich, who works at the university's CPTV station. “I can shoot and edit my own stuff. I think that makes us valuable to a potential employer.”
Indeed, while resumes in years past might simply state “reporter,” this year's batch played up the aspirant's ability to multitask—frequently showing a hyphen linking two or more job titles. Students are active bloggers, Web producers and Facebookers. “We grew up in the Internet,” says Samantha Grillo, 21, as she walks the floor with Meznarich. “We've been using it since we were kids.”
How 'tweet' it is
Multimedia tidbits were there for the taking at RTNDA. One that stood out for Emerson College senior Chris Hurst was stations using GPS technology to hyper-target users' mobile devices with geographically relevant breaking news.
While Twitter is certainly the new-media program of the moment, most students at RTNDA did not seem to be actively using it. But after the Twitter 101 session at the Hilton, many say they realized the platform has far greater potential than simply a user telling the cyber-world that he is, in fact, considering a BLT on rye for lunch.
KOMU Columbia, Mo., New Media Director Jen Reeves likened Twitter to a police scanner for its ability to spark news tips. She and co-presenter Kelly Hicks of KCTV Kansas City showed attendees how to effectively search Twitter for timelier news than Google might offer, and passed along a list of do's and don'ts that should end up taped on numerous newsroom walls.
The high-energy session seemed to win over converts among the students, who made up the bulk of the attendees at Twitter 101. “I'll probably sign up as soon as I go home,” Smith says.
Reeves says the young RTNDA attendees seemed to comprehend that they need to master every trick in the newsgathering book to land a position. “With stations' revenue down, they need to be self-sufficient as reporters,” she says. “Students realize it's not just TV—they need to think differently about reaching an audience than broadcast journalists used to.”
As much as the students were consuming tips on newfangled newsgathering, they also soaked up timeless advice from the sage news vets walking the floor. Hurst was somewhat heartened to hear that the notion of a graduating class facing dim job prospects was as old as television itself.
“A couple of news directors I spoke to said it was tough for them when they got out of college, too,” he says. “It's always going to be tough.”
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