Announcing/On Being a Broadcast Journalist

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This chapter is written by Ashlie Hardway, one of my former students who is now employed at w:KGNS, a television station in Laredo, Texas. I asked her to share some of her experiences in the business of television news. If you are thinking about a career in broadcast news, I think you'll find her comments helpful.

Newscasting is an art like any other; one that must be creatively spewed out, torn apart and hashed back together to create something your news director doesn't hate. It seems like a potentially harmless and exciting craft when you're in college or at an internship, but newscasting is not for the light at heart.

The first step to becoming a newscaster, reporter, producer, etc. is to do a good job in college. Point blank: there are literally thousands of other college graduates who want the same $18,000 a year one-man band job in Wyoming that you want, so you'd better have something about you that sticks out. When college professors and guest speakers tell you to get involved, they mean it. The people I work with at my small market are not necessarily the cream of the crop, and most of them have had at least one internship at a large market.

So anyway, make sure you give your college newspaper/radio station/TV. station a shot. And definitely, absolutely do an internship. It's the only way to ensure that journalism is what you want to do. I have known tons of people who work so hard to get into the field and then leave to go into PR or sales because journalism isn't what they want. So find out early.

Alright, so you've been involved on campus and you did an internship. You are sure that broadcast journalism is for you. Congratulations. Welcome to the world of no money, long hours and a crazy work environment. I'm serious. Everyone thinks the newscaster has the best job, and he/she does, but the starting years are really, really hard. I mean I started making well under $20,000, which costs just over one year of college. Yeah, it's poverty, but it's the price you pay to do what you love.

So now let's talk hours. I wake up every day at 2:30 a.m. to be at work by 3:30 a.m. I produce the morning and noon news, report for the 6, do weather for the noon and fill-in at the desk. And I've been here for six weeks. While I have many duties and a lot is expected of me, it is a great job. I could not imagine working anywhere else for any amount of money because this is what I love to do. I just did a package on a cancer patient waiting for a bone marrow donation. I also had sound with a man who donated and saved a little boy's life. In what other job do you get to meet so many people with so many stories to get the public involved? It is unbelievable.

I know I was cynical in the beginning here, and I did it for a reason; most people think newscasters have an easy peasy job and don't know anything. It's not true. Yeah, when you get to the network or top 25 levels, your duties are slim. Most of the time if you're an anchor you just show up and check your MySpace until show time since you have producers and editors to put the entire show together. But the years leading up to your seat at the big desk in New York or Chicago or Philadelphia were probably grueling and thankless. It is my biased opinion that newscasters and reporter put up with more crap and rejection that 90% of the other occupations. Medical, business and most other professions seem pretty cut and dry; you both are qualified for the job and interviewed well or you didn't. Broadcast news is so much more than that. I always felt like when I never heard back from the 29 stations I sent tapes to that they were telling me "you don't have what I want. Your look is wrong, your delivery is wrong, and I have 1,000 other options better than you." It seems harsh but it felt true. A resume tape is you; raw, totally you. It is your blood, sweat and tears and 120 plus college hours plus whatever extra-curriculars you did summed up into one, stupid, five-minute VHS tape with homemade labels. I always felt that when a news director didn't call you that it was their way of saying "who you are sucks and I don't even care enough to interview you." Then maybe, MAYBE if you were lucky did you get a rejection letter five months after you sent the tape saying the station "is going in another direction at this time but will hold onto your tape for future openings" that you never heard about.

Waiting for that first job gives you a thick skin real quick. It teaches you patience, which is crucial in this business and to chalk it up, also crucial. It is tiring and disappointing and lonely waiting for that first job. In fact every time I went to the post office to mail my packets, the same lady waited on me and told me that she hoped I would find a job soon. And week after week she kept saying the same thing. I searched for all of my jobs on www.tvjobs.com, which is a subscription-based search engine that displays every television job posted every day. It breaks them down into ridiculous categories. It is amazingly helpful. I was sending tapes from my hometown in Pittsburgh to Nevada, Washington state, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Wyoming and everywhere in between just to get a bite.

Once you send out your tapes you have two options: call to follow-up or wait for them to call you. My advice? Call them. They are not going to call you. Even if they really like you and put you in their save pile, they are probably not going to call. Why? Because they more than likely have five newscasts, a staff of at least 20 people, overtime, libel, and 100 other issues to worry about. I always, always called to follow up. Even if the ad for the job said ABSOLUTELY NO PHONE CALLS! I always called. I had to set myself apart from everyone else. I had to get my name out there and show that I was aggressive. Why? Because reporters have to be aggressive. The only reason I got my first job was because I called and got my name out there. It is a good thing I did because the news director lost my resume but liked my tape. Had I not of called, I might still be waiting tables.

Another reason I got my first job is because I volunteered to take on a job I didn’t necessarily want just to get into the station. The station had already hired a reporter when I called but they liked me a lot. They said they would hang onto my tape for the next opening, but I was not going to let them get away. The news director said they had a morning show producer position open until something else popped up and I took it. I knew that if I did not take what I could get then it could be months before something else opened up. Plus I figured if I knew how to produce then it would make me a more valuable employee. And I was right. Six weeks later I am still not on the air full-time but I get to do a little bit of everything. I know that when a position finally does open up because the talented reporters and anchors at my station will go somewhere bigger that I will move into whatever position is open after everyone gets moved around. But you have to be flexible and eager to move around and help out to show your colleagues that you are valuable and determined.

Broadcast news is the best job in the world; at least I think so. A photographer I worked with at my internship in Pittsburgh gave me loads of good advice, but one thing that stuck out was this: “you can’t screw up in this job.” And he was basically right. Reporters and anchors have the easiest, most fun jobs. It is stressful at times when you are doing a live shot or on deadline, but if you think about it, it is ridiculous that we even get paid to do what we do. We tell stories. And we are on television telling stories. If I could offer you some advice to go along with that photographer’s advice it would be this: Be honest, be real, be timely and you can’t screw up in this job. As long as you tell the facts while giving a story the attention it deserves, you truly cannot mess up in this field. It is when people lie or twist words or give a story and angle that isn’t there that people get into trouble. As long as you are truthful and honest with your viewers, you cannot mess up.

Another piece of advice that Marc Zumoff, announcer for the 76ers and broadcast veteran, gave me is don’t be a talking head. He was right. Get out there and be a journalist. Get stories. Enterprise your own ideas. Roll up your sleeves and ask the hard questions to your mayor or city council president. Do not be afraid to ask anyone anything, whether it will make them mad or make them cry. It is your job to deliver the news to people, not decide who hears what. Do not strive to be an anchor sitting at a desk your whole life because then you will never know what it is like to be a reporter and actually be in the news. I remember at my internship on my first day in the #23 market I told the chief photographer and veteran reporter “I wanted to be an anchor!” Needless to say I never felt that way again. They instilled in me that I should hit the ground running to become a journalist; that settling at the desk my whole life was not going to make me a journalist but more a station figure. Then maybe, maybe someday if you have the look, all of your hard work will pay off when you get the six-figure paycheck to sit at the desk, but only after you understand what it means to spend your life uncovering news. I was lucky enough to work with real, honest journalists, both in Pittsburgh and here in Laredo, and I would hope the same for any of you.