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When Michael Nurse, WKBW Buffalo (N.Y.) president and general manager, was finishing college in Boston, he would’ve given just about anything to land his first job in broadcasting. Luckily for him, a sales manager at a local radio station took a shine to him—enough, at least, to put the ambitious young grad through a mind game designed to measure how badly he wanted the job. The exec hinted at a position for him, and said to phone him for details—and then proceeded to duck Nurse’s calls for a week. The confused but determined kid finally located the boss’ home number and rang him every 30 minutes until he got the guy on the line—and officially got the job.
Why This Matters
His reward? “Starvation wages” for three years, Nurse said. He parlayed the job into a staff position at a tiny independent TV station out in the suburbs. He’d made it at last.
These days, Nurse and other local TV managers speak of college grads who wouldn’t so much as cross the street to interview at a TV station. For decades local television attracted the best and brightest; now, faced with a growing challenge from the headline-grabbing global digital players such as Twitter and Google, the local TV outlet is hardly the cool thing anymore. “There used to be a line around the block to be in the business—I had to fight my way in,” Nurse said. “But I don’t know that we’re as sexy as we used to be.”
The grave lack of cachet, paired with persistently low pay and a generation growing up without consuming much local TV news, have all resulted in what many station veterans agree is a serious brain drain in most corners of the TV station, including on-air, production and sales. Several mention junior-level job listings that a decade ago elicited a hundred-plus inquiries, but are lucky to get a dozen now. “We still attract talented people, but you have to dig deeper and work harder to find them,” said Randy Smith, WSET Roanoke (Va.) president/general manager. “I don’t think we are the high-profile industry in the minds of college graduates that we were a few years ago.”
Ramen Noodles for Dinner…Again
It wasn’t always like this. Local TV’s golden age was, to be sure, decades ago, when three news stations existed in a market, cable news was but a glimmer in Ted Turner’s eye, and the Web was the stuff of science fiction. Much more recently, the recession saw star anchors ignominiously let go or forced to take giant pay cuts in the name of a market correction.
Pay continues to slide. An RTDNA/Hofstra University survey released in July found that local television news salaries fell 1.9% in 2012—more than radio salaries did. Across a longer time frame, anchor pay rose a modest 6.7% from 2008 to 2013, while reporter pay went up a grim 1.7%.
They’re the lucky ones. Executive producers—a key leadership position in the newsroom—saw their remuneration decrease 3.8%.
“Salaries in the industry are not keeping pace with inflation,” said survey author Bob Papper. “Beyond that, they’re not keeping pace with other professions. For the first few years, it’s near indentured servitude. If you want to make a decent living, there are a lot of options that pay better—and tend to be more family friendly.”
Another recent survey was similarly bleak for local TV. Salary.com reported that a communications degree— a typical field of study for station talent—came in last among the eight degrees examined in terms of return on investment. “You’d think the ink-stained newsrooms and TV studios are full of wealthy and famous journalists,” the study stated. “They’re not.”
Hiring managers speak of losing qualified candidates the moment the topic of pay comes up. “I can’t tell you how many people I had in my office that told me they can’t work for this kind of money,” said Forrest Carr, former news director at KGUN Tucson (Ariz.).
There’s little indication that salaries will rebound. After all, the mass consolidation in the industry means fewer broadcast groups—and just about all the big ones are publicly traded, with the requisite financial pressures of quarterly earnings.
Pit local TV’s paltry pay against the stock options, boffo salaries and big-time buzz over at the hot digital outfits, and it’s no wonder station chiefs speak of a shrinking talent pool. One Top 10 market GM grumbled about losing a sales ace to Hulu and other valued staffers to Yahoo. A news director mentioned appealing to a reporter’s core belief in the power of journalism to keep her from jumping to Google for “significantly more money,” he said.
Fragmented Media Landscape
Greg Newton, professor in the School of Media Arts and Studies at Ohio University, said a more fragmented media landscape simply means fewer talented media types to go around. Fittingly, Ohio U., a primary breeding ground for TV talent, launched a Games and Animation track in its Media Arts department five years ago. “Students are interested in things that, 10 years ago, five years ago, were on the margins, or did not exist at all,” he said. “To the extent that it drains talent away from traditional industries, I’d say that’s accurate.”
School enrollment is consistent, Newton added, but television no longer wields the “shiny toy effect” that it used to. “I think to some extent it mirrors what we saw with students in radio five to 10 years ago,” he said.
One of the biggest workforce needs at local stations may just correspond to the largest area of growth: mobile programmers. In an era of Facebook, Twitter and mobile apps, one group president said every corporation with something to sell is a media company and requires savvy programmers to execute digital strategies. There aren’t enough of them to go around.
Stacey Woelfel, associate professor at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and news director at KOMU Columbia, sees a generational shift. School enrollment is robust, he noted, but the more entrepreneurial types study Convergence Journalism—the university’s first new major in more than 50 years. “What drove me to television was great technology, but maybe I would’ve been a computer science student 10 years later,” Woelfel said. “Those who are looking for the cutting- edge stuff now are probably not going to traditional media.”
Youth and TV News: It’s Complicated
They’re probably not consuming traditional media either. While local television news always served as its own recruiting device, newly minted college grads typically do not consume news programs outside of those helmed by Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. Regular local news viewing in the 18-29 age group slid 14% (42% to 28%) from 2006 to 2012, according to Pew’s 2013 State of the News Media study.
Mike Cavender, executive director of trade organization RTDNA, said broadcast journalism students are getting their degrees without watching much TV news. “They’re still smitten by television, but not necessarily steeped in watching the product,” he said. “It’s very frustrating to people trying to educate journalists and to news hiring managers. Online—not the 6 p.m. news, not the network news—is their point of reference.”
The brain drain is not limited to local broadcasting; it has the potential to impact the traditional TV business overall. In a recent interview with B&C, Sony Pictures TV president Steve Mosko, who got his start in local broadcasting, lamented the lack of visionary thinkers among the industry’s younger ranks. “The Facebooks and Twitters and those people have done a better job of recruiting smart, passionate people than the television business,” he said. “We need young minds in this business saying, ‘OK, where’s it going to go?’”
A redoubled effort on the recruiting front, most agree, is required to bring back the best—or at least the better—to the TV fold. That starts at the colleges —reaching students earlier with internships, going harder after seniors and keeping the station top of mind on campus with frequent guest lectures from its senior staffers. “There’s not a DMA in our country that’s not close to a college,” said Bill Hoffman, Cox Media Group executive VP. “You have to be dedicated to engaging with them and getting things happening. Offer internships—hook me up with your best and your brightest. Get a relationship going.”
State broadcast associations are working with stations on the issue. The Virginia Association of Broadcasters’ “Best of the Best” initiative sees stations enroll their top prospects in a year-long leadership training program. “It’s about getting them excited and keeping them here,” said WSET’s Smith.
All seem to be hiring younger staffers who are willing to work for low pay. As one local broadcast vet described it, a middle class hardly exists in the reporter ranks; stations have star anchors and cub reporters, with those in between frequently departing television for better paying jobs in government and PR.
To be sure, television news continues to be an attractive option for a lot of young people. In many markets, anchors remain rock stars in the community. Adam Lefkoe, sports anchor at WHAS Louisville (Ky.), said no other job would allow him to marry his love of sports and reporting in quite the same way. “I’m obsessed with storytelling,” he said. “I don’t think I could leave this.”
He’s not alone. Whether it’s the belief in doing right by the community with corruption-busting journalism, the rush of live-without-a-net TV, the ego boost of being spotted at the supermarket or a combination of all three, plenty of Millennial types dream of being the next Chuck Scarborough or Monica Pearson. “People want to be on television,” Papper said. “They want to tell stories and they want to do journalism.”
Hoffman noted that traditional media companies may not have the sex appeal of the digital outfits, but they have staying power. Failure rates for digital startups are “pretty daunting,” he said, while “Cox has been around 115 years. I bet on us.”
But many continue to wonder about the long-term implications for a mature industry staffed by a few too many C students. WKBW’s Nurse recalled when college graduates were knocking down the doors at TV stations, while now, station managers are the ones pestering grads to come work for them. Recent grads don’t want to put in time in the tiny markets, can’t pay their student loans on a station salary and moan about working long hours. They are, in many cases, opting for another career path.
“There are a lot of elements to the business where, if you don’t love it, you’re not going to do it,” Nurse said. “It’s like trying to sell a Cadillac to a 20-yearold. It’s a good car, but they think of it as what Grandpa drove.”