Friday, June 12, 2009

News Director's playbook: Anatomy of a budget, part two

When it comes to planning a budget, salaries are about the easiest thing to deal with. When you have people under contract, you know exactly what you'll be paying them, so there aren't too man variables to consider unless people leave.

And people always leave.

But there are some real wild cards in the budgetary deck that can play havoc with your cash flow. The biggest one last year was the price of gasoline. News Directors who budgeted their gas expense based on a buck-fifty per gallon had their budgets blown out of the water when gas hit four dollars per gallon. Remember how painful it was to fill up your own car last summer? Multiply that times 12. Or 24. Throw in a live truck or three. Suddenly, all that money you were going to spend on new editing equipment went out the window.

Or maybe it was the salary for a reporter or photog.

One of the more nebulous lines of a budget is known as "recruiting." In English, that means money you have to spend to hire someone. While you can run ads for free on tvjobs, the other factors get expensive. Plane tickets, hotels, dinners, moving expense, and putting a new employee up for a few weeks can add up. So when one of your co-workers leaves, that can easily put a five thousand dollar dent in the budget.

But if no one leaves, it frees up that money for other stuff.

Equipment is another big expense. The newest, the latest, the most high-tech always cost a lot. And employees always want new stuff. Weather people are always the first on the list with their hands out, as many seem to think they simply can't operate with last year's equipment. They have to have the super doppler whatever that costs a fortune and may only be noticeable to ten people in the market. So a ND has to weigh what equipment is really necessary and what is just a bell or whistle. Most NDs feel that cameras are a top priority, because in this era of high-def, your video has to look the best. Editing equipment would be next on most priority lists.

Cars are another wild card. When a car gets wrecked or blows a transmission, it isn't cheap. Many stations are "self insured" which is a nice way of saying "too cheap to buy insurance" so if a $25,000 car is totaled, it costs the company $25,000.

There are dozens of other "line items" which can make or break a budget. Travel used to be a big one, with NDs going to RTNDA and various seminars, but those have pretty much been cut severely if not completely. Printers, ink, paper, pads, cell phones and dozens of things you can't even think of make up the rest of the budget.

So how does all this affect you? And how can you do your part so it doesn't hurt you?

Well, many employees treat equipment and station facilities like a rental car. It's not yours, so why worry? Who cares if you leave the news car running while you make a quick trip to the bank? You're not paying for it. That long distance call to your girlfriend? You're not paying for it. Those jokes on the internet that you print out? You're not paying for it.

Ah, but you are. Every dollar you waste of the company's money is a dollar the ND can't spend on important stuff, like salaries. It used to drive me crazy to see reporters dial information when a phone book was sitting on their desk, unused. That costs a couple of bucks. (You can look up numbers on the Internet for free, in case you didn't know.) All of this adds up, and that waste could be the difference between hiring someone or leaving the position vacant.

One problem that must disappear from newsrooms if this business is to survive is the "us versus them" mentality. True, many members of management could care less about those who work for them. But if you have a decent ND and work for a good company, you can help keep things afloat by treating station assets as if they were your own.

So when you hear that cuts have to be made because of "budgetary reasons" bear in mind that you play a part in it.

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