I can't figure this business out. There are people who are brainless idiots who rise to the top, and others who are talented and work hard and have to struggle. Is there some sort of common denominator for success in TV news?
Yes, of course there's a common denominator in the world of television news.
It is called "life is not fair."
You're right, there are people who couldn't spell IQ making seven figures and Mensa members clipping coupons. There are so many intangible factors to consider... appearance, voice, nepotism, you name it, that you can drive yourself crazy trying to beat the system. You'd have better luck playing slots in Vegas.
But while you cannot predict how the stars will align at any given point, you can improve your chances. Here are a few ways to "make your own luck."
-Be versatile. Know a little about a lot. If you're a reporter, learn to do weather and sports, even on an emergency basis. If you're a weathercaster, learn to put a package together. The more flexible you are, the more valuable you are to a News Director. If I have a choice between two people who are dead even talent-wise, I'm gonna hire the one who can wear more than one hat.
-Ditch the ego. Over the years the biggest egos I've ever seen worked in the smallest markets. (Maybe that's why they're in small markets.) Some of the nicest people work in the major markets and for the networks. The network correspondents I work with now are not only professional, but treat the members of the crew with respect, and as equals.
-Make your News Director's life easier. Come in with story ideas every day, volunteer to work holidays and weekends when you can. Don't be a newsroom gossip. News Directors move around as much as anyone else, and they often take their favorite people with them.
-Ask for advice. This was my biggest mistake when I was young and thought I knew everything. Be a sponge. Learn from people with different points of view. Ask experienced people for help.
-Be nice to photogs. I shouldn't even have to say this, but carry your share of the gear.
-Be nice to everyone. As much as people move and as small as this business is, everyone knows everyone in a six degrees of separation sort of way. One bad reference can kill a dream job. Make sure everyone with whom you work will say nice things about you.