TV news jobs are rife with noncompete agreements. Banning them could be a boon for journalists. – The Boston Globe

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While Massachusetts and Maine have for several years restricted the enforcement of noncompetes, the agreements have been legal in other New England states. The restrictions can leave employees feeling trapped in jobs they dislike, forced to move cross-country, or pushed out of journalism. For instance, reporters in New Hampshire have sometimes been limited from working in Boston’s much larger market.

Noncompetes can be “paralyzing,” said Josh McElveen, a communications professional and former political director at WMUR-TV in New Hampshire who was previously bound by the contracts in TV news.

”It was something that created a little bit of fear and angst anytime there were contract negotiations,” McElveen said, speaking about the early stage of his career. “It was a bit of a scary thing.”

The FTC’s ban on noncompetes will give employees more freedom, and is a “long time coming,” he said.

WMUR and its owner, Hearst, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Federal Trade Commission voted 3-2 last month to ban noncompete agreements for all employees nationwide, arguing that they violate the Federal Trade Commission Act. The change is expected to take effect in September, unless legal challenges cause delays.

The FTC ban would prohibit new noncompete agreements and nullify existing noncompete agreements for employees who are not senior executives, which it defines as workers who make more than $151,164 per year and are in a “policy-making position.” Nearly 20 percent of Americans have noncompete agreements in their contracts, the FTC said in a fact sheet accompanying the announcement.

“The FTC’s final rule to ban noncompetes will ensure Americans have the freedom to pursue a new job, start a new business, or bring a new idea to market,” FTC chair Lina Khan said in a statement when the agency announced the ban.

Consultant Josh McElveen, the former political director at WMUR-TV in New Hampshire, said noncompete agreements can be “paralyzing.”Ken McGagh for The Boston Globe

In the broadcast media industry, noncompetes are widespread. While some stations limit the agreements to on-air talent, some extend the contract clauses to producers, technical staff, and digital employees, who often earn relatively low wages. Typically, the agreements state that workers can’t seek employment at another broadcast station in the same media market for a certain period of time after their contracts expire. Employees who disobey could face lawsuits by their former employers.

A 2023 survey conducted by the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Newhouse School at Syracuse University found that the vast majority of anchors, meteorologists, multimedia journalists, and producers surveyed had contracts with their stations. Among those under contract, more than 85 percent of employees in each category had noncompete agreements.

The percentage of other staff, such as social media producers, digital content managers, and assistant news directors, under contract was much lower, with about half in each category reporting they signed contracts. But of those with contracts, more than 90 percent of workers in each category had noncompete agreements, according to the survey.

Employees with noncompetes who want to keep working in broadcast, but are seeking a raise or promotion, often have to look far away.

“The noncompete is designed to block you from moving to another job where you can use your skills in a rival company,” said Matt Marx, a professor who researches noncompete agreements at Cornell University.

The agreements can force people away from their homes, friends, and families and to new markets across the country.

“I do hope that this decision really helps offer a sense of work-life harmony and more control to the workers in terms of what they’re able to get in their daily lives,” said Christine Wheeler, a former social media and web producer at WMUR in New Hampshire. She said she felt stuck working the late-night shift because of her employment contract.

Christine Wheeler, a former social media and web producer at WMUR in New Hampshire.Debee Tlumacki

WMUR and its owner, Hearst, did not respond to requests for comment.

While the FTC and labor advocates argue that noncompetes drive down salaries, many employers argue that noncompetes help them invest more in employees because they have the reassurance they won’t suddenly leave, said Douglas Brayley, an employment attorney for Ropes & Gray, a law firm based in Boston.

It’s not “obvious which way it cuts, especially for the higher compensated folks who have real access to company goodwill, customer goodwill, trade secrets, and that valuable company property,” he said.

In the broadcast world, stations can spend a lot of time and money marketing their biggest on-air talent. Losing popular anchors to other stations can be devastating, as they could take some viewers with them.

Last year, the National Association of Broadcasters signed onto a letter that opposed the FTC’s ban when the agency first proposed it.

“Courts, scholars, and economists all have found that noncompete clauses, when properly used, encourage investment in employees and help to protect intellectual property,” the letter said.

The National Association of Broadcasters did not respond to requests for comment.

Generally, the FTC has argued that the ban could raise salaries for employees. In broadcast, as local television news viewership has gradually declined in recent years, salaries in 2023 fell from previous years when adjusted for inflation, according to the RTDNA/ Newhouse School survey.

Christine Wheeler, a former social media and web producer at WMUR in New Hampshire, felt stuck working the late-night shift because of her employment contract. Debee Tlumacki

Given the challenges facing local media companies, especially as they compete with other news outlets, social media, and streaming services for people’s attention, it’s not a guarantee that the ban will help raise local TV salaries. And New England is already an attractive destination for broadcast workers.

“People want to come to Boston,” said Susan Walker, an associate professor of journalism at Boston University. “That’s a capstone to your career.”

But a ban on noncompetes could give individual workers a lot more freedom.

“The notion of noncompete is such an antiquated thing that it skews the leverage to the stations themselves,” McElveen said. “It’s not American and it’s not capitalistic, and it’s just not a very good system to operate under.”

Consultant Josh McElveen, the former political director at WMUR-TV in New Hampshire, in his Amhest, New Hampshire home office. Ken McGagh for The Boston Globe

Aidan Ryan can be reached at aidan.ryan@globe.com. Follow him @aidanfitzryan.

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