Thanks to an acute shortage of television producers, many young, inexperienced journalists are holding down those critically important positions on local newscasts. And sometimes it shows.
By Chris Tuohey
Chris Tuohey, a former TV executive producer, teaches broadcast journalism at Syracuse University.
When viewers in Binghamton, New York, tune into WIVT's 5:30 p.m. news and see graying anchorman Steve Craig, they probably assume they are getting their news from a seasoned journalist. And they are. Craig has been in the television news business some 25 years as a reporter in big, medium and small markets, and he's been behind a Binghamton anchor desk for 11 years.
What viewers don't know, though, is that most of the news stories Craig and his coanchor Jen Maxfield deliver were chosen and written by producer Danielle Stein. One year out of college, she'll be the first to tell you that seasoned, she's not.
Producers are traditionally the foremen, or forepersons if you will, of their newscasts, with considerable editorial and supervisory clout. They choose what stories will go into a newscast, in what order they will appear and how much time they will get. They normally have the option to edit or rewrite stories written by the reporters and anchors. So how is it that in Binghamton a 22-year-old producer is putting a newscast together for a 47-year-old anchor to deliver?
"We don't really have a choice when we're searching for producers," says WIVT News Director Lisa Lovell. Many news directors will tell you the same thing.
Between the summer of 2000 and spring 2001, I co-conducted a survey of morning and early evening anchors and producers and news directors in a range of market sizes and had 368 total responses. Of the anchors, 64 percent say they have 10 or more years of television news experience. But only 20 percent of the producers can say the same. When anchors were asked whether they have considerably more experience than the producers they work with, 86 percent of the anchors agreed.
Does it matter? About a third of the anchors think it does. Thirty-two percent agreed with the statement: "You find it difficult to trust your newscast producer to make sound decisions because of his or her lack of broadcast news experience." News directors say more than half of their morning and early evening anchors occasionally or frequently complain about inexperienced producers. And nearly all news directors say it is a source of frustration when making hiring decisions.
Specific complaints? The anchors mentioned poor writing skills (both accuracy and grammar), the high turnover of producers, lack of current events and local market knowledge, more concern with TV production techniques than journalism and a general lack of life experience. As one anchor put it, "Children are producing our newscasts."
News Director Ellen Crooke of WNDU in South Bend, Indiana, calls this "one of the most serious problems going on in newsrooms today." Crooke has no doubt that the proliferation of unskilled producers hurts the quality of local news. She says key decisions about what stories get covered and how they get covered "are in the hands of people who have very little experience in journalism... and have very little knowledge of the community and what's important and what affects people."
Before joining "USA Today Live" as a national correspondent for Gannett television stations, Mike Walter anchored the morning news in Tampa and Kansas City. He says too often young producers don't stay at one station long enough to learn the players and history in the local market and therefore have little perspective on what is and isn't news. "They're always new to the market and then about the time they are capable to do the job, they're new to another market."
The inexperience factor also comes into play on national stories. Walter remembers having to argue long and hard to convince a young producer that the death of Frank Sinatra was a lead story, not a 20-second voice-over in the second block of the newscast.
Morning anchor Sheila Balistreri of Anchorage, Alaska's KTUU recalls asking once why a producer failed to put the death of actor George C. Scott in a newscast. Balistreri says the producer responded by saying, "I have no clue who that is."
Geography can also be a stumbling block. Dave Kaylor, longtime anchor at WBNS in Columbus, Ohio, remembers a young producer talking about earthquakes in Bosnia and Ethiopia and then asking, "Are those two countries near each other?" He also recalls overhearing an inexperienced producer ask if Los Angeles was in southern California.
To be fair, everyone has knowledge gaps and may ask a silly question from time to time. And there can be advantages to working with twentysomething producers who can keep older staffers up to speed on what issues and trends are important to younger viewers.
But to a news veteran who is already suspicious of an inexperienced producer's credentials, these examples don't help.
Not every newscast has a producer with less experience than the anchors.
According to the news directors surveyed, the producer has more experience in one out of 10 newscasts.
But the fact is, experienced producers are hard to come by. That's why some 64 percent of news directors responding to our survey say they require only one year or less experience when hiring a producer for an early morning broadcast. In her five years as news director at WWSB in Sarasota, Florida, Julie Ford says she was only able to hire one producer "with actual experience elsewhere."
Back in the '50s and '60s, local newscasts were technically simple affairs generally produced by the anchors themselves. Former anchor, news director and general manager Jim Topping calls it "radio with the occasional picture." Topping says at that point, relative experience wasn't an issue. Early television news departments were "ad hoc organizations" and newscast producers tended to be print or radio reporters who weren't interested in being in front of the camera, he says.
Well into the '80s there were generally only three stations per TV market doing news, and each station only needed two or three producers. Bob Sullivan, news director at KNXV in Phoenix, says newly formed cable news operations like CNN hired away producers from local stations. He describes it as "the vipers coming in the middle of the night and stealing your children." Sullivan says when Fox stations expanded into local news in the '90s, the demand for producers went up another notch.
The next raid came from the Internet. Higher paying jobs at Web sites were very attractive to producers used to working behind the scenes. Even with the recent shakeout in the Internet economy, Sullivan says it seems few producers are making their way back to television.
Faced with burgeoning competition for the news audience, local stations have progressively increased the amount of news programming they offer. In fact, 67 percent of the news directors responding to our survey say they have expanded their morning news programming over the last three years. More newscasts mean more producer jobs--whether there are experienced bodies to fill them or not.
A newsroom without any editorial arguments or personality conflicts would be a pretty scary place in a Stepford kind of way. Everyone works under the pressures of deadlines, ratings and the importance of getting stories right. But the anchor-producer experience gap heaps generational differences on top of territorial concerns and clashing egos.
Becky Withrow Schieber graduated from Northwestern University, although not from its renowned journalism school. Despite her lack of a journalism background, she landed an associate producer job at WDAF in Kansas City, a top-30 market, and was promoted to producer after just a few months. She says her working relationship with morning anchor Mike Walter got off to a rocky start. "I would get facts wrong all the time, and he would bring me every script and say, 'Look, you've done this wrong. You need to do it right.' " She says sometimes he was nice about it but often was "really gruff."
Walter says the mistakes weren't trivial, nor were they uncommon for inexperienced producers: "I can't begin to tell you how many times I've looked at copy and somebody's murdered somebody and we've convicted them without a trial."
Schieber says in retrospect, "This guy [Walter] really did whip me into shape." Since working in Kansas City, Schieber has been a news producer in Philadelphia and Chicago. She says she's seen other young producers ignore criticisms, believing they are simply being picked on for being new.
More than a quarter of the producers in our survey who said they have considerably less experience than their anchors also agreed that they sometimes feel intimidated by those anchors because of the experience gap. One producer who asked that her name not be used says that the anchors were supportive in her first job. But in her second job, in a larger market, she says her writing skills were regularly belittled by an anchor, who also openly criticized management for hiring young adults with no experience. The anchor's criticisms left her afraid to write anything.
Binghamton's Steve Craig says an experienced anchor, especially in a smaller market, has to accept the teaching role. "I'm 47, everyone around me is perennially 24--maximum. I'm not going to be too critical of these people because they are just starting out." Craig and News Director Lovell check producer Stein's scripts before the newscast and suggest changes if they see any problems. And even though Craig estimates that he's gone through about a dozen producers in the last 11 years, he says there is an upside to hiring young people who are eager to learn. "It's not like anybody's walking in here thinking, 'I've got all the answers. The rest of you just shut up and watch me.' "
Craig says he worked at a station in a market ranked in the 50s that also hired producers right out of school. Many of them couldn't handle the more complex newscasts with multiple live shots and other variables, he says. Stein says that's why she didn't pursue opportunities in larger markets right out of school. She says she didn't think it would do her or the viewers any good to take on too much, too fast.
The expectations and pressures found in larger markets do seem to take a toll on producer-anchor relationships. In our survey, producers were asked to rate their overall professional relationships with their anchors and vice-versa. In both groups, the percentage who rate that relationship as "excellent" is highest among markets 101 and higher (58 percent for producers and 54 percent for anchors) and lowest among the top 20 markets (38 percent for producers and 37 percent for anchors).
The survey comments of the producers and anchors reveal an interesting contradiction. Many producers complain that their anchors are uninvolved in the news production process. When they do have something to say, it is usually something negative after the newscast is over. On the other hand, many anchors say producers become defensive any time an anchor voices an opinion or makes a suggestion.
Mike Royer has been anchoring the news at WVTM in Birmingham, Alabama, for eight years and has worked in TV news for more than a quarter of a century. He says the post-newscast meeting has always been a place to discuss what went right or wrong in an effort to improve future newscasts. But he says when he points out problems, young producers often interpret that as a sign of disrespect. "There seems to be an attitude that you need to respect my work and not be critical of my work even if you think it's poor...and how dare you challenge how I wrote this even if it was grammatically incorrect or factually incorrect."
The economic rule of supply and demand dictates that when supply is low and demand is high, the price goes up. But so far, it seems, money hasn't been used to lure and keep experienced journalists in the producing chair. No one is suggesting that there is a shortage of anchors or reporters at the moment, but if you look at the latest RTNDA/Ball State University annual survey of salary figures, you see that the larger the market, the more median producer salaries lag behind those of anchors and reporters. So why doesn't supply and demand apply here?
"I've wondered that myself," says Alice Johnson Main, a former TV news executive producer and creator of The Producer Page, a Web resource for broadcast journalists.
Main believes one reason producer salaries aren't higher is because of the increasing control over broadcasting by corporations that have no television or news experience. She says everyone can see what the anchors and reporters do. "Nobody understands what the producer does if they don't spend any time in the newsroom. It might just be difficult to justify higher salaries to corporations that don't know how it works."
Sullivan of Phoenix's KNXV says this issue pushes his "hot button." He says the corporate reaction when stations started losing producers was simply to put them under contract. Rather than trying to make the position more attractive in terms of money, job satisfaction and growth potential, "We would just start panicking and grabbing people."
Birmingham's Royer says one of his biggest frustrations is that even in the 39th largest market, it is difficult to keep good producers from leaving for bigger markets and more money. He offers a hypothetical example of a newsroom where a late-news producer works nonstop putting a newscast together. The anchor, meanwhile, gets pulled away to cut promos, puts on make-up, does the early news and then goes home for dinner. Then if the newscast goes poorly, Royer adds, "They [management] go to the producer, not the anchor, and [the producer] might literally be making $175,000 less than the anchor. I think there's a big disparity there that we need to take a look at."
Often the lowest paid and least experienced producers work weekends when there is usually no news manager in the newsroom. Crooke of WNDU in Indiana says that's pretty scary. "The entire reputation and liability of your stations is in the hands of somebody who just came out of school. It's a frightening tale that our business is willing to put up with because of a lack of trained producers and lack of budget to pay experienced people well to do this."
It's not surprising that a twentysomething producer who grew up with computers and cell phones is very technically literate. Anchor Dave Kaylor in Columbus says most producers are far more versed in newscast technology than he will ever be. But he's concerned that a producer preoccupied with newscast automation and slick production becomes more of a technician than a journalist. "Something's gotta suffer, and in this case, it's the content."
Sullivan and Main agree that technical advancements haven't made a producer's job any easier. "I think technology is great," adds Main, "but the longer I had to spend on graphics, for example, the less time I could spend on writing or editing."
Former TV newsman Topping says you can't really blame inexperienced producers for putting the technology first because, in many cases, that's how their skills will be evaluated. He says a news director may look at a producer's résumé tape and say, " 'Wow, look what he did with the graphics, look what he did here'...because, of course, [the news director] knows nothing about the local news in that market and doesn't know what should have been in the newscast and was missed."
Sullivan says technology's ascendancy over content is only going to get stronger with the advent of server-based news processing. Producers will be expected to edit video at their desks in addition to their other duties.
Several broadcast companies have decided that even if they can't hire producers with years of experience, they can at least grow more young producers and give them better training. One is the Nexstar Broadcasting Group, which has 14 small- and medium-market stations in the Northeast, Midwest and Texas that have news broadcasts.
The "Producer School" is the brainchild of Nexstar Corporate News Director Susana Schuler. College seniors interested in newscast production are paid to learn the craft while still in school. To take part in the program, a student must agree to take a job from Nexstar if one is offered and sign a two-year agreement to work at any of Nexstar's television stations.
Considering that producers used to stay with the smaller Nexstar stations for only six months to a year, Schuler says, it's worth the investment. "It's a minimal expense in the grand scheme of what it was costing us to recruit and train producers."
Syracuse University is taking a similar approach by trying to give students on-the-job training. Broadcast journalism professor and former television executive Dow Smith created a class that teams students with a working producer at one of several area television stations. By the end of the semester, most of the students are able to produce an entire professional newscast under the official producer's supervision.
Smith says in addition to journalism and production, the weekly classroom instruction deals with management and people skills. He tells students they can't walk into a newsroom and start bossing the anchors around. "That's a little hard to do when you have a couple years' experience and you're supervising an anchor with 30 years'. It doesn't work."
Several people responding to our survey likened the producer/anchor relationship to a marriage. One called it "a marriage that is perpetually in trouble" and suggested that the best therapy is good communication. That being the case, many news directors take on the role of facilitator in managing this May/December relationship. But if news directors are forced to take sides, the anchors may not like the outcome.
In our survey, we asked news directors if they are more likely to side with the producer or the anchor in conflicts over newscast content. Even among news directors who said their early evening anchors have considerably more experience than their early evening producers, producers had more support.
Associate News Director Janice Gin of KTVU in San Francisco-Oakland isn't surprised by that seeming contradiction. She says many news directors constantly communicate their vision for newscasts with the producer, often leaving the anchor out of the loop. Gin says that doesn't help a relationship that is already lacking trust. She adds, "A manager needs to work very hard to explain all aspects of what's going on in the newsroom to both sides to help build that relationship."
To find an example of how the experience gap can be overcome by the team approach to putting on a newscast, you only need to get up early and travel north.
Alaska's KTUU is sometimes called the "800-pound gorilla" of the Anchorage market. The morning news enjoys a 52 household share of the viewers watching at 6 a.m. But it's not the ratings that make the difference between a fun or futile work environment for anchor Sheila Balistreri. "When I have a good producer, now that I have one, I love coming to work."
You might think Balistreri is an anchor blessed with a producer who's loaded with experience, but that's not the case. Echo Gamel is just starting her second year in TV news, putting her a good couple of decades behind Balistreri in the experience department. Gamel worked on a college newspaper but had no idea what a TV news producer did when she was offered a job at KTUU. Gamel says if she had known more about the traditional producer job description, "it probably would have freaked me out. I probably wouldn't have considered applying for the job if I had known the amount of responsibility that was involved."
Without any preconceived notions about how things are supposed to work, Gamel eagerly went along with the idea that teamwork, not the producer, is the key element in building a successful newscast. "It's not my show per se; it's our show, and everybody's input is very important." While Gamel begins working on the morning newscast at 11 p.m., Balistreri says final decisions are made after 4 a.m. when she and reporter Rhonda McBride come in. "The reporter, the anchor and the producer all need to work together to decide what's best for the show," Balistreri says. Each member of the team puts aside personal goals and preferences, even if that means a lot of late changes.
Balistreri realizes nothing lasts forever and says she wouldn't blame Gamel for wanting to move to another newscast and a better shift. In the meantime, she's doing everything in her power to make sure Gamel's job is as easy as possible. (Case in point: When I called Gamel to interview her, it was Balistreri who answered Gamel's phone and went to get her.)
For her part, Gamel now believes she has a solid grasp on what a successful producer does. She can't understand why a job that requires such a unique combination of production, management and organizational skills is often seen as an entry-level stepping stone.
"First and foremost, producers are journalists," she says. "I think people kind of forget about that."###