Building A Brand In A New Era Of Broadcasting
In January, the Catholic League tweeted out a “study” purportedly detailing that right-wingers are better looking than left-wingers, using FOX News and MSNBC anchors as exemplars. KARE 11 Breaking the News anchor Jana Shortal retweeted the tweet with these comments: Gross. You really should think about how in any way this tweet reflects the values of an organization of faith.
A few days after Carrie Fisher’s death, Shortal tweeted: She was so proud of EXACTLY who she is. Fuck, was.
Regarding President Trump’s Twitter habit, she tweeted: The leader of this country should take questions—not tweet his way to policy.
After musician Chris Brown hurled a racist insult at comic Aziz Ansari, who had insulted Brown on SNL, she tweeted: I wish there were trap doors in the ground to swallow up human garbage like you Chris Brown. #TeamAziz
This wasn’t always the path to getting ahead in TV news. It used to be: Look good, don’t swear, dress conservatively, keep divisive opinions to yourself.
Today it’s not so simple. Something extra is required to make it in broadcasting. “People need to find a way to get noticed,” says Micah Johnson, a former network reporter, news director, and founder of Phoenix-based TV news talent agency MediaStars.
In January, Christine O’Donnell, TV reporter for FOX’s Boston affiliate, thought she had found a way. She posted to a video to YouTube showing herself in bed, the straps of her nightgown visible on her bare shoulders. The news: She had gotten up several hours too early for work! It seemed interesting to her at the time, and just provocative enough, perhaps, to generate some clicks or likes. But after a day of pillorying on social media, her bio had been pulled off the station’s website and she was apparently out of a job. “There are so many expectations to build a brand, to perform,” says Johnson. “But there’s no mentoring or guidance. And when you f-up, you’re fired.”
Not your parents’ TV news
It’s no revelation to say media businesses in America are in flux, and television news is no exception. Its audience has been disrupted by the internet, a diversity of cable and streaming options and time-shifting of prime-time TV viewing. And a generation has tuned out.
“18- to 34-year-olds are not news consumers, and TV is not their main source of news,” explains Bob Papper, Hofstra University professor emeritus, who has conducted an annual study of the television news industry since 1994. Millennials consume TV news the same way they read newspapers or viral video—in brief, detached bits on their phone.
“You’re fighting to have your voice heard,” explains 1500 ESPN Radio personality Phil Mackey. “Rely on the old tactics and you’ll be dead or dying.”
The result is a sense of fundamental instability. “TV news’ business model is under siege,” says local entertainment industry attorney Tom Wiese, who once represented dozens of local TV anchors and reporters. “TV is competing with non-accredited news, there are limited barriers to entry and advertisers are creating their own content.”
The omnipotence of the previous era is gone. “We are not the empire of the ’80s and ’90s,” says Shortal. “Appointment TV is not a thing.”
Building a personal brand
There was a time when all someone needed to build a successful broadcasting career was a home at a respected brand like WCCO Radio or the StarTribune. “Today, people read people, not companies,” contends Star Tribune food and travel writer Amelia Rayno, who has built a sizable presence and brand on social media. “People want to know the people they read.”
And the phenomenon extends across media. As a result, “you’ve gotta have point of view and presence,” Wiese counsels his clients.
WCCO-TV sports director Mark Rosen says the calculus isn’t lost on veterans like him: “You have to stand out, you have to be unique.” For Rosen, now 65, that meant jumping on morning radio (KQRS) back in 1986, a niche he continues to occupy today, which continues to deliver upside. “It keeps me relatable. It’s definitely helped my brand because of the young male demographic [listening to KFAN],” he says, “and I would hope it brings benefits to my TV brand.”
Though diversifying audience is a solid tactic, young broadcasters rarely have that opportunity or flexibility early in careers. As a result, most are using social media to build a brand.
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“To get a job, it’s the first thing they look at after your [clip] reel,” says agent Mendes Napoli, who ran KSTP-TV’s news division from 1988-93 and now owns LA-based Napoli Management Group. “To build an audience you must be active in social media and have a distinct presence.” Both Napoli and Johnson describe social media technique and strategy as a primary component of the service they provide clients. “Our concentration is social media influencers,” says Johnson.
How important is social media in TV newsrooms? Texas-based ShareRocket markets real-time tracking of talent social media influence. Three national TV ownership groups, including FOX Television (FOX9 locally), are investors, and Johnson says many FOX affiliates have a ShareRocket monitor posted prominently in the newsroom.
The payoff of social media influence is real, Johnson insists. MediaStars secured Jenni Hogan, then a KIRO-TV traffic reporter, a six-figure salary “solely due to social media presence,” he says. Johnson is quick to note, though, that creating such a presence is no small feat: “To be an influencer in social you have to do it constantly.”
The social media channel of choice is Facebook. “Twitter is easy, but there’s less engagement,” explains Napoli. “We advise clients to focus on Facebook.”
The social minefield
The most notable common denominator among young local broadcasters is feeling pressure to deliver social media influence is the sense of jeopardy involved. “Most of it is boring and not engaging,” says Wiese, “because shock and awe could cost you big time.”
Former WCCO-TV morning anchor Jamie Yuccas, now with CBS in New York, relates the story of a young broadcaster she knows who was told by her news director “to add 100 followers ‘this week.’ Didn’t say how.”
In local TV, Yuccas found an audience craving personal detail. “People want a connection with news personalities in local markets, but it’s such a fine line between your private and public life.” For example, “it’s clear women add followers when they tweet pictures of themselves, but they are often inappropriate,” argues Yuccas. “But they are under pressure, and management isn’t providing great guidance.”
$45,000 to $80,000
TV reporter salary
$100,000 to $500,000
TV anchor salary
Source: Micah Johnson, MediaStars
Ex-newsroom execs like Johnson and Napoli say the murky social media landscape is often a blind spot for news directors. “[Managers] don’t know what they want,” says Napoli, “but they know what they don’t want when they see it.”
Local broadcasters point to colleagues who post images from the gym or home in outfits they could never wear on-air. Johnson says it’s a national phenomenon: “People post racy stuff because it builds likes and follows.”
“Newspeople aren’t always thoughtful about how they use social media,” adds Yuccas. “I was in Orlando after the [Pulse nightclub shooting] and a lot of TV people were posting happy images of themselves. That’s detrimental to your brand.”
Step in the wrong topic, and newsies can even be chastened tweeting news. “I tweeted a link to a story about the Democratic boycott of the Trump inauguration,” says Cory Hepola, KARE 11 weekend anchor and reporter, “and people got angry even though it was just factual.”
Which is why broadcast reporters often default to the personal.
On the print side, there are few rules, and young journalists feel empowered. “There is a culture of sharing and you have strong feelings. We put so much out there. It’s super-tempting to cross lines,” says Rayno. “We have very few policies or rules. . . . I was once asked to stop tweeting about alcohol.”
Those trying to build a durable career in television can take comfort in certain constants. “People watch people they like,” says Napoli. “Genuine people that speak with authority, not arrogance, and are connected to the community. That hasn’t changed.” Hofstra’s Papper suggests the industry has sustained itself so well through its structural decline that “It has hindered development of a digital strategy. But the challenges are undeniable.”
So undeniable, in fact, that TV news’ foundational product may be obsolete. “I doubt the 30-minute newscast has staying power,” says KARE’s Hepola. “Local news has staying power. Trusted facts have staying power. Storytelling is timeless.”
In such a context, there are useful insights to be gleaned from a local broadcaster riding the crest of the wave, dominating the hot daypart, with social media presence and brand extensions that peers envy.
WCCO-TV morning anchor Jason DeRusha comes to mind—“One of the models in the industry for how to build a brand,” says Johnson.
DeRusha’s bosses at WCCO-TV declined to let their well-chronicled morning anchor speak to TCB. Management said it was not comfortable with talent discussing brands other than the CBS owned-and-operated station’s.
“That’s the thing,” says Wiese. “They want powerful personal brands until they become too powerful. Then it starts to dilute management’s leverage and they don’t want it anymore.”
Some long-standing aspects of broadcasting apparently endure.
(4,000 Twitter followers)
Cory Hepola grew up in Perham, Minn., dreaming anchor dreams. “I wrote in high school that I want to be an anchor in Minneapolis,” he says. “I’ve wanted it since I was 8 years old.”
Hepola has worked all over the country, mostly in sports broadcasting, but landed at KARE as a morning news anchor, replacing Tim McNiff, and liked the fit, winning a 2016 regional Emmy. He is transitioning to what he labels a dream job: weekend anchor with wife Camille Williams. “Who gets to anchor with their wife?” he asks. “It’s the first step to a bigger future at KARE.”
Hepola is as earnest as the day is long, not necessarily a persona for social media notoriety: “I’m Mr. Nice Guy so I’m going to be Mr. Nice Guy on social media. It’s not to my benefit to be anything else.” He says he “loves Twitter. Facebook is hard for me. It’s difficult to tell why stuff works on it.”
Things are clicking, but he reminds that this ascent took 15 years: “I’ve been rejected for over 400 jobs, OK?”
Food and Travel Writer
(14,100 Twitter followers)
Amelia Rayno is a newspaper reporter, but her story demonstrates the most important career lessons of the modern media era: Have a strong social media brand and keep it your own.
She came to the Strib in 2010. After taking on the Gopher men’s basketball beat in 2011 she built a following for her brassy takes and strong social media presence, plus a food and travel blog filed from her many road trips around the Big Ten.
When she took over the Gophers, Rayno insisted she use @AmeliaRayno rather than adopt the generic Twitter @StribGophers. “I wanted to keep my name,” she says, “to control my brand.”
It has paid off. Food is one of the few vibrant niches in print journalism (after sports) and her takes got noticed. Eventually management constructed a beat built around her passions, which she assumed in late 2016. “They told me the stuff I was doing in social gave me a following and credibility that paid off when I pitched the job to them.”
Rayno says she’s now “aware of [social] as a really powerful professional tool, and also a tool for me wherever I might go.”
Breaking the News
(16,900 Twitter followers)
If Hepola is doing it the old-school way, Shortal surely is not. The self-described “community-activist grungy lesbian” put in 13 years as a KARE reporter before being asked to helm an experiment in the future of news—a 6:30 p.m. broadcast featuring long stories and point of view.
“I was frustrated talking at people. I couldn’t take it anymore,” Shortal says. “We are experimenting with what can we do with the form. The show is supposed to be a tad uncomfortable.”
She has used the opportunity to be transparent on social media about her beliefs and identity. “I use social media to build a brand. I can’t not do it because it makes people uncomfortable,” Shortal says. “KARE wanted me to do a different show. I showed up on day one wearing a [David] Bowie shirt. I’m not gonna straighten my hair and wear an Ann Taylor suit.”
She acknowledges the approach probably makes some of her colleagues cringe, and the ratings to date have not been compelling. But others find the authenticity bracing. “Jana is very honest,” says local entertainment attorney and agent Tom Wiese. “That builds trust.”
Shortal has mastered Facebook. Her impassioned essays are a signature feature. She is grateful to KARE owner TEGNA’s confidence in Breaking the News, and is unsure what she would do if it can’t make the ratings cut.
“Going back to old-fashioned news would be like going back to dating men,” Shortal quips. “If this is the end for me, so be it. I did it my way.”
(14,300 Twitter followers)
Jamie Yuccas has the luxury of perspective. Having bounced professionally between Fort Myers, Fla. and the Twin Cities, she credits great mentors and strong colleagues with helping her pave a quick path to the network, where she says a social media brand is less significant to your professional path.
“At CBS you’re not trying to connect with people online,” she says. “It’s a lot less personal.” At the local level, though, “I was a huge proponent of Facebook. I watched Jason [DeRusha] use it and I was one of the first on it and Twitter in Fort Myers.” Her social media/personal brand isn’t complex. “I’ve worked for good people who told me to be me,” Yuccas says. “It seemed to work.”
Though she cuts a fairly traditional figure, local observers point to a difference. “Jamie is quirky-funny,” says entertainment industry attorney Tom Wiese. “It got her to the network.”
Her emphatic advice for anyone looking for a career in TV news: “You have to realize this business is a lifestyle, not a job. You have to embrace that and bring tenacity to it.”
Mackey & Judd
(24,100 Twitter followers)
Radio is often called the most personal of media. Authenticity is essential. For a No. 2 station chasing an established brand (iHeart Media’s KFAN), it was the only option. “Early on we put a focus on being honest,” Phil Mackey recalls. In a market where homerism and “positivity” often sells best, “telling the truth is our brand.”
Building a career in AM radio is no mean feat. Mackey got his start doing radio baseball analytics and Vikings’ online reporting on KFAN, where he was noticed by Hubbard-owned 1500.
He describes social media as a tool to bind the fragmentation of the current media environment: “You’re fighting to have your voice heard. Rely on old tactics and forms of distribution and you’ll be dead or die.”
Beyond four hours a day on-air (9 a.m.–1 p.m.), Mackey manages a sports podcast network for Hubbard and aspires to move beyond the constraints of a radio band. “It’s hard to start and build in just radio,” Mackey notes. “The game now is distribution.”
Broadcasting: A Roiling Business Model
TV may appear more evolved than books and magazines, but as an industry it is facing the same fears of obsolescence and lack of top-line growth as print. TV news is under evolutional pressure and has responded by managing profitability more effectively than human capital, say observers.
Industry metrics paint a murky picture, though with many bright spots; but TV news does behave like an industry in structural decline.
“Technology has resulted in staggering job losses in technical functions like control room and video editing,” notes Bob Papper, professor emeritus at Hofstra University. “But newsgathering [head-count] is steady or up. The jobs are different today, but the total is higher.”
TV news is still a booming place for on-air talent as well. “There’s hundreds of jobs paying $60,000 to $300,000 in the industry,” notes Mendes Napoli, who ran KSTP-TV’s news division in the 1990s and now owns LA-based Napoli Management Group, representing 600 clients throughout TV news. “There’s a huge demand for reporters. Weather is still big, too.”
News was once a loss-leader at the network level. But it has always made money in local TV. Papper, a producer at WCCO-TV in the 1970s, remembers jaw-dropping profit margins north of 50 percent.
TV news’ challenges are shrinking audiences and endless alternative sources of content, including news, sports and weather.
Revenue has held up due to two unforeseen windfalls: First, recent regulatory mandates that cable companies pay local stations to air their broadcasts. These fees approach 10 percent of revenue, says Papper. Second, the Supreme Court-driven deregulation of political advertising is funneling millions of dollars in advertising to local TV during campaign seasons. Neither have anything to do with the industry’s prowess at growing its business model, but both have helped sustain it.
Nonetheless, TV news has pulled back on spending and doggedly guards its returns. “Think of it this way,” says Wiese. “If you’re a business that believes it can’t forecast revenue over the long-term, there’s a strong incentive to cut fixed costs. Human capital is easy to cut.”
Another way is lowered compensation. “Most people in TV news are making less than in 2008,” Wiese says. He recalls negotiating a $250,000 salary for a particularly established local weekend anchor, and suggests that person would be lucky to break six figures today.
“Right now there is a station looking for a Monday-to-Friday anchor in Phoenix, the nation’s 12th-largest media market, with a five-figure salary offer” says MediaStars’ Micah Johnson. “TV stations are renewing contracts at 1, 1.5 percent [raises], and I sit on conference calls where these media companies report record profits.”
As for million-dollar players like Paul Magers and Don Shelby at their local peak, Napoli guesstimates there were at least two of them dozen 20 years ago. “Today it’s probably less than 10 and declining.”
The net effect is not a positive one for TV news as a workplace, Johnson says. Years of retrenchment-based budgeting has taken its toll. “There’s a degradation of quality control. You see people making terrible mistakes, from on-screen graphics to social media.
“And the caliber of talent is less because the salaries don’t attract talent.” Radio and Television Digital News Association metrics paint a picture of an industry at an all-time employment high, but that’s slightly misleading. “Employment is near peak,” (27,780 employees nationwide) says Papper, “because more stations are doing news and they are producing more newscasts, from 4 a.m. to nearly midnight.”
Ever-expanding early-morning newscasts are a growth business because their viewers don’t time-shift and thus don’t skip commercials, meaning it’s a newscast advertisers increasingly want to be in.
And certain media companies are testing programming models in search of new (younger) viewers. KARE 11 owner TEGNA (Gannett’s spinoff of its broadcasting properties) is particularly future-focused among the local operations, creating edgy, experimental programming like Breaking the News. “TEGNA is dumping incredible resources into innovation,” says Johnson. “Breaking the News is one of its more aggressive experiments.”
Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor. He has covered media business in the Twin Cities for three decades.