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Beyond Local News Layoffs: The Mood in the Newsroom–Local Newsers Are Scared, Overworked, and Miserable

Since leaving the day-to-day world of reporting for a local television station, I’ve heard from friends a lot of the same kind of comments when I ask, “how is it?”

“Worse than ever,” is what they say.  News has never really been a place where everybody’s happy (why is that?), but with the money printing machine no longer working, the managers letting their intensity to produce turn into dark humor at best and outright boundary crossing at worst, local newsers describe a business that at times seems to have all the fear and chaos of an industry in the turmoil of change, but somehow devoid of the excitement of the dawning of something new.

This lack of inspiration, I believe, is another indication that stations are deeply invested in the television of the 70s, 80s and 90s, and have turned the screws on employees in an effort to make that fading reality somehow work.  It’s as if you could just whip a horse hard enough, you could make the elegant horse and buggy a competitor to the car.

But the horse is miserable, and in many cases, the horse has had it. They want out.

I got to know John P. Wise during our time at WNYW in New York. A smart guy whose talents spread from the written word to a photographer’s eye and a comedian’s dry wit, he always seemed to me the kind of person who makes a newsroom more enjoyable. In catching up recently, I learned he’s lost his heart for horse-and-buggy work.

wisemugDISPATCH FROM THE FRONTLINES:  John P. Wise

(Back when Pat Forde used to write for The Louisville Courier-Journal, he’d begin some of his sports columns with: “Deathless prose.” That’s your warning that this piece is slightly all over the place. Hope you can follow along.)

What a terrible time it is these days to get laid off from your job, what with the sour economy and all.

And getting fired isn’t much better.

But that’s what happened to me about five weeks ago. I actually got over the ego tweak a few weeks prior when I was told I was being placed on a 30-day probation. That very night, rather than plotting a course to try to save my job, I instead came home, after another unappreciated 11- or 12-hour day, of course, and outlined my next project, a nationwide tour in which I’ll cover the upcoming college football season on the road, an endeavor you can already follow now at http://onegreatseason.com.

OK, back to getting fired. I saw a movie recently in which an actor playing a CIA official told an attorney general who was threatening the CIA guy in some way, something to the effect of, “once we realize that life is finite, it becomes easy to accept everything else.” The guy meant that if something doesn’t work out, it’s OK; life shall continue. Just do something else. It’s up to the outgoing to decide if he wants to go out on his feet or on his knees. Will you play by their rules? Or do you need your own?

Now don’t get me wrong; being let go last month was hardly Hollywood dramatic or even surprising. After six years at Internet Broadcasting and nearly three years at FOX — two successful stretches I’m proud to have under my belt — I just lost the passion to be a news guy. I can admit my share of the blame here, which is to say that I’m entirely responsible for my firing. But let me also offer a piece of advice for big media so it doesn’t lose other talented, enthusiastic, once-passionate journalists.

It’s OK to be friendly. It’s OK to have your act together. It’s OK to be honest. These attributes are things you probably desire in those who work for you. So why would you think you don’t need to return the favor to them? While I can admit it was me who lost the passion, perhaps more supportive superiors could have coached me back in.

I know times are tough. Layoffs are all over the place. Bottom lines boast fewer numbers to the left of the decimal. These facts, however, do not allow you to keep a toxic, negative environment in which the vast majority of your people are unhappy. Think about that for a minute. Let go of your corporate instinct and let that sink in: your people are unhappy. And isn’t happiness what we’re all in search of more than anything else?

Yet many of your people feel guilty just for taking the 15 minutes necessary to venture out for a sandwich with which they’ll promptly return to their desks and work while eating — but surely not enjoying — it.

This plate of sour grapes isn’t addressed to one former employer, but to the industry overall. I’ll never understand how in a communication business there are so many terrible communicators. It has astounded me for 17 years, since I got my first stringing job at a major metro daily and was excited to say hello to a veteran columnist as I passed him in a quiet corridor, and didn’t even get a look back in return.

Now I’m not saying that I’ve found zero happiness in the handful of newsrooms I’ve worked in since 1992. But if you work in news, do me a favor today: ask 10 co-workers if they truly enjoy their jobs, their newsrooms, their supervisors. I’ll endorse my first unemployment check over to you if just one of them says yes to all three.

I’ve enjoyed many of my assignments. Shoot, I’ve enjoyed most of my years. I’ve won a Murrow and a couple of SPJs; I was hoping to get my hands on an Emmy one day. But if it means I have to be “very excited” to ramp up, move forward, peel off, reach out, touch base and circle back before the conference call or the managers’ meeting, forget it. I’ll gladly go back to valet parking cars. I’m totally serious, and I’m totally pushing 40.

Most job ads you see for editorial people include a note like “creativity a must.” That’s a laugh. I’ve attended many morning meetings and watched reporter after reporter bring good ideas to the table and get shot down far more often than not. Long before the tedious gathering, the agenda is already set by someone who’s either never walked the beat or hasn’t in at least 20 years.

Stations say they’re looking for new and creative, but they’re not. Instead, they want the apartment building where a fire was put out an hour ago, but since nothing else is happening, they’ll send the chopper anyway to talk to the one person who was injured so mildly that he’ll give you the all-important exclusive interview right then and there. They’ll call it news, and after the commercial they’ll tell you more about a flap or a controversy or a danger or a Jonas brother.

Certainly I realize nothing’s perfect, but your place of employment, where you spend 40 or 50 or nowadays 60 hours a week, shouldn’t be dysfunctional either. I don’t expect a picnic; that’s why it’s called work. But so many good news people I talk to fully hate going to their jobs. And the fact that most newsrooms aren’t even 60 degrees doesn’t help matters.

There’s been no shortage of talk the last few years of the great changes impacting in the industry. Technology is certainly at the forefront of the new frontier, but what about the other changes? The great managers are those who can do more with less, but in the current climate, where staffs have been gutted and gutted again, is it a legitimate expectation to not only try to maintain the same level of productivity, but to increase it? Having editors write scripts isn’t resourceful; it’s just a good way to turn out bad copy in most cases, and perhaps miss slots. It’s one thing to build a staff of multi-tooled storytellers, but in some cases you just have to be realistic.

Maybe it’s CNN’s fault for starting round-the-clock news two decades ago. Like any TV trend, everybody else — national and even local — played follow the leader. And like any fad, TV or not, we gobble it up, shove it down our customers’ throats, try to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible, then try to stretch it out and fatten our pockets for as long as possible, and then act surprised that blue skies aren’t forever. We flatter ourselves into thinking we’re more important than we really are. Does the makeup-cake reporter really need to tag out of her story with driver-safety tips like “wear your seat belt and obey traffic signals and signs” a couple hours after yourtown’s latest fatal car accident?

At this point, it doesn’t matter who’s to blame. The damage has been done, and while exciting changes in technology hog the ink in the trade pubs, other changes in humans will be just as critical if the industry is to survive.

[Wise has left the news business to pursue a passion project he’s been wanting to pull off since 1994. Visit http://onegreatseason.com to find out what it is.]

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The Ticket to Web Heaven? Use Your Call Letters

WTOC11_LOGOA lot of the fun started seeping out of local television when call letters were foolishly replaced with cookie-cutter network/channel number IDs like ABC7 and NBC5.  For a person who plays a pretty mean game of call letter trivia (wanna know what WIS, WGN, WSB, WTOC and WFTS stand for?  I’m your guy), the perfectly idiotic march away from decades of history that all those call letters represented was depressing indeed.

Now I’ve confessed to my own local television nostalgia, and just the other night over drinks, I bemoaned the loss of the Sears Tower name for that tall building in Chicago.  I hated it when South Florida’s proud Joe Robbie Stadium became the decidedly lame Pro Player Stadium, and, well, you get the idea.

So here’s my message to local television stations trying to dig a deep trench around their turf on the web:  don’t get clever and for Heaven’s sake forget about your network affiliation.

Go old school.  Use your call letters.

As I’ve reported here, lots of companies think there’s money to be made by owning the dominant online news site in any given market.  NBC–being NBC–bought up “NBC(YourTownNameHere)” domains from Presque Isle to San Diego.  But guess what sites do the best in terms of grabbing people’s attention and, more importantly, holding on to it?

WRAL:  Calls as Old as Jesse Helms

WRAL: Calls as Old as Jesse Helms

Sites with call letters and obvious connections to years of covering news in any given town.  Sites like WRAL.com in Raleigh. What affiliate is WRAL? Who cares. Here’s what’s important:  the station’s website dominates all others in Raleigh in terms of minutes spent reading news and, perhaps, checking out those web ads:  the average total minutes spent on wral.com, according to research by Internet Broadcasting was 156 minutes.

By comparison, the minutes spent figure for ABC O&O WPVI in Philadelphia, which uses the domain 6abc.com, was a mere 5.5 minutes.

The numbers don’t hold true for every market–in some places, like Sacramento, kcra.com has a low total minutes figure of 3.4–but by and large, the call letters that have juice seem to translate from television to the internet.

As Arul Sandaram at Internet Broadcasting told me, “While this is clearly just one data point, and much work still needs to be done in getting stations to fully embrace their future as cross platform content/distribution companies, I am hoping you see this data as we do: as a spot of promise for the local TV industry.”

CBS Has Been Nice, But KSL Knows Those Calls Are Their Brand and They OWN THEM.

CBS Has Been Nice, But KSL Knows Those Calls Are Their Brand and They OWN THEM.

It tells me one thing.  Embrace what got you this far, and don’t throw it away.  If you have nearly half a century of equity in an identity, why not use it? WFAA in Dallas does, and they have one of the highest “time spent” figures in the study at 30.7 minutes.

Salt Lake’s KSL has a similarly strong number at 61.8. Both stations, in case you weren’t sure, use their calls as their web ID.  It’s not the magic bullet, but I think it’s a logical step, especially if you’re in a market where the online competition is a newspaper with 100 years of equity in its name.

WFMY:  Bring Back the Dancing Elf Guy!

WFMY: Bring Back the Dancing Elf Guy!

So WFMY in Greensboro, North Carolina?  Here’s my free advice to you.

You went on the air in 1949 as WFMY (trivia challenge: what do the calls mean?). The guys over at WBTV went on the air the same year.  There’s a lot of history there.  And the paper in town, the News and Record (www.news-record.com), has roots to 1890.  So if somebody who lives in Greensboro wants to know what’s up in town, what makes you think they’ll sit down at the computer keyboard and have the impulse to type in www.digtriad.com?

C’mon, people.  If we intend to survive as local news operations, we’ve got to think.

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What’s Next After TV News Reporting? Reality Dating Shows, Of Course

From News to Reality:  Houston's Cynthia Hunt

From News to Reality: Houston's Cynthia Hunt

Hey, I’m no purist.  I’ve got bills to pay.  After I walked away from my Miami reporting gig, as I’ve shared here, I tried a bunch of things to bring home the proverbial bacon.

Just the other day, I found myself back at the anchor desk, which felt familiar, but I was in a warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I was being attacked by zombies.  That was pretty different. (Watch CollegeHumor.com for that one soon)

So I’m hardly one to judge at the news former Houston reporter Cynthia Hunt will be back on the air in Texas this week–as a contestant on the reality dating show “Holidate,” which, according to the Houston Chronicle‘s Lana Berkowitz, is a new show that takes women from different cities and swaps them, letting each test the other’s dating pool for a match.

Hunt, a former KTRK and KPRC reporter, told the Chron “I came to Houston and started reporting at Channel 13, I was the youngest reporter on the air at 25. Now I’m 38! I can’t believe I’m still single.”

In a promo for the SoapNet show, Cynthia is a little more pithy: “There’s been no sex in this city for a while,” she says.

Now from what I’ve learned of dating and marriage via reality television, this is an excellent path to a lasting, loving relationship.  And a paycheck.

Good luck, Cynthia.

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Fairly Useful Demonstration of Bottom Feeding in Local News: The Exclusive and the Porn Star

In the fight of our time in local news, where do you put your effort?  What story or principle drives you to go right up to the line and take a stand?  What’s so important at this pivotal moment in local journalism that getting it done’s–arguably–even worth important than even possibly being wrong?

In Ft. Myers, obviously, the answer:  porn stars.

WINK_320_240_defaultYup.  No momentous battle over outfitting reporters with cameras, or breaking stories online at the expense of the six o’clock news.  No dustup over linking or the shifting world of attribution online.  Certainly no heated debate over cost-cutting, news sharing agreements or grounding choppers.  No, the fight right now in Ft. Myers is over one station’s use of another’s “exclusive” with a porn star, Anabela Mota.

In Ft. Myers–have you been following this story?  It’s way more interesting and visual than health care, and you’ve done that cash-for-clunkers deal to death, right?  Anyway, it’s pretty justifiable since, technically, it’s a political story:  Fort Myers Beach town manager Scott Janke got fired recently after town officials learned his wife, the lovely Ms. Mota, is also known in porn circles as Jazella Moore, whose website includes this biographical tidbit: “I discovered that by approaching sexual pleasure resolved of guilt and fear and with need distilled to shared, creative adventure, the paradox of the Madonna/Whore was broken and with that the power of ecstatic joy could triumph. So I became a priestess of the erotic arts.”

The Interview Stations Went to War Over

The Interview Stations Went to War Over

When the former town manager and his bride appeared on CBS’ The Early Show, it was, of course, high-five time in the newsroom of Ft. Myers CBS station WINK-TV.  But the crew at NBC station WBBH rolled tape on the interview and turned around a clip for their newscasts, citing “fair use.”  [Not to get all capital J journalistic on you, but “fair use” is defined as the use of limited amounts of copyrighted material for the purposes of commentary, criticism and parody, without seeking permission to use said material from the copyright holder]

Didn’t see the WBBH newscast, but perhaps they really were using the porn star interview for the purposes of classic commentary and criticism.  Benefit of the doubt and all.

“It is fair use. Our attorney agrees it was fair use,” Darrel Adams, WBBH news director, told the Ft. Myers News-Press. “It was the first time a major news maker in our market was talking. It’s that cut and dried.”  (Am I nuts, but if I, as a local news reporter, get a major newsmaker to talk for the first time about a big story, isn’t that the essence of an exclusive, and precisely the opposite of a story that other stations have the legal right to cherry-pick just because it’s BIG?)

wbbh-6pm_open_tagAnd you ever notice how–sweeping and unfair generalization here of course–it’s always newspapers sending lawyer to court to fight over access to governmental records and access to courtrooms, while television stations usually only pay the lawyer (or threaten to) when it’s about a piece of tabloid video or a gruesome 911 call involving a family member pleading for help as gunmen storm their home?  What’s up with that?

The “fair use” fight over a fluff interview with a low-level government employee and his priestess of the erotic arts will surely boost local TV’s standing in this regard.

But hey–I’m sure the numbers were up.

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The Local News Business is Changing. Do You Need a Coach?

Google CEO Eric Schmidt:  "Everyone Needs a Coach"

Google CEO Eric Schmidt: "Everyone Needs a Coach"

Full disclosure right up front on this one:  I have a vested interest in coaching.  I draw a salary from the nonprofit Coaching Commons as the site’s Community Supported Journalist, where I report on the coaching industry.  And I offer coaching and consulting to companies and individuals and advertise those services here on LocalNewser.

That said, I saw a short but powerful video this week on Forbes.com: an interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt.  His take?  You, my friend, need a coach.

Watch the interview, and if you agree, head over to CoachReporter, where I’m inviting ideas on getting coaching to all of us, even those of us who have lost news jobs and can’t afford to pay full price for a coach like Eric Schmidt’s got. Maybe there’s another way.

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Dispatch from the Frontlines: Local TV Now Host Michael Bieke

PODCASTLOGOMy wife and I have three dogs, and as a result, I spend a lot of time on dog-walking duty.  It’s hardly a chore for me, as I enjoy taking tours around the neighborhood with the fur team, and listening to a good podcast.

My favorites are the daily news podcasts from UK news sites like The Guardian and the BBC, and NPR shows like Fresh Air. I get my political fix at the end of every week with a collection of roundtable podcasts, and for the next three weeks I’ll be downloading at least two Tour de France podcasts daily.  (Like I said, I spend a lot of time walking the dogs)

Podcasts are also great for staying on top of this fast evolving (or fast collapsing, if that’s your worldview) business of ours.  WNYC does a great job with its weekly On the Media, and Jeff Jarvis hosts a very entertaining talker for the Guardian, Media Talk USA. Add to this list the local news focused Local TV Now, co-hosted by Michael Bieke, who’s found absolutely no shortage of topics to dig into, though perhaps his choice of guests is questionable, with my appearance on this week’s podcast.

DISPATCH FROM THE FRONTLINES:  Michael Bieke, Host, Local TV Now
Three months ago, I came to the realization that, while there are lots of stories about local television in the trade publications, there aren’t a lot of places where conversations about the issues in the industry are taking place.  There are message boards that are often filled with hate (not that there’s not a place for some of that), but very few frank discussions about the local TV business.

That’s why my co-host Doug and I decided to start Local TV Now, a weekly podcast covering the business of television.  We talk about the issues facing broadcasters, but what we’ve always believed is our strength is interviewing and talking to others involved in various aspects of the industry.  In just three months, some of our best interviews have been with a very diverse group of people.  From medical journalism expert Gary Schwitzer who talked with us about the sorry state of health news reporting in television to Todd Jeunger from TiVo who discussed some new ratings options that aren’t from Nielsen, we’ve had some great interviews.  And this week, we add Mark Joyella to the list as we have a very honest conversation about the realities of the business today and how journalists can better prepare themselves for tomorrow.

That all sounded kind of heavy, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.  We have fun doing the show because it’s a topic we’re passionate about, and we hope our listeners are too.

Local TV Now, Episode 13

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How Far Would You Go to Live Your TV Dream? Dispatch from the Frontlines: Brian Andrews

mjackontrial

Brian Andrews: Deciding to Walk Away. Walking Far, Far Away.

As the longtime lead reporter at WSVN in Miami, and later as a correspondent at CBS News and WFOR in Miami, Brian Andrews always seemed to out-hustle the competition and break stories that the other guys missed. He was the guy you knew was going places, as they say.  I remember seeing Brian one day in my newsroom in New York and thinking, “this is the guy we need–he’ll be big in New York.”  But Brian had other plans.

As you’re about to read, Brian took a bold leap that left many in Miami scratching their heads: why walk away from something you’re so good at?  And to leave the country?  Well Brian’s now forging a new path in a new place, and serving as an example for those of us who are thinking: what next?  If you’ve had a crazy dream, this, kids, might be the time to give it a shot.  (And the way to take a dream and make it reality?  Use those reporter’s talents that allowed you to talk your way in for the exclusive interview–and use them to talk your way into a job that, like Brian, maybe nobody’d even planned for.)

 

DISPATCH FROM THE FRONTLINESBrian Andrews, News Director, RCN in English, Columbia

In December of 2007, I quit my job in Miami TV, sold my house, gave away everything I owned, and moved to Colombia to follow my dream of doing news in English in Latin America.  I got out before the collapse of local news.  I was lucky.  I feel like I was able to leave at the top, on my own terms.  I left a month into a new 3 year contract for big money.  CBS didn’t understand my reasons.  They thought I was crazy.  But, they knew my heart was in Colombia, not Miami, and were kind enough to let me go pursue my passions.

Once I got here, it took me about 6 months to get established, but I made it happen.   I pitched RCN, the largest TV network in the country on my idea.   They loved it.   A few months later, Colombia’s News in English was born.  At first, it was just me and a producer. We did everything. We translated, wrote, edited, stacked, sent, processed, converted, uploaded, and posted.  A few months later, after realizing working 7 days a week wasn’t healthy, I got more help.  We expanded to 7 days a week. I hired a weekend anchor and another producer.   And then, it just kept growing.

Brian's Team at RCN

Brian Andrews, left, and his Team at RCN

At the start, we were just one webcast a day.   Then, we grew to two.  Then, we added a third. Next, TV Colombia, our international channel, starting running our shows.  Then, we expanded to Avianca Airlines.   Last month, we revamped the whole operation, built a new website, and started posting single stories, in addition to the webcasts.  We also added weather and sports. We encourage user interaction.  We have people email us their photos for our constantly changing header.  We solicit contributions of stories from people who have the time to produce them and FTP them to us.   We’re doing it all with a staff of 5 and a budget that works out to less than $12,000 a month.   This is the future of news: digitally delivered and made inexpensively.   My staff is very young, hungry, and full of ideas and energy.  We use existing resources to make our product.  We offer the opportunity to anyone in the newsroom who is comfortable speaking English to make pieces for our programs.   We also shoot our own stuff with handheld cameras.

colombianewsFor my team, its not work, it’s our passion.   Plus, we know our project has meaning and impact.  We are showing the world there’s more going on down here than bombs and kidnappings. We are teaching others how to make Miami style TV for the internet.  We are teaching others a new language, a new way of doing things, and a new way of telling stories.   Plus, we are still cutting edge.  Right now, we are the only product of its kind being produced in Latin America.    So, when you want to know what’s happening in Colombia, please check us out at www.colombianews.tv!   In a time when dream jobs in TV news don’t exist anymore… I found mine in Colombia!

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