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.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

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

Sometimes you hate your News Director for the wrong reason.

That penny pinching, bean counting, throws-nickels-around-like-manhole-covers manager drives you crazy with cuts, cuts, and more cuts. He or she may be a good news person, but money issues always seem to trump everything.

Guess what? A News Director can only spend what the company allows.

Television stations aren't run like Congress. You can't just print more money and bill the taxpayers. There are checks and balances, and if a ND goes over budget constantly or significantly, it's hasta la vista, baby.

Then again, if a ND comes in under budget, said ND sometimes gets a bonus called an "override." (You didn't know that, did you?) So while a News Director must adhere to a budget, there is often a reward for coming in a certain amount under that budget.

So let me give you an inside look at the money issues behind the scenes, since money is the main culprit that is causing so much pain in our business.

We're going to give our hypothetical News Director a one million dollar budget. Sound like a lot? Pffft. You can blow that just keeping a small station running in place.

Some of the big expenses are obvious. Salaries are always at the top, and since health benefits constantly go up, that adds to the problem. Many stations pay a significant part of your health benefits, so every time there's an increase, that means less money for salaries.

Let's take a closer look at salaries, because that is the one that affects people the most. Right now it's the middle of June, and our ND is short one reporter. The budgeted salary for this spot is $24,000. Does the ND hire someone immediately?

Not if the budget is tight. Because there's real money to be saved in this situation.

Since the next sweeps month isn't till November, most ND's wouldn't rush to fill this position. Now keep this in mind... every month this position goes unfilled, the ND saves two thousand dollars. See how that adds up? Now do you see why no one is in a rush to hire?

So, now we get to September and the ND has saved six thousand dollars. He finds a reporter he really wants, but that reporter is already making 25k. But since he's saved six grand, he can offer 26k and still be four thousand dollars ahead of the game. Creative accounting? Sure. But in this case he ended up with a better reporter and saved money to boot.

The flaw in this is that the station was shorthanded for three months and the product suffered, which translates into lower ratings when November rolls around. (You're in ratings every day, remember?) But in the land of beancounters, this is considered a proper way to manage a budget.

Here's another deal that's come up lately, the pay cut. Let's say you have a main anchor making 100k whose contract is about to end. The anchor is a "piece of the furniture"... one of those people without much talent but who has been around so long the viewers have grown comfortable with him. The ND knows the anchor can't go anywhere else, so the offer to renew is a pay cut. The anchor probably doesn't want to move anyway, and knows he really can't, so he accepts. In this case the ND has all the leverage. He does, however, run the risk of shooting himself in the foot if the anchor walks, thereby alienating long time viewers. But that's the game the beancounters play.

Then of course, there's what I call the "two-fer" hire, better known as the one-man-band. Some companies see this as a simple "two people for the price of one" and think "why hire a photog when a reporter can shoot his own video?" This is typical myopic beancounter logic, as these people have no concept of creativity. To them, we're all just beans. While this weakens the product, they only see the bottom line. Given a choice, I'd bet 99 percent of News Directors would want two person teams in the field, but if a ND is told by the company that he has to go the one-man-band route, he often has no choice.

Right now it's a buyers market, and managers know it. They don't have to offer the money they used to, because there a lot more talented people out there than there are job openings.

Next time we'll look at some other budget factors that affect you... some you deal with every day and others you never see. Any questions, fire away.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Movies to get your reporting mojo back

Many of us take solace in our favorite movies and TV shows, though of late Hollywood hasn't offered much. I have my own collection of favorites, which are generally played in response to what's going on in my career. "Die Hard" was my favorite after a bad day (one News Director wore out my first copy), "Rudy" got cued up when I needed inspiration, and you just can't beat "It's a Wonderful Life" when you tend to look back at your life choices.

But if you've been in the television business for any length of time, you know that the day-to-day grind can put you on auto-pilot, and sometimes make you forget the magical lure that got your into the career in the first place. If you've lost your spirit, just need to get back on the ethical path, or want validation that the business is just more interesting than any other, here's a good way to spend a few hours.

All the President's Men. Not just a great movie, but the best movie about reporters who got their story the old fashioned way. The sequence with Robert Redford working the phone, doodling on his pad between important notes, is so dead on for any reporter. The scene with Redford and Hoffman going thru thousands of slips in a library is a classic. And for those of you who don't know much about history, you can learn a ton about Watergate from this film.

Absence of Malice. A great expose on the ethics, or lack thereof, in our business. Why you'd rather be right than first. Any why you should be careful in your reporting.

The China Syndrome. Jane Fonda & Michael Douglas use a whistle blower to get the story. How a story can change the world and save lives. And why a smart photog is any station's best asset.

Broadcast News. An excellent look at both the journalistic and cosmetic sides of the business. (If you look like William Hurt and have the soul of Holly Hunter, you'll go far.) The layoff scene is particularly timely these days. Albert Brooks flop-sweat anchoring is a classic.

The Big Carnival. You might have to look hard for a copy of this one. Kirk Douglas is a down on his luck reporter who manipulates a story and turns it into a media circus. Hence the title. Great expose on what's wrong with the business.

Wag the Dog. Yet another satirical look at media manipulation taken to the extreme.

Good Night and Good Luck. The story of Edward R. Murrow. Good historical piece for those of you too young to remember the guy, and nice to look back at when TV News was a lot simpler.

The Year of Living Dangerously. If you want to be a foreign correspondent, watch this first.

Kolchak, The Night Stalker. You gotta be kidding me; a vampire movie made this list? You bet. This 1970's horror gem features Darren McGavin as a dogged, old fashioned reporter with ink in his veins. While his techniques (bribing sources with bottles of scotch) would be frowned upon today (bean counters wouldn't approve the expense), his nose for news is something sadly lacking in today's newsrooms.

Lou Grant. I stumbled across an old rerun the other nite on something called American Family Network, (Wednesdays, 9pm EST) and I'd forgotten how good this TV series was. A great look at different styles of reporting and how a news team working in harmony can bring great results.

The Ratings Game. A laugh out loud Danny DeVito movie about the mob fixing the ratings. Fuhgeddaboudit.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

You might have a "praise deficiency"

Our house backs up to several acres of woods, so we see all kinds of wildlife. Deer have wandered through the yard, rabbits come and go, and on two occasions hawks have landed on the back porch.

It's a cat's dream.

Our kitty Bella is in summer hunting mode despite her overflowing food dish, which means on any given morning I can open the door and see her standing next to the latest headless "trophy" she's brought to show off. As if to say, "See, this rat could have gotten in the house. But I took care of it for you." She sits there, eyes bright, smiling, until you scratch her head and give her a treat. "Good kitty. Thank you for putting this lovely decapitated creature next to the front door."

Reporters are no different than cats. They want praise for a job well done. Except in many newsrooms, you might never get your head scratched or get a treat.

The single biggest complaint I hear from reporters is, "I never get any feedback." If this applies to you, you're certainly not alone, as many NDs fail to give any kind of praise when praise is due. The other half of the most popular complaint is, "I only hear something if it's bad."

I once worked for a guy for three years and heard one compliment in all that time. One. It consisted of, "Nice job" after a very difficult live shot.

When you're in this situation, you begin to doubt yourself. Imagine if you grew up and your parents never said anything nice to you, and only talked to you when you were bad? And for the young generation, this problem is even worse, as many of you have grown up in homes in which you've gotten nothing but praise.

It all goes back to that Seinfeld episode. "It's not you, it's me." Many times there's absolutely nothing wrong with your work. But if you're doing your job in a vacuum, it's natural to begin to doubt your abilities.

If you're in this situation, seek out feedback from people you trust. Veterans in the newsroom, people at other stations. The idea is not to get false praise, but to find out what you're doing well and what needs work.