If you’ve noticed new faces on your local TV news screens, you’re not alone.
Like other sectors of the economy, Central New York’s newsrooms are dealing with high turnover and a shrinking pool of applicants to fill openings.
Here’s why even some of the most popular personalities are turning their backs on the profession.
By Ken Sturtz
During Ron Lombard’s career as a news director — first a decade with NewsChannel 9 and then 19 years at Spectrum — he hired countless journalists. At first, he could post an opening for a reporter and expect a stack of a hundred resumes on his desk.
“In my last couple of years hiring people we’d have the same kind of reporter opening and I might have a dozen applications and maybe half of those people would be real viable candidates,” he said.
Television news in Central New York faces the dual problem of high turnover and a dwindling pipeline of talent to fill openings as journalists — driven by low pay, other opportunities and a desire for a better work-life balance — decamp to larger markets or switch careers entirely.
Since the pandemic upended life two years ago, at least 18 anchors, reporters, producers and meteorologists have left NewsChannel 9, CNYCentral and Spectrum News. And although more than two dozen new hires have entered the Syracuse TV market during that same period, all three news organizations still have multiple job openings posted.
It’s an issue not unique to Central New York or TV news. The country’s labor market has remained tight and job openings and worker turnover are near record highs.
But while the pandemic has certainly exacerbated the problem, its causes are more deeply rooted in the nature of the TV news industry, experts say.
“And it appears that this year some of those problems are catching up with the industry,” said Bob Papper, a journalism researcher and SU adjunct professor who oversees the Radio Television Digital News Association’s annual industry survey.
One of the most cited reasons for leaving TV news is the generally low pay. There’s a disconnect with the public about how much people in local TV news make, the assumption being that the excitement and glamour of the profession translate into a large paycheck. Many experienced reporters and anchors, especially in larger cities, do make a comfortable living.
But the reality is that many reporters entering TV news struggle to make ends meet early in their careers. Papper’s industry survey places the average starting pay in local TV news at $30,500.
“That’s painfully little money these days especially compared to the typical student debt that most graduates are leaving school with,” Papper said. “So, it’s a huge problem.”
Journalism has long had relatively high turnover, and entry level wages have never been substantial, especially in smaller media markets.
“There’s always been a lineup of prospective employees interested in the business and because of that there hasn’t been a strong impetus to raise salaries and improve conditions,” Papper said.
The supply of new employees began shrinking with the onset of the Great Recession more than a decade ago as students, worried about finding a job after graduation, shied away from the news business. Enrollment in journalism and mass communications programs in the U.S. declined for years before leveling off recently.
At the same time, hiring managers in TV still needed to fill a similar number of positions. Job losses in the news business are no secret, but losses have mostly been concentrated with newspapers and radio. Employment at TV stations remained relatively stable.
In addition to people leaving the industry for other opportunities, Lombard said he’s noticed the TV industry in Central New York aging over the last 20 years. Many seasoned journalists reached the end of their careers and retired. Excluding full-time anchors and meteorologists, fewer than a dozen TV reporters with at least five years of experience in the market remain.
“It created a drain on the talent pool and that in turn created a lot of opportunities for younger journalists that they never would have had 20 years ago to move up a lot more rapidly,” he said.
Traditionally, reporters started out at a station in a small market to gain experience, said Michael Riecke, a broadcasting professor at SUNY Oswego who worked as a reporter and anchor at NewsChannel 9 from 2001 to 2008.
After a year or two, they’d typically move to a medium-sized market, such as Syracuse or Rochester, and receive a pay bump. From there they might eventually land a job at a station in one of the larger TV markets in the country.
“Because of the nature of the business, reporters were often climbing,” Riecke said. “So, this idea of people moving frequently, every couple of years, is not all that uncommon.”
But it doesn’t really happen that way anymore. Stations in larger markets have increasingly responded to the shortage of talent by scooping up reporters from smaller markets or even right out of college. Riecke said many of his students now graduate and start out in a market the size of Syracuse, which would have been unheard of decades ago.
The shift has caused medium-sized and smaller markets to have an increasingly difficult time recruiting people.
“Now all markets including networks are competing for the same talent pool, because just about everybody other than the biggest markets in the country are hiring people right out of college,” Lombard said. “And that’s a big change.”
News directors at NewsChannel 9 and CNYCentral did not respond to requests for interviews and their respective corporate owners did not answer requests to discuss hiring.
Lombard, who retired from Spectrum in 2020, said news directors in smaller markets may have fewer applicants to choose from, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less talented. It does mean, however, that news directors are often hiring based on potential rather than a proven track record. Anytime a news director hires based on potential, they have to be prepared to train and cultivate that reporter to bring them along, Lombard said.
Still, hiring inexperienced talent could be problematic because of the nature of the industry. It might take a year or two for a reporter to hone their skills. If that person had no ties to the area, Lombard said he typically knew up front that they didn’t plan to stay in the market for more than a few years before moving on.
“If you’re fortunate enough to hire somebody into this market who maybe has ties to this market and you know that they have potential to be a long-term person, that’s like gold,” he said.
Aside from low pay, TV news can also present a challenging work-life balance.
The schedule can be undesirable, especially for people with families. Working the main shift in TV means working from 2 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. five days a week, Papper said. The other option is typically a morning shift, which means rising hours before sunrise.
“And that’s kind of as good as it gets,” he said. “There’s always been that difficulty.”
Newer reporters aren’t usually that lucky and often endure working nights, weekends and most holidays. That typically means their weekend off doesn’t come until Monday and Tuesday.
Work-life balance concern
Decades ago market size was generally “the all-powerful criteria” reporters would use in determining whether they wanted to work at a station, Lombard said. The larger the market, the better. But the concept of market size has less meaning now, partially because reporters have more mobility, but also because they’re interested in different things.
The newer generation of journalists is much more concerned with a good work-life balance than past generations, Lombard said. For example, when he started in TV in the mid 1980s employees would have thought nothing of working six days a week, but that’s changed over time.
Newsroom managers have taken note that younger employees want to know what a station’s culture is like and how management will help reporters grow professionally.
“They’re a lot savvier about looking at those things,” Lombard said.
The onset of the pandemic upended the work-life balance for many journalists, bringing with it new pressures and challenges.
“Working in news can be grueling,” Riecke said. “I think during the pandemic it’s one of the industries where the work has become in many ways more challenging, especially if you’re a broadcast reporter.”
Many TV reporters found themselves working from home, which posed technical and logistical issues. For example, Riecke said, try conducting an interview while your roommates are making breakfast. That isolation also meant journalists lacked the ability to collaborate with colleagues at work or bounce ideas off each other, which is a crucial element of journalism.
One of the bigger drivers of frustration during the pandemic has been dealing with people being out sick. Print publications can sometimes produce fewer pages and websites can publish fewer stories, but TV stations have to fill the same newscasts each day. That means everyone has to pick up the slack when the station is short-handed. Riecke said he’s heard from former students who had to take extra shifts for sick co-workers and went weeks at a time without a day off.
Between trouble getting time off and concerns about travel spreading COVID-19, many reporters and producers also went months without seeing their families.
And on top of that, the public’s trust in journalism has declined over the years, although less so for local journalism. Regardless, many reporters faced increased harassment during the pandemic in the form of angry emails, phone messages and comments on social media, Riecke said. That can be difficult to deal with, especially for younger reporters, he said.
“It’s added up to this perfect recipe of people questioning if it’s really the right career choice for them unfortunately,” Riecke said.
With demand in the labor market high, many journalists in Central New York have chosen to leave TV for other career opportunities. They’ve left for jobs in marketing, advertising, public relations and education that come with lucrative salaries and offer the promise of a significantly better work-life balance.
Papper said today’s journalists are far more employable because their skill sets are no longer applicable to just news and a handful of related fields. Companies in many industries are interested in hiring those skill sets because almost every business now produces content.
“The kids coming out of the programs today are not likely to have problems getting jobs,” he said. “And so, the industry is going to have to compete harder, certainly for the best kids or it’s not going to get them.”
Newsrooms industry wide have made efforts over time to provide a better work-life balance, he said, although some things, such as schedules, are difficult to improve. His survey found that pay has been rising. Local TV news salaries rose 3.5% in 2020, up sharply from a 0.9% increase in 2019.
Spectrum has relied on a different approach for telling stories and connecting with the community to help it attract and keep talent, said Alexander Quince, a senior news director who oversees newsrooms across Upstate New York.
“What has served us well during this time is really having a model that is unique in terms of how we’re serving Central New York,” he said. “It’s the community telling the reporters who are embedded in that community what is impactful to them, what is it that they want to know about.”
By embedding reporters in the communities they cover and having the communities drive news coverage, Quince said Spectrum is making its reporting stand out. And he says applicants are drawn to that kind of reporting.
News companies are being aggressive about retention in other ways. Stations often invest considerable time and effort in a new reporter only to lose them to a competitor. So, larger companies are often willing to let a reporter transfer to another one of its stations. The reporter keeps their vacation time and seniority and the company keeps an experienced journalist.
“That’s so positive for the business because it keeps good people in it,” Lombard said.
Whether the changes made by TV stations are successful at attracting and retaining more talent long-term remains to be seen. But even with improvements in the industry, Riecke is quick to point out that TV news has always favored those who love their work.
“One thing I tell my students is you’ll learn pretty quickly if this is a job of passion because it has to be,” Riecke said. “If you’re not passionate about journalism and reporting, you won’t last very long.” ❖
Featured image: Joey Sweener