The Producer Page: July 1999

IN THIS ISSUE...

  • Thinking Inside the Box
  • Young Newshawks
  • A Recent College Grad Asked for Advice on Job Search,
         and Got Some Widely Varying Responses
  • A Subscriber Asked for Advice on Combining Anchoring
         with Producing
  • Special Notice to Recent College Grads
  • Producers on the Move
  • Job Openings
  • About the Newsletter

  • THINKING INSIDE THE BOX
    By Alice Main (AJMain@aol.com) (from Communicator magazine, ©1999)

    A producer I know, when reminded for the twentieth time to "think outside the box," gazed up at the newsroom ceiling and asked, "What's INSIDE the box that everyone's so afraid of?"

    The ceiling, unfortunately, had no answer. Several years have passed since that day, and I still can't help but smile when I hear anyone talk about The Box.

    The Box, it seems, would hold all that is conventional and thus stale. The Box was to be shunned.

    But I wonder. What really is in there?

    I find it stored away in a little-used closet behind the printers in the newsroom. Next to it, typewriters are stacked forlornly, dragged out unwillingly by people who are panicked because the computers have crashed.

    The Box is larger than I expect. I try to tilt it on its side, but it's too heavy. Before I rip off the tape, I inspect the cardboard. Holes have been punched in it, on every side, ringed by dirty fingerprints.

    I stand on a chair to reach the top of The Box. The tape comes off easily, in one piece. I fold back the flaps to find the contents have been packed in crumpled wire copy from the days when the AP and UPI sent reams of paper with giant, smudgy type that an anchor could truly rip and read. Underneath are some videotapes, randomly packed, along with a few loose scripts. A few layers down, I find The Stacker. You know, The Stacker, from endless job postings, the one who "need not apply." He was not surprised to see me.

    "Everyone comes back to The Box eventually," he says with a knowing grin.

    "What do you mean?" I ask.

    "The most important things are in here," he replies confidently.

    (Loser, I think. You'll never get out of The Box.)

    The Stacker is a mind reader.

    "Oh, I leave The Box whenever I like. I made those holes you saw in the cardboard. It's easy to get in and out. But I spend most of my time inside."

    "Why, when you know all the wonders that await you outside The Box?"

    "The real wonders are in here," he answers. "Look at this," he says, holding up a sheet of blue paper. Leaning forward, I see that it's one of the carbon copies of a script. "This is a story about a suspect in a murder investigation. The word 'allegedly' is never used, but somehow, the story still doesn't convict the guy."

    "Yes, but that's so basic," I protest, unimpressed.

    "Is it really? Here," he says, brandishing a videotape, "is a newscast in which all the murders, shootings and car crashes are not lumped together in one endless parade of death stories."

    I climb into The Box so we can speak face to face. "I am not surprised that you can stack a show," I say. "You are, after all, The Stacker."

    "Stacking is underrated as a producing skill," says The Stacker. "It is thought that one can be taught to stack a show in one week of a producing class. But it is an evolving skill, one that must ebb and flow with each day's news load."

    "Uh-huh." I'm unconvinced.

    The Stacker rummages in the wire copy at his knees and plucks out another videotape. "Here's a newscast in which the last story in the first block was really sad, but the anchors didn't have to move right into a tease on a water-skiing squirrel. And how about this story, on a meeting at City Hall?"

    "What's so great about that?" I ask, incredulous.

    "No meeting video," he says.

    "Okay, I'm listening."

    The Stacker picks up another tape. "The reporter in this story used audio from his subjects to tell the story and ended up with almost no track at all."

    I am bewildered. "What is this stuff doing inside The Box? I thought those things were outside The Box."

    He smiles broadly. "The Box is bigger now. What was outside The Box just a few years ago is inside now."

    I nod slowly.

    "So you appreciate what is good. But you're still a stacker," I reply. "And that's just not enough. A Producer has to be a Writer, Juggler, Manager, Promoter, Coach, Idea Factory and Amateur Graphic Designer. And a Journalist, of course. A Stacker just takes the day's news and assembles it."

    The Stacker is visibly shaken. His mouth hangs open for a few seconds. Then he closes it into a hard, thin line, clenches his jaw and narrows his eyes. "I am one of the people who comes up with good story ideas at the editorial meeting. I watch the competition and read newspapers. My stories are clear and concise. I develop compelling opens to all my newscasts. I write great teases that don't give everything away. I talk to my reporters during the day to make sure I know how their stories are coming together. I discuss unusual parts of the newscasts with my anchors ahead of time, so they're not taken by surprise. And I parcel out pieces of a story to my anchors, so they do more than just read intros and tags."

    "If you do all those things, then why are you known as The Stacker?"

    "Because I refuse to forget the fundamentals. As I said, I leave The Box often enough. I do it when I am faced with a mundane story and would like to find a new way to tell it. Or when I have a story with absolutely no video and need a creative solution. But the basics of storytelling can still be found here, inside The Box."

    Silently, we regard one another.

    "It sounds to me like you're a Producer, not just a Stacker."

    "Thank you," he chokes. "No one's ever said that to me before."

    We shake hands and I hoist myself out. I drag the box out into the middle of the newsroom. And I leave it open, so that everyone can climb in, nose around and meet The Producer.

    (Reprinted with permission.)


    YOUNG NEWSHAWKS IN TELEVISION, JOURNALISTS WITH LESS EXPERIENCE BENEFIT FROM HIGH DEMAND
    By Tim Feran, TV-Radio Critic (from Columbus Dispatch: June 22, 1999)

    Ohio News Network meteorologist Eric Elwell, standing, compares notes with prime-time producer Ryan Griffin, a fellow 26-year-old.

    Life ends at age 30, or so a visitor to many TV newsrooms might think.

    Because of the proliferation of news channels on cable and the expansion of newsrooms in many markets, jobs have rarely seemed more plentiful -- especially for broadcast journalists in their 20s.

    John Sprugel, news director at Ohio News Network, called the glut of industry openings and the demand to fill them "unbelievable."

    Tom Griesdorn, general manager of WBNS-TV (Channel 10), concurred, noting that CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Lifetime and Fox have drawn away many experienced employees.

    "That's how they've gone about building their reputations and their shops," he said. "What that has done is allow for a more rapid migration" of younger TV journalists.

    The advantages are obvious, according to Mike McCormick, assistant news director at Channel 10:

    "There's a real chance to get ahead, and it's pushed salaries up a bit."

    The work force in TV newsrooms has expanded by almost 40 percent from 1990 to '99, according to University of Missouri estimates.

    Researcher Vernon Stone suggests merely the illusion of a younger work force.

    "We're all getting older," he said.

    On the other hand, Robert Papper, a telecommunications professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., does indeed see newsrooms becoming younger.

    Papper is familiar with Columbus, having once worked as a newsroom manager at WSYX (Channel 6), and he is surprised at the number of relatively inexperienced reporters.

    "There are a lot of young people with only one or two years of experience," he said. "It used to be you didn't get to Columbus unless you had five to seven years of experience."

    One who doesn't seem ahead of her time is Shannon Harris, who, as executive producer at WCMH-TV (Channel 4), oversees all newscasts.

    Coy about her age, she acknowledges being in her 20s -- and slyly adds that she doesn't want her staff to know how soon she'll reach her 30s and how long ago she left her teen years.

    Her age doesn't matter to Stan Sanders, Channel 4 news director.

    "I've never looked at her as a talented young person but as a talented producer," he said.

    News operations around the country have made no secret of their desire to employ Harris, but she might not be hired away easily.

    "I really like Columbus," she said. "A lot of people come here and want to go to New York, but I've never wanted to do that.

    "If you get much smaller, there's not as much to do or to cover. But I don't know that I'd want to do news in a much larger market. I think there's a lot more ambulance-chasing and sensationalism in the bigger markets. I'm a big fan of local news."

    Success stories like hers encourage some veterans in the industry, but the lack of experience nationwide has others worried.

    "The fact is, the major criterion for being a TV news producer today is the ability to breathe on your own," Papper said. "One of the critical things you need to add is producers, and that's not what a lot of kids coming out of school want to do."

    Sprugel of ONN remembers a mid-20s reporter in Peoria, Ill., who moved up—first to West Palm Beach, Fla., then to Miami six months later—before Sprugel thought he had the talent.

    "I said to myself, `What is wrong?' The writing skills were not there to be at that level."

    "It does seem you don't spend much time in one place," said Eric Elwell, who at 26 serves as chief meteorologist at ONN.

    He moved to Columbus, the 34th-largest market, from No. 65 Wichita, Kan.

    Shannon Harris, executive producer of news at WCMH-TV (Channel 4) and one of a wave of 20-something employees in TV news

    Economic factors, Elwell thinks, have helped fuel the youth movement in broadcast journalism: Managers think "they can hire younger for cheaper. That's why I think we've seen so many younger people, especially in larger markets."

    In a city the size of Columbus, keeping good employees is tough, said Bill Berra, Channel 6 news director.

    "I've found markets divide into three areas -- smaller ones where, as soon as people hit the door, they're trying to get somewhere else; then the middle-size markets, where the pay is OK, the living is good and some people would like to stay but some land there as a steppingstone. Then there are the big markets, where people say, `You've made it,' and you make enough to live very nicely and really don't want to go anywhere else.

    "I'd put Columbus in the middle."

    "A lot of young people come here," said Ryan Griffin, 26-year-old producer of Primetime Ohio on ONN, "and maybe they're not 100 percent sure if this is what they want to do. They find out real fast this is not for them and move on -- which leaves a lot more openings."

    The quality of life in Columbus, some folks have said, helps insulate the market from the revolving-door syndrome.

    The longtime competition among Columbus stations also prevents turnover, Griesdorn said, because it forces every station to hire wisely.

    Nevertheless, McCormick said, filling behind-the-scenes jobs is difficult.

    "It used to be you didn't have to go out and find people. They'd show up on your doorstep," he said. "Now you look at other markets; you keep your contacts up-to-date.

    "It's tougher to find people. But we've been very lucky. . . . We take our time to hire people. This is the first station I've worked at where we didn't have to just fill a position with a body."

    Griesdorn, a general manager who has witnessed the downside of the revolving door, sees an upside to the influx of young people.

    At one time, he said, the technology was changing every decade.

    "Now it changes every hour. . . . The younger producers, writers, directors, reporters, technicians `get it.' That's their world. They've known nothing other than this techno-rapid world."

    Yet the fundamentals of news reporting include developing sources to call about breaking stories -- and determining which sources are authoritative and which are apt to offer only spin control.

    Given the fast pace of TV news, younger reporters can find themselves at a disadvantage.

    "These aren't evil people, and they aren't stupid people," Papper said. "They simply don't have enough experience to be left on their own."

    Modern broadcast journalism is "a whole different world," Griesdorn said. "It's going to present quite the challenge for us managers to maintain a good, diverse work force that doesn't become too young too quickly."

    (Reprinted with permission.)


    A RECENT COLLEGE GRAD ASKED FOR ADVICE ON
    JOB SEARCH, AND GOT SOME WIDELY VARYING
    RESPONSES
    Compiled by Alice Main (AJMain@aol.com)

    RESPONSE #1

    I agree with the advice to move to DC if that's where you want to work. I suggest you find out who you want to work for ie news director, program director, sports director, etc. and send them a letter. Tell them you are moving to the area and are exploring the opportunities there. Tell them why you would be a good candidate for positions down the road. Ask if you can set up an interview to meet them. Do not ask for a job. Just try to get an informational interview. Tell them you will follow up in about a week with a phone call. I have found this works most of the time. If someone won't answer your call after you've taken time to write a letter, you don't want to work for them. Even if they don't have any jobs, most people will pick up the phone after that kind of effort. Be professionally persistent about getting them on the phone. If you make a good impression and stay in touch they will remember you for positions you are qualified for when they become available.

    Good luck.
    Vicky Collins

    RESPONSE #2

    First, you're not going to get a job through a telephone call. The only way you're going to get a job is if

    1) there's a real opening, and 2) you fit the bill.

    News directors don't have time to call back people who are fishing for an opening. You say you have contacts at these stations. Call them every few weeks to find out if there's something open. When something is open, that's the time to send a resume.

    Second, I appreciate how hard you have worked, but tell me what you can DO. Can you write broadcast copy? Edit videotape? Be trusted to get court records? Are you reading every newspaper out there every day so that you can walk in there with a good grasp of the issues? Are you working hard to make sure you're better than everyone else? The practical skills are what's going to set you apart. The degree will not.

    Third, what are you doing NOW to help your career? Just because it's not in Washington, DC doesn't mean it's not worth doing. Are you trying to get a part-time job writing copy? Another internship? Are you so focused on DC that you're missing out on opportunities elsewhere?

    Fourth, if you move to DC, you run the risk of being out of work and, in turn, not getting the experience you need to show someone you can do the job.Yes, it's easier in many ways to get a job when you live in the area, because it means you can start right away. But it doesn't help if you can't do the job. I've watched plenty of local folks be interviewed for jobs and not get them because they lack the experience.

    Fifth, understand you're trying to break into a very large, very popular market. There are a lot of people who work years to be in Washington. They will beat you hands down for any job. Also understand that there is not a lot of newsroom expansion going on right now in big markets. In fact, some networks have hiring freezes right now, which are affecting whether the big markets can even hire someone.

    It's tough even for the best of them to break into TV. I, too, tried out of college to break into a Top 10 market and wasn't successful, not because I wasn't good, but because I had to get out there and prove myself. I eventually broke into a Top 30 market at the way, way bottom. It worked.

    You've got some of the groundwork already. You have contacts in the area. You know people at these stations. Now you have to show them what you can do. I would suggest getting to a nearby small market and keeping in touch with your DC friends. It's much better for you if they can tell their boss, "I have a friend who's really doing good work at W---, talk to her about your opening," instead of, "I have this friend who just graduated college." Remember, it's about what you can prove, not about how hard you'll say you work.

    Job hunting is tough on the soul. Keep the faith, and you'll make it.
    Name Withheld

    RESPONSE #3

    The reason it will be easier for you to find a job if you live in the market is not because of the cost of long distance phone calls. It's the cost of moving expenses. If a station can save the money of moving you from across the country to their market they will. I've seen too many jobs filled with not as qualified individuals because they live in town. You would think it ridiculous that stations with huge operating budgets would be so cheap when it comes to hiring qualified people, but that's the case. I've seen it happen. And yet many stations cap their moving expenses to new hires at 5 to 7 hundred dollars.

    Name Withheld

    RESPONSE #4

    This response is not just for this particular person looking for their first job in DC, it's for anyone who thinks they can, and should get their first job in a top 5 (dare I say top 10?) market. First of all, let me start out by saying my first job was in Cincinnati (Market 29 at the time), and I thought that was a pretty large market in which to begin my career. I felt extremely lucky to go from "intern" at two top stations in New York City to assistant assignment editor in Cincy. As far as any top market goes, however, why should a newsroom hire someone who has just graduated from college? Your first job post-school should be in a market where the employees are patient and willing to teach. You should also be working somewhere that encourages young employees to learn all they can so they can advance within the newsroom. For example, in Cincinnati, as I graduated to producer at another station in town, I watched many talented entry-level production assistants advance to newswriters, assignment editors, and even producers. Conversely, where I work now in Los Angeles, our entry-level "Editorial Assistants," whose abilities are incredibly important to the newsroom and our product as a whole, are told time and again that they should go to a SMALLER MARKET if they want to advance. On an extremely rare occasion, we have promoted EA's to work overnights on the assignment desk, and even (eventually) to newswriter or producer. But there is a payoff: While I graduated college and moved within 3 markets over 5 years (from Cincinnati to San Diego to Los Angeles) to become a producer here in LA, a colleague of mine spent 6 years at the same LA station, moving from EA, to assignment editor, to his current position of news writer/fill in producer. While I have now been producing for 4 years, he is just learning how to craft a newscast. And producing in market #2 is A LOT different from producing in a smaller market! Anyone who really wants to produce should, at some point, work in a medium-sized market where she'll be responsible for writing copy, teases, and working CLOSELY with assignment editors and reporters. When I spoke to the graduating class at my alma mater in NYC last year, I tried to encourage the graduates to get out of New York, deal with the terrible pay of a small market for a year or two, and then continue to move up the ranks to larger markets. The experience I gained in Cincinnati and San Diego have been monumental in helping me become a better producer today.

    Robin Radin

    RESPONSE #5

    The post graduation job search is never easy. I graduated in 1997 and found that my internships and connections were what got me a job right away. I spent a year and a half at a 24-hour cable news station as a writer and producer. Cable stations are a great way to go because you can start out in an entry level job, often in a big city with larger affiliate stations nearby. I'm now at a large-market station as a writer and am currently training as a producer.

    My advice... talk to everyone you met during your internships. Tell them what you want to do and see if they have any connections you can talk to. The more you network and get your name out there, the better your chances. Utilize the internet... there are several job listings that you can check. (tvspy.com, tvjobs.com, talentdynamics.com, etc.) Subscribe to shoptalk. Try to set up a hands-on internetship for the summer. In Yakima, Washington, there's a station (KNDO NBC 23) that throws its interns into the mix... they report, the produce and sometimes even anchor. It's a great program and when you leave you have the hands-on experience to find a job.

    Talk with smaller markets in your area. But if you don't mind moving check into the 24-hour cable stations. NorthWest Cable News is in Seattle (currently looking for writers), Texas Cable News is in Dallas and I believe there are several on the east coast as well, but I'm not sure.

    The Unity conference is also being held in Seattle in July. It's a great opportunity for women and minorities to meet people in the business and network. I believe it begins on July 10... but if you go to the RTNDF website you can find out more.

    Good luck in your search.

    RESPONSE #6

    it's great to have contacts, and obviusly you have some experience, but i guess my question is "are you ready for D.C.?" who exactly are you trying to reach when you are calling these stations? in my experience, it's the news director you want to talk to, not the HR director. sure the HR director will handle your paper work once your hired, but they probably aren't going to be able to set up an interview for you in the news department! try not looking for the top dog right away. call a station and ask for a producer or executive producer, or a reporter. Find out from them who the news director is, and when the best time to reach that person is. the news director probably has an administrative assistant who could tell you as much. any of these people might also know if there are any positions open. don't give up... my undergraduate major was print journalism, and i managed to jump into the biz without so much as a tv internship under my belt. call and keep looking for people who can answer your questions... keep asking to be transferred to someone else.

    good luck...
    Sydney Gohring
    11AM news producer
    WTMJ-4 milwaukee

    RESPONSE #7

    Hello! When I read your letter, I felt your pain deeply. Believe me, it's not easy to get that first job. They always told me while I interned, don't worry, everyone needs Producers....I waited tables for two years after college before I got a break. Here's my advice. Stick around your internship. Make youself indispensible. Go to RTNDA. Meet other people in the business. You can also hang around other stations, in your market, if they need writers or something - sign up! The bottom line, it won't come to you. Use your enthusiasm to get known! I got my first job when I went to RTNDA and a ND offered the friend I went with the job. She turned it down - I got it. From the first job, it becomes easy.

    I may have contects for you...please email me at balmerchick@yahoo.com if you'd like to chat!

    Producing in Baltimore, MD now


    A SUBSCRIBER ASKED FOR ADVICE ON
    COMBINING ANCHORING WITH PRODUCING
    Compiled by Alice Main (AJMain@aol.com)

    RESPONSE #1

    Don't separate the two jobs- anchoring from producing and vice versa. You even said producing makes you a better reporter, better anchor, etc. I did the same thing many years ago in a small market. You're doing the right thing. Keep doing it until you decide to move on to a bigger market with a more specific job. But don't ever forget where you came from!

    Name Withheld

    RESPONSE #2

    Wish there was good advice on handling both jobs (I've been at it for about the same amount of time)... but I've found that you have to really work with your reporter(s), and your director... they've become my eyes and ears. We have one weekend reporter, and she really hustles the beats, and even pitches in to write when needed... and my director is great at keeping time, dropping things on the fly (nothing like scribbling notes halfway into sports that say "KICKER TEASE DEAD" when we're heavy!)... and getting us out on time. Luckily, there are 2 of us... I produce the 6pm show, my co-anchor produces 11pm... but I'd say sometimes you've gotta realize there's only so much you can do... I hate to say it, but "solid, uninspired producing" often must win out over bad anchoring... because EVERYONE sees that!

    Looking forward to other comments!

    John Myers Anchor/Producer
    KSBY-TV San Luis Obispo/Santa Barbara, CA


    PRODUCERS ON THE MOVE

    Sydney Gohring has been named the producer of the 11AM news at Today's TMJ-4, the NBC affiliate in Milwaukee. Sydney was previously an A/P / Producer at KWQC-TV in the Quad Cities, IA/IL. She is also completeing a master's degree at Marquette University.

    JJ Murray, Producer at KSTP TV (ABC) in St. Paul, MN is leaving to become Executive Producer at KMSP TV (UPN) in Minneapolis, MN. JJ will oversee KMSP TV's new start-up morning show.


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    ABOUT THE PRODUCER NEWSLETTER

    The Producer Newsletter is a free publication for TV news producers worldwide, edited by Alice Main, executive producer at WLS-TV in Chicago. All opinions expressed by me in the newsletter are mine alone, and aren't meant to represent the views of ABC or Disney. The newsletter has been around since 1995, and now back issues have been compiled into book form on the internet (www.scripps.ohiou.edu/producer/thebook) thanks to Professor Robert Stewart of Ohio University's EW Scripps School of Journalism. Subscription information is also available online. All submissions should be sent to AJMain@aol.com.