Why I Flamed Out Of TV News

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

I remember the exact moment I decided to leave local news. I was in my boss’s office, arguing over what story to assign our last reporter. It was a slow day, the kind of day that frays the nerves of anyone on the assignment desk — where I was sitting. We’d already had our editorial meeting and I’d already exhausted the ideas I’d come up with that morning. We were floundering.

But then, we got a gift.

We were emailed a press release announcing the arrest of a local home health nurse police accused of stealing $90,000 from a 90-year-old patient. The arrest was 24 hours old and over an hour away, so we weren’t going to make a full package of it, but it gave me an idea. We would use the nurse as a jumping off point for a larger story on how those types of crimes are committed, and how you can protect the elderly or otherwise vulnerable members of your family.

Or so I thought we would. But my boss saw things differently. Instead, they thought we would cover the cleanup of a downed tree limb a thunderstorm had dropped across a driveway the afternoon before.

We argued about it for longer than we should have, which is to say, I argued about it for longer than I should have. I couldn’t understand the decision and didn’t hide my displeasure with it. I forgot myself in their office, talking at length about our journalistic responsibility and serving the public interest.

“I don’t even know what we’re doing anymore,” I remember saying too loudly, throwing up my hands when it was clear that I’d lost. I stormed out of the office and, in my mind at least, I never stopped walking. It took a few more weeks for the wreckage of my jet to crash back to earth, but that was the day I flamed out of television news.

All told, I spent just under two and a half years in the newsroom — the first year and a half as a producer before I was promoted to the assignment desk — and when I started in the business, I marveled at it. I hadn’t gone to J-School or worked on a college paper the way others had. Instead, I’d spent four years in sports talk radio and walked into the newsroom ignorant to much of the business.

But instantly, I was struck by the responsibility of it.

I’d never considered it in years of watching and reading the news, but I remember standing in the corners of parties and talking to friends about the awesome power held by those with the voices to tell the stories of their communities. We talked with energy and excitement about being advocates for those in need, and about telling truth to power, and about affecting for the better the way people see and interact with the world around them. And in between the parties, sitting in the corner of our newsroom, I wrote with the same energy and excitement, so sure that other, more senior members of the newsroom were wrong — sure that I wouldn’t be jaded by the business the way they had been.

But I was wrong about that, and like it did for others, the continued effect of shifting schedules and understaffing — of being dictated to, of being moved around and demanded of with little input or appreciation — had me every bit as bitter as I swore I’d never be. In my 28 months in news, my shift changed seven times, not including changes of just an hour or so, and not including week-long fill-in roles on nights and overnights. And the story of my frustration isn’t unique. And neither is my leaving. Within three years of my first day, the entire producing staff of seven to ten people turned over, joining well over three dozen total newsroom defections on a staff of no more than 50 — it’s hard to know exact numbers because we were never fully staffed.

While interviewing for the job I have now, I was asked why I wanted to leave the industry. In two years, I’d risen up the producer chain, been promoted, and collected a few awards and Emmy nominations. On paper, at least, it seemed like I was at the start of a promising career. And while the schedule changes had taken a toll, the truth I told that day had nothing to do with any of that. I left for a different reason. I left because I no longer believed in what I was doing.

In answering the interviewer’s question, I told the story I’ve already told you about the home health nurse and the saw-filled branch cleanup, because it’s emblematic of the larger problem I grew to hate.

If given the chance, every news director in America will tell you that weather is the most important part of every newscast — that it’s the main reason people watch local news and that it must be featured in every show so viewers can be prepared for their day. But that’s never how it felt to me. To me, it felt more like we were scaring people.

In the final months of my tenure, a significant percentage of our broadcasts opened onto a full screen graphic with the words “WEATHER ALERT” emblazoned across a red background. At best, it was a heavy-handed approach to covering the passing showers and generic thunderstorms common to the northeast. But at worst, it was the logical result of a methodology that focused less and less on news and more and more on making good television.

Branch sawing is better TV than B-roll of nurses and seniors, so we went with the branch sawing.

Every morning I worked on the assignment desk, the first of my three direct bosses would call me on her way into the office and we would talk through what stories I was hoping we would work on that day, each of us knowing that most of those wouldn’t make it past our morning meeting. More than once, I remember joking with her that there were really only three types of stories we cared about: weather, breaking news, and ‘cry on camera’ stories — though looking back on it, I’d add a fourth category called ‘disagreements’, which are controversies that aren’t actually controversial, but things about which we can “let the viewer decide.”

Over time, our devotion to that quartet wore me down, and I grew tired of chasing downed trees and sending the same reporters to the same poorly draining intersections. I grew tired of pulling reporters off their stories to make sure a 2-car accident isn’t more than the dispatcher is letting on because everyone slows down when they pass a wreck. I grew tired of crossing that political story off my list and looking for something more “emotional.” I grew tired of focusing my search for stories on the “key zip codes” — the zip codes with the most ratings books. To the extent that you can grow tired of stories about puppies, I grew tired of stories about puppies. Because we did every story about puppies. Because people love puppies. Because puppies are good TV.

Our state government is one of the most corrupt in America. And that’s not editorializing, that’s documented fact. You could fill the worst NBA roster in history with the politicians who have been arrested in, convicted in, or tied to criminal cases in just the last few years. One particular case involved the president of a public development firm who resigned because of the charges against him. For months, I chased a story about the effect of that resignation, specifically focusing on the loss of revenue to that firm’s business. Weeks before my final day, the firm announced a round of layoffs, and I connected with a worker who told me on the record — anonymously, I admit — that the president’s resignation had been given to him as the reason for the layoffs.

For the first time in all those cases, we had a source talking to us about a real, significant cost to public corruption. A maintenance worker had lost his job because of it — at least according to him. But when I brought this to my three bosses, I was told not to pursue it.

They said no one but the maintenance worker would care.

Which is what I started hearing more and more when the calendar flipped into the second year of a polluted water crisis trapping a small town in our area with unknown health effects and sinking property values. “No one outside the town will care,” I was told as our continuing coverage grew less and less vigorous. “But everyone cares about the freezing temperature, so even if it’s winter in the northeast and cold weather is pretty much its only prerequisite, open the show with a weather alert. And then get to that story about the cat that escaped the fire.”

Admittedly, I made up that second part, and that’s unfair.

And in at least some sense, if I’m being objective, this whole article is unfair.

Because while I’ll criticize the cartoonish way with which we covered weather and I’ll talk about the speech every news director has ready to recite at the first quiet moment, those speeches are all true. People do watch for the weather, and people are more drawn to branch sawing and car crashes and puppies and fires than they are to nurses and retirement homes.

So to be fair, the news business is an almost impossibly hard business to navigate because it’s a contradiction. The news can’t be beholden to corporations and profit margins, but that’s what the business demands. It’s a difficult scale to balance, and both the news and the business should be considered when every broadcast is built.

But as I built more of those broadcasts, I felt that we were tipping that scale away from the news and toward the business.

Journalists today have become villains of American culture. Their reports are scrutinized and criticized beyond reason, their motives are questioned at best and slandered at worst, and people will tell you that political bents are destroying the institution. But, to put it bluntly, that’s mostly crap. The people I’ve worked with are good, hardworking journalists interested in finding truths and telling the important, meaningful stories behind them.

But ratings are what drives the profits, and so the news business, for me, became just a business, focused on making good TV by throwing something flashy across the screen, or searching for and fomenting controversy, or trumping up a thunderstorm with a “severe weather alert.” And in the end, I found myself ignoring news stories I should have been chasing — stories about political corruption and violent crime and polluted water and significant infrastructure issues and homelessness — and finding, instead, the best place to fly our drone because the aerial shots look cool.

Maybe I was just painfully naïve when I was talking with my friends at those parties, or maybe I was and still am just being dramatic, or maybe I just wasn’t very good at my job — I certainly wouldn’t eliminate any of those possibilities — and maybe my experience is rare. I don’t know. I won’t try to speak for anyone other than myself and I can’t say anything for certain.

Except this:

I flamed out of TV news because I wanted to do the news. And I wasn’t.

Writer, small-time podcaster who spent six years in sports talk radio and local TV news. @JoeWhiteNTS, Shoe Money Podcast [writerjosephwhite.com]

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