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Breaking into the TV-news business

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I’ll start with some general advice, tried-and-truisms from twenty-four years in the business, the last fourteen helping to launch hundreds of Bachelor of Fine Arts in broadcast journalism into the always-daunting, ever-changing, and ever-diffuse landscape of broadcast news.

 

You have to want this! You must want this more than anything, and that means wanting this career more than the “other half” of life, your non-work life. It may mean leaving a boyfriend or a girlfriend, your family, and—almost certainly—the place where you grew up.

 

In this business, it is all about getting the first job. You are no one until you get that first job and show that you “get it.”

 

“Getting it” means no less than this: you show up to play every day. You likely are showing up in a far-flung place, at a laughable salary, yet with great enthusiasm, and always putting the show and your colleagues first.

 

That’s a high bar. But until you’ve done that—not in college, but at a real TV station, in a real news shop—you are no one.

 

Here’s the good news: once you’ve shown you “get it,” once you’ve put in your time in the bushes, perhaps for as little as a year—perhaps four years, perhaps four months—you are ready to jump, maybe trampoline, to a much more desirable place, a livable wage and a bigger stage.

 

I begin with my own “first-job story,” and after that, four illustrative accounts from award-winning, successful students and colleagues— from a first-year producer to journalists with twenty-five-plus years’ experience.

 

Enjoy … and learn.

Like my friend and student Preston Phillips below, I began late. I wanted to be a sportscaster—the next Howard Cosell—but got bit by the accounting bug. I even passed the difficult CPA exam and traveled the world—first-class—on my company’s dime. I worked for one of the best firms in America, Johnson & Johnson.

 

But I was unhappy, and I was arguably the profession’s worst auditor.

 

Trite lesson here—money and stature can’t buy happiness, much less get you out of bed.

 

I left security and leaped without a net. I went to graduate school, garnered a master’s degree in broadcast journalism, loaded up my car with both a sports reel and a news reel, and hit the road.

 

The industry has changed dramatically, but some things stay the same: An old-fashioned road trip still offers you the unique chance of a face-to-face with producers and news directors and will grow you up in a hurry: rejections aplenty, but they stiffen your resolve. In Bakersfield, they giggled at my New York accent; the Monterey guy made me wait two and a half hours in his lobby and simply grabbed my tape.

 

It was a Thursday night around midnight, on my Westwood, California, friend’s floor. I had been plying my accounting talents a final time to stay afloat—assisting in the management of the finances of entertainment clients like Bruce Willis and Sly Stallone.

 

I was discouraged.

 

I loaded up my toothbrush, my one suit, $150, and two Bruce Hornsby cassettes and drove the Mitsubishi Cordia four hours, much of it down a dimly lit two-lane highway, to perhaps a final market— Yuma, Arizona.

 

I crashed for a few hours at Motel 6 and proceeded to cold call the three Yuma/El Centro stations. No luck in the morning at the ABC or NBC affiliates.

 

Here’s some advice. Try a Friday afternoon—or any day—when the gal who had the job you want has quit that morning.

 

Of course, I didn’t know that—but by going to the CBS Yuma/El Centro station that Friday afternoon (the station no longer exists), I gave myself the chance to be the live pulse and the person in the right place at the right time.

 

The opening was for the Yuma bureau chief, four to five minutes of news to be on the microwave by 4:00 p.m. every day—at $6.25 an hour. Say goodbye to sports, to Lala-land, and to accounting. Hello, TV news career.

 

I stayed in Yuma for nine months. I covered a wild-burro roundup in the wilderness with real-life cowboys and produced a feature on a man who insisted his town of Felicity, California, was the provable center of the universe—Felicity, California, population 2. The founder and his wife, named Felicity, later sponsored the basketball team I coached.

 

Happiness was not Yuma in the rearview mirror. Yuma launched me, as I today help to launch so many aspiring journalists in their careers toward their Yumas. Here are a few of their launch lessons.

 

Every job I ever got was with the assistance of someone that I knew in some way. Always find an “in”; otherwise you’re just a piece of paper on someone’s desk—and you’re lucky if you find the right desk.

 

Be assertive and keep putting yourself in the mind of your potential employer—but stop short of annoying.

 

One of my favorite stories is the Bob Bartosik story. Bob knows I love to tell this story. In 2003, when I was in a hiring position at XETV in San Diego, it was a very busy season, and there were no jobs open. Bob Bartosik knew someone at XETV (a faint acquaintance), and he got in touch with me. I told Bob I was busy and didn’t have time, but to stay in touch.

 

Bob did.

 

About a month later—after I had forgotten about Bob—he got hold of me. Just an email asking if we could meet.

 

I had time and so we did.

 

Bob was an audio operator. He’s also a musician—sax player—a good one. Although Bob was a good guy and seemed like he would be a good fit at XETV, I simply did not have any openings for him. Bob thanked me for my time, and I told him to keep in touch.

 

Bob did.

 

Every so often, Bob would email me—always with the tone of “just touching base”—never aggressive, never annoying—just simple reminders of his existence and willingness to work.

 

I’d usually write back, “Thanks for staying in touch, but I don’t have any openings right now.”

 

Bob’s persistence would finally pay off.

 

When a part-time opening came about, the first person I thought of hiring was Bob.

 

Bob ideally wanted a full-time job, but one just did not exist at the time. Bob proved to be an excellent audio operator, however, and when the time came, I was happy to promote him to full time.

 

Whenever people ask for advice on getting a job, I like to tell the Bob Bartosik story.

 

Remind people politely that you exist, and don’t give up.

 

About a year ago, I found out about a job opening at CNN— through someone I knew, of course.

 

I contacted CNN, but the job available had been put on hold.

 

I continued to stay in touch with CNN—just like Bob.

 

Almost a full year later, I’m now working as a director at CNN— directing shows you know. And I owe some royalties on my search method to Bob.

 

I waited a few years after graduating—long backstory there—not advisable, but it is what it is. Then, at twenty-five, I decided to launch my TV-news career.

 

My first news job was with the NBC affiliate KIEM, News Channel 3 in Eureka, California, and market #195. After searching on TVJobs.com for months, I finally found a job in California, where I wanted to begin my career. I was always told that if you wanted to stay working in California, you started there.

 

Several weeks before I applied, I put together a quick anchor/ reporter résumé tape. I had a buddy with a nice video camera shoot five standups with various outfits, then I put together a couple of hard and- significant news packages: one about gas prices and the economy and the other about the military and the war overseas. They were quick and easy and focused on major topics.

 

I then went to a local community college where I had taken classes years earlier. I asked, and they let me sit on the desk and do a quick anchor tape with one of the women who was an aspiring anchor in the class. I had a professional edit the résumé tape, and then I sent it off after applying to the job on TVJobs.com.

 

Now, I really wanted to anchor—most of us do. When I first applied, I applied to the anchor opening and didn’t hear back. Then I said, “What the heck,” and applied to the entry-level reporter job and got the interview, then got the job. I wanted to start in a very small market so I could not only learn from mistakes on-air, but would be a big fish in a small pond and be able to rise to the top quickly. After about a month of reporting, I was promoted to main anchor.

 

So, a little lesson here.

 

Even if you apply for a job that’s not exactly what you want, as long as you get your foot in the door, you never know what can eventually happen. A small market as your first job is key to enjoying a quality career. Veterans in the business respect the fact that you paid your dues because many of them did the same. My first market is also where I met my wife, who works alongside me in San Diego today. My advice: start in a small market and work your way up from there. Take your time. Don’t be in a rush. And the end result will be whatever you make it. Remember … it’s not where you are. It’s where you end up.

 

The story of how I got my first news job is multifaceted. But the key was that while my college friends and colleagues were out almost every night trying to dent the beer inventories of taverns within dorm-stumbling distance, I was toiling away at two internships: one at the local PBS station, the other at the ABC O & O in Fresno, California, in the news department.

 

I was particularly fascinated with the assignment editor: part journalist deciding what was going to make the show that night and part Louis Depalma handing out orders to reporters whose familiar faces I watched nightly, while verbally combating dispatched news crews over the two-way. The energy in that room was visceral, and I wanted in.

 

Once I graduated, like most college students, I was smacked in the face with the reality of no classes, scattered acquaintances, and eager parents proud of their freshly educated offspring.

 

I did what any journalism student would do—I got a gig as a bank teller. Luckily, and this is the key to college, the two internships that I had worked paid off almost simultaneously. I received calls from the PBS station, as well as the ABC O & O, with job offers on the same day. But I also received one more call. While in my senior year at Fresno State, I had driven seven Wednesday nights to the Stanford campus to take Kaplan courses for the LSAT, taken the test, and applied to law school. While basking in the glow of two real TV entities wanting me on their team, I actually forgot that I had done this. That is, until I opened that day’s mail.

 

I get it if this sounds like something you saw on television, but the fact is that I also received an acceptance letter to law school that same day. Now I had to make a decision.

 

But when I recalled the energy of that newsroom tucked in California’s Central Valley, the decision was a no-brainer. I chose the path I was clearly meant to walk. I became the weekend assignment editor/weekday planning editor, while joining the production staff at the PBS local.

 

That decision would prove wise, as the consolidation of the newsgathering process has morphed into essentially a one-person operation in a lot of DMAs.

 

So, that’s the story of how I got my first job in news. I cannot overstate the importance of internships, of getting to know the environment, and of not being afraid to be noticed. Trust me, management is watching, and they want to help you succeed.

 

In real estate, they teach you “location, location, location.” In the news business, it’s “networking, networking, networking.”

 

It’s easy to doze off when your professor brings in a guest speaker, but my advice: listen up—meet up. Before you is one more person you know in the business, and you can’t know too many people.

 

On this day, fully awake, I noticed that our guest speaker worked where I grew up, so I had the comfort and connection to strike up a conversation and probe him about working in my “home” market.

 

He invited me to look at the station and eventually to intern. During that internship, I asked a million questions, learned every area of the newsroom, and gravitated to the people who were willing to help me improve rather than use me as a “go-for.”

 

I kept in touch with the people I met there through Facebook, Twitter, email, and smoke signals—anything to stay on the minds of my “new friends.”

 

A few months went by, and I noticed a listing on the website of that hometown station for a web producer. As an intern, my main job was to post content to social media sites and the website, so I was hoping my irritating “hello” emails had kept my name fresh—if my social-media work had not.

 

I applied to a subsequent old-school producer opening, and six months later, I was producing the 5:00 p.m. newscast before graduating from Chapman University. Shortly after that, I was moved to produce the Morning Show, the highest revenue-creating show in the area.

 

Know your market—know your social media—and know who you’re going to work for. Being on a first-name basis with the boss is a must. Don’t hesitate to overdress. Be prepared to wear many hats. You’re going to work holidays. Keep in touch with friends. And pay it forward. As someone who is officially “in the business” … I’d be willing to help someone who reaches out to me, but networking doesn’t happen for you!

 

 

Pete Weitzner (weitzner@chapman.edu) is director of the Broadcast Journalism Program at Chapman University.

 

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