Why broadcast careers make sense: a visit to CNN’s global headquarters

All five feet, seven inches of me felt dwarfed as I first glimpsed the soaring ceiling of CNN’s global headquarters in Atlanta on Monday.

A glamorous, modern interior more than a dozen stories tall greeted me, the wide-eyed student journalist who voraciously consumes the network’s news online, on Twitter, at the gym and whenever the opportunity arises. The trademark red block-lettered logo caught my eye from every direction.

Large HD screens streaming the live broadcasts from CNN and its sister network HLN were mounted all around the main atrium, with different faces, bold all-caps headlines and never-ending news scrolls at the bottom of each monitor grappling for my attention.

Blown-up photos on hallway walls of Anderson Cooper, one of the best-known celebrities of broadcast news, had me jumping up and down (metaphorically, of course — gotta try to play it cool) in fanatic fashion. There were also smiling images of Brooke Baldwin, Chris Cuomo, Robin Meade.

It wasn’t just about the famous anchor names in those wall photos. The split between men and women journalists was nearly half and half, a statistic that made me even more appreciative of just how far women have come in a business where I now feel that, as a woman, I have a home.

I was, as my generation would call it, “nerding out,” a hashtag I used on Twitter to describe my little-kid-on-Christmas-like arrival on the scene.

As a tour guide led our group of about 30 people through several mock studios and gave us a peek into the newsrooms to see the CNN journalists at work, I played the smiling, conventional tourist, nodding occasionally to indicate interest and generally keeping my mouth shut.

But I was silently absorbing as much information as possible and looking at the place from an educational standpoint — as someone who will be making her own case to break into the rapidly changing journalism business after graduation (I’ll pretend that moment is not actually coming as soon as it is. Still got this idea that I can just keep living the college newspaper life forever).

That afternoon, I mentally compiled a list of five reasons why broadcast journalism careers make a lot of sense for 20-year-old students like me:

1. Money. Major national news networks like CNN are clearly not floundering in the financial rut that is affecting many national newspapers. Though CNN has lost viewers recently, the network is still able to function profitably without drastic cuts in personnel.

Network staff — technicians, reporters, editors, content managers, production directors — appeared to occupy most of the offices on those 13 or 14 floors, and our guide said they were in the process of renovating and expanding the newsrooms.

That’s a far cry from papers like the Philadelphia Inquirer, which twenty years ago had more than 700 employees alone but today has seen its newsroom combined with the Philadelphia Daily News, with the two papers combined only staffing about 300 people.

2. The pace. Not only does CNN work through a medium that Americans are watching for more than 4 hours a day on average, but they also make the stories quick — a three-minute-long segment of video and audio, perhaps, for many CNN pieces. And news that adds faces and rapid-fire visuals will win with the average American news consumer over blocks of modular text any day.

3. The digital age. The atmosphere in CNN’s headquarters screamed “new media.” A cable TV news channel, by nature, already has a leg up on outdated print formats that fewer and fewer people have the patience to read or are willing to pay for.

4. Advertising. When was the last time you really noticed, or took the time to read, an ad in a print publication? A savvy public relations team is not going to pick a block of space two square inches in size instead of a 30-second time slot that will be broadcast to millions of households.

TV ads are more expensive, but they pay off in the long run when it comes to audience impact and reach. That ad money provides a much more significant cushion for networks like CNN — more than $300 million even in a “down” year like 2012 — versus major newspapers.

5. Employee needs. There are fewer ways to “cheat” on hiring in TV news. Print newspapers forced to accommodate the rise of the Internet are making their reporters also blog, tweet, take photos, even edit. But you can’t expect a news anchor to work the camera or a news gatherer to play production director when the jobs are so different and dozens of stories need to be churned out each day.

At the same time, I was reminded quickly during my visit why a broadcast career isn’t for me, and here are those five reasons:

1. The pace. I’m an absolute perfectionist in my writing, and I can spend hours editing and pouring over one 750-word story for the next day’s paper. Sure, newspapers have deadlines, but broadcasting has a much faster pace and doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for perfectionism.

I would cringe sending a written script to production that I hadn’t read through and revised at least five (10?) times.

2. Being on camera. Can’t do it. Maybe, just maybe, radio. But no camera.

3. Lack of specializations. I’m the kind of person who likes knowing a little about a lot of things, but generally I relish being a reporting and writing specialist in one or two areas — for me at the moment, that’s North Carolina’s public higher education system.

Broadcast reporting generally requires basic knowledge of dozens of topics and the ability to switch rapidly back and forth between them. But when it comes to my stories, I want to dig. And think. And dig some more.

4. A whole new level of multitasking. One journalist in the main newsroom had three computer screens all to herself — one streaming CNN’s live broadcasts, one on which she simultaneously scanned her email and edited a story and another with the network’s Twitter feed open that she refreshed constantly. Hell, she might even have been tweeting.

All you college students out there, she would’ve taken you down singlehandedly in a multitasking face-off. That kind of atmosphere in a long-term job would drive me crazy.

5. The final product. I know in my heart that having my polished and edited article in print is the reward I want to reap from my hours of reporting and writing toil. A three-minute segment I partially wrote that flashes briefly on a screen and then disappears is too ephemeral for me.

Still, given the media’s less-than-stellar prospects for the immediate future, broadcast seems to have some edge. Then, the question remains: Where is my place in journalism?

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