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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What TV News Can Learn from “Lost”

-first posted at RTDNA.org on May 25, 2010

Don’t fear TV news professionals, this will not be a long rant about the last episode of Lost, what the numbers “4 8 15 15 23 42” meant, or whether Ben Linus is really an on-the-beach news director (though he does seem to have the right personality for it).  But in the wake of the series finale, I did want to muse a bit over television success and what we can all learn from J.J. Abrams and his cohorts about how to make our medium shine.

As you probably can tell from that opening paragraph, I’ve been a fan of Lost for its entire six-year run.  Sure, it’s stumbled from time to time.  But in the end, its 120 episodes continued to engage us week after week, bringing us back for fear we’d miss something unforgettable.  I don’t know about you, but I want my newscasts to do the same for my viewers.  To that end, I’ve analyzed the success of Lost and have these elements that we all can use to make our newscasts just as enthralling.

First and foremost, Lost continued to surprise us.  The show meandered down a path that did lead, more or less, to its conclusion.  But oh, what a trip it was to get there.  No one watching the first episode could have predicted what was coming in the second, much less seasons later.  Part of what brought viewers back week after week was the unpredictability of the show.  It was magnetic.  Now think of your newscasts.  How predictable are they?  “Well,” you might say, “they change all the time, depending on the news.”  Do they?  Or is it the same litany of crimes, news conferences, and politicians, all processed and delivered the same way?  I’m not saying we should never cover any of subjects listed above, but should we cover them as much as we do?  I’ve been outspoken when it comes to finding resources to put toward more enterprise reporting in our newsrooms, and surely Lost tells us that viewers like to be surprised.

Beyond surprises, Lost had great characters.  I personally see Ben as perhaps the best TV villain of all time.  His particular role on the show doesn’t have a TV news counterpart, but many of the other characters do.  Looking back at the first episodes of the show, the characters instantly drew us in.  Sure, Jack, Sawyer, and Kate were designed to be the main characters and we were interested in them from the start.  But look at the others.  Hurley seemed to be there at first just for comic relief.  But there was much more.  “The Others” provided a whole new panoply of players just at a time when we thought we knew who were watching, and still we wanted more.  Our news stories are often built with the dullest of characters.  We use the same old PR hacks, politicians, and experts because they’re easy.  Lost could have been built around the same five or six main players.  But because it wasn’t, because we met juicy characters like Mikhail for only a handful of episodes, we had to have more.  Our stories need more Mikhails.  They need more unexpected people.  Call it diversity of sources if you wish, but we need to find a way to have our newscasts bring in new faces and voices.

Finally, Lost respected its audiences’ intelligence.  The show made you think, made you discuss, and made you wonder about what was going on.  Abrams loves his “mystery box” concept (if you’re not familiar with it, see his great speech to TED at http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/j_j_abrams_mystery_box.html).  The show didn’t always spell it all out for us, instead leaving some of it a mystery for us in the audience to ponder.  Perhaps that’s what I respected most about Lost and what Abrams, Lindelhof, and Cuse did.  They treated me the way they would want to be treated by a show—as a smart, thinking person.  Now, I’m not saying our newscasts should be mystery boxes of their own.  We’re obviously in the business of answering all of the questions. If a polar bear shows up in Times Square today, we’d better say why.  So we’re not to leave any mysteries untold.  But that doesn’t mean we have to treat our audience members like they’re less than us.  I know I’m personally guilty of focusing on the lowest elements of our audience and wondering why we bother with doing anything beyond their level.  But that’s exactly the approach that’s put news into the ratings position it’s in now.  Our striving to be all things to all people, along with our lowest common denominator approach to story selection, has driven away what our newscast used to have—smart, thinking people as viewers.  We can bring them back if we do stories that matter to them.  Important investigative, political, economic, or policy stories treat our audience members with respect and show them we value the time they’re giving us.  We owe them that.

So today, I don’t mourn the end of Lost, but instead celebrate what it was.  For all the reasons above and many more, I count watching it as among the best uses of my valuable time over the past six years.  And I’m planning to keep working as hard as I can to see that people see my newscasts the same way going forward.

You’re Cooler Than You Think

-first posted at RTDNA.org on April 14, 2010

Over the last year of these chairman’s blogs, you’ve probably become used to my rambling style of writing.  So it will come as no surprise to you as I begin my last blog as chairman, coming to you from the floor of the RTDNA convention in Las Vegas, that I begin at my daughter’s middle school back in 2001.  Her assignment back then was to come to class to talk about what her parents do for a living.  This wasn’t one of those “have your father/mother come to class and make a talk” days.  For this, the kids had to do research and present it themselves.  Talking with her for the assignment, I was feeling pretty confident that no classmate would be able to top her tales of my journalism adventure in what had to be the best job of any parent in the group.  I would soon find out to the contrary.

Picking up Lauren after school, I asked her how the presentation went.  She said it was “fine.”  Hoping for get a glimpse of the awe with which her peers must have viewed my job, I decided to get right to the point.  “I’ll bet no one has a cooler job than mine, right?”  Her eleven-year-old brain didn’t pick up on the answer I was seeking, so she cheerily replied, “Yeah, Brighton’s father does.”  I was stunned. How could that be?  After a moment, I was able to sputter out another question.  “What does he do?”  Lauren replied, “He owns Shakespeare’s.”  Now, Shakespeare’s is Columbia’s legendary pizza parlor and there’s no doubt I’m a fan of its food.  But had all my exploits and excitement as a TV journalist really been bested by a pizza maker?

This humbling event has stuck with me these past nine years, reminding me when I get too cocky that there is plenty our viewers (and their children) find more central in their lives than journalism.   But as I walk the halls here in Las Vegas, listening to the sessions and talking to the attendees, I’ve decided to take my—our—coolness back.

You see, the convention is oozing coolness this year.  Part of it comes from the technology (something I’ve always liked, of course).  It seems the software and hardware tools we’re seeking to transition into a one-man-band/mobile/handheld newsgathering future have really matured since last year.  That technology is giving us this James Bondian air when we pull out our small devices and start covering stories.  Looking back on what first drew me into the broadcast side of journalism, I’ve always credited the technology. In the late 1970s, TV stations had much of the cutting edge technology out there.  We lost that edge in the PC revolution of the 80s and 90s, but we’re regaining a part of it now with the push to make handheld newsgathering devices as powerful as possible.  I know that’s already sparking new interest from the technology set in joining our ranks.  Partnerships between journalists and computer scientists like those at convention presenter Reynolds Journalism Institute are putting that cool back into news technology as a career destination that matters.

But I would be missing the more important part of the coolness trend if I just focused on technology.  There’s a palpable air of optimism and excitement here this year.  People are smiling.  I can’t say the same was true the last few years.  Everyone I’ve talked to is looking at the bright side, trying to find the new opportunities to win, and encouraged in the prospect of increased relevance through the use of the new technology that’s showing here.

Now, if you’re not in Las Vegas now, you might not be convinced that this pending coolness I’m describing is real.  I know the last couple of years have been tough.  We all have our heads down trying to keep up with more and more demanding jobs.  So let me make the case for our newfound value even if you’ve not been able to attend the convention.  And I’ll base my argument on what I’ve witnessed in my year as chairman.

First, you’re excited about what you do.  That’s a core component of being cool.  My travels as chairman have taken me to Atlanta, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and other places to stage small gatherings to train journalists.  Every single person there was giving up weekend or evening time to learn something new, get better at something old, and meet with peers who have the same interests they do.  That excitement is contagious and I know it reaches the audience.  Here at the convention, we’re adding more seats to rooms so people can get in to learn these skills.  No one can mope through their jobs and still look cool doing them.  The excitement factor is definitely a plus here.

Beyond that, you’re connected with each other.  The same devices you’re counting on to improve your product are connecting you to online information to gain new skills.  RTDNA.org went mobile in the past year, and that site has been a way for news managers to literally have us in their pockets at all times.  But more than that, you’re connecting with each other.  Social media are great reporting and publishing tools for our newsrooms, but their often even better tools for us to connect with one another.  If you haven’t already done it, set up a Twitter client like TweetDeck to keep an active monitor on those you follow and on the subjects that interest you.  Make sure you get connected to some young journalists who’ve embraced that technology.  And once you do, you’re going to watch a flurry of activity—smart journalism discussions really—when hot topics pop up.

As you ponder these more serious reasons, don’t forget another important one—we’re still celebrities.  I know that sounds shallow, but the millennial generation has redefined the word “celebrity” and created a new level of celebrity worship.  The most visible figures of our industry have stepped up to help RTDNA over and over again during my year as chairman, with names like Brian Williams, Russ Mitchell, Cokie Roberts, and more appearing to help us improve journalism.  These faces are the faces the public adores, responds to, and keeps track of.  In your cities (unless you work in Hollywood), your on-air people are the biggest celebrities.  That fame isn’t just on the air, it translates to the web and mobile devices, too, if the talent takes part fully.  And I don’t see that changing anytime soon as young people grow more and more obsessed with celebrity.

These examples and more convince me we’re rebounding to a level of hip we have not seen in a very long time.  Sure, we’ll have competition for coolness from those doing similar work to what we do—bloggers, citizen journalists, and those thrusting themselves into the new media mix.  But we’re got experience in the spotlight and know how to take a passing interest and turn it into a lifetime interest.  We know cool.

So, looking back on losing out to the pizza guy, seeing that momentary low, I find a parallel in the depths to which our enthusiasm may have dropped last year.  It was my lot to end up taking the helm of RTDNA at a time when spirits were quite low in our industry.  But I always describe myself as an optimist, and I approached the last year’s challenges as nothing more than a better chance to make a difference than my predecessors had enjoyed.  Through the work we’ve done, be it local training, web content, First Amendment fights, a new convention, or even a new name, we’ve been optimists who see it all making a difference.  Thank you for reading what I’ve had to write in these weekly musings, for staying supportive of RTDNA through all the changes, and for sharing your ideas for how to make it better.

Take it from me—each and every one of you is cool.

When is a Census Taker like a News Director?

-first posted at RTDNA.org on March 30, 2010

If you’re a baby boomer like myself, I bet you’ve already sent in your census form.  I got mine about two weeks ago.  I threw it on the kitchen table when I came in after a long day in the newsroom, saying I’d deal with it the next day.  And I did.  The next morning (it was a Saturday), I opened the envelope, found the basic short form, and filled it out on the spot.  Within two minutes of opening the envelope, I had completed the form and was sticking it back in the return envelope.  By later that afternoon, I had already dropped it in a mailbox.

Not so with my son.  He’s 22, a college student, and lives in a duplex across town with his roommate.  I found his census form—still in the envelope in which it arrived—crumpled on the floor of the backseat of my car today.  Alex had used my car over the weekend to avoid putting the roof back on his little Datsun roadster when it was raining.  I was cleaning out his (and my) junk in the warm afternoon sun today and found the envelope.  I brought it in when I got home tonight, expecting Alex for dinner.  I mentioned it to him and pointed it out on the table in the hallway.  It’s still there.  Alex left without taking it with him.

So why did I fill out my form within 24 hours of when I got it and my son probably won’t fill his out at all?  The same reason I’ve missed voting in only one election in the last 30 years.  Presidential, state, municipal—I’ve only missed the one election when I was in Arizona a few days after my father’s death.  I filled out the census form for the same reason I would watch the news every night even if I didn’t make the news.  Because it’s the right thing to do for me, for society, and for this democracy.

Now, if you’re younger than about 35 or 40, that may sound borderline jingoistic.  But I’m not a zealot—I’m just a citizen.  Members of my cohort in school learned that we need to participate in democracy to make it work.  Sure we were indoctrinated, like school children usually are.  But it stuck with us because the package all fit together so well.  It appealed to me that the great American machine only worked if all the cogs were doing their part.  I sure don’t think about myself as a cog now, but to my young mind, there was a mechanical coolness to it.  I know that those of you around 50 or so know what I’m talking about.  And I know a bunch of you filled out your census form right away, too.

Not so with my son.  He voted in the Obama-McCain race because he saw its historic nature.  But I’m pretty sure he’s never voted any other time.  He doesn’t see the point in voting for the races that don’t interest him.  He’s not alone—look at voter turnout if you’re having municipal elections in the next month or so.  The census form doesn’t matter to Alex because he can’t see what’s in it for him.  It seems like a constitutionally-guaranteed inconvenience to him, so he’s skipping it.

So what’s all this got to do with news?  Alex doesn’t watch the news either.  He’s a smart kid, interested in politics and current events, but the news bores him.  He’ll check out “The Daily Show” a couple of times a week.  But local news?  Blah.  Like the elections and the census forms, he just doesn’t see the return on the investment.

As you might guess, I’ve been amused at all the efforts by the Census Bureau, local politicians, and others to get on the news as often as possible to remind people to fill out their forms and send them back.  They have news conference after news conference trying to get us to cover the census story over and over and get people thinking about sending the forms back.  What they don’t get is that the people who are watching the news already ARE the ones who send back their forms each time.  To say they’re preaching to the choir would be an understatement.  The same traits that guarantee news viewing also guarantee census form compliance.  It’s a slam dunk.

With this being the first census in which Millennials are living in their own households, I’m predicting the worst census return rate of the last 220 years.  And the decline over the last three or four censuses should mirror the decline in news viewing habits over the same period.  Neither is a good thing.  So what can we do about it?  I turn to the same thing that made me the super census responder/voter/news consumer I am now—education.  Our schools educated us to know the importance of participation in a democracy, so now we take it seriously.  We need a similar approach to media and news literacy, so that young students will grow into adulthood knowing the importance of staying informed.  I’ve written on news literacy before, so I won’t belabor the point here.  Check out this old blog if you want to know more:

http://www.rtdna.org/pages/posts/chairmans-blog-grown-up-news-consumers-with-little-kid-tastes694.php

The failures of this census will be obvious in black and white once the numbers come out.  And we’ll spend the next ten years trying to figure out how to get young people to respond better.  The failures of the same group to watch the news won’t be so obvious, but the problems resulting from that failure will be far worse.  And we won’t have ten years to fix them.

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.

Something New Under the Sun in the Media Blame Game

-first posted at RTDNA.org on March 16, 2010

By now I’ve gotten pretty used to the “blame the media” game from the politicians. It started years ago when one of them found himself in a hotspot.  He’d point to the media and say how they were on a witch hunt to get him.  The ploy worked well enough with sympathetic audience members that it stuck.  It eventually worked its way up to the very top, reaching the vice presidency and then the presidency.  Many used this approach, but let’s start with Spiro Agnew (just because he’s a figure not enough young people know about.  Oddly, his remarks sound almost flattering compared to today’s attacks.  He once called members of the media part of a “tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one.”  His eventual former boss, Richard Nixon, wasn’t so gentlemanly in his remarks.  In 1973, following reporting on the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre”—the name given to Nixon’s dismissal of the Watergate special prosecutor and the ensuing fallout in the justice department—Nixon let the reporters in the White House have it, calling them “frantic” and “hysterical.”  Take a look at this excerpt of Nixon’s news conference to get a feel for the animosity there—and be sure you stick around for the punch line at the end:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iucE78-C2Po

Nixon, Agnew, and countless politicians before them all reacted to what they perceived as attacks from the media with retaliation through name calling and belittlement.  It was tit for tat back then, with those in the crosshairs firing back once the media lobbed in their perceived shells.

But skip forward a generation and the game changed.  By the 1990s the strategy had shifted to having the politicians attack first—not reacting to stories but lashing out first to characterize the media as lazy, lowdown, and leftist.  Politicians quickly found if they could put doubt about the intentions and the abilities of the media in the minds of citizens sympathetic to their side, they could move the reporting of said media farther outside those citizens’ acceptable perceptual zone. This “us against them” approach was pretty successful.  Once reporters became the bad guys, then politicians could wear the mask of the persecuted, asking all to look on them with pity as if the media were nothing more than playground bullies picking on the one honest child there.

The interesting thing about this pre-emptive approach was that it all stayed pretty much about the reporting.  Even when calling reporters out before the story aired, there of course had been another story before that.  Politicians were able to use the track record of reporters—even if fictitious—to let their supporters know those reporters were not on the right side of the issue.  But as another generation begins to roll around, the target on journalists’ backs is being painted in whole new way—one you might find quite personal and downright dishonest.

The politician in this case is perhaps the most famous sheriff in America.  Seventy-seven year old Joe Arpaio calls himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”  He certainly patrols some of its toughest territory—massive Maricopa County, Arizona, home to 8,600 square miles of desert and about 600 square miles of Phoenix.  Arpaio is perhaps best known as the guy who dresses his inmates in pink underwear. He’s also the guy under investigation right now by the FBI and Department of Justice.  He likes us to talk about the underwear—not so much the investigations.

I should stop right here for a moment, in the interest of transparency, to say that my 79-year-old mother “works” for Arpaio—sort of.  She’s an unpaid volunteer for his “Posse” (yes, that’s what he calls it) in her retirement community of Sun City West.  It sounds like she chases down fugitives on horseback, but she really directs traffic and such.  That’s my connection to the story.  Read into it what you will.

So back to those investigations.  They have been, as you might guess, a pretty big story in Phoenix.  Everyone is working the story.  And just as it has always been in every newsroom, when the big story comes along you want to win it and you want to rub your competitors’ noses in it.  At least that’s what I figured was at play when RTDNA member and KNXV-TV news director Joe Hengemuehler wrote this e-mail to his investigative reporter Josh Bernstein:

Subject: Arpaio Coverage

Josh,

This note is a follow-up to the meeting we had this morning.  Please take a look at the aggressive reporting that two of our competitors are doing on the Arpaio story. These stories were produced yesterday. And please note that both reporters who produced deep packages on Arpaio are out of their station’s investigative units.

As discussed this morning, I want you to own this story. I want you to be as aggressive about covering the Arpaio story as you are about covering any other story. You’ve told me that you’ve told the Sheriff that you are going to come after him when there’s a story. That time is now.

Most of all Josh, I don’t want to get beat by anyone, print, broadcast or online on this story. And I do not want our investigative brand to be diminished in any way.

We have some ground to make up on this one. Let’s start today — by advancing this story and let’s exhaust every angle going forward.

Now, you might wonder why I have this email to share with you.  It looks like Bernstein did one of those moves we all do from time to time and accidentally forwarded that message out with other he intended for county government.  So the e-mail ended up in the sheriff’s hands.  And what did Arpaio do with it?  He posted it on his official website under a section called “The Truth Behind the Headlines.”  Now, leaving aside for a moment that the e-mail wasn’t a “headline,” let’s look at it again.  I’m a news director and I want my reporters to be aggressive on the big story.  And to me, that’s all we have here.  This is no smoking gun that the reporter is out to get the sheriff.  This is a news manager telling his reporter he’s getting beaten on a story and that he’d better get back in the game.

Arpaio saw it differently. He prefaced the e-mail with this:

The following is a letter from Channel 15’s news director, Joe Hengemuehler, to a reporter at the station, Josh Bernstein, that was made public today. The letter shows that Channel 15’s news director now wants his investigative reporter, Bernstein, to “come after” the Sheriff. The letter did not admonish Bernstein to be fair and impartial in his coverage of Arpaio but rather to “COME AFTER” him.

Given the email correspondence printed below, Sheriff Arpaio and the Office as a whole fully expect that Channel 15 will soon line up behind KPHO 5 and KPNX 12 as well as the Arizona Republic in a collective effort to denigrate Arpaio and the Office at every given opportunity.

Clearly we expect our reporters to be fair and impartial every time they hit the streets for us.  I don’t need to put it in an e-mail.  But Arpaio’s twisting Hengemuehler’s words in hopes the friendly readers of his site will take his side.  And they probably do.  And they’re not the only ones.

The e-mail’s not the only critique of the media you’ll find in the “Truth” section of the MCSO’s site.  Arpaio has his employees doing what are basically truth squad reports on stories that air in the market—I’m talking full packages here.  Sheriff’s deputies and PR types voice stories and appear as soundbites in pieces that rebut what’s been reported negatively about the sheriff.  The reports usually attack a line or two of a story, though not always saying they are completely wrong.  You can view the “stories” here (http://www.mcso.org/index.php?a=GetModule&mn=Truth) to see what I mean.

I have to admit the sheriff might be onto something here.  I don’t know if he’s considering retirement any time soon, but he may want to start a business consulting with big corporations.  Imagine how different our view of the Toyota problems would be if we got to hear the “truth” from Toyota employees about how wrong the stories have been about the accelerator problems in their cars.  I know I’d feel a lot better about the boys at AIG if some of their folks could do a report for me on how the company had been wronged by all the media attention (and they sure could buy some nice HD gear with some of that bonus money).  And we could probably have this whole health care debate behind us by now if all the “truthful” reporting on that one could have been done by Obama administration spokespeople.

I know my mom will be angry with me for this one when she reads it (and I do hope my mom reads these blogs), but sheriff, you’re shooting blanks on this one.

The View from the Dais

-first posted at RTDNA.org on March 9, 2010

I’ll close out the coverage of last week’s First Amendment Awards dinner with a few thoughts I collected from my vantage point looking out over the event.  I was on the rear left of the platform party, as viewed from the audience.  Check out the videos from the event and you’ll see me there behind Leon Harris in the front row.  My role on the dais was, as I joked to Bill Roswell, just to be a pretty face.  The RTDNA chairman has no official role at the First Amendment dinner.  For me, that will come next year when I take over the position of RTDNF chairman.  I was the only one on the platform without a speaking role, which left me free to look and listen all night.

What I saw and heard from my perch pleased me.  The room was electric that night.  There was, of course, the low roar of 500 people conversing and having a good time.  But there was more than that.  There was a sort of charged hum to it, too.  I think that sound was coming from so many people in tune in the same place on the same night.  It was a happy hum, and the hum was just the soundtrack to the visuals in the room.   With the full house that we had, I could see a sea of faces and shoulders and smiles sweeping all the way back into the dark recesses of the room.  I mention the smiles because there were so many, with candlelight and camera flashes reflecting back to me off all those exposed teeth.  These people were having a good time.

More than a couple of people at the event that evening said the feel in the room took them back fifty years to the old RTNDA dinner scene we all saw in “Good Night and Good Luck.”  The black tie, black and white dinner that opens and closes the film had the same vibe as the dinner last Thursday.  The movie shows a group of men and women at the convention in 1958 waiting to hear from Edward R. Murrow.  They laugh, talk, clink glasses, and set up the same sort of a scene as we had last week.  Perhaps the same electricity that accompanied Ed Murrow all those years ago was with us in the room as we honored today’s network TV and radio’s top names.

Now, one thing that was different—thankfully—from 1958 was the diverse nature of the crowd in our room.  Murrow’s audience was made up of mostly newsmen and their wives.  Ours was anything but that.  In every row and across the room, professional men and women shared the roles of boss and worker, reporter and producer, editor and writer.  News people of color populated the tables in a way not possible in 1958.  The combination of an old time feel with the modern advances in our business turned our scene into a mix of nostalgia and modernity.

As the speeches began, there was something else I could see that might have eluded the rest of the platform party and gathered diners.  Each honoree grabbed hold of the audience and did not let go the entire time at the microphone.  I could see their eyes light up as they leaned in the hear David Westin’s pledge to transform journalism to protect it for future generations.  I could see their expressions of solidarity as they listened to Barbara Cochran call on the Surpreme Court to allow cameras and microphones into its proceedings.  I could see their tears of joy as Harvey Nagler asked Cami McCormick to stand to the applause of the room.  I could see their nods of agreement when Marcellus Alexander proclaimed this is a great time to be a broadcaster.  And I could see their grins of glee as they chuckled through Brian Williams’ Bob Schieffer impression.  I saw it all.

The entire evening is one I will not soon forget.  I hope that everyone in the audience and the rest of the platform party, each with his or her own vantage point on the events of the evening, enjoyed the sights and the sounds as much as I did.  Next year I’ll be the emcee of the event and will see it in another way altogether.  I don’t know yet who the honorees will be that night, but I know our new association chairman will be sitting behind me in my old seat.  I’m going to advise him in advance to enjoy his view from the dais.