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American Journalism Review
The Clash Between Work and Family  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE BUSINESS OF BROADCASTING    
From AJR,   April 1994

The Clash Between Work and Family   

Newsrooms try to cope with employees' personal needs.

By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.     


Maternity leave, child care and unexpected family crises are putting a strain on TV newsroom operations and budgets, frequently disrupting work schedules and often irritating fellow employees.

"I think it is good that people have priorities other than work, and family is the best priority you can have," says Bill Vance, news director at WBRZ in Baton Rouge. "But it is a problem when that priority negatively affects your news operation by causing morale problems and placing an unfair burden on coworkers."

Mary Loftus, news director at WIBW in Topeka, says family emergencies are especially tough on small staffs like hers. "We have 16 people, not including sports and weather, and whenever someone is absent we all have to pick up the slack," she says. "It's sometimes difficult to hide your impatience and frustration."

Assignment editors and producers frequently take the brunt when a family situation drains their newsgathering resources. "It really puts my supervisors in a bind," says Lee Giles, whose 26-year tenure as news director at WISH in Indianapolis is the longest in a major market. "Sometimes there's a question about the validity of the emergency and that can cause a lot of grumbling and morale problems."

Vance, who in 30 years of management has also run newsrooms in Detroit, Dallas, Philadelphia, Columbus and Providence, says adjusting to personal problems has become more complicated because more women with children are now working.

"This isn't sexist but more a reflection of society," Vance says. "Thirty years ago child care was strictly a woman's job. Today, men are just as involved, and working parents are taking turns to spread the responsibility and cost out to both employers."

The cost is reflected in newsroom budgets in which money often is earmarked to cover family situations and emergencies at home rather than workaday newsgathering efforts.

Some news operations have made it easier for working parents by offering job sharing arrangements (see "Divide & Conquer," June 1992). Earlier this year, NBC News did something unusual for a network by hiring two women with young children, Lisa Rudolph and Victoria Corderi, to share one correspondent's position for two newsmagazine shows. Both Vance and Giles made similar arrangements in their newsrooms a few years ago.

"In Columbus, I had only enough money for one reporter," Vance says. "I did a split deal with two women. Both our medical reporter and business reporter worked 20 hours a week. I got images and material in two areas for the price of one, and the women got to spend more time with their families."

Giles created a part time, freelance reporting position in 1991 to help a veteran reporter who had two small children. She cut back her schedule to three days but kept some of her benefits. The freelancer works on a per diem basis without benefits.

"We've had three or four people fill that freelance position and a couple have later been added to the staff," Giles says. "We've found this particularly valuable when an experienced reporter moves into the area because of a spouse's job and is happy to work part time for family reasons."

Giles recently encountered a situation that has become a familiar one in TV newsrooms. His new weekend coanchor told him she was pregnant. Unfortunately, she is due during the station's busiest time – May – when the Indianapolis 500 and its attendant hoopla takes over the city.

"With her age group, we're quite aware something like this could happen," Giles says. "Sure, we'd prefer she was on the air in May, but we'll live with it and she'll be back."

The anchor, Anne Marie Tiernan, says the reaction from Giles and other managers has made her feel better about the company. "It was touchy at first, since I had just been promoted and would be out in our biggest month," she says. "I absolutely see the problem for management. But if I did everything the company wanted, I wouldn't have a personal life at all."

Mary Loftus empathizes with both Tiernan and Giles. Eleven years ago when she was coanchoring the major newscasts at Topeka's NBC station, KSNT, she was fired a few days after her second child was born. She filed a discrimination suit that was settled seven years later in her favor.

"I'm more sympathetic of both sides than I would have been a few years ago," says Loftus, who still anchors the news for WIBW. "Management must deal fairly with employees. But, some employees have the feeling of entitlement and that rankles me."

Giles believes the best employee-employer relationship is one in which both sides are willing to bend. "We try our best to be as flexible in our reaction to their personal problems as we expect them to be to our problems," he says. "If you're not flexible, you tend to get run over." l

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