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In the beginning, there was The Newspaper.
Then there were The Networks: NBC, ABC, and CBS. By the 1960s, The Networks had surpassed The Newspaper as America’s main source of information.
Then there was CNN. Cable News did not exist in 1980 so much as CNN existed, and The Networks continued to dominate. In time, they were followed by CNBC, Fox News, MSNBC. While television continues to be the main source of information for Americans—in 2011, 66 percent of Americans got most of their news from television, according to Pew Research—cable news now dominates where people get their news on television.
But notice the trend here? Cable News may be king today, but it likely won’t be ten years from now. Its share of the market for news has declined over the last ten years, along with The Networks’. Meanwhile, the number of people who use the internet as a source of news has tripled, rising from 14 percent of Americans in 2002 to 41 percent in 2011—and with the rapid proliferation of tablets, that trend is likely to continue.
All this is not to dissuade you from pursuing a career in cable news just because it no longer dominates as it once did—newspapers and networks still have enormous audiences and are often great places to work and build a career. Rather, this is to point out that a successful career in cable news does not necessarily begin or even end in cable news. Most people I know in the business did not start there, and many have left cable news several times, only to return to better positions. The best way to forge a career in cable news is to pursue a career in visual news of any and all sorts.
Still, cable is a natural draw for journalists who relish the immediacy of the breaking news story, the impact of seeing and hearing news as it happens, and delivering instant analysis on developing stories. So, how does one break into cable news?
I never set out to forge a career in cable news. I didn’t even study journalism in college (and I don’t know anyone in the industry who did). I majored in history and film studies with one eye toward a career in fiction and another eye toward documentary filmmaking. Instead, I wound up at one of The Networks working for John Stossel, thanks largely to an IHS documentary workshop I took right out of college. It provided the networking I needed to get my foot in the door and added to the experience I needed to get the entry-level job.
I’ve been working in television news for ten years now, and I spent most of it at a network, producing taped segments shot in the field and assembled in edit rooms. That’s where I learned to edit, to shoot, and to coordinate productions schedules, and where I developed an eye for good stories and an ear for good guests—the kind who speak with natural energy, bringing a concise clarity to a dense subject. I followed Stossel to Fox News and quickly took to the hectic, talk-driven format of live cable news, eventually leaving to take charge as senior producer of Judge Napolitano’s (late and lamented) show on Fox Business, FreedomWatch. Since then, I’ve left cable (for now?) to help Huffington Post launch their new online talk show, HuffPost Live.
My route to cable news may not seem like a typical path, but that’s the point: there is no typical path.
Others here have imparted good advice on getting started, and the same advice applies to cable news. Don’t lose heart if you can’t snag an internship or an entry-level job at a cable network. While there may appear to be plenty of cable news outlets, it’s still a fairly small job market. And most news outlets are comfortable hiring people they know. (Plus, nearly all of them are based in New York and Washington, D.C., so if you don’t already live there, you’re at a disadvantage.) Look for anywhere that produces news in a visual medium—whether it’s a website producing video clips, a documentary production company, or a local news station. You will learn something that will prepare you for cable news, and the people you work for at these non-cable news outlets probably know people who do work at a cable news outlet.
The one place that provides the best preparation for cable news is local news. Live television is the most unique and challenging aspect of cable news. There’s no way to prepare for the special mania, the nerve wracking, pressure-cooked, rewarding, infuriating, electrifying, exhilarating, and exhausting experience of working in a control room during a live show. You will screw up. Many times. You will quickly spot what you’re good at, and even more quickly, you will spot what you’re not good at. Someone will shout at you in anger and forget about it an hour later. You may even do the same. Eventually, the experience will become so familiar that you make jokes in tense circumstances like a weathered veteran in a clichéd war flick, even though you’re not old enough to rent a car.
That’s live television. You can’t simulate it. So, if you can’t get your start at the ground floor, local news is the next best thing. There you’ll get a flavor of the information you need to know in a control room— who does what, what all the monitors are for, how to make changes to banners and graphics on the fly. You’ll also likely gain valuable experience in using rundown software like iNews. I learned about live television on the job at Fox—and it was the most challenging aspect to adjust to. But within a year, I was line producing shows, controlling how long each segment lasted, and getting the anchor to throw to commercial on time.
The point is to build experience in making television news, whatever the format. You need to learn the language of journalism in a visual medium. The range of skills you need to be successful in cable news is considerable. The editorial judgment—what makes a good and interesting story, which guests offer expertise without being boring, what key question needs to be asked—has to be supplemented with a talent for writing, an eye for good and interesting video to roll during the segment, ideas for graphic charts, and the basic technical know-how to put it all together. That, incidentally, is the secret to moving ahead once you get your chance at a cable network.
When you do get your foot in the door at a cable news outlet, listen and learn. While you’re low on the totem pole, figure out how every step in the process works, from the technical to the editorial: How are the rundowns built? What makes a good intro script or tease to commercial? How is video used during the show? What kinds of graphics work best, and how does the director use them? What kind of guest makes the best guest? The list is endless—the more you understand, the more valuable you will be to your bosses.
I’ve worked with rising stars and with folks who have become stuck in the same position. The ones who were stuck were typically excellent at one thing but not much else. A segment producer with good editorial insight who cannot be relied on to add compelling video, conceive and order graphics that advance the story, or write engaging scripts and eye-catching banners is generally a drain on resources. Likewise, a producer who masterfully handles the technical elements but does not pitch exciting stories or come up with penetrating interview questions is clearly limiting his room for growth. You cannot just be proficient in the editorial side or in the technical side. You have to excel at both.
The other dirty secret about advancing in cable news—and television news in general—is that you will more likely gain promotions by looking for work outside your current company. My biggest leaps came from changing networks or shows.
The market for news keeps changing. Don’t limit yourself to skills that only work in cable news. As I noted earlier, the Internet continues to become a more important source for news consumption—and video is the next big thing. Reason.com was an early adopter with Reason TV, but other popular news websites are adding more and more original video content—the Daily Caller and the Daily Beast already have a sizable presence, and The Huffington Post is about to launch an ambitious twelve-hours-a-day, five-days-a-week streaming network it calls “a never-ending talk show” to “mirror the internet experience.” What’s more, tablets may well be the next big thing in visual journalism. Already 19% of Americans own a tablet—just two years after the iPad was introduced. This is particularly important for news because half of tablet owners use their tablet to visit news websites every day—as well as tablet-only news sources, like Rupert Murdoch’s “The Daily”—and they tend to spend more time reading the news on tablets than on a computer or smartphone. That means they will read longer articles and have more time to watch videos.
Today, cable news is king—and it’s well worth forging a career as a producer while it dominates the news. Tomorrow, the news may be dominated by something else entirely. Make sure you’re in a position to take advantage, whatever it may be.
Patrick McMenamin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior producer at the Huffington Post.
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