When you decided on a career in journalism, you may have imagined yourself working for a large TV station, or even a national network. However, unless you have a friend or relative who can get you a cushy job at a big-city TV station, chances are your first job will be in a small market.
Nielsen Television Markets
Nielsen divides television markets in the United States into 210 distinct regions and ranks them by “TV homes.” According to Nielsen’s latest rankings, number one—the largest market—is New York, followed by Los Angeles and Chicago. Of course, not every journalist wants to live in a large metropolis like the top three markets, but many aspire to work in a “Top 100” station.
Although some grads get lucky and land in a Top 100 station, students who have just graduated from a journalism program are most likely to find a job in a smaller market—sometimes, a very, very small market. Even students with a 4.0 average and an excellent audition video will find themselves competing with similarly impressive students from all over the country when applying for a first job in the industry. You may very well find your first job in a small-town station.
Reporting News When There is No News: Life at a Small Market Station
When you arrive at your new job in a small market, you’ll probably find that there are some days when there isn’t any news to report. It is the sad reality of any journalist who attempts to report news on a daily basis in a small town—some days nothing newsworthy happens. Sometimes those days become weeks. But you can’t just go on the air and say, “Nothing happened today, here are some extra commercials to fill the time until the national news comes on.”
Most station managers at smaller market stations will never admit this, or spell it out to employees, but your job in this situation is to make things that aren’t that newsworthy seem like they are, or to spend far more time on a single story than you would if there were other items to cover.
It goes something like this: Nothing happens. No car crashes. No fires. No one knocks over a convenience store or sues a local business or grows the world’s largest pumpkin. If you’re working on a morning show, this happens even more frequently, but even dayside reporters may find themselves victim of the news-less work shift.
So what do you do? If you’re a producer, you have to build the A block for your show. (Sometimes reporters also share this job in smaller stations.) If you’re an assignment editor, you’ll have to send reporters out to cover something. If you’re a reporter, you’ll be expected to pitch story ideas to said assignment editor.
What is an A Block?
As you may have learned in school, the A block is the first segment of the news, dedicated to the most important stories of the day (or night, if you’re blocking a morning show). What do you put there when nothing happens? Well, you’ll always have weather, the savior of TV stations on slow news days. Maybe you’ll get lucky and the meteorologist is predicting some rain.
And if you’re not lucky? Then your weather forecaster gets to tap dance, and the anchors get to make small talk with him or her. Unfortunately, this can seem forced, and can’t go on forever.
Help the Weather Forecaster Out
You can help by looking at the forecast and attempting to find weather-related stories the meteorologist can talk about. You may even find package material. For example, hot, dry weather is dull to talk about for more than a minute or two, but it may coincide with ragweed season (depending on your location, of course). You might be able to interview a local allergist about treatment options for allergies, when they should see a doctor, etc.
You can also send a photographer out to collect video of anything happening outside, thus giving the weather forecaster and anchors something to chat about.
For example: “It was so nice out today that a lot of our viewers felt compelled to have a picnic. Look at that video from Such-and-Such Park. The kids seem to be having a great time playing outside, don’t they? Look at that dog playing frisbee…”
This sort of thing isn’t groundbreaking journalism, but it provides an interesting visual, and prevents your weather person from struggling to find forty synonyms for “nice,” “pleasant,” and “warm.”
I’ve Spent as Much Time as Humanly Possible on Weather, Now What?
At some point, you’re going to have to stop talking about the weather, or viewers are going to start changing channels until they find a reality show rerun to watch. Sadly, you’re not even done with the A block.
At this point, u can start thinking about taking an in-depth look at stories that have been in the news recently, even if nothing new has happened. You don’t want to just rerun the last package on a subject, especially if you ran it three times yesterday. If you have time (and you should if there isn’t any other news), you should explore the story further. Are there other angles you haven’t considered? Are there other people you could interview? Did you do any person-on-the-street interviews previously? If not, now might be a good time to do so.
Of course, news droughts can go on for days, sometimes weeks. You may find that you’ve had only a few juicy stories in the past month, and after extrapolating and creating a new package on each of them, you still need to fill time.
At that point, start looking at localizing national stories. Resist the urge to just write an intro and tag to a package pulled from the national network. Instead, explore local angles. Find out how nearby businesses are or will be affected by new legislation. If there’s a big health story in the news, see if you can interview a local person affected by the disease or treatment. Person-on-the-street interviews can also work just as well for national stories.
Slow news cycles are also good times to do profiles on local officials or political candidates, although, as always, you have to be careful to cover them in an unbiased way. If you’re profiling the town’s mayor, don’t just repeat the PR buzz from his or her website profile. Try to get an interview with the mayor, or at least a quote from his or her publicist. Be sure to investigate what the mayor’s detractors have to say—if possible, interview one of them, and ask the mayor’s staff to respond.
You can do profiles on long-standing issues, as well. Again, you’ll want to cover both sides of proposed legislation or legal battles, and make every effort to interview local supporters and opponents.
You don’t have to stick to politicians and legislation, either. Slow news cycles are also good times to do human interest stories about any local resident who’s doing something interesting—maybe a person who is training for a national sporting event but hasn’t qualified yet, someone who plans to audition for a national reality show, a person who started a new community program, etc. Well-produced human-interest stories and profiles of interesting people can attract viewers to your station, while giving you something impressive to put on your audition video—and the better your audition video is, the better your prospects of moving to a larger station, if that’s your goal.