Competition and Kindness

Between live hits on the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse. From left: Whitney, Katie and Paul from KTVL, myself and Julian from KDRV, and Will from KOBI.

I get excited over the Portland Trail Blazers, and sometimes I like to share it. A lot. Online.

It was April 2010, and the Blazers were in the playoffs. As I watched the game on TV, I live-tweeted the contest, sharing my highs, my lows, my elation and my frustration as the game went back and forth. Nothing salty, nothing mean-spirited, and nothing directed at anyone in particular. I was still in my first six months at my first TV job, so I was still getting used to the area and to the people. Live-tweeting was my way of adjusting to living in a new place and maintaining some normalcy.

It was some time in the fourth quarter, right in the heat of my frenzied tweeting, when it popped up in my feed.

“non stop twittering during a basketball game? Two suggestions: find a friend, or get a play by play radio job. Seriously?”

It was sent by an anchor at a competing station in Medford. I had never met this man before. Never spoke to him, never even tweeted at him. And it cut me like a knife.

Was this the attitude I was to expect from members of the “competition?” Was this the way we were expected to treat each other?

Welcome to Medford, kid. Now shut the fuck up.

When you begin your first media job, one of your first goals is to get to know the people at your station. After all, you’re living in a new city, hundreds if not thousands of miles away from home, so your new co-workers are often your first link to making new friends.

Not quite as obvious, though, are the relationships you will forge with people at the other stations in town.

You’ll be interacting with them on a daily basis, too. You’ll be out covering the same stories and conducting interviews with the same people. You’ll be waiting around at the same press conferences, looking for someone to talk to in order to pass the time. You’ll be lined up almost side-by-side for live shots from the same area. The people at your competing stations will be almost as close to you every day as your co-workers.

Many of you will be the same age. You’ll be working your first jobs, making the same low pay, drinking the same cheap beer, and pining for the same goal of a new job in a bigger city.

And you’re also competitors.

I’ve worked various jobs in my life, and in the free market economy, you want your business to do well. But I never thought that I wanted my competitors to fail. But news can be like that. News directors, managers, and corporate types want their station to get all the eyes, all the viewers, all the money. And they want the other stations to fall flat on their face. That cutthroat attitude is easily passed on to overzealous producers, who don’t just view the other stations as competitions, but as enemies.

I once saw a producer log on to Twitter, and saw she was being followed by an anchor at another station in town. Suddenly, my producer seemed to get agitated at the idea. “Why is she following me? I don’t want her knowing anything or getting any information.”

She then blocked her. Gleefully, I might add. For no other reason than she was from a competing station.

That’s the attitude some people have about their competitors. And I wholeheartedly disagree.

You can talk to each other. You can tweet to each other. You can say hello on a story. It’s OK. Your ratings are not going to plummet as a result. TV news people and their colleagues at other stations have so much in common. Embrace it. Make new contacts and new friends.

The tweet I received from the competing anchor (who will remain nameless, for the sake of his bloated ego), was one of my first interactions with someone from another station. And it could have changed the way I approached my job and the people I met. Your first interactions with people as a 23-year-old reporter can have a big impact on your life.

But I learned very early on that you have nothing to gain from being an asshole to people.

News directors hate the idea that people from different stations can act nicely to each other. In their mind, saying hi is a slippery slope to revealing vital station secrets (and with sweeps coming up!). But that’s not the reality. We talk, we see how much we have in common, and yes, we even hang out or move in together. Believe it or not, we can separate our personal lives from our work lives.

Some of my best memories came from hanging out with co-workers and competitors. The guitarist in our band was the director at another station. Members of all three stations went out for drinks, and watched the Super Bowl together. We even got members of the TV stations and local newspaper together for a kickball tournament.

And when we all covered the same fire, we would sometimes come back with suspiciously good-looking standups. “Uh, there was a firefighter out there who was good with a camera…”

Why? Because we were all in the same boat.

Of course, we knew where the line was. We are professionals, after all. We never shared story leads or station details. And if a reporter was trying to poach an interview that I was shooting, or stand in the background of my shot, sometimes I needed to chew them out. I learned you had to be firm when someone else’s actions could affect your job.

While on an assignment covering a small plane crash outside Medford (no one was hurt), we were setting up for a live shot near the wreckage. A competing station had set up a short distance from us, when I noticed the reporter was standing inside the perimeter of the police caution tape – a major problem, because plane crashes were federal investigations. I didn’t need federal agents looking into why Medford reporters were interfering with their crash scene, so I called out: “Hey, watch the line, it’s a crash scene.”

The reporter didn’t look my way. “Thank you. Don’t worry about it,” he said, waving his hand dismissively.

Despite my protests, he stayed. After the live shot, I approached him and explained about the legal risks of what he did. I told him his actions could get all of us in trouble.

“Ok, well, thank you for your concern,” he said passive-aggressively, not able to look me in the eye. “But why don’t you let us worry about our own live shot. OK?”

I explained again how his actions affect everyone else, and he walked away. I had never had an issue with him before, but he was being disrespectful and breaking the law. You have to call out people like that.

But those rare interactions cannot affect your overall demeanor with your competition. You may not be best friends, but you need to know how to get along in the field. Know how to do your job without being at each other’s throats.

I always tried to say hello when I met new reporters in the field. I made it a point to welcome them to Medford, and ask where they were from. And I tried to hide my grimace when they asked me how long I’d been in the market (pro tip: if someone tells you they’ve been at the station for four years, don’t remark “Wow!” You are not below your job. Even if you don’t plan on being in the city for long, don’t look down on someone’s home.)

Maybe I would never become their best friend, but I knew a warm greeting went over better than a mean tweet, or a passive-aggressive argument. I knew that meeting someone with a smile will mean so much more to a person in their first job.

I knew all of this, thanks to Carolyn Carver.

In my second month on the job, I was sent out to a car wreck a short distance from the station. I didn’t know many people yet, and I didn’t know whether I was any good yet as a reporter. Basically, every day was terrifying.

While I was at the scene, with police lights flashing, and two wrecked cars taking up most of the highway, I sensed someone walking up to me from my right. I turned and saw Carolyn, who was the top reporter at KTVL. I had seen her work and knew she was as good as it got in our market. I immediately got nervous that she was going to tell me to get out of her shot, or try to step past me to get an interview.

Instead, she smiled.

“Hi!” She said, extending her hand. “I’m Carolyn! You must be Steven.”

I shook her hand. She continued:

“You’re doing a great job so far! Welcome to Medford! If you ever need anything, let me know. See you around!”

And that was it. The whole conversation barely took 30 seconds before we were both back to work.

But those few moments completely lifted my spirits. It showed me how far a smile and a friendly greeting can go for a young reporter new to an area. Carolyn’s warm welcome stuck with me to this day, and I made it a point of saying those same things to each new reporter I met. Hopefully their day was a little less scary as a result. Hopefully they passed those same things on to new reporters they met, and made the world of TV news a better place.

Thank you, Carolyn Carver, for showing me that, even from a competitor, a little kindness goes a long way.


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