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TV News Jobs: 'Less Experience, Lower Salary'

Nervous? If you work in TV news today, you can't help but worry about the waves of layoffs and top talent being let go throughout the industry.

In the biggest example, CBS announced in April that it would cut more than 100 people at its owned and operated stations, but cutbacks have been announced in dribs and drabs at many other stations.

And to the extent that stations are hiring, who are they hiring?

"They're asking for people with less experience at a lower salary," said Bill LaPlante II, a former CBS newsman who now runs the Media Alliance talent agency. "They want fewer people to do more jobs for more modest salaries."

Those working in the industry are "bearing the brunt of a tough economy and some unfortunate choices by top management," LaPlante said. Whatever happened, the overall decline in TV viewership and the inability to figure out a way to make money on the Internet while news consumers migrate there has changed the business. “Gone forever are the days of 49% [return on investment],” he said.

How significant is the trend toward downsizing TV news? In a Columbia Journalism Review article "A Long View of Layoffs," Columbia professor Michael Schudson noted that editorial employment in television "nearly tripled between 1971 and 2002." However, "such a historic perspective, of course, can scarcely console journalists being laid off," he added.

According to more recent research, a survey of news directors conducted in the third quarter of 2007 by the Radio and Television News Directors Association and Hofstra University, the median newsroom staff size was down slightly over the course of a year. However, the total number of stations originating news programming, 777, remained near the all time high of 778 set in 2005.

The TV news job market "seems to be slowing down or even contracting a little bit, but it comes on top of a lot of growth," RTNDA President Barbara Cochran said. However, she was cautious about sounding too optimistic, given that the survey was taken prior to the latest rounds of layoffs. "I definitely have been hearing from everyone that the advertising climate in 2008 has not been as good as people anticipated last year, and that could obviously have an effect on this," she said.

While the TV news industry has grown, the revenue is now split into more and thinner slices. "None of the broadcasts are doing well at all, even as there has never been more news on the air than there is now," noted another well-placed industry insider, who spoke on the condition that his name not be used. More high-priced anchors are going to see that their contracts won't be renewed, and salaries in general will go down – although there will still be exceptions for those who draw a big audience, he said.

Given all the severance payments CBS will have to make, the layoffs there represent an accounting maneuver "to make next year's earnings look better," according to this insider. "It's all a game; it will ebb and flow."

What can you do to preserve your own job security if you're one of those more experienced, more expensive TV newsroom people?

Stations are "looking for people who have a lot of different skills – digital, the online skills, the new ways of editing and producing. They want people to be able to do a number of different things," Cochran said. While that may not mean you need to turn yourself into a blogger or a "one man band" video journalist, she said, "even the anchors who are in very secure places probably ought to be learning newer ways to communicate."

"The key is versatility," said Steve Ridge, president of the Domestic TV division at Magid and Associates, which runs regular monthly career counseling seminars for mid-career TV professionals. "I advise people they need to hang in, adapt to and embrace change, and broaden their skills, and they will be marketable. It's not as though it's a dead end to hang on and hang in with traditional media companies. There's no reason to panic and walk away."

Yet even those who are versatile and flexible enough to keep up with the structural changes in the industry as the result of digitization and the rise of the Internet may suffer because of the ad slowdown that is happening at the same time, and dwindling profits in the TV business, Ridge conceded. "In general, firms are looking to do more with less."