On Assignment

(This article originally ran in Communicator,
the magazine of the Radio and Television News Directors Association)

It's not easy finding the right person to run the assignment desk in a television newsroom. After all, they have to be part reporter, part producer, part community historian and part saint.

By Chris Gabettas

Last summer, news director Carmelyn Daley needed an assignment editor to run the news desk at WISC-TV in Madison, WI, the country's 85th largest television market. She advertised the position through six job services that specialize in filling television news positions. "I didn't get one applicant with any experience," she says.

Paul Lewis, news director at WTIC-TV in Hartford, CT, was looking for an assignment editor too. "I looked everywhere. I'm a good recruiter. This is a good shop," he says. Still, only about a dozen applicants responded to the job in the nation's 27th market.

Contrast that with recent reporter openings at both stations-Daley received 200 responses, Lewis 150-and you can see how assignment editors occupy the shallow end of the TV news talent pool. And if you're in the market for an assignment editor these days, filling the spot can be tough. Broadcast Employment Services, an online employment service, says it's posted more than 345 openings for assignment editors since the beginning of last year. Daley and Lewis aren't surprised. It's a difficult job, they say.

A Demanding Job
Assignment editors are the air traffic controllers of a newsroom. They monitor scanners, manage news crews, make beat checks and generate stories. There is no glamour, no face time. But without them, newsrooms would certainly stumble. "Our product is information. Being able to gather it effectively and get it to where it needs to be instantly," says Jerome Parra, a former senior assignment editor at KPNX-TV in Phoenix and now news director at KNAZ-TV in Flagstaff, AZ.

The pressures can be intense. You're forced to make snap decisions and judgment calls, and manage newsroom personalities. Miss breaking news and your bosses are likely to blame you. Send a crew to a story that doesn't pan out, and you're likely to feel the wrath of reporters and photographers.

"There's a joke that circulates among assignment editors," says Howard Price, chief night assignment editor at WABC-TV in New York. "Producers have 27 minutes of terror every day (the length of a newscast), but assignment editors live a life of terror."

Price, personally, thrives on the challenges and pressures of the desk. "It's a thrill a minute. You learn something new every day and often you're the first to learn it," he says, referring to breaking news that's phoned in to the desk or crackles over a scanner.

Many of his career counterparts agree. "All of the talents I have come together in this job," says Mickey McCanham, the assignment manager at WXYZ-TV in Detroit. "It takes a lot of discipline to be multitasking, detail-oriented and news-intuitive." Price and McCanham fear that fewer and fewer journalism school graduates are considering the desk as a career. "The problem is there is no system in place to recruit them," says Price, who's been on WABC's assignment desk for 16 years. "Everyone wants to be in front of the camera," says McCanham, who started his career on an assignment desk 18 years ago.

Joseph Coscia, former news director at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, talks of a "brain drain." "It is enormous. Assignment editors used to be people who grew within an organization, who knew the marketplace, who really were senior players (in a newsroom)," says Coscia, a former assignment editor himself. "But like producers, those people have moved into manager roles or bigger jobs with new media. And there are fewer people to learn the skills, the art, the craft of being an assignment editor."

To Many, It's Not Worth It
But many young assignment editors say that low pay and high stress are driving them from the desk. During an exchange on MediaLine.com's Open Line forum, current and former assignment editors complained of being unappreciated, forced to cover news with limited resources, and blamed when things go wrong. "Top that off with cruddy pay, and NO THANKS," writes one former assignment editor. "It's just not worth the aggravation," writes another.

The 2001 RTNDA/Ball State University salary survey shows that the median salary for assignment editors nationwide is $30,000 a year, with salaries ranging from $16,000 in the smallest markets to $75,000 a year in the largest. While assignment editors and managers in large markets may live comfortably, those in smaller markets say they have trouble paying bills. For example, Olin Richey, weekend assignment editor at KESQ-TV in Palm Springs, CA (market 159), says he supplements his income by reporting for a local radio station.

"I think we have to revisit the position in terms of pay," acknowledges Daley. She did just that last summer after her national search failed to produce a qualified assignment editor. "We made the position a management position," she says, which allowed her to increase the salary and hire a former WISC reporter to run the desk. "He's essentially second in command in the newsroom," Daley says.

Other news directors say they, too, have increased pay on the assignment desk, but refused to discuss their salary structures. McCanham is aware of the debate over salaries, but insists that good stations will pay for good assignment editors. "Stations have got to be open to the real value of those people," he says. "Just as a good reporter or photographer is worth the money, so is a good assignment editor."

McCanham says he has demonstrated his value numerous times at WXYZ. "First of all, there's nobody in this market who can do what I do. If there's news to break in this town, I break it. If there is a point of view or knowledge about city issues, I know about it," he says, noting that he's won two regional Emmy awards for breaking news and special coverage.

Parra offers perhaps the best reason to pay an assignment editor a fair wage. "If you don't, someone else will, and it's usually your competitor across town."

Not Simply a Matter of Money
But Lewis says even if you have unlimited funds to pay an assignment editor, it's still hard to find people. He says journalism schools have done little to "teach the glories of the desk," and many newsrooms have done little to develop an appreciation for the job. "The assignment editor can have a free pass to the inner sanctum of the newscast. You set the stage for what the newsroom does for the rest of the day," says Lewis, who has spent time on the desk during his 22-year career in broadcasting.

Dow Smith, associate professor of broadcast journalism at Syracuse University, says he's not certain how journalism schools would train aspiring journalists for the desk. The skills of a good assignment editor-knowledge of a market and the ability to manage many things at one time-aren't skills easily taught in a classroom. A former assignment editor and news director himself, Smith recommends recruiting local radio reporters and TV news photographers to work on the desk.

Others don't fault journalism schools as much as they do the lack of newsroom mentoring programs or the notion that "assignment editor" is an entry-level position. "That's like saying an editor's job at a newspaper is an entry-level position," says Coscia. WABC's Price describes the desk as the "repository of all relevant knowledge in a newsroom. Don't hire amateurs to control or direct such a powerful and crucial position."

Having a mentor is key, says Dan Gallagher, a former intern and now weekend assignment editor at WXYZ. "You build off their traits and news judgment," he says. Gallagher gave up a weather-reporting job in a smaller Michigan market to join the desk at WXYZ. "The desk is more of a challenge. I'm always busy. I always have to keep an edge. I love the logistics of managing crews and having the power to mold the news product," he says.

"It may be the same job every day, but it changes from minute to minute," says Danielle Fink, night assignment editor at WKYC-TV in Cleveland for nearly a decade. "At the end of the day I walk out the door exhausted, but exhilarated and ready to come back the next day."

Some assignment editors say the job actually gets easier the more they do it. They learn to trust their instincts, manage newsroom personalities and handle stress. But for others, the desk will always remain a thankless job. "I ask myself every time I walk into work, why the hell do I do this?" one assignment editor wrote on a MediaLine message board.

As for Lewis, his search for an assignment editor ended in November when he hired an assignment editor from a Philadelphia TV station. How will Lewis keep him around? "By assuring him, as I do all of my employees, that he can be as big a player in this news department as he chooses," says Lewis. And by saying thanks frequently.

-Chris Gabettas, a TV reporter for 14 years, is a freelance journalist in Florida.

Finding and Keeping Good Assignment Editors

About six months ago Steve Johnson was working the assignment desk at KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City. A call came over the scanner. "It was a plane coming into the airport with possible engine trouble," recalls Johnson, KFOR's managing editor in charge of assignments. Within minutes, Johnson was able to confirm the plane belonged to Oklahoma governor Frank Keating and immediately dispatched crews to the airport.

It wasn't easy news to gather. Scanner traffic had given no names, but a source told Johnson the plane may be the governor's. Using sources within the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, Johnson was able to match the distressed plane's tail number to that on the plane owned by the governor.

Johnson's crews were at the airport to record the plane's safe landing as other news organizations were struggling to confirm what KFOR had already reported. "I like the adrenaline rush of breaking news," says Johnson. But this is also an example of a good assignment editor in action.

"Show me a good assignment desk, and I'll show you a winning newsroom," says Joseph Coscia, former news director at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh and once an assignment editor at New York's WABC-TV. So where do you find good assignment editors and how do you keep them?

Hire smart, say news directors. Check local radio stations and newspapers for journalists who know the area and who want to work in television news. Hire entry-level people, who aspire to be good desk editors and "want to be behind-the-scenes' reporters. After all, that's what they are," says Coscia.

Don't show young recruits an intimidating environment, says assignment manager Mickey McCanham of WXYZ-TV in Detroit. "You have to talk up the vital role the job (assignment editor) plays, and the fact you'll give them the tools to fulfill that vital role," he adds.

And don't ignore the weekend desk, where many aspiring desk editors begin, says Olin Richey, weekend assignment editor at KESQ-TV in Palm Springs, CA. His biggest frustration is reporters and producers who don't leave contacts and phone numbers for weekend stories.

Give your assignment people "beat days," much like newsrooms give reporters, recommends Jerome Parra, news director at KNAZ-TV in Flagstaff, AZ. Editors can use that time to work sources and develop stories away from ringing phones and constant interruptions. If a station can't spare a full day, shoot for a few hours.

Ease the day-to-day pressure by freeing an assignment editor to write or research a special news project or accompany a field crew on assignment. And most important, create a newsroom culture that values and respects the assignment desk. "It's up to the news director to set the tone," says Carmelyn Daley, news director at WISC-TV in Madison, WI.

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