Life After “Extinction Alert” Article…What now?

So, where do we go from here, legacy broadcast television? I recently published an article titled “Extinction Alert? – Recruiting Into Local Television Today. Is “The Great Resignation” Real?” If you missed it, please find it here …And also consider checking out the follow-up piece anonymously listing comments received from the article at the Carver Talent website under Carver Corner. The article takes a direct look into the state of local television, specifically the challenges recruiting today and the phenomenon coined as “the great resignation.”

The response? Fairly overwhelming, honestly. Humbling. Direct. Emotional. Loud. And, clear. It struck a chord, evidently. Within local newsroom rank and file. Within television station management. And evidently, all the way to corporate offices…including the executive level. Viral? Not sure. Widely shared and discussed? Apparently. Which I believe is a good thing. And was the intent of the article. To provide a unique perspective from a media industry recruiter and small business owner who speaks with all sides of this equation and listens, impartially.

What have I gathered from this perspective? Read the article. To paraphrase though, legacy broadcast television has challenges. Immediate challenges. Effects of which are snowballing today and gaining momentum. To be direct, it could be terminal. And if not dealt with immediately, strategically, and with station-level input, may cripple the industry as we have known it over the past several years…if not decades. I say this to not be melodramatic. I say this because even my company servicing your industry with recruiting expertise is now having greater difficulty sourcing, interviewing, and placing top media management professionals today. And this is all we do. We are not tasked with also running a station, a newsroom, sales team, engineering, etc. I chose to say something. Directly. Effectively, albeit lengthy. I hope it was the right decision. Time will tell.

So, what now? You hear some of the supposed reasons leading to this situation: Uncompetitive pay. Unrealistic work/life balance. Contracts. Non-competes. A changing generational workforce. Who are perhaps less willing to relocate. During a negative news cycle. With the country deeply divided politically. All during a global pandemic. Leading to newsroom stress. Burnout. Cries of a mental health crisis. People quitting. Empty seats which are now harder to fill today. Leading to more duties/hours/shifts for those working at the station. Leading to more stress and burnout. And more people leaving. The wheels on the bus go round and round.

All while the industry itself is facing challenges and adapting to competition from the digital platform. Streaming/OTT/CTV providers. Big Tech. Who has money to burn, a swagger, proudly peacocking their newer shiny toy, and who dare employ aggressive recruiting hunters who are presently picking some of the best low-hanging and high-performing fruit to join their ranks: Legacy broadcast folks. Other industries are picking them off as well. And welcoming them with open arms, work-life balance, and in some cases, remote work, improved benefits/perks, and more pay. It is literally the perfect storm of converging industry conditions. Happening today. And has been happening for a while.

All of this deserves these questions: Is this situation salvageable? Is it cyclical? If one assumes it is cyclical, is it then safe to assume those who have chosen “The Great Resignation” path will come back? Or that others will follow behind them to fill the empty seats? What if an assumptive answer is incorrect? What are the ramifications? Will increasing salaries work? More PTO? Other perks/benefits? Offering remote work, when applicable?

Or are there much larger issues at hand? And a strikingly simple question needs to be asked and answered: Why are some of these jobs within a newsroom and/or television station either going unfilled today or causing professionals to willingly leave them in the first place? In some cases, skilled professionals who spent years earning a degree, working in the industry, climbing the ladder, and eventually coming to the “no thanks, I am done” decision. In great numbers. It is real. For the newsroom specifically, is it the job itself? What they are reporting? How they are reporting it? In some cases, successful professionals who, according to their own comments, feel as though they were placed into a cookie-cutter box of uncreativity. Are we reporting the right things the right way at the right times? Even all the time. With input and policies above and beyond many station-level newsroom employees’ paygrades?

Do not believe me? Check out this comment received from the recent article:

“We’re all so done. So burned out. Unappreciated. Tired of being a cog in a wheel. Tired of being stretched thin. It’s exhausting. More and more it’s about quantity over quality. So those remaining are now burning out because we walk away from each story unsatisfied. Because we’re forced to follow an uncreative formula. We crave to like Boyd Huppert and Steve Hartman and tell really great stories, but those free spirit approaches are squashed by formulas and consultants. Why bother anymore, especially when friends leave the business and tease you, as you point out, with clocking out at 5, more vacation time, and a better work-life balance.

And this:

“I wanted to thank you for saying what no one else in the industry seems to have the courage to say out loud right now – local news is failing (spoiler alert: network news is, too – I was there as well and it was the same crazy, albeit on a different scale), and it sounds like no one cares to fix it. 
I opted to get out of the TV news business after nearly a decade, after crashing and burning emotionally. It took months of panic attacks, waking up in the middle of the night, and crippling anxiety for me to seek help – and once I did, the next move was clear: get out fast. I was heartbroken to leave behind TV news, but I knew it was what was best for me.
I’m lucky I landed on my feet, but since I got out, people have been coming to me in droves wondering how I did it… and it makes me so sad for the industry that I loved, and committed my life to. I got your article from so many friends in the business – many of them scared and anxious about what’s next. You spelled it out plain and simple, and it struck a chord. Deep.
I hope that the responses you posted over the weekend will spur actual, tangible change in the industry – better pay, a dose of empathy among management, growth and retention strategies, etc. – but I’m not optimistic. I hope you continue to hold those who responded to you accountable when they come to you with multiple openings, created by the very same problem they were so excited for you to bring up – yet did nothing to fix. As they say, talk is cheap.
Thank you again for your article. It’s what everyone needed to hear but no one was willing to say.”

And finally, this:

“Your article spoke to me. After years in the business, I finally resigned. Was it tough to walk away from a job I was so passionate about? Yes. For many years I lived and breathed news. I racked up multiple Emmys, Murrows, AP awards, and community service awards. I quit because of the lack of regard management has for work-life balance. They talk about it a lot but don’t know how to deliver it. I quit because of the young managers who care more for gimmicky stand-ups and flashy teases that don’t deliver, rather than real storytelling and ethical reporting. I also quit because even after years in the business, one is made to feel as though you are still paying your dues. You keep thinking it’ll get better as you get to the “bigger markets”. It never ends. For years, I watched hard-working colleagues of mine walk away from the industry— and move into other industries. I never thought I would be one of them. It finally happened. I am now a (redacted) working for a (redacted) making close to 6 figures while working 4-days a week. It was never about the money. I made a decent salary. It was always about feeling valued after years in the business— and having that work-life balance in a world where you can be a top-notch professional, a mother, and a wife— all at the same time. I believe management in this industry needs to do a lot of soul searching. I am one of several reporters who walked away from the business from my station alone…in the last year. All were stellar reporters with lots of awards under their belt. All are now out of the news. Even now, I get calls from reporters/producers in this market often- seeking advice on how to transition from news to life after news. I hope I can remain anonymous. I just wanted to share my truth with you.”

Honestly, I feel these comments. I hear them when interviewing industry professionals. These comments are more than likely not a surprise to many currently working inside a television station. It has been quietly murmured for years. It is no longer quiet. It is loud and clear. Reading all of these comments from the article in their entirety in a “seek first to understand, then to be understood” philosophy should be mandatory within certain levels of a broadcast group today. Viewed. Dissected. Discussed. Emotions. Nerves. Raw. Frayed. Hurting. Emotional. Exasperated. Yet still hopeful. Because #JournalismMatters. And if you do not believe me or these comments, request to join one of the many Facebook groups created to give many of your employees a voice, sometimes anonymously, to be heard. Some of these groups literally have thousands of media professionals members. Posts of “crying in my car the entire way home from work” and isolation from friends and family. In one post, someone even contemplating suicide. It was painful to read and should be eye-opening to our industry. Is it all “sour grapes” from former disgruntled employees? Perhaps a percentage, sure. However, it seems to be much more than this.

Is this “Great Resignation” all part of a natural churn of talent? Cyclical perhaps? According to a poll conducted by Gallup research across all industries, perhaps not. Fifty-two percent of employees who voluntarily leave say their manager and/or company could have done something to prevent them from leaving their job. Based on this research, is it safe to assume a manager did everything in their power to make things right for their employee? According to more Gallup research, not always. In fact, just over half of exiting employees (51%) say that in the three months before they left, neither their manager nor any other leader spoke with them about their job satisfaction or future with the organization. Wow. Startling statistics. You had them in the chair! Hired. Trained. Probably performing. Then poof. Gone.

Let’s look at this another way: The bottom line. Money. The cost of replacing an employee can range up to two times the employee’s annual salary…and that’s a conservative estimate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall turnover rate for 2021 to date is 57.3% across all U.S. industries, alarming, but during a global pandemic still. That number drops to 25% when considering only voluntary turnover and 29% when considering involuntary turnover. For a conservative number of just over 26% turnover, if you have a 100-employee newsroom with an average salary of $50,000, you could have turnover and replacement costs of up to $2.6 million per year.

Some difficult questions for our industry to consider: Is there a focus today within legacy broadcast television on corporate culture? Employee engagement? Management training? Is employee retention rate tracked at either the station or corporate level? Are exit interviews conducted before an employee leaves and is this information strategically tracked and responded to appropriately? Should these results be a component of management goals at all levels…and tied to variable compensation? Just as revenue, etc. are. Is there a strategic, process-driven, group-wide succession planning model giving your very own internal employees a path to growth opportunities? For even your best and brightest? Before they find it elsewhere? Are your centralized corporate human resources personnel and functions truly valued and staffed appropriately given the number of acquisitions, television stations, employees, etc.?

Speaking of which, is there a focus and/or investment on the centralized human resources recruiting function within legacy broadcast television today? At its simplest, is the number of job openings within a group and/or television stations tracked? Days to fill average tracked and monitored? Cost per hire average? Does your broadcast group have a Corporate VP or Director of Recruiting who strategically oversees this function while leading an appropriately staffed team of recruiters in place? Perhaps one of the “big three” legacy broadcast television groups does not have this function at this level today. In fact, a fully functioning team of recruiters and leadership were perhaps downsized following an acquisition, leaving no centralized human resources recruiting function in place for a legacy broadcast television group with 150+ television stations across 100+ markets. Leaving, in this case, television stations tasked with recruiting on their own without trained corporate human resources professionals hunting for them.

How about a Corporate VP or Director of Employee Engagement? Or a Corporate VP or Director of Diversity and Inclusion?

This is your challenge at its simplest formula, legacy broadcast: As a whole, you may not be focused on employee engagement/retention from a strategic centralized human resources standpoint, thus potentially losing employees. And then perhaps not focused on providing recruiting assistance to your television stations, thus having more difficulty filling job openings. During an extended period of time with all the current conditions crashing upon your industry as I have described. While delivering a product that may be losing traction with today’s younger generation. And we wonder why “the great resignation” is now a thing? You are bleeding from multiple gaping wounds while 911 has yet to be dialed.

Hard facts and hard questions, for sure.

Who is to blame for this situation? Does it matter? Perhaps. Perhaps not. However, it may need to be answered one day to perhaps peel back the layers, develop a strategy, and fix the problems. And soon. Pay? Maybe. Maybe not. Investing in staffing centralized human resources functions appropriately? Maybe. Taking a deep dive into television station workflow and consider revamping your news product? Maybe. There are many angles to this challenge.

I will offer a note of caution to all of you reading this article. And especially to those of you at the senior level. Not in a Nostradamus “I told you so” manner. But, more in a way to somehow articulate that it would be absolutely dangerous to be overly assumptive regarding possible outcomes here. Much as it was during the housing bubble burst of ’08. For those broadcast executives whose job it is to evaluate trends and to keep the ship on course, this may be your Titanic moment. This situation is an iceberg just beneath the surface you may not see nor fully comprehend today. Only this time, lifeboats are waiting for the third-class, and the first-class and ship crew will be left to plug the hole in the massive ship…or perhaps go down with it.

Your workforce today is different. Different than when you may have worked at a television station. And you may or may not hear it at your level today. I do. Station management does. A larger percentage of this generation will choose mental health, family, relationships, culture, and work-life balance. Many will choose to live where they want over relocating to dodge non-competes or to possibly move up within the DMA “Game of Thrones” promotion model of the past. And they will choose this over their career, money, and nice clothes/cars/materialistic things. They value creativity. And autonomy. And demand empathy. And diversity. Perhaps more importantly, they are resourceful. And marketable. Money may not fix this challenge. Your problem may be systemic. And may require one, or more, of you to be bold enough to completely shatter the mold and reinvent the norm.

Those who chose the great resignation path had other options. In large numbers. More will follow. And there may not be enough professionals coming in behind them to fill the ranks. This generation, and your employees in general, are not weak. They do not need to “toughen up.” Ordering them to collectively pick themselves up, dust themselves off, rub dirt on their wounds, and get back in the game, may not work today. The culture has shifted. And the work ethic has changed…for better or for worse.

I do not work in a newsroom. I do not have all the answers. I may not have any answers. I just listen. To all sides. And sometimes, I write.

Ty Carver has over 30+ years of recruiting, HR management, sales, and leadership experience…including the last 10 specific to the broadcast media industry. He is the Founder/CEO of Carver Talent, a local broadcast media management recruiting firm. As the former Director of Recruiting for Raycom Media, he has deep industry relationships. Have a media corporate executive/management or television station management recruiting need? Contact [email protected] for more information.