Leaving Local News: Is The Grass Greener?
One year ago, I made the biggest decisions of my life. I left local news. It wasn’t a long nagging feeling I debated in agony as some of you are experiencing. There were frustrations, yes. It was always a higher calling for me. I wanted to make a community better, smarter, safer, and engaged. It happened in the blink of an eye with a dagger in my back.
Bitter? No. When I finally had a perspective that wasn’t dominated by adrenaline and always living in fight or flight, I was able to see the past 25 years in a different light.
I felt lucky when I moved into management. I never was one who lost sight of what the people “in the trenches” were doing and I was never above doing any task. I have cleaned up flooded toilets. I line produced while still getting the budget done. I went out with reporters when it was too dangerous for them to go alone. I fought for people behind closed doors who would’ve rather seen me be run over by a bus.
Yet, there was a seismic sift happening in the business and people from a different generation were making decisions at first I didn’t like, but then I couldn’t stomach.
Chasing Your Tail
I have long struggled with all the verbal beatings News Directors take in social forums. Sure, I have a thick skin. Yet, many of the complaints are from people who have 1/3 of the story and then act as judge, jury, and warden with that information.
While not every News Director experience is the same, and aside from a handful of people who were genuinely deceitful, I understood tough, yet respectful, professional decisions.
However, some of the items began to spin out of control in a way I couldn’t just sit and take anymore:
- BUDGETS: Watching my budget repeatedly get slashed because “You are the largest department in the building.”
- SALES: Watching sales sponsor items that dumped so much additional work on an already stressed out team, while only 20% of the time did I actually have a say in if the assigned work was okay. “We already sold it” could’ve been put on t-shirts. And those t-shirts sponsored.
- LEGAL EAGLE: Explaining the legality of sponsorships ad nauseum to a sales force that loved to cross that thick, bold, electrified line and being labeled “difficult” when I tried to hold them accountable.
- LEGAL EAGLE #2: Constantly catching every copyright violation in graphics, pictures, videos, and music being ignored, even though ongoing training was being done.
- STAFFING HELL: People upset with low staffing levels when I was ordered to secretly “freeze hiring.”
- DEEPER IN STAFFING HELL: People upset an underperforming employee was still on staff when I knew if I let that person go, I wouldn’t be able to fill the position for six months.
- HIRING HELL: Hiring obscure positions like a social video producer when we didn’t have an assignment desk or full reporting staff. Watching that position pay as much as the weekend anchor.
- HIRING HADES: Being turned down by 17 candidates in two weeks, when an additional $15k could’ve gotten me three more positions. Then after I was worn down to the bone, some corporate visitors saying “Why don’t you just offer $5k more for each of the three positions?”
- BULLIES: Having good things happen like getting a new set, yet being asked for no feedback on the process. Meanwhile, a set was designed without a chroma key. Again, I’m “difficult” for insisting we have one. Being threatened in my office by dominating men and having no one believe me when I reported it. Suffering the creative retaliation of that person and their group of minions.
- NARCISSISM: Watching people above me take swag for their entire family, when employees making $24k who needed them for work could only get one. In one instance, one of my bosses began eating a buffet of food for an employee award and when I said it was a breach of etiquette to eat before the guest of honor, being told, “Whatever. I’m hungry.”
- MY WIFE SAYS: Living at the whim of a wife married to a powerful person and hearing “She’s the target demo.” Feeling handcuffed when I wanted to say, “Our target demo is a family making less than $40k with two kids and living paycheck to paycheck while you’re wife lives a life of a $250k stay-at-home position.”
- CONSTANT CONFLICT: Rumor mills fueled by group chats and social posts with a set of unwritten rules. If you had a disagreement with one person, you were not in a disagreement with their entire tribe. Hearing “It’s not fair” every time someone didn’t get their way.
- SOCIAL MEDIA SCANDALS: Employees demanding their “personal space” on social media yet showing scandalous or scantily clad photos. Posting smiling pictures at natural disasters. Making a mass shooting scene a chance for a selfie instead of shining lights in dark corners. Being corporately handcuffed from holding them responsible, despite corporate polices that are too vague.
Even as I write that list I think, I could 1. Double the list 2. Be seen as being very unhappy and nitpicky.
I wasn’t, because in between those moments there were great moments:
- GUTS & GLORY: Hiring people with little to no experience but going off a great gut instinct and watching them thrive.
- MAKING A DIFFERENCE: The moments we helped inform a community during a hurricane or help government officials accountable for a broken unemployment system. Being able to collaborate with all generations and pick their minds. Giving them room to grow but a soft landing if they took a misstep. I actually once even asked a GM to fire me if someone needed to be help accountable for a horrible error someone else made, but I knew their heart was pure and I didn’t want them to lose a career based on a flawed accountability system that in the end, was my responsibility. It didn’t matter that I had only been there two weeks.
- INNOVATION: Trying new things and failing. Trying new things and succeeding. Trying new things and watching people adapt. Keeping up with an endless barrage of social media posts while trying to accommodate the growing list of duties. Figuring out strategy to avoid burnout yet achievement of the goals.
- BEING A FORCE OF CHANGE: Going into a newsroom without a lot of strategy and guidance and rewriting the playbook. Actually listening to people and growing the team from that perspective, not corporate demands.
- LOVING THE GAME: If local news was a sport, I loved playing it on the field. You have to be a certain type of person (some would say a mentally unhealthy person) who would thrive on deadlines, new information, troubleshooting broken equipment with seconds to spare. Digging through documents to catch government leaders in lies. Exposing those lies even under threats.
- ADAPTING TO CHANGE: Build more diverse and inclusive teams and experiencing the shift of employees coming out of the closest, being able to speak about gender identity, and opening dialogues of how different ethnicities felt in various situations.
I felt like I was finally in a place where if I wasn’t able to be part of the change, I was part of the problem. Watching local news devour itself in a sea of “cost cutting” and underpaid employees while being a staple of any free society, I did soul searching. I spoke to people from throughout my career. Some loved me. Some hated me. Some used to hate me but put bygones aside. Some I loathed at the time but I forgave to be able to get their perspective.
As it turns out, it was a great conversation with someone I respect that actually helped me put in concrete the “No Going Back” mentality a year ago. In a nutshell, I was told indirectly that who I am as a person, benefits and flaws, was not a good fit for a company I was dying to work for. I would have to inherently change myself – not just better myself, as I am always looking to do – but change my entire personality down to the way I explained my thoughts in order to even be considered.
I was constantly told to “Go back to being an Executive Producer,” suggesting that somehow I wasn’t fit for the big chair. Whether it was the intention or not, it was one thing that cut through the thick skin.
So I sat there, a year ago today, thinking, “How do I do this? How do I transition to something that gives me a place to be ME.”
The first few months were filled with building my own brand on my own terms. I napped. I walked the dogs. I slept with the phone off. I didn’t miss anything from before. I was shocked at this, since I was someone who used to hate taking vacations for more than a few days because I couldn’t wait to get back to work.
If This Tracks..
For those of you on the fence of leaving or not leaving, you have your own list of things you love and hate. You have the amazing ability to demand more time off, mental health days, refusing to work when called in on weekends, speaking up when a shift change gives you three hours to sleep and turn around to be back at work. In my early days of news, it wasn’t even comprehensible those things could happen.
Where we do meet on this path of “What Now?” is that we still want to feel like we have a purpose. We still wonder how to make a difference when we can’t quite use the press pass to gain access to critical information.
I hustled to figure out what to do make ends meet while still enjoying my freedom. Here’s what I’ve accomplished in the past year:
- Wrote 700+ stories, blogs, landing sites, etc. for various clients and platforms.
- Created a TikTok strategy for companies or organizations that are hesitant to get in the game.
- Took 35 training sessions to fine tune every skill from YouTube metrics to SEO to being a succesful freelancer.
- Worked with five PR companies/digital marketing agencies to complete a variety of tasks. Some were great experiences, others were tedious and boring but paid the bills.
- Turned down opportunities were people were dismissive or rude during the interview or content creation process.
- Engaged in more than 100 discussions with journalists about reel reviews, tough careers decisions, and “how to talk to my News Director about XXX” all in confidence and for free.
- Tried side hustles like delivering groceries to see if it’s all its cracked up to be. Met several new friends during this process and learned an immense amount of information on stocking, distribution, and product management in grocery stores.
- Helped clients pitch stories to the media in a way that resonates with local news instead of the same cookie cutter process that will definitely get put in the spam folder.
- Did a large scale transcription project for a major company.
- Gave no less than 25 references for people. Some put me on their reference list. Some didn’t but the hiring manager connected the dots to me.
During this time I also:
- Applied for 84 full-time jobs.
- Did 30 interviews.
- Got ghosted 20 times after those interviews.
- Got turned down by three writing platforms for an obscure grading system that was never explained how to improve.
- Pitched proposals to people who seemed interested, then blew me off when the time came to advance the information I shared on that proposal.
- Gave away too much information to a client as I pitched them, then watched them take my information and use it to their gain without every paying me a dime.
- Was denied the opportunity to advance on a platform where I was thriving.
- Lost no less than a dozen “friends” who really just wanted to have a News Director with influence in the industry in their corner.
The Path Is Forked
For those who leave local news, generally it’s seen as a one-way path of Public Relations. For many, it’s a much-needed pay increase. For a former News Director, it’s not.
For better or worse, here’s what you face outside the bright lights of the studio:
- BEING THE TORTOISE: Timeline, deadlines, urgency, etc. are all out the window in the “real world.” You are used to working at a certain pace. This pace doesn’t exist anymore. You were used to being the hare in the race, now you are the tortoise.
- LEVELS UPON LEVELS: In local news, you were the reporter, producer, social media star, printer fixer, fill-in anything, and “other duties as assigned.” In the “real world,” there are lanes and you stay in yours. I had one client who had a manager for every social platform, PR, Crisis Management, Marketing, Social Marketing, Metrics, and Website Content. I would laugh internally – ok, sometimes externally – about how that redundancy is completely foreign to me and that I could do them all.
- PORTFOLIO: You need a portfolio of the work you’ve done. You’ll realize many of your previous stations changed CMSs since you left so your content is gone if you didn’t save it. Many reporters save their work, but do producers save writing samples? Social posts that went viral? The strategic plan they helped create?
- WEIRD TERMS THAT AREN’T SO WEIRD: KPMs, SaaS, SERP, CTR, CPC, A/B Tests, B2B, B2C, CTA, SEO – the list goes on. Let me tell you – YOU KNOW THESE THINGS. You just don’t realize you know them by their formal names. Just like a CEO at a marketing company might not know VOSOT, PKG, IFB, Backtime, NRCS, or LiveU. Don’t shy away from a job opening that lists acronyms you don’t know. Search those terms to realize you are familiar with the topic, only you didn’t know you were the best at CTA and CTR in your news role.
- JUDGY: While there are many benefits a local news person brings to any position, not everyone is going to see those benefits hiring outside the world of news. One job I was overly qualified for, but I really wanted, rejected my application within three hours of submission. I sent a “Wow that was fast” email and was bluntly told I didn’t meet the criteria, even though I specifically listed all the ways I did.
Before You Bail
If you’re still in a newsroom, I suggest you stick around through the end of your wildly one-sided contract. Here’s why:
- LEARN: Talk to your analytics person. Learn how marketing makes decisions. Ask if you can take part in a sales meeting. Learn all you can about the touchstones that reach outside of the day-to-day news grind. You’ll learn valuable things for the outside world.
- SAVE: Save your good work. Scripts, social posts, packages, YouTube clips, TikTok videos that involved being fully clothed, informative, and respectful.
- RATINGS: Save those rating sheets sitting in your inbox you never looked at because you just wanted to know if the station was “doing well” or “struggling.” Ask your boss to review the sheet with you so you understand the archaic method used to rate local news.
- SEO: Take an SEO-certification class. I took HubSpot’s and it was easy to follow and never lost my attention. Apply SEO tactics to your stories.
- MORE SEO & OTHER APPS: In this world, there’s Surfer SEO, Yoast SEO, Semrush, Clearscope, etc. I’m betting your digital team or corporate digital team uses one of these for measurement.
- MEET & GREET: Meet people in your community from marketing agencies, digital agencies, PR firms, PIOs (not when you want info, just as a learning tool), Directors of Communication, etc. Feel out the world that you might be living in before you take the leap.
Before You Bail: Part 2
You also have the practical things you need to explore before you bail. Sleeping in and freeing up your weekends can be blindingly awesome. There are some items to consider before you go freelance, should that be a short term or long term goal:
- TAXES: If you are are thinking of freelancing or taking time off to do side hustle work, you’ll be getting money tax-free, only you have to pay those taxes eventually. Meet with a tax attorney. I found someone locally who gave me an hour of time for $100. I came with a specific list and got the guidance I needed. If you make more than $600 on platforms like PayPal or Venmo for work done, you’ll get a tax form and be on the took for taxes.
- HEALTHCARE: If you get COBRA when you leave, it’s going to cost the full amount of the health benefit. You’ll suddenly realize all the money your company picked up on that end. You can also explore Healthcare.gov. If you have a spouse, see what financial implication there will be by adding you to the insurance plan.
- MANAGE YOURSELF: Can you manage yourself? What limits will you set? For example, I still work 8 hours a day, but if I want to take a day off at the last minute, I will. I nap all the time. However, when I’m not working, I’m not making money. I have to strictly organize my time that if I sleep for an hour during the day and go to the dog park with the dogs, I’m working an extra three hours somewhere in that week.
- LINKEDIN FOR LIFE: LinkedIn is going to be your best friend. Post often, but post good content. Don’t get into emotions or drama. Don’t be passive aggressive. Save that for Facebook if you must. You’ll be amazed at the people you meet without really trying. Also, LinkedIn has amazing training courses for free. Don’t just follow people in local news. Find people to follow who are where you want to be, not where you are. I got one client because the top boss loved dogs and saw one of my dog posts.
NOTE: LinkedIn will put your comments on other people’s posts in the feed of the people who follow you. If you engage in a fight with someone, your full discussion will be visible to potential hiring managers. Some people have figured out the system to post controversial stuff that pisses other people off just to get engagement. Every word you write should be “Would I want my next client to see that?”
The Door Swings Both Ways
Don’t think if you bail you are going to be banned from coming back. There’s too much demand in a local newsroom for good people and taking a year or two (or five) away isn’t going to blacklist you. You’ll potentially return with more life experience that you got chasing down every stabbing and murder in town. You’ll have more real contacts that you did before (PIOs are not contacts, but that’s for another day.)
I resisted saying for a long time that I was done with local news, because I’d be a hypocrite if I went back. However, I felt like I was half in and half out by not saying it out loud. It took three job interests that I turned down before I realized that it’s not for me.
I’ve allowed myself the grace to say, “It’s okay if I go back. It’s okay if I evolve to a place where I get the leadership I was craving a company that wants to make the business better.” While that’s not going to happen right now, who know what the next five years hold?
It’s okay live by the “If you love something, set it free” theory.
What You Won’t Escape
There are things in the outside world that are going to ring true to things you hated about local news. There is still gossip. There are still toxic people. There are still bosses upon bosses all contradicting each other. There are people in charge who will give you specifics of a project in writing and then rip apart everything you did according to specs because along the way the project changed and nobody told you.
If you have journalism in your blood, even if you leave it, you’ll still have an undying need to tell stories. Don’t let the “But I’m not a journalist anymore” stop you. Can you ever really stop being a journalist? Write stories. Create your own website. Pitch them to publications or websites and put a price on them. Get sponsorships on your website. Do a podcast about a topic you know inside and out.
It’s Your Decision
Sure, speak to people you trust. However, when you’re talking to people in the business, they have a certain perspective. When people see your value and don’t want to lose you, they are going to sway your mind. Your parents might be so proud to have a “famous person” in their family they might make you feel bad whether intentionally or accidentally. Just because “everyone else is doing it” doesn’t mean you should – or shouldn’t.
The “this place sucks” is more contagious than COVID in the audio booth. We want to defend our friends and we get sucked into their drama and start to let its stickiness reside on us. Just because three of your friends are miserable, doesn’t mean you have to be. It’s hard to say, “Dude. It’s not that bad. Chill out” but sometimes it’s necessary. I promise you, unhappy Betty isn’t going to be help you out financially when you quit in a fit of “this isn’t fair” and now can’t find a job.
I can’t think of one person who completely understood my decision to leave my last job. I even second-guessed my gut instinct more than I should have. In the end, I had to do what was right for me. I tried to resolve my concerns no less than five times. I could either “suck it up” and go on, but I had seen things I couldn’t unsee during this incredibly challenging time. If I can’t ask for help from people I thought I could trust and get it, what was the point of going back to the same insanity?
Here’s another great little secret. It’s okay if you make a decision you later regret. I have one career decision I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself for, but it was a long time ago and I can’t take it back. I can only see the benefits I learned from it and apply that to future decisions.
The Others Who Left
There are so many people who left local news who can give you their perspectives too. Explore anyone who is willing to talk with you.
Review the SPJ Freelance opportunities and connect with that crowd. You can do the things you love and erase the things you hate.
You might have to start small. My first adventure in writing was about rockhounding for a pathetically low pay rate. However, I learned a lot about rocks, which I’m sure will come in handy someday and I built a client rating base from there and eventually worked my way into steady clients that pay better.
I genuinely hoped I’d “get over it” and go back to my roots, and whether it was the last job that was the final death of 10,000 papercuts or the parts that were not the value of the whole, I haven’t been able to move past my perspective. I actually still have nightmares about certain situations. The overwhelming feeling is that I couldn’t let a job control my life any longer. It was my fault for letting it go on so long, and I needed to fix those parts of me that let it happen.
We are all a work in progress and society has reached a point where it’s okay to explore and move forward, back, laterally, or go off the grid for a while.
You do you. I’m here if you need to chat.