PRODUCING PRODUCERS

Gray tries a new approach to an old problem

This is the first in a recurring series of reports from the Knight-Cronkite News Lab on the different ways broadcasters are developing their future storytellers and leaders.

Have you always dreamed of being a local TV news producer? Just hold out your wrist: if you have a pulse, you’re hired! You can start Monday.

Okay, I’m exaggerating, but as every news director knows, recruiting strong producers is a chronic challenge for local newsrooms. “The problem with producing is universal: finding a good producer in 2020 is virtually impossible,” says Brad Kessie, news director at WLOX-TV in Biloxi, Mississippi. “Unfortunately, we’re not in a glamour job anymore like we were 20 years ago. And that’s a shame, because a lot of good people either didn’t get into the business or got out quickly because they’re looking for other things to do.” His boss, GM Rick Williams, agrees: “The job market in general is tight, and people may be attracted to other industries besides television. So it’s become very competitive among stations in this industry to find the right people.”

Now, the station’s owner, Gray Television, is trying two experiments to address this critical shortage. “This problem isn’t new,” says the company’s Director of News Services, James Finch, who oversees the initiative. “Targeting it strategically is what’s new.”

Gray’s innovative idea is to forge partnerships with two Southern universities. “We’re investing in people before they ever get here,” says Rick Williams. At Loyola University New Orleans, the company is collaborating with the School of Communication and Design to create a “producing incubator” — a series of lectures and workshops by producers from various Gray stations.

Last spring, a different Gray producer visited campus from Sunday through Tuesday each week, ten weeks in all, sharing insights about the craft of television news producing, helping students in the elite capstone program produce their weekly news program, and contributing to other journalism classes.

“We know there’s a huge need for television news producers across the country,” says the school’s Director, Sonya Duhé. “And we’ve got to do something differently, because we’ve been doing things the same way. And this incubator program truly puts an emphasis on producing.”

The program is also a recruiting opportunity for Gray, which gets to evangelize about the rewards of producing and then recruit new converts to the cause — on the spot. Brandon Decareaux, whose original goal was to be a sports reporter, was one of those converts. “I had no clue what [producing] even was. When you think of a producer, you think of a movie producer,” he says. But “after all those lecturers came through, I really, really wanted to do it. They explained that you were kind of your own boss. You had a lot of free will, and I really enjoyed that.”

The feeling was mutual. The company headhunter who showed up at the end of the course helped Decareaux land a job at KSLA-TV in Shreveport, Louisiana, where he was producing the 5 a.m. newscast after just three weeks and is now on the 6 a.m. broadcast. “It’s a win-win for [Gray] because they get to see the creme de la creme,” says Sonya Duhé, “and in essence, they get first dibs on them.”

Left to Right: Sonya Duhé, Brandon Decareaux, Skye Ray

Skye Ray is a hard-charging Loyola senior in the capstone course now — this semester’s Gray cavalry will be showing up soon — but she met the first group of guest lecturers in her producing class last year. Like so many students in journalism programs, Ray’s ambition was to be a news anchor —that is, until she heard the Gray producers’ pitch. “If I didn’t have this producer program, I would not care about producing,” she says. “You’re leading your newscast, you get to create everything, you’re not really told what to do. I feel like you can move up faster in management as a producer than as a reporter. Everyone wants to be on air. And I’m looking for whatever is the fastest way for me to move up.”

Gray’s second experiment to produce more producers originated at the University of Mississippi. The company suggested a “producer-in-residency” program to WLOX-TV, which agreed to try it. Debora Wenger, rock-star journalism professor at Ole Miss, recommended one of her May graduates, Sarah Liese, who was unhappy in a non-news job back home in Missouri. News director Brad Lessie’s message sounds a lot like what the students at Loyola heard from his Gray colleagues. “For me the pitch to a producer is all about having control,” he says. “If you’re somebody who likes to have your hands in the cookie jar on every story, with every facet of a news broadcast, producing is a magnificent business to be in. Great producing is what makes a great newscast.”

Sarah Liese bought it. She moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and in October she began a paid ten-week stint at the Biloxi station. The WLOX team put Liese through her paces, assigning her to a variety of producing tasks — carefully supervised, but designed to see what she could do when challenged. “They did throw me in pretty fast. I think it took a month before I was producing a show,” Liese says.

Left to Right: Rick Williams, Brad Kessie, Sarah Liese

The goal of the program is either to hire the producer permanently after the residency ends, or, assuming he or she is qualified, find a spot at another Gray station. No guarantees, but “if all goes well, if you do a great job, and we like your work and your work ethic,” Liese quotes Kessie as telling her, “we’d love to see what’s available and keep you on.” In Liese’s case, all did go well: a job on the digital team opened up during the 10-week tryout. She’s now helping the station move into the podcast world.

“The fact that we’re willing to partner with Ole Miss, bring somebody in, put them on the payroll and let them learn here with a group of veteran news people is certainly a way to attract good solid people,” says GM Rick Williams.

Not surprisingly, Sarah Liese has become an evangelist for the “producer-in-residency” experiment. “I would say, definitely do it. Even if you don’t exactly know what a producer does, just be open to the opportunities that may arise from it. I definitely think it’s beneficial. 110%.”

Gray isn’t the only station group grappling with how to attract, train and retain strong producers. We’ll be reporting on what other companies are doing in the weeks ahead. But in the meantime, please share your experiences as well. Just email us at cronkitenewslab@asu.edu.

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