Saturday, November 10, 2007

The weekend planner

If you're a reporter in search of a story on Saturday or Sunday, you know the feeling. The file is either empty or filled with craft shows and yam festivals. Any thoughts of hard news are pretty much out the window since a lot of the people you need to interview aren't available. And hoping for a story to fall in your lap is pretty lame.

Waiting until you roll into the station on Saturday morning will only get you an endless parade of standups eating funnel cakes. The key to turning good weekend stories is to plan ahead. Sometimes putting even a small part of a story in the can can turn a simple vo/sot into something more newsworthy.

Here's an example. Let's say there's going to be a Saturday festival on the beach which has just been reclaimed due to efforts of environmentalists and funding by some local government officials. You already have a pretty good idea what you'll find on Saturday; kids on rides, people eating junk food and playing carnival games. But with a little forethought, you can turn this into a hard news package. Before your friendly legislator heads to the golf course on Friday afternoon, grab a sound bite. Talk to a realtor about the fact that beachfront property is now more valuable. Pull some file tape of those tree huggers cleaning up the beach a few months ago. All of a sudden you walk into the newsroom on Saturday morning and you just need a little b-roll from the festival to set up your story. While the other reporters are asking chocolate covered kids why they love festivals, you've actually got a first block story.

Few reporters realize that Sunday's late newscast is one of the most watched of the week. It's a great opportunity to show that the news department hasn't taken the weekend off like everyone else. So, in the case of Sundays, look in Monday's file and find out what's coming up. Is someone going to file a protest about the new sewage plant in the morning? Talk to the people before they do it, and show the reasons why they're all fired up. Get the other side of the story from the city official in the can before the weekend. And call up the environmental expert during business hours and get a few facts... you might have a nice graphic for your piece.

Weekend reporting really should be a breeze, but if you don't look ahead you're making things difficult on yourself.. and much less interesting for your viewers.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Must read for producers & assignment editors

Our home backs up to the woods, and there are no other homes as far as the eye can see. Which means we get to see lots of interesting wildlife. Every once in awhile, I see a few vultures circling overhead...

And that brings us to funeral coverage.

My friend Rick Portier, a wonderful photog with whom I had the pleasure of working with several years ago, has his own blog with a recent rant about the "value" (if there is any) of the most intrusive story a field crew can do. If you've never been in the horrible position of having to "cover" a funeral, you owe it to yourself to get a shooter's point of view. And if you're a producer or assignment editor, it might make you think twice about finding another real story that actually affects people.

There are tasteful ways to do tributes, but I'll do my own monologue on this subject at a later date. For now, Rick has the floor. Check out his blog at

Yeah, I know, the name isn't the most genteel. But this is often a dirty business.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Friday's story ideas

Holiday shopping online. Will high gas prices keep more people at home to do their shopping this year?

And speaking of high gas prices... why not "telecommute" to your job? More and more people are working at home via their computers. Find someone in your market who rolls out of bed and has a ten foot commute to the laptop.

Does diet soda make you gain weight? Some studies indicate that your liver gets so tied up trying to metabolize the chemicals in diet soda that it doesn't have time to deal with the real calories...which then get stored as fat.

Internet taxable items. Ever notice that some stuff you buy on the net is taxable while other things aren't? What's the law in your market?

The Great American Smokeout is coming... but studies show that people aren't quitting any more than they did four years ago. Meanwhile, companies begin marketing "feminine" cigarettes to women.

Shopping for a mortgage. Can't be easy these days. Explore what that mysterious credit score means. Talk to a mortgage broker and find out how to improve your chances.

Reminder: Veterans Day is almost here.... have you lined up your heroes yet?

And just a thought... will department store Santas get lists of deadly toys so they don't promise them to little children?

Thursday's story ideas

It's cold, and heating your home won't be cheap this year. Find ways for people to save money on heating bills. There are the obvious ones... better windows, insulation. Electric blankets. And some you might not think about. For instance, we turn off the heat in the guest room when there are no guests. A few years ago we lived in upstate NY and my wife made these things called "window quilts" which basically put a blanket seal on the windows. Really kept the heat in.

Tainted Chinese toys. (Told you this story wasn't going away.) Apparently some are contaminated with a date rape drug. Those old fashioned games of Monopoly are starting to look awfully good for Christmas.

Directions at the gas pump. Next month pumps equipped with Google screens will be able to provide directions to lost drivers who are too proud to ask. Wives everywhere are cheering.

Ways to save gasoline. Fill up in the AM. (Gas contracts and expands with cold and heat, so theoretically you get more when you buy it cold.) Inflate your tires. Get one of those rebate credit cards. (I have one that gives 5 percent back on gas purchases, so I'm saving 15 cents a gallon.)

Calcium alternative to milk. Since moo juice is so pricey these days, some are turning to veggies for calcium. Turns out stuff like spinach has more calcium than milk. Who knew?

New study shows women don't quit smoking because they are afraid of getting fat.

Your school got an "F" but your child gets straight A's. Parents are worried that kids coming from low rated schools will have a tough time getting into college. Admissions people say they consider a school's reputation, but ultimately look at the kid's performance. Check with the local institutions of higher learning in your market.

Hey, belated thanks to Chris for helping me set up this blog. For those of us more comfortable with typewriters & carbon paper, computers are still scary. (In other words, need help... ask someone younger.)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Phone etiquette and infinite loop menus

I call various newsrooms quite often, and I am always amazed (in this supposed era of high technology) how long it takes before I can talk to a human being. I've noticed many stations have gone the automated route. "You've reached Channel Whatever. If you have your party's extension, dial it now. For sales, dial 1. For programming, dial 2. For this week's NFL games, dial 3. For our mailing address, dial 4. If you have a breaking news tip and haven't hung up in frustration, call the newsroom at this number..."

Or you dial the newsroom and it rings...and rings...and rings. Especially in the evening. Sometimes no one answers.

I find it amazing that stations which desperately want exclusives make it so hard for viewers to contribute them. That one caller who gives up out of frustration might have the story of the year.

Then, there's the often lifeless monotone you hear when someone does pick up the phone and says, "newsroom" as if speaking from death row. Sometimes I wonder if I've reached the staff cyborg who no longer wants to be human.

If you're an ND, check out your current system and simplify it. If you work in the newsroom, you need to jump whenever the phone rings and answer as though you actually care. "Action packed news, this is John, may I help you?" Let the viewers know you're interested, and you'll be the first one they'll call when they have something good.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Wednesday's story ideas

Tax credis for hybrids. With oil near $100 per barrel, people are thinking more about hybrids. Credits vary according to the make & model. Which car gets you the most back from the IRS? (Meanwhile, anyone out there driving a hybrid news car?)

You Tube Election? More and more candidates are advertising online and raising money that way. Might be interesting to look back at this week's election and see which successful candidates used the Internet effectively. Supposedly John McCain gets three dollars back for every dollar he spends on the net.

Online airfare war. Priceline cuts its booking fee... will others follow suit? This has gotta hurt travel agents even more.

Health story. With the time change and people getting less sunlight, you get less Vitamin D naturally. Should people take supplements?

Save the earth; eat more chocolate. Apparently someone figured out that the byproducts of chocolate production can be turned into a bio fuel. Fill'er up with Hershey's, please.

Just an observation... haven't seen a kid on a bicycle in quite awhile. Have parents become such chauffeurs that kids don't ride bikes anymore? Will high gas prices make parents encourage their little darlings to provide their own transportation?

Writer's strike. So what will people do without TV? (Oh my, will kids actually go outside and play? Will people pick up a book and read?) What industries stand to gain?

Sports story (for later on in sweeps.) The NFL network is carried primarily by satellite companies, and two big games loom on the horizon. Dallas-Green Bay on November 29th, and Giants-Patriots on the final week of the season. Be interesting if the Pats had a perfect season and hardly anyone could see it. There's a move to get people to cancel their cable and switch to satellite.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Tuesday's story ideas

Exploding comet visible to the naked eye. Just something neat to tell your viewers. Send a photog out at night to shoot it. Talk to local astronomer.

Flight delays. Even though the on-time rate improved in the most recent report, it's still nothing to write home about. Do a consumer piece on how to avoid delays. (Take the first flight, book only non-stops when you can, use regional airports instead of major hubs when you can.)

Health piece. Lung cancer gene identified.

Tech story. Google to release its own phone. Will it rival the I-Phone, and how might it be different?

Bush threatens farm bill veto. How will this affect agriculture in your market?

Hiding the hearing loss stigma. New hearing aids are starting to look remarkably like those wireless cell phone earpieces. Will this make younger people who might not want a hearing aid change their minds? And while you're at it, why are so many young people experiencing hearing loss?

Classes for divorcing parents. With so many children having to deal with shared custody, some communities are offering counseling on raising kids as normally as possible.

Don't flush unused meds. Due to environmental concerns, some communities are implementing programs that allow citizens to turn in their leftover prescription drugs.

Got a story idea? Share it with the rest of the class.


Dear Grapevine,

Is it true that no one gets hired during sweeps? I've got my tape ready to go but don't want it sitting on a News Director's desk for a month. Should I wait?


Dear Promptergirl,

People do occasionally find jobs during sweeps, but the hiring process generally gets put on hold. In the case of November, you can often add December into the mix as people get caught up in the holidays. However, NDs will sometimes start looking in December to hire in January. Start of a new year, new budget, and they're getting ready for February sweeps.

I'd wait till the end of this book before sending out tapes, unless you see an actual job opening.

Dear Sir,

I'll keep this short and sweet. How do I find a good agent?


Dear J.D.,

I'll keep this short and simple. Talk to their clients. You can ask an agent for references, or check those "moving on" notices on, which usually list representation.

A good agent is accessible, excited about your talent, and one with a good track record.

And by the way, getting an agent is no guarantee of getting a job. Agents get your foot in the door, but your tape still has to make the short list.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Monday's story ideas

Well, it's green week on NBC, so if you work for an affiliate you might as well localize it. Do something at your station to save energy. (Hardwire all the mikes. Do all the standups in sunlight. Turn off the lights in the editing booths. Find a story you can do without using a news car. Ditch the curling iron. Don't do meaningless live shots for your late newscast where nothing is going on.) Challenge your viewers to do something as well.

Election preps. If you're in a market that has elections this year, check out the candidates' last minute tactics. Are phone banks out of vogue since the arrival of the "do not call" list? Are candidates still going door to door?

Time change walkers. Get this... people who walk after dinner are three times more likely to be killed by a car during standard time. Because it's... uh... dark. So wear bright colors or something reflective.

Holiday airline travel. Booked your flight for Turkey Day yet? Check out the rates. Yikes. My usual $250 flight to NYC is close to $500 this year. Check with a travel agent to help find what few bargains might be out there.

Internet cigarette bill. A congressman will introduce a bill today to ban tax-free Internet cigarette sales. A study showed that some terrorist organizations have used this tactic to raise money.

With all the phobia about killer germs these days, are schools changing their cleaning regimen? How are school nurses keeping up? FYI, children are being taught not to sneeze into their hands, but their elbows.

(Thanks to Georgia Gal for that idea.)

Got some good story ideas? Share 'em.

You can learn a lot from A-Rod

If you're a sports fan, you no doubt know the story of Alex Rodriguez, who decided to "opt out" of a contract with the Yankees. Obviously, he and his agent felt they could do better than the 81 million left on his deal.

The problem was the way they conducted business. Regardless of whether they get more money, A-Rod has taken a major hit in the image department. The average fan wonders, "How much is enough?" It brings to mind the line in the movie Wall Street, when Charlie Sheen asks Michael Douglas, "How many yachts can you water ski behind?"

How does greed relate to television? Well, sometimes overestimating your worth can cost you. And sometimes an agent can push a little too hard.

It recalls a story I heard awhile ago from an anchor who had been in a market for many years. The anchor's agent was negotiating a new contract, and apparently asked for so much money and so many perks that the News Director rescinded what, looking back, was a very good offer. The anchor ended up having to move to another market, and made less money.

The lesson here is two-fold. First, no one is irreplaceable. Second, if you have an agent, make sure you are both on the same page.

When I was an ND, I dealt with very nice agents and those who wanted to play hardball. At one point a hardball agent was asking for so much, and with an attitude that his client was the only person in the universe who could do the job. Finally, I got tired of dealing with someone who wasn't even open to negotiation and hired someone else.

As for your own personal value, well, it is always subjective. But if you're going to play high stakes poker, you'd better be ready in case the station calls your bluff.

I once worked with an anchor who thought she was worth a small fortune and decided to go over the head of the ND and demand a large raise from the GM. The ND had told her (honestly) that such a raise wasn't in the budget, but she marched down the hall to the GM's office and said, "I need to make twenty thousand dollars more next year."

The GM, replying with one of the better lines I've ever heard from management, said, "Then get a second job."