Finding And Keeping News Topical Writer/Producers

This is Part 3 of our five-part series Building Viewership with News Topicals. Read Part 2 here.

Creative services directors are finding it harder and harder to find good news topical writer/producers.

Some grow their own, plucking them right out of college, perhaps as interns, and train them. Others look internally, finding someone already at the station who wants to be creative.

With bigger salaries to offer, CSDs in bigger markets have the ability to recruit from smaller markets, but that presents challenges, too.

And once the newcomers are on board, the CSDs have the chore of motivating them and keeping them from straying to better paying stations.

If you’ve seen the ads for news topical writer/producers, you can understand why many in the business find it difficult to recruit them.

Candidates are expected to be clever writers, like those who come up with those catchy headlines on magazine covers.

In addition, many are expected to be hands-on technical whizzes, capable of lighting and shooting, then editing on sophisticated non-linear, computer edit systems, and other computer animations programs like After Effects.

Their deadlines are tight, and non-negotiable. Topical writer/producers often have only a half-hour to edit their topicals before they air.

In the process, they have to run a gauntlet between news executives and reporters to make sure what they promise in the topical is what the news will deliver.

And yet, depending on the market size, many of these topical writer/producers are fresh out of college, in an entry-level job with entry-level pay.

Dax Dobbs

Dax Dobbs, marketing director for Nexstar’s NBC affiliate in Austin, Texas, KXAN, recently hired someone who had never worked at a news-producing TV station.

“I already had two producers in position,” he says. “They along with my brand manager, could help in the training of this person, but also this person would come in with fresh eyes.”

Dobbs staggers his topical writer/producers’ schedule, so everybody takes one topical a day so they can collaborate.

“That way the three of them, when they’re all here at the same time, can be talking about what stories are in the news, bouncing ideas, best ways to tease it. I think it makes the work stronger in the end.”

Sean Garcia, creative services director at WFTV, Cox’s ABC affiliate in Orlando, Fla., says he likes to bring in interns. “Then you kind of teach them up to the way you want to do topical promotion.”

Council Bradshaw

“Where I tend to find people is at the art colleges, the meet-up groups for photographers, editors, writers, and network through people like that,” says Council Bradshaw, creative services VP at WJZY, the Fox O&O in Charlotte, N.C.

And don’t neglect to look internally, like in the news department, says Garcia. “They already know news and are passionate about news and they’re normally on board with what you’re doing. They’re really experienced people who want a change from the daily grind of news, and do something a bit more creative.”

Jesse Stevens

That’s what prompted Jesse Stevens at WDBJ, Gray’s CBS affiliate in Roanoke, Va. Stevens was working with news and production, but switched over to promotions two months ago. He now does the topicals for the 4, 6 and 11 o’clock newscasts.

“It’s such a challenge, like a puzzle. My job is to fit it together and make it look exciting.”

 

Luanne Stewart

Luanne Stewart, creative services director at Meredith’s WSMV Nashville, an NBC affiliate, says that retention is the big problem.

“Just like I’m going to smaller markets to pick out the best talent; bigger markets are doing the same thing to us.”

That may have been the norm in the past, not so much these days.

Russ Nelligan, creative services director at Hearst’s WCVB, Boston’s ABC affiliate, says that market-jumping is not as bad as it once was.

Russ Nelligan

“People are just not as interested in moving as they used to be. There’s just not that feeling like I have got to go pay my dues at a small station and then work my way up. It’s a different world now. It’s to your advantage to connect with colleges and places in your communities and grow your own people.”

There is no one solution to landing the talent, the experts all agree.

“I’ve hired topical people who this is their first job coming out of college, and I’ve hired people who have been in the business a number of years. So, it’s not one size fits all in terms of hiring people.”

And what should you do once you find a good topical writer/producer?

“You want to take care of them,” says Bradshaw.

“You’d better be able to keep them,” says Stewart.

Most nearly everyone agrees that the role of a news topical writer/producer can wear on a person — the stress, the pressure, the hours. So, keeping their topical writer/producers motivated is critical.

David Hershey

“One thing we do here,” says David Hershey, at Dallas CBS-owned KTVT, “is also find time to give that topical person more fun, artsy stuff to do. Helps prevent burn out, extends their interest level, opens their horizons to new things, and it gives me an idea of what they might be capable of doing down the road.”

Having an honest conversation with your topical writer/producers about their future is also critical, says Nelligan.

“You may not be able to make all their dreams come through but at least let them know you’re interested in them, invested in them,” he says.

“Tell them, ‘I want to see you succeed no matter where, no matter what.’”

And if you don’t?

“Don’t be surprised when the person walks into your office and gives notice.”

Coming up in our five-part series:
Tomorrow: Creating effective topicals and when best to air them.
Monday: How Facebook is changing topical news promotion at some stations.

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