It's hard to tell the difference between a good station and a bad one from the outside. I can tell if the product is decent by looking at the station's website or looking up youtube videos, but even that isn't a sure thing. As an outsider & newbie to the business, I find it hard to know whether I'm picking the right stations to apply to as far as management, location, quality of co-workers...Any advice? Also, maybe you can tell us about those war zones you mentioned? Not the name of the stations, but just the cities.
Well, first of all, I'm not going to list those places I consider to be the ninth circle of hell in writing. But you can find out a lot about both a city and a station by putting on your reporter's hat and doing some legwork.
As you mentioned, visiting the station's website is the best place to start. You can see the product, find out if they're scanner chasers or prefer enterprise stories. But you need a lot more info before sending tapes.
Location: What's the quality of life in a certain city? Use the internet to find out, and don't go by those "best places to live" lists, as half those include factors as things to do for senior citizens, number of doctors, etc. Stuff that you're not really concerned about in your twenties. Check out things like the crime rate, weather conditions. If the city scores high in things like murder rates, car thefts, etc. it might not be a great place to live, and you might be covering nothing but crime. (Often car insurance is highest in places that have a high crime rate.) You should also visit homefair.com to check out the cost of living. What seems like a good salary can disappear if it's an expensive place to live.
Companies: There are a few companies out there that are in the top echelon and others that throw nickles around like manhole covers. The bad companies are notorious for treating people badly. Simply ask some veterans in the business. Everyone who has been in the business awhile knows the best and the worst.
Management & newsroom staff: You can often find out where a manager has worked by visiting RickGevers.com, click on the "weekly newsletter" and do a search. This site posts management jobs, and news about News Directors moving on. You can call the ND's old station and find out what people thought of the person. (Photogs are probably the most honest when it comes to this.) You might also beware of a manager who is working his way down the ladder, and who has made a lot of moves in a short period of time. Google the person as well; News Directors are often quoted for articles on things like news coverage, philosophy, etc.
You can also check those "moving on" listings on tvjobs.com, find reporters and anchors who used to work at a station, and call those people. Trust me, they won't mind being honest about a place at which they no longer work.
These days, doing your homework on a market and a station is just as important as sending out the tapes. Take your time to do a lot of research; it can save you a major headache down the road.