Five “small” ways you can make a successful “small” start

This is a guest post from WBTW morning anchor Rusty Ray

I’m not your typical thirty-something small-market TV anchor.
I have worked in one place for a long time. Same market. Different roles. I know, I know. Say what you want, but I’m fine with my decisions.
However, I do think there are five things young reporters who want to succeed in local TV can try as they begin their careers. These tips could help them both professionally and personally.

  1. Don’t live somewhere you don’t really want to live and don’t work a shift you really don’t want to work. A broadcast professor strode into our “Intro To Journalism” class at University of Maryland once upon a time and announced: “If you want to be on-air and hope to have enough money to pay for a new car, a new house, all new clothes…want to be off on holidays…want to live in your hometown or close to it…and be guaranteed you’ll be on-air in your first or second jobs…now is the time to leave this profession.” Ten to fifteen years ago, I think the model really was: start small and work your way up. Now, arguably, bigger companies with smaller pocketbooks may be willing to pay less-experienced people to work (and do more work). So, geographically, it’s not as big an issue as when I started. But—if you really don’t want to live in, say, Florida, or on the west coast, or somewhere frigid, or somewhere not near a major airport, then don’t apply there. Period. Why set yourself up for misery right away? Just to say “I got my start?” Narrow your choices. Also, if you really, really, really can’t stand the thought of working weekends, don’t apply for a weekend job. Or if you really, really, really can’t stand the thought of working an overnight or early-morning shift, don’t apply for that job. I am saying this not to sound ignorant, but to try to save you—and your potential future co-workers and supervisors—a lot of trouble. Nothing is worse than someone who, for whatever reason, gives up halfway through a contract (or sooner) because he/she is—let’s call it what it is—homesick, miserable, or, worse yet, bored. Can your mind be changed about that dreaded weekend schedule? Sure. And Christmas Eve in the newsroom is what you make of it. It’s also nice not waiting in line at the movie theatre on a Thursday afternoon, or the grocery store check-out on a Tuesday night. Embrace where you are, but make sure you’re really willing to go there before you even apply for that job that you think you “have” to take.
  2.  Talk to people. I know, right? Sounds simple enough. When I arrived in rural southeastern North Carolina to work in a two-person bureau just two months out of college in Maryland, my co-worker listened and observed my behavior for a few weeks, and then told me I needed to find a way to talk to people. Just talk. Small-talk. Shoot the breeze, about mostly nonsense. Funny thing is: it works. It’s tough to do for some people. My mother (a therapist) once asked us to take personality tests, and I registered as an introvert. She was shocked. I explained to her that I had developed a skill over time to just talk. It helps me feel comfortable when I know that I need the person I am with to give me information. That may sound shady, but it’s not. I promise. You have to have this skill. It’s valuable on the job and in your new life in a new place. Ask someone where to get your hair cut. Ask someone where he or she goes to church. Ask someone where the best beer and ribs joint is in town. You may make a new friend, and you then make yourself a part of the community. If people in the community can see you as more than just that person they (hopefully) see on TV, then they will trust you as an advocate and a way to tell their stories. But it starts with a conversation, that, often, you’ll have to start. You can do it. I did.
  3. Listen to people. Again, it sounds simple. The best part about talking is listening. Believe me: this is where you find stories. That dread you may feel as you slink into the morning or afternoon editorial or planning meeting can vanish if you know you have a rock-solid lead on a story that the guy at the gas station told you about. Or you may have overheard something at the salon, and asked an open-ended question that continued the conversation and opened you up to a great story about what someone in the community is experiencing. Small-talk is tough, and, often, unrewarding. But listening is super-valuable. It’s not just for when the camera is on. The best way to find a story is to extend a hand for a handshake, and to find out where someone lives, and how long he or she has been there. You can’t be let down, and neither can your viewers, ultimately.
  4. Drive with your eyes open. You do a lot of driving in local TV news. To and from work. To and from stories. To and from that beer and ribs joint after work. (Be smart about that one. Don’t lose the job you just got by making THAT mistake.) But pay attention to the community you’re living in. That little sign with a big “Z” on it at the entrance to your favorite banking location could mean a public hearing is about to take place over whether there should be another new Walmart on that side of town. Those trees that are now gone could have formerly occupied the site of a new neighborhood that will only add to the traffic on an already-busy road. It’s humiliating to read something in the newspaper about your neighbors that you could have easily known yourself if you’d just paid a little closer attention—and yes, asked a question or two and listened for the answers. Local TV can make a new person in town feel isolated, but by paying attention to what is going on around you, you can show you’re interested in your new home and ready to tell some very valuable and interesting stories.
  5. Be a part of the community. Sometimes you read a reporter or an anchor’s bio on the station website and it says something like “so-and-so is a board member for the Southeastern Valley Chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters.” It’s not bragging. It shows that he or she is involved. You can easily find a way to get involved in the community. It starts with what you’re interested in, and what you think you may be able to contribute. It helps you feel less like a stranger in a strange place and more like a part of the community. Sure, you may be gone in two short years. But why not make an impact—and pick up some valuable story tips—along the way? You have the opportunity to further your career in these communities, but you also have the opportunity to leave it better than you found it.

The biggest thing about TV on-camera performance is how to un-naturally appear natural. I think the same can apply to putting yourself out there in a new place that you may—or may not—be invested in long-term. Why not try something new, and why not go a little bit further to see what good things can happen when you do?
I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

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