Assignment Editor Career Profile and Job Description
An assignment editor works at the assignment desk, which is the nerve center of any TV newsroom. This is where crews are dispatched to cover news stories, police and fire scanners monitor breaking news and phones are constantly in use to try to get information.
The assignment editor leads this vital newsroom function, which makes this career path one of the most important. The assignment editor often helps choose which tv reporter gets to cover the governor and which one goes to a school graduation. When other news develops, it's up to the assignment editor to pull crews off their stories to send them to the scene.
An assignment editor also has a role working with a tv producer in deciding which crews will take live trucks or a helicopter to their stories so they can broadcast live during the newscast. The assignment editor's day is largely spent shifting people and equipment around so that as many stories get covered as possible, with an eye out on how to handle breaking news coverage at any moment.
Salary Range for an Assignment Editor
An assignment editor in a small DMA can usually expect to earn about $20,000 to $25,000 to start. At a small station, there is often one assignment editor, who may have the title of assignment manager, who is responsible for organizing the desk to operate 24/7.
In that scenario, the assignment editor is one of the top newsroom managers and may also handle the newsroom staff's work schedules, overtime, and vacation. The job would include many day-to-day organizational functions. A TV contract would likely be required, including a no-compete clause to prevent another station from snatching up this key person.
In larger newsrooms, there may be a team of assignment editors to make sure the desk is staffed around the clock. An individual assignment editor would check up on crews and monitor for breaking news, but would not have the same managerial duties because there would be others in the newsroom to handle that. So the salary likely would not increase much at a large station because the responsibilities would be different.
Education and Training Required to Become an Assignment Editor
Most assignment editors have the same communications or journalism degrees as others in the newsroom. Many assignment editors don't actually write news scripts -- not because they don't have the skills, but because there is so much else for them to do.
An assignment editor has to be able to gather all the information needed to write those scripts. That requires a lot of work on the telephones getting details and updates, like calling to find out whether a shooting victim has died so that a script will accurate for the 6 o'clock news. So there has to be knowledge of which information is needed the most in writing stories.
A TV news anchor who is reviewing his scripts just before airtime will often turn to the assignment editor to confirm facts. The assignment editor must be ready to field questions about whether a fire happened inside or outside city limits or if a murder suspect has had a bond hearing.
Special Skills Needed to Be an Assignment Editor
An assignment editor has to have a keen insider's expertise of the DMA. While a reporter, anchor or producer can jump from city to city, assignment editors have such a unique knowledge of their town that it's difficult for them to make the same moves. Most don't want to spend just two years at a station, but instead, desire to become a newsroom fixture who remains in place even as the on-air faces change.
That's why the best assignment editors aren't only on a first-name basis with the current mayor, but with several previous mayors. They can remember a flood from 15 years ago and instantly know who a newly-arrived reporter should contact in doing a retrospective. They may have all the county sheriffs' home telephone numbers on speed-dial.
An assignment editor has to be comfortable with others getting most of the glory when the station beats the competition on a big story. The anchors, reporters, and producers may give each other high-fives, but it's usually the assignment editor's logistical skills and list of contacts that made the day.
A Typical Day for an Assignment Editor
An assignment editor usually arrives in the newsroom earlier than the other managers, sometimes when the morning newscast is still on the air. That's because the assignment editor has to get a handle on what's happening that day to brief the newsroom.
By around 9 o'clock, the assignment editor will help lead a newsroom staff meeting, going over the events that are scheduled for the day. A rundown will be presented of any city council meetings, trials or other items that the reporters may be assigned to cover. The news director, producers, and the assignment editor will work together on making those initial assignments to the reporters.
After the meeting ends, the assignment editor will stay on top of all crews to know which stories are developing as planned and which ones are not coming together. Reporters may then be re-assigned, especially if something breaks. Reporters will routinely call, needing the assignment editor's help with a telephone number, contact or directions.
As the day wears on, the evening newscast producers start taking the lead deciding in which newscasts stories will air and how much airtime to give to a story. That's when the assignment editor can take a breath and start planning for the next day.
Common Misconceptions About an Assignment Editor
An assignment editor is sometimes dismissed as just a dispatcher of news crews. But this person is also a journalist, working sources like any reporter, and helping to oversee the day's content like any producer or anchor.
A few creative stations even put their assignment editors on camera to provide an instant on-air update during breaking news or to preview stories coming up on a newscast. The thinking is that if the assignment desk is the center of the newsroom, then let the person in charge of all the action share the sense of urgency and excitement about what is happening.
Getting Started as an Assignment Editor
Making a list of contacts is the best place to start for a budding assignment editor. That involves more than knowing the telephone number to city hall. It involves making personal connections with people so that you can turn to them when you need information.
So instead of just knowing the mayor, get to know her secretary. Even if you can't meet every contact in person, develop a friendly rapport that comes from making regular phone calls to check in.
Also, know your DMA. Take a drive in your spare time so that you can spot shortcuts in getting around. That way, when there's a tornado and the main highway is blocked with debris, you'll know how to re-route crews to get to the scene.
As a journalist, learn the processes of government, law enforcement, and the courts. You have to know the difference between a courtroom jury and a grand jury or manslaughter and murder because the raw facts you gather will become the backbone of stories.
Being an assignment editor is not for everyone. But if you thrive on pressure and get an adrenaline rush when something unexpected happens, this TV news position will provide lifelong rewards.