It’s more challenging than a one-on-one with the President, and you’ll lose more sleep over it than you will before your first network live shot. Landing that first TV job. It’s kind of like landing the space shuttle: experts make it look easy, but deep down you know it’s not. Getting that first job is far and away the most difficult task you’ll face in the TV news business. Let’s face it: it’s not easy, it’s not fun, and it’s not supposed to be this difficult! After all, in Up Close & Personal, Michelle Pfeiffer got her first on-air job in big-city Miami right? So why shouldn’t you at least be able to get a job in small-town Wyoming? The answer is “Yes!” Here are five tools of the trade for getting your microphone in the door of TV news departments without having to sell your soul to get on air:
1. Know the market size for your talent and experience. If you’re just out of college with a few years of university TV experience, you need not apply to NBC or CNN. You need to find a TV newsroom for y-o-u. I meet a great many college graduates who say, “I’d like to start in Cleveland or Detroit or maybe even Pittsburgh.” Few if any of them ever research those stations to gauge the years of experience in the on-air folks or even to see if the stations in those markets are hiring. More important, they don’t compare their own on-air work with the daily news stories they see on the station’s websites. If you’re 22 applying to a newsroom consumed by reporters in their 30’s with 10+ years experience, all you’re really doing is giving that station a blank tape to use for their blooper reels. If you’re trying to get a job without a college degree, which a great many on-air folks have mastered, you need to realistic about your job possibilities. Can you write effectively? Are you comfortable in front of a camera? Do you really think you can earn a living in this business? If yes, then make a demo on your home VHS and give it a whirl.
2. Broaden the skills you bring to the newsroom. If you’d really like to be an entertainment reporter for E!, that’s great, but as you apply for your first job, you need to be multi-talented. Learn to shoot, edit, and write for behind the scenes and you’ll stand a better chance of getting a j-o-b. A great many young reporter-want to-bees make the mistake limiting their skills to their specific area of interest. TV newsrooms are about using people in multiple rolls. If you like to report on news events but you can do sports and even weather too in a pinch, you’re more valuable to a small station looking to give you that first job. Once you’re in the door, you can target the job you truly desire. Remember, even David Letterman was once a weatherman.
3. Stay in touch with your internship contacts. Internships are not only great opportunities to learn the business, but they’re also your best early contacts in your career. A great many interns say goodbye to the newsroom staffers they met during Newsrooms. their semester of training and never touch base again. Who else can give you better guidance on getting a real job in the business than those who’ve done it? This is not to say that they can get you a job at their station, but so much of this business is based on relationships and who you know. The professionals you met during your internship know people in the TV business. You need to know who they know! I recently found out that one of our former interns here at TV3 got a job at a small station out of state. She left here more than a year ago and this is her first job. While I was happy to see her success, I shook my head that she hadn’t kept in contact with me to tell me she was looking for a job in that city because I know the assistant news director there and I could have smoothed the waters for her there much sooner. You should keep in regular contact with the professionals with whom you developed your best working relationships during your internships. You’ll want to use them as references on your resume anyway, so there’s no reason to surprise them a full year after your internship when you suddenly reappear asking for advice.
4. Be willing to relocate. A great many of the college students I meet in class tell me they’re willing to go anywhere, but I can tell that only a few really mean it. You may have dreams of being a CNN war correspondent or even the top anchor at your local station so you can be the local-boy-who-grew-up-and-made-us-all-proud but the reality is you’ll probably need to develop your skills in a small — make that tiny — market first before you’ll get consideration at a venue that leads to your dream job. Places like Tyler, TX (market 114) or Albany, GA (market 145) or even Dothan, AL (market 179) might not sound intriguing at first, but they may be the best place for you to learn your craft without the pressure of a big market news director breathing down your neck. Ask those in the business about the job where they learned the most and they’ll tell you it was their first job at a small station. For on-air folks, you’ll find out if you can really beat-the-clock and get your stories on the air while also generating creative live shots to go with those stories. While your lead story might not be the sexiest thing you’ve ever heard (think “new sewer line that county leaders are hoping to put through State Route 94”), but the experience will pay big dividends. You’ll probably have to room with one of the other station staffers and maybe work at Kinkos at night to make ends meet. Still, whether your spend six months or a year-plus in a tiny newsroom, the skills you hone will make you more attractive for the next job.
5. Watch, watch, and watch some more. When you’re not searching for a job in TV News, you need to be watching the latest and greatest from you local, national, and cable broadcasts. Watch how the reporters do their live shots. Do they look stiff or loose? Did they use any kind of props that added to the story-telling? Listen to their writing. Record the best stories so you can watch them again and dissect how those reporters put their stories together. Then, take those techniques you’ve picked up and apply them to your own writing. A good audition tape with a bright smile might get you a first interview, but good writing skills will improve your chances of getting a callback.