Sunday, June 17

This One Got Me Into Trouble

This one is going to be a bit long, but please bear with me. It contains an article that was picked up by "ShopTalk" on back in 2001, which got me into hot water with my bosses at WBRE.

I've been a news director off and on since 1975. Several times I've consciously stepped away: once to teach, twice to accept second-in-command positions (EP in one case, ME in another). Truth is, I liked not being the ultimate boss. The news director is busy all day in meetings with the Sales Department on how to arrange a trade-out so anchors can get their hair styled for free! The ME or the EP gets to do news (what a concept).

In the article below I was quoted (correctly) as saying that over the years the job of news director has become more administrative and less about journalism. When it appeared the WBRE higher-ups were upset. They thought I was taking pot-shots at them.

Only indirectly. I think my criticism here applies to just about every TV station in America. One exception? There's a story about my friend the late Ron Tindiglia when he was General Manager for WCBS in New York. The story goes that he hired a new News Director, and on his first day told him, "You'll get the keys to your office in thirty days. For the first month your job isn't behind a desk, it's in the newsroom." Might be apocryphal , but I certainly hope not. And it sounds like Ron Tindiglia. If anyone ever got it, it was Ron!

A couple of years later WBRE's News Director "left to pursue other career goals" (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean, say no more!) and I was made acting ND. After the proverbial "nationwide search" (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean, say no more!) the station couldn't find anyone willing to take the job and it was offered to me. Maybe "offered" isn't the right word: when I asked if I could stay where I was (ME), doing what I liked to do (news), I was told that there would be a new ND, and that he or she would be hiring a new ME or EP. It could be me doing the looking, or me looking for another job.

So I reluctantly became News Director. I took a job I didn't want--doing things I didn't want to do--for people I didn't respect.

Want to guess how that ended?

Anyway, here's that article from more than six years ago.

A News Director By Any Other Name

By Stu Nicholson

Columbus Media Talk

A News Director by Any Other Name . . .

By definition, a news director is simply someone who directs the news. He or she is also the person to whom tons of mail is uselessly addressed in the hopes their news release and/or event will rise to the top and get covered. Santa Claus answers more mail than the typical news director does. While this may come as a shock to all but the most savvy public relations mongers, it is significant evidence that the job of news director has changed (some would say evolved) over the last few decades in television news. Today's news director, I submit, has less and less to do with directing the news of the day, and has become increasingly more of a newsroom manager. In other words, he / she has become a bureaucrat. That's one of the kinder names I've heard from my brothers and sisters in the news business . . . news directors included.

Some of this evolution, if you want to call it that, is attributable to the growing corporate nature of broadcasting as a whole and TV news in particular. You have the Jack Welchs of the corporate world putting the pressure on local managers to perform or else be viewed as some kind of impediment to the greater good of the corporation. Being an impediment is not a good thing in the eyes of the folks at "corporate". They expect you to do more (and more) with less (much less), and make that profit margin look good. Their concern over whether a news market is being adequately served and informed by their local outlet is minimal. They want to see ad revenues, first and foremost. So the local news director, with some exceptions, sees himself / herself as being forced into towing the corporate line: reviewing budgets almost constantly, hiring and firing, dealing with visiting corporate honchos who (for the most part) know or care little about local news, and maybe once in a while poking their head into an editorial meeting to make a show of looking like they're in control. Ultimately, they are in control: in control of the professional lives and careers of everyone in the newsroom. There are still some news directors who do that job with a sense of humanity and true leadership. But I know and hear about many more who treat their people like some kind of corporate-owned cattle. Don't perform up to their vague expectations and you're sent to the meat-packing plant for your career to be sliced and diced.

But while all this is going on, who is left in charge of how and if local news gets covered, if it gets covered at all? It's the executive producer at many stations, or the title may be assistant news director. If that person is competent and knows how to use their knowledge and journalistic skills to lead, the newsroom and news people can still do their jobs. For some, it is as far as they want to go in local news, because they realize they will give up much of that day-to-day influence on the output and quality of news if they grab the brass ring and allow themselves to be elevated into an ND's job.

Or, consider the case of long-time news director Paul Stueber: a man who has led newsrooms in markets like New York, Baltimore, Miami, Cleveland, Oklahoma City and Wilkes-Barre. He recently made the conscious decision to step back from being a news director and become Managing Editor at WBRE-TV in Wilkes-Barre-Scranton. His reason? "I get to do NEWS," say Stueber. He traces the change in the role of news director back to the 70's when, as he puts it, "One (TV station) salesman turned to another and said, 'you know, if we could get a couple of more share points we could break even on news.' And his buddy said, 'y'know, if we could get FIVE more share points we could turn a profit!' And that was that."

News, says Stueber, then became a business instead of a duty and service of local stations. It was no longer a newsroom. It was a "profit center." "Suddenly, being a good newsman (there weren't many women in the biz back then) didn't count for much. Suddenly, you had to be a (gulp)"MANAGER."

Of many of today's news directors and station owners, Stueber observes, "They don't know or care about their communities. They don't view broadcast news as a service performed for your neighbors, but as a product for sale." What's the resulting new measure of success? High ratings and high income.

I once worked for one who went home at 4 PM almost every day, missed his own newscasts and then had the gall to be critical of the people who labored everyday to put on a decent half-hour of news. Stueber wonders how many local news directors will watch their newscasts tonight and say, "I didn't know that!"

"But they SHOULD know," says Stueber, "because they should be setting journalistic standards, not just BUSINESS STANDARDS."

Former Memphis news director Bob Jacobs shares many of the same observations, saying the corporate pressure on the industry has forced the job to be more difficult than ever before. "You are usually promoted for your work as a journalist, and you're thrown into a position that requires you to manage multi-million dollar budgets, handle human resources for 60 or more people, come up with regular special assignment and series reports that will bring in viewers and, in your spare time . . . concentrate on the quality of your daily news coverage."

Even the decision-making process has largely been taken out of the hands of many local news directors and given to some Armani-clad executive at corporate headquarters. D you think they really know or care what makes news, much less quality news? Don't bet your remote on it.

"But let those numbers slip", says Jacobs, "let the profit margins fall, and it's the news director's head that's offered to corporate management on a platter.

Jacobs is now out of the business and says he cannot imagine stepping back into a news director's job again. "There's an assumption that the news director makes decisions. That's simply not the case. However, they are saddled with the responsibility if something goes wrong." He decries the corporate pressures that have turned many newsrooms into profit-or-die operations. After climbing the career ladder into his life-long dream of his first news director job, Jacobs says his lofty ideas about doing solid journalism were dashed by those pressures. "The corporate heads wanted profit margins in the 50% range. You cut people and you don't invest in the technology infrastructure. Simply put, you do more with less. It didn't last."

Jacobs admits "there are plenty of people who still find being a news director rewarding, and I applaud their ability to make it through the pile of garbage thrown in their way each and every day from sleazy general managers to car and cash giveaway contests. It is hard for a news director to keep his/her head above it all. And if they stick their neck out too far, someone's likely to lop off their noggin."

He says he misses the daily news challenges, "but I don't miss the petty and petite minds that pull the purse strings."

Like Bob, I have found there is life after news. Still with a sense of humor intact, Jacobs says of his new life, "To this day, I don't know whether to slap my last general manager, or give him a big kiss." It is probably too much to hope for much to change for the positive. That's going to take the same chipping away at the corporate culture that has infected and diminished local news bit by bit for the last three decades. It will take enough news directors and other newsroom folks to take up the challenge of doing challenging news. It will take the realization of the corporate suits that the reason the numbers of homes watching TV news are down is that viewers are tired of watching over-consulted, ratings-driven drivel instead of actually being informed about the important stories in their community.

Some will say to do this is too difficult, too expensive, too boring. I submit such people are too lazy, too cheap, and journalistically-challenged to pick up the fight and make the business of news a worthwhile profession once again, and one that once again serves the public.

Here's to those who fight on. Here's to those who have fought the good fight and have earned the right to step back and live a new life. To those who stand in the newsroom and do nothing, I say either lead or follow or get the hell out of the way of those who still view hard work as a virtue and news as an honorable profession.