In January, the Catholic League tweeted out a “study” purportedly detailing that right-wingers are better looking than left-wingers, using FOX News and MSNBC anchors as exemplars. KARE 11 Breaking the News anchor Jana Shortal retweeted the tweet with these comments: Gross. You really should think about how in any way this tweet reflects the values of an organization of faith.
A few days after Carrie Fisher’s death, Shortal tweeted: She was so proud of EXACTLY who she is. Fuck, was.
Regarding President Trump’s Twitter habit, she tweeted: The leader of this country should take questions—not tweet his way to policy.
After musician Chris Brown hurled a racist insult at comic Aziz Ansari, who had insulted Brown on SNL, she tweeted: I wish there were trap doors in the ground to swallow up human garbage like you Chris Brown. #TeamAziz
This wasn’t always the path to getting ahead in TV news. It used to be: Look good, don’t swear, dress conservatively, keep divisive opinions to yourself.
Today it’s not so simple. Something extra is required to make it in broadcasting. “People need to find a way to get noticed,” says Micah Johnson, a former network reporter, news director, and founder of Phoenix-based TV news talent agency MediaStars.
In January, Christine O’Donnell, TV reporter for FOX’s Boston affiliate, thought she had found a way. She posted to a video to YouTube showing herself in bed, the straps of her nightgown visible on her bare shoulders. The news: She had gotten up several hours too early for work! It seemed interesting to her at the time, and just provocative enough, perhaps, to generate some clicks or likes. But after a day of pillorying on social media, her bio had been pulled off the station’s website and she was apparently out of a job. “There are so many expectations to build a brand, to perform,” says Johnson. “But there’s no mentoring or guidance. And when you f-up, you’re fired.”
Not your parents’ TV news
It’s no revelation to say media businesses in America are in flux, and television news is no exception. Its audience has been disrupted by the internet, a diversity of cable and streaming options and time-shifting of prime-time TV viewing. And a generation has tuned out.
“18- to 34-year-olds are not news consumers, and TV is not their main source of news,” explains Bob Papper, Hofstra University professor emeritus, who has conducted an annual study of the television news industry since 1994. Millennials consume TV news the same way they read newspapers or viral video—in brief, detached bits on their phone.
“You’re fighting to have your voice heard,” explains 1500 ESPN Radio personality Phil Mackey. “Rely on the old tactics and you’ll be dead or dying.”
The result is a sense of fundamental instability. “TV news’ business model is under siege,” says local entertainment industry attorney Tom Wiese, who once represented dozens of local TV anchors and reporters. “TV is competing with non-accredited news, there are limited barriers to entry and advertisers are creating their own content.”
The omnipotence of the previous era is gone. “We are not the empire of the ’80s and ’90s,” says Shortal. “Appointment TV is not a thing.”
Building a personal brand
There was a time when all someone needed to build a successful broadcasting career was a home at a respected brand like WCCO Radio or the StarTribune. “Today, people read people, not companies,” contends Star Tribune food and travel writer Amelia Rayno, who has built a sizable presence and brand on social media. “People want to know the people they read.”
And the phenomenon extends across media. As a result, “you’ve gotta have point of view and presence,” Wiese counsels his clients.
WCCO-TV sports director Mark Rosen says the calculus isn’t lost on veterans like him: “You have to stand out, you have to be unique.” For Rosen, now 65, that meant jumping on morning radio (KQRS) back in 1986, a niche he continues to occupy today, which continues to deliver upside. “It keeps me relatable. It’s definitely helped my brand because of the young male demographic [listening to KFAN],” he says, “and I would hope it brings benefits to my TV brand.”
Though diversifying audience is a solid tactic, young broadcasters rarely have that opportunity or flexibility early in careers. As a result, most are using social media to build a brand.
“To get a job, it’s the first thing they look at after your [clip] reel,” says agent Mendes Napoli, who ran KSTP-TV’s news division from 1988-93 and now owns LA-based Napoli Management Group. “To build an audience you must be active in social media and have a distinct presence.” Both Napoli and Johnson describe social media technique and strategy as a primary component of the service they provide clients. “Our concentration is social media influencers,” says Johnson.
How important is social media in TV newsrooms? Texas-based ShareRocket markets real-time tracking of talent social media influence. Three national TV ownership groups, including FOX Television (FOX9 locally), are investors, and Johnson says many FOX affiliates have a ShareRocket monitor posted prominently in the newsroom.
The payoff of social media influence is real, Johnson insists. MediaStars secured Jenni Hogan, then a KIRO-TV traffic reporter, a six-figure salary “solely due to social media presence,” he says. Johnson is quick to note, though, that creating such a presence is no small feat: “To be an influencer in social you have to do it constantly.”
The social media channel of choice is Facebook. “Twitter is easy, but there’s less engagement,” explains Napoli. “We advise clients to focus on Facebook.”
The social minefield
The most notable common denominator among young local broadcasters feeling pressure to deliver social media influence is the sense of jeopardy involved. “Most of it is boring and not engaging,” says Wiese, “because shock and awe could cost you big time.”
Former WCCO-TV morning anchor Jamie Yuccas, now with CBS in New York, relates the story of a young broadcaster she knows who was told by her news director “to add 100 followers ‘this week.’ Didn’t say how.”
In local TV, Yuccas found an audience craving personal detail. “People want a connection with news personalities in local markets, but it’s such a fine line between your private and public life.” For example, “it’s clear women add followers when they tweet pictures of themselves, but they are often inappropriate,” argues Yuccas. “But they are under pressure, and management isn’t providing great guidance.”
$45,000 to $80,000
TV reporter salary
$100,000 to $500,000
TV anchor salary
Source: Micah Johnson, MediaStars
Ex-newsroom execs like Johnson and Napoli say the murky social media landscape is often a blind spot for news directors. “[Managers] don’t know what they want,” says Napoli, “but they know what they don’t want when they see it.”
Local broadcasters point to colleagues who post images from the gym or home in outfits they could never wear on-air. Johnson says it’s a national phenomenon: “People post racy stuff because it builds likes and follows.”
“Newspeople aren’t always thoughtful about how they use social media,” adds Yuccas. “I was in Orlando after the [Pulse nightclub shooting] and a lot of TV people were posting happy images of themselves. That’s detrimental to your brand.”
Step in the wrong topic, and newsies can even be chastened tweeting news. “I tweeted a link to a story about the Democratic boycott of the Trump inauguration,” says Cory Hepola, KARE 11 weekend anchor and reporter, “and people got angry even though it was just factual.”
Which is why broadcast reporters often default to the personal.
On the print side, there are few rules, and young journalists feel empowered. “There is a culture of sharing and you have strong feelings. We put so much out there. It’s super-tempting to cross lines,” says Rayno. “We have very few policies or rules. . . . I was once asked to stop tweeting about alcohol.”
Those trying to build a durable career in television can take comfort in certain constants. “People watch people they like,” says Napoli. “Genuine people that speak with authority, not arrogance, and are connected to the community. That hasn’t changed.” Hofstra’s Papper suggests the industry has sustained itself so well through its structural decline that “It has hindered development of a digital strategy. But the challenges are undeniable.”
So undeniable, in fact, that TV news’ foundational product may be obsolete. “I doubt the 30-minute newscast has staying power,” says KARE’s Hepola. “Local news has staying power. Trusted facts have staying power. Storytelling is timeless.”
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