An open letter to newsroom employees everywhere

The business of media has been a part of my life for over 41 years. I care deeply about it and especially the people who are in it for reasons of journalism. It is to you that this open letter is addressed:

    To Whom It May Concern:

The time to prepare for the collapse of the institution that employs you is at hand, and I thought it would be useful to lay out a scenario in which you come out on top when it happens. You may think I’m nuts or overly negative or a doomsayer or whatever, and that’s all right. I claim no special vision of tomorrow; I only follow the bigger trends as they relate to culture and our profession, and frankly, there’s just not a place for specialist newsrooms that pay living wages in the world into which we’re heading. You don’t have to believe that for it to be true, but it would be wise to at least consider the road ahead.

Most media companies are publicly-owned. In such cases, management has a fiduciary responsibility to the company’s shareholders. This is as old as the stock market, but a sweet return on investment for those shareholders is getting harder and harder to provide. That’s because it isn’t about revenue with these companies; it’s about growth, and in a fragmenting, disintermediated marketplace, the lack of growth is a real killer. Privately-held companies can absorb stymied growth somewhat better, but even the people who own these companies would like to see their compensation growing instead of shrinking. There are only two ways to produce growth: either increase revenue or reduce expenses, and these two challenges are not going away. Ask anybody who’s been in media management for very long, and they’ll tell you the growth is gone. Political advertising produces gold every other year, but there’s no guarantee this will continue and it’s a poor model to begin with.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still a TON of money being made in the media world, but the industry has matured and the ROIs just aren’t what they used to be. There’s no sign either that things will ever be what they once were.

This reality exists in the background, as we go about our daily lives holding our collective breath. The TV upfront season is upon us, and there’ll be increases announced. The illusion will be that everything is fine. The NAB conference in Las Vegas next month will be filled with positive statements and sessions about how to capitalize on this innovation or that one. The NAA’s mediaXchange conference in Washington, D.C. next month promises that “media thought leaders” will “provoke and inspire attendees.” But managers in the industries of media know well that these are challenging times, and that the background threatens to become the foreground with each passing day.

So how does this impact you, and what should you be doing about it?

If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to begin building and refining your personal brand. The good thing about this is that you’re in charge, so you get to pick and choose how and how much you are promoted in the world of personal media. It’s not necessarily the size of the fish in the pond that will succeed tomorrow, although that’s always a nice advantage. What will be important is your niche and how valuable you are within that niche. This will produce value to the people who will want exclusive or first crack at the content you’ll create, regardless of the financial structure available. If aggregation and curation are the filters for media consumption downstream (they are), your place in the queue matters much more than which corporate brand you represent. You control this through the quality of your work and attending to the marketing of yourself. You can’t blame anybody else for success or failure here.

For lots of excellent and practical advice on personal branding, I highly recommend tuning in to The Personal Branding Blog. It’s a wonderful resource for the hows and what-to-dos of personal branding. Spending a few hours here will shortcut your learning.

This is incredibly important for you, because, like it or not, we’re moving to a scenario where you very likely won’t be employed directly by a media company. You’ll work as an independent contractor and sell your work in a variety of ways. It’s simply more cost effective for media companies to hire independent contractors than it is to carry the burdensome costs of employees, but that’s not the only reason you should be thinking this way. Telecommuting is one of the big trends in employment in 2012, and people who play in this world really, really like it. You — the currently employed — will be able to live a happy and successful life outside the bonds (that’s right) of employment. Absent the old, colonialist practice of “owning the help” through a paycheck and benefits, you’ll do better, more important work, because you’re doing it for yourself. You’ll enjoy working from your home. You’ll enjoy the growing tax benefits of the independence, and I’m convinced that insurance companies will happily create umbrella options that will work better for everybody. The whole world is drifting in this direction, and the benefits vastly outweigh the negatives, the chief of which is simply fear. Fear is tissue paper disguised as a brick wall. Never forget that.

Don’t get caught up in the details, because they can and will all be worked out. Don’t judge tomorrow’s opportunities by today’s seeming reality. Even if I’m wrong (I’m not), you can still benefit from the advice to hone your personal brand. Remember that in the world of work, the only person who really cares about you is you. Technology has given you the opportunity to better yourself through personal branding, and I strongly recommend you get busy. Don’t fall for the illusion that you just need to hang on for a few more years and everything will work itself out.

  • Internally insist that you do nothing for pay that doesn’t directly or indirectly promote you and your brand. Nothing. Don’t be a fool here and get yourself into hot water over this, so let it be an internal driver only. Don’t worry; you’ll find ways to accommodate your mandate. It simply needs to be top-of-mind.
  • Pick a niche, something for which you have a deep passion, because passion can literally take over when everything else fails.
  • The days of a mile wide and an inch deep are over. You must become a/the valued expert in the information niche of your choosing.
  • Deliver the goods. Be the best you can be at news and information (or whatever) for that beat. Let no one best you. You’ll establish yourself through your work, not what you say about your work. Spend the hours up front that it’ll take to relentlessly pursue the promotion of you, your work, and your brand, but above all, be known by and for your work.
  • Get off the market-hopping merry-go-round. Seriously. Put down roots somewhere you want to live, and start living! Roots are an enormous asset even today, but tomorrow their value will be incalculable. A part of owning your niche is geographic, for parochial attitudes and beliefs govern many issues.

Blossom where you’re planted, and Life will show you the rest. Knowing that your brand’s value will increase over time, plan accordingly. But do plan! Take a really hard look at what you want and what you need. If your needed level of compensation is above what the market will pay (be realistic here), give serious consideration to doing something else, but also weigh that against the possibilities you have as an independent contractor. Is your niche such that you can find additional compensation elsewhere? Take your time with this, for your future is at stake.

I believe that a Great Winnowing is at hand, when those who’ve chosen journalism as a way to make a difference are separated from those who view it as a channel to be a big shot. Humility is a wonderful human attribute, but one that’s increasingly absent in the people who’ve chosen this career path. This winnowing will relieve us of many of the ego-driven personalities found in those who are using their employers to see their names in lights. Again, it’s your work, not you, that matters in a meritocracy. Embrace that or find a different way to make a living. You will not get paid in media just by showing up, not in any capacity.

Be smart and begin to disassociate yourself with the industrial age concepts associated with modernity. Don’t put yourself in a position where you function as a virtual slave to the one who signs your paycheck. Put your dependence where it belongs and move it away from your “employer.” You want to be self-reliant? You can do it, and there’s no time like now to get started.

And to the managers who work in newsrooms, it’s in the best interests of your company to assist in promoting the personal brands of your employees. You know and understand the marketing value of the mass. You know that it works. You also know that there’s a commensurate value that comes back to you in promoting the people who work under your brand. Moreover, your reputation as one who advances the personal brands of those who work for you will get around. Don’t you want the top of the class working for you? Don’t you want the real experts in the community working for you? Don’t you want those people free to grow their own followers beyond the reach of your signal or your circulation? Of course you do, so do what you can to puff your own, for it’s the smart — although initially counterintuitive — business path to tomorrow.

Understand that there are personal brands with “media” minds already growing in your community, and that some of them (even one) might provide very useful content as an independent contractor already. Begin looking at systems and compensation programs that will benefit everyone.

Also to the managers, begin studying and examining the processes and systems you’ll need to create a genuinely virtual newsroom. Embedding journalists in the community makes much more sense today, because the need to work from a centralized location is increasingly unnecessary. The cloud is the center today. More time in the field produces results, from both quantity and quality perspectives. Time is, after all, the new currency.

To managers in sales departments everywhere, personal branding applies profoundly to you and your team as well, and the same rules, responsibilities and opportunities that exist for news people are also there for sales people. People buy from people, and the net provides a unique connective thread that we didn’t have just a few years ago. We’re seeing some areas where car sales people, for example, are buying ads at the hyperlocal level in order to raise their profiles in the community. We should be doing the same things — and more — with and for our people.

When is all of this going down? Gradually, at first, perhaps in the next 3-4 years. Unless something positive and dramatic happens with the economy, 2013 is going to be an absolutely brutal year for the industry (again), and all of this will accelerate. Don’t wait for somebody else to do it; YOU do it, regardless of your position within the whole.

Again, you don’t have to believe any of this, but my money’s on the folks who take advantage of what’s at their fingertips in building for themselves a better chance when the winnowing accelerates. Others will sit back and wait for more obvious signs that they’ll have to do something. By then, however, it’ll be too late. Nobody can rest on their laurels. Nobody.

Please accept this in the spirit with which it’s intended, and good luck.

Terry

   

 

Comments

  1. Sounds much as ‘Good night and good luck’ but these famous words always sounded positive to me.

  2. Thanks for the article, Chicken Little. You’ve been yapping for years about this…

  3. StevePR104 says:

    Terry:
    I’ll go you one further…I believe the day is not too far off where TV stations will turn their broadcast licenses back to the FCC, and broadcast exclusively via local cable systems. Increasingly, there’s little left for networks to stay with their affiliates…so when they go the cable route, the soon-to-be-ex-affiliates will need to choose their path.

    By doing this, they can cut their CapEx and OpEx costs. They can also slash their news departments and repurpose those left over.

    It’s coming…and your predictions dovetail quite well with mine.

  4. btw-

    “chicken little” and rosenblum, while “yapping for years about this”, have been right on.

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