TV News: The Future of the MMJ Journalist

I would bet that most j-school students and their parents didn't know that when they graduate their first year compensation will likely be not much more than minimum wage. If you are a Mizzou, ASU, or Syracuse grad it can be hard to believe and a very tough pill to swallow if you are saddled with $20k in student loan debt.

Minimum wage in many urban cities in the US is pushing $13-$15+/hour. Multimedia Journalists who are accepting roles making $30k a year are earning the equivalent of $15/hour or less depending on their schedule and contract. This gets significantly reduced when:

  • You aren't offered Clothing and Make-up allowances or they are only a fraction of what you need to spend, Most allowances (if offered) are $1,500/yr or less.

  • Required to use personal vehicle for business use (depending on reimbursement schedule and use). You can always document mileage and claim it as a business expense.

  • Hire a talent agent to secure employment on their behalf. Considered a status symbol by many young journalists, the pre-tax cost could be 10-12% of your salary!

There are other variables that can have an impact on the young journalist's ability to stay above water financially. Other expenses such as child care and cost of housing in some expensive urban areas can significantly put a $30k year wage earner under water. Did you know that if they were a single parent, $30k/year is just slightly above what the US Census Dept sets at the poverty level, and this is before childcare expenses?!

There are both internal and external industry reasons for the current pressures on wage in this space and they are sometimes common in other declining industries as well, like Higher Education or Retail. The reasons include:

  1. Declining viewership and lower revenue. The competition coming from streaming media sources has given the news seeking audience alternatives on every single screen - phone, tablet, desktop, smartTV. Traditional networks got significantly behind the curve and may never catch up with some significant acquisitions. Also stacked against the industry is an ever changing demo as Millennials and iGen's begin to make up the majority minority of the potential audience. Not only are they tuned in to alternative channels but they aren't the slightest interested in the content flowing from CNN, Fox, or MSNBC.

  2. Non value added and redundant expenses in the procurement of talent. In terms of the redundant expenses, think about the structure and costs. Most organizations have national / regional talent acquisition, local /regional HR, in addition to others involved in the recruitment process - Assistant News Directors, Executive Producers, News Directors, and VP/GM's. All of these salaries and related expenses are hitting administrative and payroll lines on the general ledger. Administrative cost and overhead have a negative impact on production payroll. Be clear, I'm not saying these roles aren't needed. What I'm implying is that there are significant redundancies from my experience and perspective.

  3. There is a lack of focus on retention primarily because it's a lot easier (but more expensive) for management to switch out talent than it is to make systematic or strategic changes. Think about this, most agreements are 3 years in length. Of those 36 months, up to 12 can be spent focused on either resigning or planned attrition. The cost involved in those processes are significant in terms of direct payroll but also in on-boarding, offloading, retiring, severance, and ramp up time. According to SHRM, the cost of turnover can be as high as 50% of the employees' annual salary. The industry is intentionally adding 50% of their payroll costs very 3 years through planned attrition.

  4. First let me say that agency work is HARD work. There is a ton of grind and not always reward. It takes years to cultivate clients relationships. For the very high end and the difficult to place, there is much value. BUT, the agency model is tired, maybe becoming obsolete. It can reach into the pocket of the talent and also raise the payroll expenses of the media outlets and local TV stations. If an agent secures you employment and gets you a salary 5-10% higher than you could of yourself, here's what's really happening; the station's payroll is increased by 15% (salary plus the cost of your benefits), the first 10-12% of your salary (pre-tax) goes to pay the agent, and in the end, the additional 5-10% of pay earned doesn't cover your costs and the station's payroll increases requiring pay cuts and job eliminations somewhere else. Additionally there is much less flexibility in the compensation model today than there ever has been. The reporting of payroll data and the fact that supply exceeds demand has systematically kept salary ranges flat or declining in the US for the last 5-6 years.

So, the above examples are a bit over simplified and don't apply to every situation and fortunately for young talent, they are trends in their favor. The consolidation of talent agencies started a year ago and more and more young journalists are coming out of school and filling roles without assistance outside of their university placement offices. Talent Acquisition teams within the large media outlets are getting more robust and being staffed and managed by People Strategy professionals not just former News Directors or GM's. This is helping break up the 'good ole boy network' that has been prevalent for decades. No longer is the hiring strategy YOUNG HOT and CHEAP. Candidates are reflecting their communities and audiences.

IMPORTANT TAKEAWAY: Although these young MMJ's are landing roles without agents and they are poised to take positions at a lower salary than prior generations with agents, they can still manage to come out ahead because of the 10-15% pre-tax salary savings over the 25 or 26 yr old with an 8%-10% agent fee over the life of a contract.

There are positive trends that I see in the industry and there are some things a recent college grad can focus on to stay above water and differentiate themselves. This differentiation will consistently put you at the top of the pay range. First the trends:

  • The role of MMJ (multimedia journalist) is still a rather new phenomenon to an industry that operates in a similar fashion as it did 75 years ago. This role is basically a newsroom on wheels with reporters writing, shooting, hosting, and editing their own 'stand ups' and 'packages'. This eliminates significant cost in the video production and overhead. The equivalent in the restaurant industry would be a role as the host, chef, and wait staff all rolled into one! For a reporter in their mid-30's or older, these skills are mostly out of their wheelhouse because they've had the luxury of a producer and a photog their entire career. Most recent grads coming out of top J-schools have mad skills in these areas. They don't see these roles as a step back like older reporters do. They see these roles as opportunities. This is a evolutionary process and the 23 yr old Mizzou grad has already evolved to a very superior place than graduates as little as 5-10 years ago.

  • Compensation of on-air talent at the high end of the comp structure are getting squeezed harder than they are on the low end. Real dollars are coming out of the anchor roles, especially in top 50 markets. Everyday a 45-50 yr old anchor is being replaced with talent making $100k LESS or in some cases not being replaced at all. As a mid-50's talent manager, this is extremely difficult to watch but it does create significant down market opportunity in two ways.

  1. First, it's obviously lifting up talent that has been road blocked and seriously hungry for opportunity, experience and advancement. Let's face it, without more reps and live experience, advancement is very very difficult.

  2. Next, as the payroll costs and the organization become flatter (not fatter), this will create an opportunity to put more MMJ's on the street. The result of more feet on the street will be a more locally driven news organization, exactly what viewers are screaming for.

Finally, how should you differentiate yourself if you are a recent j-school grad or are trying to move into that second career position upmarket? My recommendation would be to focus on:

  • Experience and content. The more playing time you get, the better you will be at improving your game. Forget about the top 20 market opportunity where you sit on the bench. Find an opportunity that get you as much writing, producing, hosting, and editing experience you can out of school. I can show you dozens of big school grads in big markets that are career stagnant. Also, and equally important, is that you are going to need content. The challenges get nearly insurmountable without fresh and high quality content. It is without question the greatest obstacle to overcome.

  • Packaging - reel, resume, LinkedIn and social media. First, clean up your social media. Leave the bikini and booze pictures for another day. The stuff lives forever and literally one screen cap later, nothing is private. Your packaging is your brand and the more time you spend packaging your reel, resume, and LinkedIn profile, the more professional your brand. We have to get the door open to shine and these are the elements to get the door open. Check out this recent post on topic: "Surviving An Industry In Decline"

  • Networking, it all starts with your "Elevator Pitch". It is simple in concept, difficult to have the discipline to practice. This is so critical to building your network (your next role is 98% likely to come out of your network) that I've posted the do's and don'ts here:

This is one of the very first things I focus on with my clients and your most important networking tool. The best thing you can do is check out this article on topic "Your Elevator Pitch in 3 Simple Steps".

The three steps are simply:

1. Who You Are: This is a very brief overview; "I'm a University of Missouri-Columbia grad and I've been working as multimedia journalist at WXYZ TV since 2014"

2. What You've Done/Your Skills: "My ability to develop a story from concept to camera has been recognized as Emmy Award winning and along the way I've built a social media audience of 30k followers."

3. Where You Are Going/What's Next: "Having reached my goals of being the lead reporter in ___ (market), I'm ready to expand the scale and scope of my stories to a larger audience, specifically a top 10 market."

You need to use this pitch every time you get the question "So Susie, what are you up to these days?" or when you get an opportunity to introduce yourself while networking. Sometimes this can also be called a "reason for leaving statement" or "my reason for change" if you have recently left a job or company.

In summary, the first few steps can be brutal in any career but I've found many surprised to learn the pay scale in broadcast TV news. Between the industry and competition from above, at peer level, and below, starting salaries are contracting until the industry finds an equilibrium. These roles are VERY demanding in terms of hours and discipline, many times responding to a daily alarm clock going off at 2:00 am. Personal lives get put on hold to pursue the passion and that is admirable. The challenge is to not lose hope and never ever give in or give up!

About Mike McNamara:

Mike has held C-Suite, Executive and Senior Sales, Marketing, Business Development, and General Management roles with Equifax, Cox Enterprises, WW Grainger, and Federal-Mogul Corporation. Mike has led sales, service and operations organizations of over 1,500 associates and accountable for P&L responsibility in excess of $250M.

Dedicated to giving back, Mike formed The MBAR Group in 2009 with the sole intent of providing pro bono career and business consulting services to the underprivileged and underserved. Today as founder and CEO of TalentBlvd, he coaches a

number of high profile business and media personalities as well as holding advisory board positions guiding a number of multimedia and small business startups.

Mike earned his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan State University. He is a past chapter President of the American Marketing Association. Mike and family split time between their adopted state of Missouri and family home in NW Michigan where their philanthropic causes include The Kingdom House – St Louis, BACN in Benzonia, MI., and Samaritan’s Purse, Boone NC.

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