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The Millennials

-first published in RTDNA Communicator magazine, September 2007

J. J. Murray has a battle on his hands.  It’s a battle of wills and a battle of wits.  And he fights it constantly with every job seeker he encounters as news director at KIMT-TV in Mason City, Iowa.  Murray hires a lot of entry-level talent straight out of college.  Those young journalists are part of the Millennial Generation, and it’s a generation different that Murray has seen in his years in news management and teaching.

“Some on the first week on the job have battled me on what they think is right and wrong, instead of being here to learn,” Murray says.  He tells the story of one reporter who wanted to argue the finer points of copy editing in the middle of Murray’s review.  The reporter put a person’s name before his title.  When Murray told him he preferred to have the title precede the name and that was common style for script writing, the reporter continued to disagree.  “This was the person’s first or second week on the job,” Murray says.  “He wasn’t open to learning.”

While once it was journalists who defined the generations in which we lived, be it the Viet Nam Generation or the Watergate Generation, it now appears the moving force has shifted to the generations themselves as they shape the newsrooms they’ll populate.  The current crop of young twenty-somethings is part of a generation researchers say is unlike any that preceded it. The steadfastness to a learned set of rules Murray has observed is just one element of the differences in this generation that news managers will need to recognize.  Generational researchers say news directors have a lot to learn about what attracts and motivates most of the applicants they will see in the coming decade.

The Millennial Generation is a controversial one—even in its naming.  Trend watchers first referred to it as “Generation Y,” connecting it to its predecessor, Generation X.  Gen Xers—born in the 20 years following the Baby Boom—were characterized as pessimistic, cynical, self-centered individuals with a mistrust of values and authority.  But this new generation—born starting in around 1982—was far from an echo of dark Generation X.  Research pegged Millennials as accepting of authority, craving feedback and constant positive reinforcement.  That 180-degree difference from Gen X—along with a strong objection from Millennials themselves to be named as a follow-up to the previous generation—left researchers struggling for the right label for the group.  Terms such as “Generation Next” and the “Internet Generation” showed up in research and popular media.  But seminal researchers Neil Howe and William Strauss called the group “the Millennials” in 1991 citing its difference from Generation X and its looming impact on the 21st Century.

Howe and Strauss characterized members of this new generation as making an about face on nearly every expectation America had grown to have of its teenagers and young adults.  Surveying the generation in 2000, Howe and Strauss found lower teen pregnancy rates, less violence and gang activity, lower drug use, and higher SAT and other academic test scores.  The researchers said Millennials were avoiding trouble and achieving more because they respected and admired their parents, trusted the government and respected the rules, and were optimistic about the future they would help shape.

Fast forward half a dozen years or so, and the oldest Millennials had graduated from college and entered the workforce.  How would these idealistic high schoolers react to the stress of a full-time job?  Molly Epstein, an associate professor at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta, says the same optimism still pervades the attitude of young, Millennial Generation workers.  Epstein describes the working Millennials as employees who see themselves as special, expecting to get individual attention for the work done in the course of each day.   Credit an older generation of parents for imparting this sense of entitlement to the Millennials.  Often called “helicopter parents” for the way the hover over their children, these Baby Boomer parents focused so much attention on their kids, the children feel special and expect close relationships with elders.

Remember the “Baby on Board” signs?  The Millennials were the tots on the other side of that warning.  Parents sheltered these children, stressing restrictions and boundaries to stay safe and steer clear of trouble.  As a result, Epstein says, Millennials play by the rules and expect those rules and the authority behind them to keep everything in check.  “The Millennial Generation really feels comfortable approaching adults and asking for advice,” says Epstein.  They trust authority figures and expect those in charge will always do what’s right.

Finally, Epstein paints Millennials as a confident bunch.  Their comfort around those older and in authority, coupled with the mentality that they deserve special attention, allows them to ask for help—and expect it.  Millennials are optimistic about their future and the world they’re building, and confident that can achieve much in life.  They expect parents, bosses, and peers to share that optimism and confidence.

That’s what the researchers say about members of the Millennial Generation, but what do they say about themselves?  Those studying journalism in college now and those who’ve just entered the field of broadcast news are members of this group.  Many at least partly accept the labels placed by academics looking to place them among the other generations.  Jordan LaPier is a senior at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.  “The characterizations of the generation are somewhat true.  We were raised to not be personally responsible and to feel entitled,” says LaPier.  “A lot of people my age struggle with.  Those who don’t just don’t realize it yet.  I want to hear form somebody I’m doing a good job.”   But LaPier argues that he is a self-starter—which goes against type for his generation.  After working as a supervisor for the school’s broadcasts, LaPier spent this summer as an on-line reporter at Phoenix’s Arizona Republic newspaper.  “It was exciting for me to take something I don’t know about and start learning about it,” LaPier says.  “I’ve picked up so much of this on my own.”

That confidence, of course, rings true with Epstein’s model of his age group.  But a strong sense of personal worth is often a ticket to disappointment for Millennials.  “I had my expectations way to high,” says Lauren Williamson of her reporter job search.  Williamson graduated from the University of North Texas and began looking for work.  “The pay was lower than I suspected,” she says.  Williamson said a trip to the RTNDA convention in April set her straight on what she could expect to make, as well as where she might earn that paycheck.  “I had worked in Dallas (while in school) and thought I should be able to get into a top 100 market,” Williamson says.  “The convention showed me that was not the way it works, and that it’s good to go smaller.”  She is now a reporter for KRIS-TV in Corpus Christi, Texas and says the station gave her what she wanted—that all-important opportunity for a Millennial to find mentors.  “I wanted good coworkers, not all recent graduates,” she says.  “I needed some role models who I could find to be mentors.”

That need for a close, nurturing relationship with the boss is echoed by Jackie Cutler, a graduate of the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.  “I think, for the first job, I am pretty much looking for an environment that is mentoring—a chance to learn about reporting,” says Cutler.  In fact she found a way to find that sort of feedback-rich environment before she even began her formal job hunt, first earning an Ed Bradley Undergraduate Scholarship from RTNDF in her senior year, and then taking a spot in an NBC News Fellowship program through the summer after her graduation.  For Cutler, that permanent employer will have to earn the right to be her mentor, being “flexible, open minded, and not stuck in their ways.”  Cutler wants an employer who is, “open for the perspective I could bring to the table.  My future boss must be a good resource, have connections, and have lived a life their asking their reporters to live,” she says.

More than just mentors, Millennials crave that security and safety their parents provided them as children.  Rachel Gartner, a master’s graduate of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, says that’s one of her main needs at her first job.  “I’m looking for something that is very secure,” she says.  Gartner says her station needs to have already made the transition to digital to secure a technical future.  And she wants financial stability for the station, too.  “A job where they are secure in the market—known for professionalism,” means a great deal to her.  And that financial security must extend to her salary and benefits.  Says Gartner, “Something that has a good base salary and benefits is important.  I know the salary is gong to range from market to market, but I’m looking for $25,000 starting out.  And health insurance is right up there for me.”

Financial security is often a turning point for many Millennials who are trying to decide if a career in broadcast news can provide everything they want.  For some, like Williamson, the money takes a back seat to the other aspects she needed finding a job.  “Pay was kind of disappointing,” she says.  “I thought that ‘Maybe I don’t want to do the news business.’  I looked at some PR jobs and the pay was about $15000 more than I ended up getting,” she says.  Williamson says she considered an offer from Shell Oil to do corporate communications, but came back to a love for news.  For Angela Smith, a reporter/anchor at “St. Joe Live” in St. Joseph, Missouri, the bottom line played a large role in her decision to stick with news.  “I also had a minor in public relations, so I started to look at a lot of different things,” says Smith.  Living in St. Joseph is relatively cheap, so Smith had to decide if she would relocate for a job.  “I had a job in Kansas City that was offered to me.  It was a marketing and PR job.  Six days a week, 70-80 hours a week.  No extra pay.”  And there would be the expense of moving away from home and renting a place in a big city.  Says Smith, “The cost issue was a big one, too.”

Financial security, strong mentors, a feeling of being someone special—Millennials have brought needs to the job hunt that are new to those who’ve helped place graduates in their first jobs.  Phousavanh Sengsavanh runs the placement efforts at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.  She’s noticed some common traits in many graduates seeking work.  “Students are individuals, of course, but a lot of them have unrealistic expectations.”   Says Sengsavanh, “This generation seems to have a sense of entitlement.  They think that a degree is enough.”  That sense of entitlement, believes Sengsavanh, often leads students to be surprised by the realities of pay and job conditions, as do the secure homes from which they come.  “Higher pay is the real desire the students want.  They are accustomed to having more,’ says Sengsavanh.  She says the graduating broadcast students want a state of the art newsroom with all the latest technological advancements.  When they find stations that lack the most modern tools, it shocks them.   “Some are surprised at how low things are,” says Sengsavanh.  “Some are pretty realistic, they know this is the route, but some can’t believe it’s that way after 20 years.”

With far more than 20 years of news management experience, Dave Vincent says he’s staying positive about the changing nature of people seeking their first job with him at WLOX-TV in Biloxi, Mississippi.  “There are lots of good people out there.  You just have to look,” says Vincent.  His take on the Millennials he’s interviewing is that they have some sense of entitlement, most often exhibited in the belief that a degree in journalism or communications is enough.  “I like to make sure they’ve had an internship or some practical experience,” says Vincent.  “They have degrees, but it’s all theory.  They have not had practical experience.”  He also sees too many who want to anchor first, feeling the right to do right out of school, rather than earning a spot on the desk.

Millennials love for predefined rules and procedures might also, in Vincent’s view, be chipping away at one of a journalist’s most prized traits.  “I don’t see enough people that really are as curious as I would like,” says Vincent.  “I don’t think this generation is as curious as the last couple of generations.”  That lack of curiosity is something Vincent finds hard to teach to his news recruits, as is passion for the profession.  “It’s more a job than a calling.  For my generation, it was something we really aspired to do.”  Vincent says, for many of the folks he interviews now, journalism is “just a job.”  Jill Jensen at KQTV in St. Joseph, Missouri has seen the same trend.  “Newborn broadcasters seem so timid these days and not so curious, as back in my day,” Jensen says.  “I’m closer to fifty than I am to forty, but still seem to have more passion and zest for this job than some of the recruits who come through the door.”

Another long time news director, John Petersen at KOTA-TV in Rapid City, South Dakota has seen that growing need among his Millennial employees to hear how they are doing.  “These kids want instant feedback,” says Petersen.  “They want to know every week.  Which is good.  I try to take the time to do it.”  Petersen says.  His counterpart at WBOY-TV in Clarksburg, West Virginia agrees.  News Director Aaron Williams says he wants coachable employees, and the Millennials are certainly that.  “I think we get a good amount of people that have a lot to learn, know it, and want the coaching,” says Williams.  “I’m surprised.”

As news directors recognize the differences in the next generation, so too, they say, should students and young journalists recognize the weaknesses being a member of that generation brings.  Scott Nichols, news director at WETM-TV in Elmira, New York says there are still a lot of people coming out of college who want each job that’s out there, and the sense of teamwork Millennials feel may not serve them well.  “People in college who are reading this now should look around and see that they are better than the competition.”  Epstein tells us Millennials are often more about group, rather than individual, achievement.  So that spirit of competition may not be terribly strong in them.  Sengsavanh has seen it too in her placement efforts.  “Some students are still a little more casual in their approach to the job search.”  She and many news directors urge them to be more active and aggressive in the source.  And that’s a lesson their teachers can learn as well says News Director Nic Moye of KOHD-TV in Bend, Oregon.  She wants early mentors—college professors—to be honest with the students who’ve given them their trust.  She says the best applicants she’s seen putting together a brand new newsroom are the ones who know where they stand.  Moye says, “Teachers who are brutally honest with students have done them a favor.”  She’s interviewed some applicants after a trusted professor has told the person he or she does not belong on the air.  “I appreciate that honesty,” Moye says.

And for news directors and other managers who’ll have to develop an army of Millennials to staff their newsrooms in the coming decades, honesty is a starting point.  Epstein suggests those managers begin with an honest assessment of their own traits.  Most news managers, she points out, are members of Generation X.  And Gen X and Millennials do not mix very well, so the relationship can be strained at the start.  “There is a real disconnect between the two groups,” Epstein says.  The need to set up mentoring relationships may be one of the hardest differences to bridge.  “Gen Xers do not have a lot of faith in anyone.  So when a Millennial employee comes to a Gen X manager and starts to ask for personal advice, the Gen Xer instantly wonders ‘why would you trust the organization?’” Epstein says.   She says Gen Xers want portable skills independent of their organization, while Millennials want to be part of that organization.  “They crave that sense of loyalty and connection and group,” Epstein says, and the Gen X manager must provide it to help the Millennial succeed.  And even with the potential for conflict, the process can work.  Jim Flink’s day job is as an anchor and reporter at KMBC-TV in Kansas City.  But he moonlights as an instructor at Park University and has witnessed successful relationships between young Millennials and older managers.  He cites Jill Jensen in St. Joseph.  Flink describes a partnership that set up a mentoring system with results.  “Jill was interested and engaged in her interns.  She wasn’t hands-on with them every day, but she made mental notes and passed those on (to me),” Flink says.  “I was able to create a master plan for each student.”   Building that sort of system to mentor Millennials is important, says Epstein—particularly where one may not have existed for the older generation.  Epstein says Gen Xers look at the needs of Millennials and often question the need.  “’No one did it for us’ is often what Gen X managers think,” says Epstein.  “Gen Xers have huge chip on their shoulders.  There is anger.”

Working through the innate conflict between Gen X managers and Millennial employees is important, says Epstein, so that managers can then focus on the basic needs those employees have.  Epstein says managers have three steps to succeed in leading Millennials.  First, set up a system that makes it possible for new Millennial employees to set up a personal relationship with those in authority.  If Millennials feel they can have a meaningful connection with the boss, they will react with zeal for the position.  Second, develop a regular input, feedback, and recognition system that gives new employees daily or weekly ideas on how they are doing.  Epstein suggests station look into the “360 Degree Performance Review” method, which brings all employees into the evaluation process, not just the immediate supervisor.  Finally, Epstein recommends stations develop clear rules and paths, which the Millennials can use to perform daily duties.  The comfort level that have with following the rules and meeting guidelines will help them excel in this sort of rigidly-defined framework.

J. J. Murray has found a way to put that comfort with order and instructions to use in screening his new applicants.  He has a 50 question written test he gives each one before he’ll continue the hiring process.  “Some don’t know the senators in their own home state,” Murray says.  “Some news directors have given up on this.”  But Murray hasn’t.  He says the employees that get past the test and do well in an interview get a very clear message from him regarding what their workload will be and what skills they will have to use on the job.  Once working, they have writing and stories scored on an objective scale.  And they get one more thing that any Millennial would find to be vital.  Murray promises to teach them and mentor them on a job they’ll find challenging.  By doing so, he’s begun to bridge the latest—and perhaps greatest—Generation Gap local newsrooms have ever faced.

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