Monday, July 26, 2010

Are You Happy

Is Your Journalist Happy?

Most journalists have muted satisfaction with their chosen profession, according to a short survey I conducted over the past couple of weeks. There is a striking difference in happiness when you break it down into job categories. Bosses are the happiest. No surprise there, but levels of satisfaction seem to go down each wrung of the ladder.

While some are trudging along, many of their colleagues are taking the necessary steps to be happy in journalism. “Some people are just not happy people,” one Austin news director commented to me a few years ago. That is true. I think it is also true that talented and motivated people can be beaten down by “the business” when they are not rewarded, supported, and encouraged by those happy bosses.

I cannot claim this is a totally “scientific” survey of journalists’ feelings for their jobs. I cannot claim to know all journalists. I don’t even know everybody in the business in Austin. This, therefore, is drawn from a sample consisting of my many friends working in news and choosing to participate. All were promised anonymity, unless they chose to speak out. These things said, I think that the findings are valid and representative of job satisfaction in the news business. Further, they may be applicable to many other lines of work nowadays.

I asked only five questions—questions which would be applicable to almost any profession:

1. Are you as happy in your job as you were three years ago?
2. Are you as happy in your job as you were 10 years ago?
3. Are you as happy in your job as you were when you started in the business?
4. Are you doing more with less support?
5. Are you confident about your future in journalism?

I got responses from journalists working in both broadcasting and print. Strangely, none of my friends working in Internet journalism replied. I divided the respondents into five categories: news managers, mid-managers (editors and producers), “talent” (on-camera anchors, etc.), reporters, and photographers.

News managers are the most satisfied and happy in their jobs. It’s apparent that the longer that they stay in “the business”, the happier they are, maybe because of money. As with any profession, your longevity and loyalty is often rewarded with raises. Many also find satisfaction in mentoring young, recently-graduated and talented minds.

“Most importantly, I’m ‘happy’ because we produce quality, multimedia Journalists,” said Henry Chu, a former news director at KXAN TV (NBC). Chu is now at WBKO in South Central Kentucky. “We hire a number of people straight out of college. We teach them about good storytelling, getting facts right, being fair and ethical. Our young Journalists learn every facet of the news gathering business.”

WBKO is in the 128th market. Austin is 48th. By the time journalists arrive here, they should be pros and they should be happy to be here. Austin is a coveted destination often equated with personal and professional happiness.

The news managers scored a “Perfect 10” in happiness. “I have the best ND [news director] job in the country, in my opinion,” said Frank Volpicella, news director at Austin’s #1 ranked KVUE TV (ABC). Being #1 may have something to do with it. One is never happy with being last.

The least happy group predictably is the mid-managers. As it is in any business, it is the mid-manager who is often caught in the crunch—in the middle between the generals and those working in the trenches. Every newsroom is different. Some are quite happy, but many others long for days a decade or so ago or more when the business was far less frenzied and more fun. As the pressure increases, so does their level of dissatisfaction. Since it is their job to “make it happen”, they, more than any other group, feel the pinch of “doing more with less support,” followed closely by reporters.

The reporters are a mixed bag. It appears that the biggest factor in many reporters’ growing dissatisfaction over the years is being asked to do more and more with less support. Reporters don’t just come up with story ideas, cover them, and write them, you know. Some TV reporters have to shoot their own stories. Some have to send their stories via broadband. They all have to tweet about their stories and post them on Facebook. They all have to contribute to their respective medium’s web site—stories and possibly blogs. This is not your father’s newsroom. I remember reporters whining about having to do different stories for different news casts. That would be a walk in the park nowadays.

“Are you doing more with less support?” resulted in almost universal answers like, “Isn’t everybody?” regardless of job category. One respondent discounted the pressure saying that one gets used to all of the extra stuff.

Perhaps because of these demands, these stresses, and these worries, many reporters, mid-managers, and even on-air “talent” are less than optimistic about their futures in journalism. News managers to a person were extremely confident (All scored “10s” again.), but that confidence isn’t always shared by their staffs.

While the anchors and other talent tend to love their jobs visiting Austin homes every day. Gone are the days when the anchors may have waited around for the next newscast. In all fairness, over the years, most anchors did help write for their shows, but their duties are greatly expanded now. They are the “face” of the TV stations. They also tweet, blog, and post to Facebook. They have some apprehension about their future in journalism. Given the dependence on Nielsen ratings, it is no wonder that some in this group would have some concerns.

Surprisingly, too few photojournalists responded to the survey to draw conclusions. One who did, Kenny Kaplan, formerly of Austin’s KVUE was extremely upbeat. “I am very happy with my job now, but I think that I enjoyed the TV business much more back then in 1978/79,” Kaplan said. Kaplan is now working in New York City. Many unhappy photographers have left TV news over the years, and they are very happy freelancing or shooting video for government or industry.

What conclusions can be drawn from these results? News managers may need to be more attentive to mid-managers and reporters. Mid-managers may need to be more assertive and upbeat. Reporters need may need to be creative and assertive too, choosing to be happy or choosing to, well, get out of “the business”!

© Jim McNabb, 2010

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