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Broadcast News Is at Center of Fight Over Noncompete Clauses
Job-switching barriers are routine at TV stations, even for workers not on the air. A proposed federal rule would curb the practice across all fields.
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Leah Rivard produces newscasts at WKBT in La Crosse, Wis. A noncompete clause means that, after her contract ends, she must wait a year before she can work for another station in the same market.Credit...Narayan Mahon for The New York Times
By Lydia DePillis
April 3, 2023, 5:00 a.m. ET
Of all the professions, perhaps none is more commonly bound by contracts that define where else an employee can go work than local television news.
The restrictions, known as noncompete clauses, have been a condition of the job for reporters, anchors, sportscasters and meteorologists for decades. More recently, they’ve spread to off-air roles like producers and editors — positions that often pay just barely above the poverty line — and they keep employees from moving to other stations in the same market for up to a year after their contract ends.
For that reason, there’s probably no industry that could change as much as a result of the Federal Trade Commission’s effort to severely limit noncompete clauses — if the proposed rule is not derailed before being finalized. Business trade associations are lobbying fiercely against it.
“The vast majority of people who work in this country, if they find themselves in a bad situation and they don’t like it, they have options to leave, and they don’t have to move,” said Rick Carr, an agent who represents broadcast workers. “And TV doesn’t allow that.”
The pending rule would most likely help people like Leah Rivard, who produces the 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. newscasts at WKBT in La Crosse, Wis.
She was hired in the summer of 2021, at an hourly rate of $15. A year later, the station brought on a cohort of recent journalism school graduates as part of a new training program that promised to pay off a chunk of their student loans. Several longer-tenured producers left, and Ms. Rivard wanted to leave, too, since she ended up having to teach a bunch of inexperienced young people how to write scripts and edit video.
When Ms. Rivard spoke to her managers, she was told that if she left for another station anywhere in the country before her contract expired this year, they could sue her. So she has continued to work for the station, an experience she’s called “absolute hell.” But even after her contract ends in June, a noncompete clause will prevent her from working for any of the other stations in La Crosse or Eau Claire, an hour and a half north, for a year after that.
Ms. Rivard plans to look for work in Milwaukee, and since she doesn’t have much to tie her down in La Crosse, she’s eager to leave. But for plenty of older employees with children in school and mortgages to pay, a noncompete means there’s no easy way out.
“If your station is so toxic that it’s affecting you, and you want to leave, you have to leave news altogether and find a public relations job,” Ms. Rivard said. “It leaves no accountability for the company to be a good company for employees.”
Chris Palmer, WKBT’s general manager, said he believed noncompetes benefited both employers and employees.
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“We invest a lot of time and money training and publicly marketing an individual journalist, which, in turn, increases the value of that journalist in the local market,” he said. “These employees also have access to proprietary local research and strategic investments. It would be unfair for that to benefit a direct competitor without protection.”
Noncompete clauses have become standard in many workplaces and cover about 18 percent of the U.S. labor force, according to research by economists at the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan.
In broadcasting, though, noncompetes are ubiquitous. According to a survey of TV news directors by Bob Papper, an adjunct professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, about 90 percent of news anchors, 78 percent of reporters and 87 percent of weathercasters were bound by noncompetes in 2022. Those numbers have been fairly stable for decades.
Amy DuPont quit her job as an anchor at WKBT and went to work in public relations, knowing that she wouldn’t be allowed to work locally in broadcasting for another year.Credit...Narayan Mahon for The New York Times
In recent years, however, noncompetes have grown to cover a far wider swath of the newsroom. About half of digital writers and content managers, 71 percent of producers and 86 percent of multimedia journalists have clauses restricting their ability to work elsewhere in the market after their contracts end. That’s up significantly from when Mr. Papper started tracking contract provisions in depth two decades ago.
That growth has occurred despite a campaign by the one of the biggest labor unions in television, SAG-AFTRA, to limit noncompetes for broadcast employees. Since the mid-90s, the group has been successful in a handful of states — like Massachusetts and Illinois — while failing in others, like Michigan and Pennsylvania. Some states, most notably California, decline to enforce most noncompetes, regardless of the industry.
In states that circumscribe noncompetes, where SAG-AFTRA also tends to have the most members, the union says workers enjoy higher wages and more freedom to escape bad workplace conditions — particularly important for women, in a field notorious for sexual harassment.
“We have seen more flexibility within our membership, and also nonunion shops, for employees who decide at the end of their contract that they’d like to move on,” said Mary Cavallaro, the chief broadcast officer for SAG-AFTRA.
But the National Association of Broadcasters — which signed on to a multiindustry letter opposing the federal government’s proposed ban — says that because stations promote their reporters and anchors to develop their local brand recognition, they should be able to prevent them from “crossing the street,” in industry parlance.
“While there are certainly some cases where noncompete clauses are overly restrictive, we believe a categorical ban goes too far and that broadcasting presents a unique case for the use of reasonable noncompete clauses for on-air talent,” said Alex Siciliano, a spokesman for the association.
Mr. Siciliano did not respond to a further inquiry about why noncompetes were needed for employees not appearing on air.
To many broadcasting veterans, the main reason that stations impose noncompetes is clear: There’s a recruiting crunch in broadcast news, particularly for producers. It’s a difficult job, with either very early or very late hours and tight deadlines. It requires a college degree and sometimes a master’s degree in journalism, and pay is no longer competitive for people with media skills. The median salary for a producer is $38,000, according to Mr. Papper’s survey.
“There is a belief on the part of non-news executives that working in TV news is still glamorous enough that people are lining up to go into the business,” Mr. Papper said. “But what I’m hearing is that they’re not lining up anymore. And the fact is that the skill set you learn in college that allows you to start in TV news also allows you entry into a whole lot of other, better-paying jobs.”
The apparent disconnect between television news management and the pool of available talent has meant that job postings stay open longer. When an offer is extended, it comes with an almost inescapable time commitment.
Beth Johnson, a television talent agent, says she had to move from exclusively representing clients to more training and consulting, since newsroom employees were no longer able to move around enough to negotiate significant pay raises. The rapid consolidation in local news, with major companies like Nexstar and Sinclair buying out smaller ownership groups, has further diminished the employees’ options.
“It’s really hard for these journalists to make a good living, and it’s getting harder to leverage to make sure they can,” Ms. Johnson said. “So we wanted to pivot to say to journalists, ‘It doesn’t make sense for you to pay me for three years, because you’re not going to make enough to keep me for three years, but you’re really going to need help with that promotion for a year.’”
Although reporters and anchors are paid slightly better than producers, they are routinely forced to move if they need to earn more. If they can’t leave town, they often leave the business. The docket for the Federal Trade Commission’s proposed noncompete ban is peppered with examples of reporters and producers whose careers had been constrained or cut short by the inability to leave their employer for similar work nearby.
Take Amy DuPont, one of Ms. Rivard’s former colleagues at WKBT. After working as an anchor in San Diego and Milwaukee, she moved with her husband to La Crosse, her hometown, after he retired from the military. When Ms. DuPont felt she had reached a breaking point at the station, she quit for a job in public relations. Other stations in town asked if she was interested in switching over, but she didn’t even try.
“Even if I wanted to, I’m not legally able to go there,” said Ms. DuPont, who now represents Kwik Trip, the Midwestern gas station chain. “For someone like me, who’s married and 43 years old with two children, and I own my home, it prevents me from doing my career, something I’ve spent 22 years doing.”
Ultimately, when journalists have to switch cities to earn enough to keep up with the cost of living, local residents lose a trusted source of reporting.
David Jones worked in broadcast news for 23 years, mostly in management roles that required him to recruit and hire. He quit in 2021 to join a public relations firm, and posted a long meditation on LinkedIn about how inhospitable the industry had grown for employees.
Not mentioned, but under the surface, were noncompetes, which hurt the public as well as the people bound by them, he said in an interview.
“You really want someone with market knowledge,” Mr. Jones said, “which isn’t to say that someone can’t come in and learn the market quickly, but there’s so much benefit to the community when you’re able to do that. With noncompetes, you almost never get to do that.”