This piece was originally published on Columbia Journalism Review’s website and appears here with the editor’s permission.
In a corner of a big, empty Krispy Kreme in Atlanta, Valeria Sistrunk is nibbling on a donut. She is 27, with wide eyes and an ever-present smile. She has the positive energy of a TV newscaster—a job she stumbled into by chance: in high school, her guidance counselor randomly stuck her in an elective that fit her schedule, which turned out to be a class for filming live morning announcements. Sistrunk went on tours of CNN and a local PBS station. When it came time to pick a major for college, she decided to try it for real. As a broadcasting student, at Florida A&M University, she took a class with Benjamin Davis, who is now a journalism professor at California State University Northridge. Later, when I call him, he tells me, “Her character is stellar.”
But when she started working professionally, Sistrunk had a rough time. Today, when people ask her what it was like working in news, she wants to say: “Hell. Literal hell.” Usually, she replies diplomatically: “It was different every day.” The work itself was strenuous—in her first job, at WSAW-TV, in Wausau, Wisconsin, she was a multimedia journalist, and often served as her own camera operator and truck driver; she was also the only person of colour in the newsroom. Her salary was $22,000 per year; she struggled to pay bills. She dreaded some of her assignments—once, the station sent her out alone to cover the story of a guy who shot someone who had been walking through his property. She set up her camera outside of the man’s house and, as she walked up the driveway, the man yelled “get off my property” from a balcony. She used his shouting in the segment.
For another piece, she was told to speak to the mother-in-law of a man who was reported missing. “It was so sketch,” she recalls. “The house looked like something out of an episode of Hoarders. Boxes everywhere. It smelled horrible.” A brown tabby cat jumped out of a corner and sprang toward her leg with its claws out, biting through her pants. The woman Sistrunk had come to interview was immobile, and could only intervene by shouting at the cat: “Pickles, now, we don’t bite!” Sistrunk got the interview, then got tested for rabies.
After a year and a half, she landed a new job, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at WDEF-TV, making $26,000. Things started well, but eventually she came to feel that her job was taking a toll on her mental health. Sistrunk was required to shoot her own video, report, edit, post on social media, and complete other tasks over 12-hour days—a schedule typical of reporters at local TV stations. Despite her hard work, however, she found herself being sent to human resources repeatedly over petty wrongdoings. “It was at least every three months I was getting written up for something,” Sistrunk says. The complaints came from her news director, Dutch Terry, who frequently threatened to fire her, she says. Terry declined to comment; WDEF General Manager Phillip D. Cox said in an email that it “is not our practice to discuss individual personnel matters in the public arena.” He added, “our Station and our Company are firmly committed to creating a workplace that is free from inappropriate and offensive comments or actions and, while I’m sure we can always find ways to improve in this area, we believe we do a very good job in honouring our commitment.”
While working at WDEF, Sistrunk began to struggle with anxiety and depression. She developed an eating disorder. Money was tight. “I was having to pin my clothes,” she says. Eventually, she sought help from a therapist. “She told me, ‘You’re more than TV news, you have more to offer to the world than just being a reporter,’” Sistrunk recalls. Besides, her therapist told her, if she left her reporting job, she would be leaving behind a small paycheck. What did she have to lose? “It was very hard, because for a long time I felt like, if I wasn’t a news reporter, I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Sistrunk says. “I felt like that was what I was.”
Finally, Sistrunk entered a 24-hour treatment facility for her eating disorder. One day, at a group therapy session, she described her many responsibilities at work, and then revealed her salary. One of the attendees, a professor, reacted with shock. “The look on her face was enough to tell me that I should never ever take that salary again,” Sistrunk says. That session was the last thing she needed to be convinced that it was time to move on. “I couldn’t continue going on and living,” she realized. “I would have died.”
Sistrunk left Chattanooga and moved back to Atlanta, where she briefly served as a reporter for Content News, a startup producing political videos on YouTube. She was laid off after four months. The unknowns of the journalism industry had hit her for the last time.
After getting out of TV news, she had a new idea: in college, she had used RateMyProfessor.com, a message board for writing and reading anonymous reviews of teachers. What if she created the same kind of forum for journalists in broadcast news? Sistrunk built, as she puts it, “a tool to come and tell the truth.” She asked friends to write reviews. Once she’d collected 10 posts, she went public. Her site, RateMyStation.com, launched in November 2017, and today receives between 40,000 and 60,000 visitors per month.
Forging a path for RateMyStation.com was not unlike the way she found herself as a TV journalist: it required persistence. “As Black women, we have two strikes,” Sistrunk says. “I’m confident enough to say I was a damn good reporter because I was a damn good reporter. And when you are a minority—a double minority—and you’re talented, there are going to be times when news directors are going to challenge that or aren’t going to even like that about you.”
To promote RateMyStation, Sistrunk shared a link in a Facebook group for people in TV news. Within a day, she recalls, “People were sharing it crazy.” The site now hosts nearly 500 reviews of stations across the country (none of which, she says, have been written by her). Reviews are anonymous, but to contribute one, site visitors must fill out a survey with questions about their salary, the station’s news director, and the types of contracts employees are required to sign. There are also queries about experiences with sexual harassment, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and the overall work environment. Sistrunk reads all reviews before they are published and verifies each author’s email address to make sure it’s not being reused to submit reviews for the same station more than once.
On the site, when you click on a station’s call letters, you are taken to a page showing all its reviews. Some are more thorough than others and many newsrooms only have one review. Still, reviewers generally give meaningful feedback for those making career decisions. One reviewer says that a news director in Florida “takes on a sort of fatherly figure (NOT in a weird way).” Another, in Michigan, says, “They’re constantly trying to make the best hiring choices,” but adds that the “news stories they cover are not newsworthy.” A review of an Ohio newsroom reads: “I’ve never worked for a station with so much turn over. The majority of people there are unhappy and leave fast.” Whether or not people believe the site is good for TV stations, it’s clear that a lot of people see it as a valuable resource.
The site has also blog posts by Sistrunk and three other writers, who are paid, and file under pseudonyms. They cover contracts, agents, newsroom culture. The most popular piece was, and remains, Sistrunk’s earliest: “My First Job in TV News: Do I Eat or Pay Rent?”
The site is a detour from the journalism path Sistrunk had imagined. Yet her new project has come to resemble traditional news sites trying to cash in on their brands: three months after launching the site, Sistrunk was on The New York Times website and saw a store selling shirts and mugs. So she chose to start selling products of her own, using a service called Teespring. She came up with designs for merchandise with phrases like “Dope Assignment Editor,” “Dope Producer,” and “#Newsbae.” “People were like, ‘Take my wallet, I need this.’”
Sistrunk knew her new project would likely destroy any chance of her working in news again: ironically, building a tool to increase transparency in a truth-seeking profession would ultimately mean banishing herself from it.
Soon, she faced legal trouble. In December 2017, a month after her site launched, Sistrunk received a cease and desist letter from WDEF, her former station. She talked to a lawyer who told her that, because she only hosts the platform and doesn’t write reviews herself, she couldn’t be held legally responsible. Sistrunk never responded to the letter, and the matter was dropped.
Sistrunk realizes her site may have negative ramifications. “I do feel bad for some news directors,” she says, of people who are criticized on RateMyStation.com. She hopes that, if they see poor reviews, they’ll listen: “Ask employees, ‘How can I change?’ rather than taking offence,” she says, “taking it as a lesson learned.” On the other hand, she says, people send her messages on Facebook, thanking her for helping them find jobs and make career decisions.The positive reactions, she says, outweigh the negative.
She doesn’t have any regrets. “I already know that there’s no news station that’s going to want to pay me the amount of money I feel like I deserve,” she says. “I’ve already said my goodbyes.” She’s had to find other ways to support herself. For now, she’s selling keto diet supplements on Amazon. Sistrunk she always finds a way to make her life work. There may still be more unorthodox ventures ahead. “I’m going to be like that, I’ll have a million sources of income,” she says. “You never know what I’m going to be selling.”
Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.