Monday, May 27, 2013

Reporter's contracts: a stupid idea that really needs to go away

I'll bet most of you who aren't in management never realized that a reporter's contract can backfire on a News Director. As much as you wanna get out of your current deal, there are plenty of NDs who are counting the days until certain contracts run out.

You need only look at major league baseball to understand this. The Yankees are stuck with A-Rod for several more years, owing more than $100 million to a broken down player who the fans hate. But hey, let's get that ten year contract done and lock him up so he can't go anywhere else.

Trust me, there's an A-Rod in every newsroom that a News Director can't wait to cut loose. But he can't since there's a contract involved. Yep, that contract he was so desperate to impose has now come back to bite him  on the ass.

I understand the necessity of putting anchors under contract. I've never seen the need with reporters. I've had this view both as a reporter and a manager. When I was a rookie I once asked a consultant if viewers cared about the reporting staff, and he said, "Viewers make their choices primarily because of the anchors."

So why the obsession with contracts, especially with rookies... the ones most likely to become an A-Rod?

A few reasons.

-Many NDs are lazy when it comes to finding talent and consider the hiring process a pain. If people can't leave, there's less hiring to do.

-It's either company policy, or the GM insists on it.

-It adds stability to the newsroom. (In reality, it adds stress, as people obsess about their contracts and often feel like they're stuck in a bad relationship.)

-There's the notion that people will spin the revolving door if there aren't contracts.

So it's time for the "virtual contract." One that benefits both sides. One that says, "I hope you'll stay here awhile, and I'm going to make this a nice place to work so that you won't want to leave." One that doesn't charge you thousands to leave a job. (Is there any other industry that uses this insane tactic?)

Nothing stresses out a young reporter more than a contract that hangs around his neck like a noose, one that threatens serious legal action or heavy buyout fines if he leaves. Remove that, and you'll have a reporter whose attention can be focused where it matters: getting good stories.

This may surprise you: there are people in major markets working without contracts. Because NDs there are smarter and know that if they leave, there will be hundreds of qualified people lining up to take their place.

It should be the same everywhere.

I think back to that gal I knew from Texas who had all these quaint little sayings. One was, "You ride a horse longer with loose reins."

Get rid of the contracts, keep your newsroom happy and make it a fun place to work, and no one will want to leave. No contract can ever top that.