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Tiers for Fears

-first posted at RTDNA.org on March 23, 2010

I’ve spent the past few days helping judge the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors awards here in Columbia.  The awards honor the best in investigative reporting for print, web, broadcast and more.  To get this job done, a team of five of us from all media have been slugging through the entries to pick the winner.  The other broadcaster on the team is one of the all-time great TV investigative reporters—Lea Thompson.  Over her years at WRC-TV in Washington, NBC News, and Dateline NBC, she has done more investigations that have affected your life than you probably know.  From asbestos-filled hair dryers to dangerous DPT shots, she’s looked out for all of us with her reporting time and time again.

Sitting with Lea and the rest of the judges, we’ve seen the work of other current TV investigative reporting greats—all at the local level.  Whether it’s Tony Kovaleski in Denver, Mark Greenblatt in Houston, Byron Harris in Dallas, Bob Segall in Indianapolis, or dozens of others, these reporters are looking out for us in our own communities all the time.  They are, when you think about it, one of the best things about local TV news.  And in all this economic turmoil we’ve been through for the past 18 months, all of this fear about the future we’ve been facing, they’re something more.  They are anchors in a much truer sense of the word that the people who read our intros every night.  They are anchors around which we can build a new structure that will make TV news indispensible to our viewers.

The plan I’ll suggest here is something I’ve been mentioning in interviews and casual conversations since before I was elected RTDNA chairman.  I believe it’s a way to stop fighting the inevitable economic changes that will continue in our newsrooms and instead, hop aboard that wave of change to ride it to a better place.  We can take control of our newsroom destinies now if we realize what we can’t change and stop worrying about that, and instead shift our focus toward the areas where we still have control.  One of those areas is how we spend our limited resources.  I’m suggesting we set up a system of tiers in our newsrooms that focuses our hiring resources toward a top tier of specialists who can differentiate what we do from the competition.  Investigative reporters are one type of specialist we can hire.  But before I get to the others, let’s talk about the tiers in general.

TV newsrooms have really been mostly a pool activity for as long as they’ve been around.  Unlike the beat system that defines most newspaper newsrooms, we’ve been a system of generalists.  There are a finite number of newscasts to do each day (now add in web and mobile stories) and we all pitch in to get them done.  Sure, specialties have existed—including investigative reporting—but they’ve often been seen as luxuries we set off to the side to do when we can afford it.  Well, I’m making the argument now we can’t afford NOT to have these specialties.  They must be part of a tier—the top tier—of what we do in the newsroom.   Below that, another tier for those crews who’ll cover breaking news and continuing stories.  And below that again, the final tier would serve the producers with boilerplate content.

Let’s start at the bottom and define that a bit more.  The simplest stories we do each day are the ones that everyone does—the United Way news conference, the accident on the interstate in rush hour, the news release from the mayor’s office.  These stories do not need specialists.  They need a camera and a mic and a warm body to take notes.  I often tell my folks who go to these that they come back as recorders, not reporters, since they’re just regurgitating some basic W’s.  In some of the larger markets, this work has been pushed off to a local news service, an LNS, that produces the exact same work for all the stations who are members.  It’s natural to bristle a bit at the suggestion that you use the same video and information as your competitors.  But isn’t that pretty much what we do already?  Viewers at home can’t tell that your camera was two feet to the left of Brand X’s camera at that news conference.  It looks the same to them, so why use up valuable resources to shoot two different versions?  At this generalist level, the skills needed are quite minimal.  So the beauty here—the benefit that helps large markets the most—is that these can be entry-level jobs regardless of market size.  Kids right out of college can do this job in New York City.  And they’ll do it for dirt-cheap wages.

Now let’s look at the next tier up. I’m going to coin a new label here and call them “middle-lists”—halfway between generalists and specialists.  These folks tackle the stories between the run of the mill stuff the generalists do and what you need the specialists to shine on.  I’m thinking our best approach here is to make this tier where your breaking news team lives.  You can still use fairly young people for this (after all, they run faster), but now you’re looking for some more specific skills—great live performers, fast at thinking on their feet, aggressive with sources, that sort of thing.  Once again, these can be people new to your newsroom or new to the business—no need to work up the ladder for a long time anymore.  Suddenly, that’s a new benefit.  It means New York can hire New Yorkers, Seattle can hire Seattleites, and so on.  That satisfies the need Millennials have to work in their hometowns, and that serves newsrooms better as the live reporters won’t mispronounce the place names so much.

So I see the generalists and the middleists pretty much coming out of college to take these jobs.  They’ll be cheap and plentiful, keeping the price down and working for the thrill of it.  That (particularly if the generalists are pooled through LNS operations), will keep personnel costs much cheaper.  And that will free up money for two things—satisfying the owners’ need for profits, and really hiring the best specialists for the job.

Now, I mentioned before that the specialists would be, for instance, your investigative reporters.  I do believe every station needs one and should spend the money on getting a very good one (or team actually).  Who might the other specialists be?  That would depend on your market.  Let’s go back to those cities I mentioned before.  Seattle would probably want an aviation specialist. New York might want a labor specialist.  We’d need a tourism specialist in Miami, an environmental specialist in Denver, an immigration specialist in Tucson, and so on.  Each station could hire as many specialists as it thought it needed (and could find budget for).  And they’d be great reporters.  The extra pay would mean news directors would look through the ranks of generalists and middleists at their stations and others to find the people to promote.  That’s an incentive for those lower tiers to work hard to move up.  Those good enough to do so would.  Those not good enough would get tired of the low pay and get out of the business, making room for potentially better people to take their spots.  Darwin would be proud.

This system doesn’t change producing or assignments or newsroom management as a whole—though some of that certainly needs changing, too.  But it does smart-size your most important news gatherers and gives them a reason to work hard in order to grow.  It rewards our best reporters with jobs where they can sink their teeth into something more satisfying than a vo on a fire downtown, keeping them around longer and rewarding them monetarily and culturally for a job done well.

It does make me wonder, as we wrap up our IRE judging, how many more entries we’d have in this contest, the Murrows, and all the others, if we had a system that turned out specialists at the rate of which we’re capable.  I think it would be a pretty long weekend of judging.  But I wouldn’t complain at all.

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