By Melissa Luck, RTDNA Contributor
On college campuses across the country, students spend their evenings editing reels and polishing resumes, ready to take the first step in the rest of their lives. But as these ambitious college students prepare for a life in broadcasting, reality waits on the other side of the door with one nagging question: Are they ready?
Collin Ruane has done everything possible to prepare for his first paid job in broadcasting. As a child growing up in Idaho, he watched the news the way most kids his age watched Power Rangers and played video games.
“I did a lot of sampling of different news outlets,” Ruane said of his childhood. “I didn't always watch the station my parents watched.”
In middle school, he began writing letters and emails to local news personalities, soaking up every bit of information he could about the industry. “Looking back,” Ruane said, “I was networking and I didn't know it.”
His passion and drive led him to the University of Missouri, specifically because he knew he could work at the local NBC affiliate and gain real-world experience while still enrolled. In addition to experience at Mizzou, he spent a summer internship learning from the reporters and producers at WOWT-TV in Omaha. He's active on YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn. His Facebook timeline is full of completed stories and smiling photos with a mic in his hand.
Now, he's a matter of weeks from graduation.
“I'm ready,” he said.
You have to admire his optimism. But somewhat-cynical working professionals know what Ruane is about to find out: He doesn't yet know what he doesn't know.
“It was a wake up call,” said reporter Alex Rozier. Five years ago, he sat – almost literally – where Ruane sits. He was a rising star, about to graduate from the University of Missouri, with his sights set as high as his talent would take him.
“I was thinking, I'm going to go to the biggest market I can possibly go to,” Rozier said. “Now I know, it's not about market size, it's about the station where you work. It matters the journalism that you're able to do.”
Rozier started in Spokane, market 78. It's a market that hires some journalists straight out of college, but not many. Rozier hit the ground running, then stumbled. One reality check in particular came at a crime scene, where he competed with a journalist who has been in the market for decades. While Rozier went to the public information officer for details, the senior reporter used time-worn sources to break details he hadn't even heard.
“There was a lecture in college about going to coffee with the power players in your community,” Rozier remembered. “At the time, I didn't recognize the value in developing sources. And how much it really matters. Now I know that, even if you suck on TV, if you can break news and develop sources, there's going to be a spot for you on the roster.”
Most broadcasting programs teach journalists about the roles within a newsroom, how to write a basic VO, how to light an interview. But, broadcasters often miss out on real journalism instruction. Many students are never taught make a FOIA request or fight to stay in a public meeting until they have to do it on deadline, when someone is paying them to uncover information.
“You have a basic understanding of public records and your rights as a journalist,” Rozier recognizes, “But, until you're living it, you don't realize how important it is.”
Rozier also looks back with some regret about what he didn't know about the business of broadcasting. We learn to look for jobs, but not how to negotiate our own worth. Especially in that first job, we're just thankful someone got past the montage and still want to hire us.
“I needed to go to the table more with the attitude that 'they're lucky to have me,'” Rozier said. “Because this is such a low-paying industry, it's really important people demand what they're worth.”
While some journalists turn these lessons into frustration and burnout, Rozier has taken them to heart and learned to make up for the lessons he didn't get in college. In his short time in Spokane, he developed a reputation for being a hard-worker who would go the extra mile to tell a good story. When his contract was up, he moved on to the journalism juggernaut KING5 in Seattle.
Five years removed from those first-job mistakes, he has advice for guys like Collin Ruane, who could easily begin his career in an even higher market than he did.
“Make your mistakes on a smaller scale, in a smaller market,” Rozier advises. “Then, when you go onto bigger markets like Spokane or Seattle, you're ready. And, you can cover bigger stories without competing with journalists who have been in the community for decades.”
Ruane understands this, as much as any college student can. I asked if he has any trepidation about finally entering the field he's spent his whole life preparing for.
“I worry about the doom and gloom you hear about the future of TV news,” Ruane said.
“I still think it's a very exciting time to be a journalist,” Rozier explained. “I just hope stations continue to value journalism and it starts with quality. Just because we can do a lot with technology doesn't mean we forget how we had our success. And, that's the quality journalism done with reporter and photographer teams in newsrooms that value the finished product.”
Two University of Missouri students, separated by the perspective that comes with years working in this industry. What they share is the passion for broadcasting television news. That's something you can't learn in any classroom.
Melissa Luck is Executive Producer at KXLY-TV in Spokane, WA