AJR logo     


From AJR,   September 1998  issue

Donít Forget About the News   

Many young TV journalists are more interested in technique than current affairs.

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

Young people entering local TV news these days have more technical expertise than ever but less knowledge about journalism and current events. That's the word from the news directors who do the hiring in the entry-level markets. They also say that a majority of the applicants don't understand the television news business and how it works.

"They are less news-oriented and more interested in just being on TV," says Dave Cupp, news director of WVIR in Charlottesville, Virginia. "They know how to use a camera and how to edit, but a lot of them don't really care about news."

Grant Uitti of WICD in Champaign, Illinois, agrees. "They look at this job as being easier than it actually is," he says. "They don't read very much, and they don't keep up on current affairs."

The new hires also don't seem to understand that getting news requires more than just using the telephone, says Elliot Eki of KOBI in Medford, Oregon. "And there's such a reliance on technology that when the technology fails, they don't know how to dig themselves out of the holes."

The criticism is general, and the news directors say they can still find qualified newcomers with the right motivation and attitude. It just takes more time, especially with the high number of applicants.

"Fortunately, there are still a pretty good percentage of applicants coming out of school who do know what's going on, but not as many as there were when I first became a news director four years ago," Uitti says.

It's not surprising that the news directors partially blame colleges for not properly preparing their graduates on what to expect in a local TV newsroom. Such criticism has been rampant for years. "Some journalism schools are doing an injustice by not giving their students a true range of what we do, day in and day out," says Eki.

Glen Fortinberry of WHAG in Hagerstown, Maryland, is particularly critical of graduates with degrees in communications. "That doesn't mean much to me, except the students know how to use appliances," he says. There is far too much emphasis on technology in the schools, Fortinberry says. And he believes this focus starts long before college.

"I talked at a grade school recently and these third- or fourth-graders have this little closed- circuit newscast," he said. "They all know how to work the camera and get the pictures and comb their hair, but they didn't know what journalism was.

"They were surprised when I told them that English and mathematics were important in TV news," Fortinberry adds. "I know they're young, but their impression is that it's all fun and games and show business, and I think that attitude has carried over into the colleges."

Fortinberry and the others are reluctant to criticize any specific college. They say good and bad applicants can emerge from the same program. They hire graduates from both the traditional and the elite journalism schools, as well as the students from regional universities and community colleges. "The difference is the individual and not necessarily the school," says Miles Resnick, who has been a news director in Corpus Christi, Texas, and Portland, Maine, in the last five years.

There continues to be no shortage of applicants, even though the starting salaries range from $15,000 to $17,000, depending on the position and the experience of the individual. The news directors say they average at least one unsolicited resume and/or videotape a day and get dozens more when they advertise a position.

"I had more than 100 applications for a reporter opening, and some were as far away as England, Japan and Portland, Maine," says Eki, whose station is in the 142nd largest market. Cupp says he hired about 5 percent of the people who applied in 1997 when he had 17 openings, an abnormally high number.

Turnover varies, but even the news directors in smaller markets say they try to sign their reporters, producers and videographers to two-year contracts. "I can't afford to keep being the farm team for the world," says Cupp, whose station is in the 194th largest market. Producer positions are still the most difficult to fill, while there is an oversaturation of young men and women wanting to become sportscasters.

When interviewing would-be TV journalists, Resnick is turned off immediately when asked about the market size of his station because "that shows they haven't done their homework and are overimpressed by market size."

Uitti says he is disappointed by how many applicants are so "out of it" in a job interview. "They have no concept about what the business is all about and no idea of what they should be doing in a job interview," he says. "If they can't think like a journalist, how can they be one?"