Inside the newsroom: what I wish I’d known before I started my first TV job

By David Baxley, Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and SPJ South Carolina member

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The producers of television are the heartbeat of a newscast. They provide content on-air, online and on social media to keep connected to their distracted audiences.  Photo provided by Adam Thomas, Bay News 9 Tampa, Florida

 

The broadcast news industry continues to change at a rapid pace. Those swift changes in technology, the mandate from consumers to provide instant news, the corporate “bottom line” mentality all combine to make the pressures of a multimedia journalist nearly overwhelming.

Reporters must be on top of their game, providing content on-air, online, on social media to stay connected with their distracted audiences. But behind-the-scenes, some of the unsung heroes are newscast producers. Their meticulous crafting of a station’s on-air broadcast is oftentimes forgotten in the glitz and glamour of their on-air co-workers.

These men and women are the heartbeat of the newscast. From strategizing, to writing, to coordinating with news personnel, to building graphics, to answering phones, to approving scripts, to rearranging stories in the rundown, to timing the show, producers have a thank-less job. But it’s a rewarding experience.

bay-news-9-tampa“No matter how much you plan, or how hard you work, sometimes there will be things that completely change your day, and it will be out of your control. The only thing is to keep moving forward,” said Adam Thomas, the 10 p.m. news producer at Bay News 9 in Tampa, Florida.

The same can be said for the evolving broadcast news industry — it’s moving forward.

Thomas has worked in television news for the past 16 years. He recognizes newsrooms must stay one step ahead to remain relevant. More importantly, newscast producers must prepare for more changes, thanks to technology and the news culture. “The way we cover news when I first started is completely different than it is today,” Thomas said.

He concedes changes at broadcast television stations center around the influence of social media and the way news staff adapts to the various platforms. “Why wait until 5, 6, or 10 o’clock for the news when you can just look on your smart phone for the vary latest and up-to-date news?” This, of course, presents challenges for today’s newsrooms. But there is one constant: you must know how to write to be successful in television news.

A 2013 study conducted by Deb Wenger and Lynn Owens, “An Examination of Job Skills Required by Top U.S. Broadcast News Companies and Potential Impact on Journalism Curricula,” revealed producing is a highly sought-after position in newsrooms across the country. And, it should come as no surprise most job announcements place “strong writing” as one of the main skills required to land a job inside a newsroom.

It should come as no surprise most job announcements place “strong writing” as one of the main skills required to land a job inside a newsroom.”

Thomas began producing newscasts in Montgomery, Alabama. He worked his way up after he was hired by a local TV station there while still in college. Reporting classes in college can help you improve writing skills, but having on-the-job training is the best way to prepare for a job as a news producer. That’s why internships are highly encouraged during your senior year in college. “There are different scenarios that take place in the ‘real world’ that can’t be taught in a classroom,” Thomas said.

When asked if he’s worried about the future of television news, Thomas provides an optimistic outlook: “Immediate future, like five years and less – no. But things will change. They are changing now … The only thing is to keep moving forward.”

For aspiring broadcasters, knowing how to produce a quality newscast may be your “foot-in-the-door” at your first job. For others, the adrenaline rush is enough to make producing newscasts a life-long career. It’s important, though, for up-and-coming broadcast students to make themselves versatile while in college. That adaptability is paramount when looking for your first job.

wlos-asheville-news-logoGrey Hallock found that out just a few years ago after graduating from Auburn University. He is now the 5 p.m. producer at WLOS 13 in Asheville, North Carolina.

While piecing together his newscast rundown, he reflects on his first few years in the news business. “I feel my college education only partially prepared me for the challenges I would face working in the newsroom,” Hallock said. “We studied a lot of news ethics, theory, writing, but the degree should have required more time spent working in a newsroom.”

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Writing under deadline, simulating breaking news events into writing and working as a team are important skills journalism students need before leaving for their first job out of college. Photo by Serena Lee/WLOS News 13, Asheville, South Carolina

Straight out of college, Hallock was faced with producing two newscasts on Saturday and Sunday – by himself – at his first job at a TV station in Alabama. He believes some added skills and experience in college would have better prepared him when walking in the door at this first TV station.

“I cannot stress enough the importance of learning to write well under a short deadline. I would have been better prepared if some of the urgency of real-time breaking and developing news had been incorporated into my studies in college,” said Hallock.

College journalism departments can learn from the lessons of Thomas and Hallock. While courses in journalism ethics, media law, reporting and interviewing are all important, putting your students in a learning newsroom environment will help them out immensely.

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Grey Hallock, producer, WLOS 13

“I wish I had developed the teamwork, time-management, and patience needed to work in a newsroom before leaving college,” he said.

Writing under tight deadlines, simulating breaking news events into writing, and working as part of a news team are important skills journalism students need more than ever. Producing news for digital platforms must be incorporated into college curricula, as well.

Each day, their role as a gatekeeper is on display. Their creativity is often tested due to time restraints.

Whether you are currently working inside a television newsroom or a college student ready to get started, recognize the important role news producers play. Each day, their role as a gatekeeper is on display. Their creativity is often tested due to time restraints. But most importantly, their writing skills are what can make or break a newscast. If viewers can’t comprehend stories, they will likely find another news source. It is up to broadcast journalism programs to help these aspiring journalists succeed.

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David Baxley

David Baxley is Assistant Professor of Mass Communications, Francis Marion University, and a SPJ South Carolina member. Baxley worked in broadcast news since 1999. He is also a meteorologist. Before entering academia in 2016, Baxley worked as an investigative producer at WIAT-TV in Birmingham, Alabama, for two years. 

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