LOCAL NEWS CONTRACTS: Break it? Or Grin & Bear It

Let me say first of all I am not an attorney. Any legal decision you make should go through an attorney. Always. I am someone who has been on both sides of a contract battle. This issue is coming up enough that I felt it was worth addressing, if from nothing more than a perspective of a journalist with 25 years of experience dealing with contracts.

In a lot of social media circles revolving around local news, there are cries and pleas to help break a contract. What was once a forbidden fruit discussion is now as common as the grocery store banana bin.

I wanted to get feedback from journalists who are struggling with the demands of the job as they see them today and why the pressure is getting to the point of breaking a legally binding contract.

Let’s jump into the data.

86 people responded to the survey. 72 of them are under contract and 2 have a non-compete without a contract. A little more than half of them.

These are people working hard in newsrooms around the country. All different market sizes and levels of experience. So how many are considering breaking the contract?

I think one of the most critical aspects of any contractual agreement whether in work, housing, or personal life (yes, all those terms of agreement many skip over), should be looked at with a fine-toothed comb. Get your employment agreement reviewed by an attorney before signing. Even if the employer says “We won’t make any changes. It is what it is.” You still have a right to legally understand what you are signing and some of the wording baffles anyone outside a legal degree.

Some other highlights from this survey:

  • Only 15% had their contract reviewed by an attorney
  • Only half of the people actually understood fully what they were signing
  • 24% said even when they signed it they weren’t fully committed to staying the length of the contract

So what’s with all the contract breaking that was once taboo?

Some of the “other” details reason?

Not enough money for the things I do daily. (I am) .frustrated by coworkers laziness.

I am doing more things than was agreed upon.

Toxic work environment from managers.

I broke my contract because my boss demoted me and gaslit me. He’s super toxic.

Spouse job change.

Toxic management, reactive instead of proactive, lack of communication, increased expectations and tasks with no additional pay.

But do they feel bad about breaking the contract?

  • Yes, very much = 27%
  • No, not at all = 28%
  • A little, but not enough to stop me = 45%

One dominating theme was the concern of how employers hold employees to contracts when the employees want to leave the business, posing no threat to company secrets, strategic plans, or insider information.

News Directors, you might not even know about this trend because 91% say they haven’t even talked to you about it.

The respondents did understand why the companies have contracts and were pretty fair in the responses. They know it’s hard to hire new people. They know it’s a mutually beneficial agreement at face value. They know you want consistency in the people who connect with the community. There’s no gray area there.

81% of respondents would prefer to work without a contract.

Now let’s open the floodgate of comments from an open-ended question “Tell me any additional thoughts about contracts in local news.

 I like the idea of being protected by a contract, but the corporation can obviously do whatever they want whenever they want. I think they hold people accountable in the less favorable positions. However, what if I’m mid-contract and I decide I deserve more money? Now what?

Get rid of them. If people don’t want to stay, employers shouldn’t hold them down under it.

Once I realized how skewed my contract was towards my station, I resented it. I signed a 3 year contract right out of school and I wish it was only for 2 years. Also, people at my station have realized our contracts are in direct violation of our union contract.

Contracts in local news are archaic. As a 22 year old signing my first one and a Union contract, you have no idea what you’re doing. You most likely don’t have legal connections to look over a contract. The buyouts hold employees hostage, feeling like they have no escape if they can’t afford it. Also, the repercussions of breaking a contract are so inconsistent you never know if you’ll have to pay, or if the company will come after you legally. This is all a lot for someone that’s making peanuts. Non-competes should be illegal. It limits job mobility. Most of the time it requires an employee to move states away for another position, adding on another financial burden to the dismal pay in the industry. Contracts and non competes do nothing but inhibit an employee. In fact, when I was applying for a promotion within my own station I was reprimanded and looked down upon other candidates because I didn’t sign a new contract.

 I understand them for anchors in most markets and other positions in large markets, but think they are required too often.

Contracts during the great resignation are being used as traps, not employment guarantees. I was denied several better/ higher positions in news because I was locked into a contract with a terrible station. If a company is allowed to fire or terminate an employee at any time, that employee should also be able to leave for whatever reason on the drop of a dime without having to pay a multi billion dollar company for freedom of employment.

I think contracts suck. I understand why they’re there but why would an employer want to keep someone around who’s unhappy?

I think breaking a contract shouldn’t cost the employee especially if given proper notice. I also think when I sign up to work m-f 12-9p I shouldn’t have a schedule change without my consent. I’m a person, not a producing slave.

 I feel like certain buyout provisions should be industry standard. At my small shop, some newbies are having clauses where they would owe a years salary for leaving at any point – and I want to tell these folks that it’s not enforceable

Contracts should be more specific to include shifts and job expectations Most contracts have a one liner saying we’ll “complete other tasks outside our job description”. It’s BS and no thank you. My job description is already too much. It basically allows the station to demote you without fault.

Some parts are understandable from employer perspective. However the whole owning your image and likeness has always bothered me especially if you want to try to make a brand for yourself

Non-competes are stupid because they force us to move around every few years without a chance to drop any roots.

My previous ND had me sign a 3-year contract. I had no idea everybody else signed 2-years. I felt blindsided once I started and found that out.

Contracts are suffocating employees. Managers oversell positions and underdeliver constantly – then prevent their employees from trying to go somewhere else and make a better life for themself. Many times workplaces become toxic or the employee and there’s no escape, the employee just has to get through it.

Executives need to understand that living life based on a contract is tough. Every time you sign one, you are making a legally binding decision for the next 2-3 years of your life. And if you wish to leave a station, you can’t simply find a job at the next station down the street. You have to uproot your life to start over. Making live altering decisions every 2-3 years wears on you after a while.

 They’re not meant to help the employee. They’re meant to help the boss. Non-competes make sense but they’re not fair in many ways and buyouts are ridiculous, and make no sense for local news unless it’s a top 10 market.

It’s basically a way to keep your poor employees poor and working for you. The financially well off can afford to break a contract easily, and have a lawyer look at it. The rest of us just have to hope there’s nothing in there selling our souls, and then deal with toxic newsrooms until it’s over.

That’s not even half of the comments.

I’m not posting this to take a side in the “Great Contract Debate”. I’ve been a News Director long enough to know the value and a worker long enough to know the downside.

I was once handed a contract casually by a boss in Las Vegas. He just dropped it on my desk. (He was doing it more to see my reaction than anything). I opened it up – a promotion, a reasonable wage, in a city I loved. I didn’t read a word of the fine print. I signed it like it was a pizza order and quickly handed it in asking for the countersignature before “anyone could change their mind.”

I guess I would say my reason for telling that story is that’s what a contract should be like. An exciting time with both sides believing and trusting the other.

Here’s my advice/questions for anyone thinking of breaking a contract:

  • Have you given the employment opportunity enough time to see if it’s really a good or bad fit for you?
  • Are you being influenced by the rash of people talking about breaking a contract?
  • Is this just a really tough time and maybe you should give it another six months?
  • Have you openly, honestly, and directly talked to your boss about the concerns?
  • Don’t assume because you say “so and so” break a contract that you can too. It’s not a one size fits all process.
  • If mental health issues fit into this, have you sought help? You want to be the best employee wherever you go and find out more about your stress points and how to deal with them will benefit you in every relationship you have, professional or personal. This isn’t about them, or the job, or the company, it’s about YOU and being healthy.

Here’s my advice for anyone about to sign a contract:

  • Make sure you understand it. A contract review might cost $100-$300 dollars, but isn’t that worth the value when it could end with you paying thousands to break it?
  • Ask for what you want. Even if they say “no changes”, still ask. Yes, it IS annoying to us managers, but it also shows us where your boundaries are, and no matter what they say there isn’t a line of people waiting to replace you all the time.
  • Ask for specific language if you leave the business.
  • Do not take any verbal words as truth. News Directors change, promises get forgotten, that “we’ll work it out somehow if this isn’t good for you” means nothing verbally. Get. It. In. Writing. Even just in an email summary of the conversation. I had a boss notorious for saying things that made me feel like I wasn’t trapped in a job I didn’t like. When it came down to it, he categorically denied he said that and made my departure miserable.
  • If you don’t like the terms, ask if you can work without a contract.

Put the legalities aside, the “I’m leaving the business so I don’t care if I burn a bridge”, and “it’s their fault”. Even if you go to PR, you’ll be interacting with local TV stations and reputations follow. You have to explain the contract break to employers in a professional way.

Take it from me as I mentor and communicate with many professionals in and out of the business. There are people who want back in. You never know when that might be you. Proceed with professionalism and open communication.

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