TV news organizations spend millions of dollars upgrading equipment, but they virtually ignore improving the skills of their employees. Routine professional development isn’t part of the industry’s culture. But the product that stations and networks are trying to sell are the people who produce and cover the news. Why not invest in them?
The American Society for Training and Development says, “The focus on developing people … is the key to competitive advantage.” Virtually every other business and profession understands that, but the average TV journalist is lucky to find a mentor who might give him or her a few minutes a week.
Syracuse University Journalism Professor Dow Smith says TV news training is “really pathetic,” even though the trend is to hire inexperienced people and pay them low salaries. As a result, he said, “we wind up with newscasts that don’t make any sense,” and sometimes there are “horrendous, epochal mistakes.” He added that news directors don’t understand the value of training because they never got it themselves.
“We go headlong into day-to-day coverage and don’t think enough about our craft,” said Fox News Channel Washington correspondent Brian Wilson. “I look at some people here in the nation’s Capitol and see people (in TV news) who are woefully inadequate.”
What about the universities’ role? Are they equipped to handle professional development as well as teach journalism theory, critical thinking, and the humanities?
Frank Ucciardo, a reporter for WWOR-TV in New York, doesn’t think so. He castigates “textbook dilettantes who don’t know what is takes to be a reporter.”
But University of Maryland Journalism Professor Lee Thornton says training is nothing new at the college level. Her students shoot, edit, direct and operate every piece of equipment in the studio. They produce a half-hour newscast four nights a week. Her concern is the schools aren’t giving enough thought to where the field is now. “What in the world are we doing?” asked Thornton, a Ph.D. and a former CBS and NPR correspondent. “Networks are looking like local stations, and they’re both superficial.”
Utah State University Journalism and Communication Dean Ted Pease says the schools, strapped with budget restraints, cannot keep pace with technological change. “We can never catch up,” he said, “and it’s worse than ever. Utah State’s TV studio is located in an old ice cream store – freezer, drains and all.” Pease’s students get practical training during internships at TV stations in Salt Lake City, eighty miles south of the university and the 36th market in the nation.
Pease was an author of the Freedom Forum report, “No Train, No Gain” almost ten years ago. Nearly 93 percent of newspaper journalists surveyed said they would like to attend professional development programs, and many of them didn’t feel they knew enough to do a complete job on a news story. Although Pease doesn’t believe print journalists have made enough progress since the survey was published, newspapers have training editors and coaches, and he doesn’t see any parallel in broadcasting.
A more recent study released by the National Journalism Organizations’ Council of Presidents reveals that TV, radio and print journalists claim lack of training is their major source of job dissatisfaction – ahead of pay and benefits. It makes sense that professional development would make employees more productive and keep them happy, and that would be good for ratings and quality journalism. But most TV news organizations don’t seem to get it.
What to do? Ucciardo said training should be handled in the smaller markets, and stations should at least share the cost for their employees to take part in training programs. Fox’s Wilson agreed but added that it’s incumbent on individual TV journalists to train their younger colleagues. Dow Smith is encouraged by the annual “producer’s academy” he helps conduct for the Belo and Hearst-Argyle station groups.
But these ideas are just piecemeal. The industry as a whole has got to wake up to the fact that regular training is good business and good journalism. Without professional development, a lot of talent is being wasted.
Herb Brubaker is president and founder of Television News Center (www.televisionnewscenter.org), a Washington-based organization that does broadcast training. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.