Friday, June 27, 2008

Mailbag: Field Producing, part deux


You've got an awesome job. Someday when I get 100 years of experience like you I'll try to follow in your foot prints.

Question: You mentioned the network reporter had a producer with him as well. Is that normal for the big time reporters? What does the producer do? Also, I'm curious... do the network reporters write all their own stuff? Like, the setup, intro, pkg... everything? Sometimes I wonder if they're just there for their voice and pretty face.


Dear Anonymous,

Well, you should understand that I don't do this every single day. Sometimes you're called a lot, sometimes not. Hence the term "freelance." One day you're working side by side with a TV legend, the next day you're cutting the lawn like everybody else.

As for your questions... Sometimes a reporter shows up with a network producer, sometimes not. Sometimes you don't get a reporter at all. On many occasions during which the reporter cannot physically get to the location in time or is tied up with something else, I've done the interviews myself and then uplinked everything. (I did that last week when the reporter was in Iowa covering the floods and the flooding expert was in Mississippi.) Then you talk to the reporter or producer to let them know where the good stuff is, if you have a money shot, etc. When a producer is on site, I've seen him do legwork, edit, write, knock on doors, book guests, you name it. Everything a reporter does except get on camera.

I also forgot to mention the photog works with a sound guy who takes care of all the audio gear, makes sure the sound is crystal clear, etc. No room for mistakes with the network.

I've yet to run into a network reporter who didn't write his or her own copy. While many are attractive and have the great voice (you ought to hear Martin Savidge on the phone) they work as hard as anyone, often in brutal conditions and under crazy time constraints. While they worked hard to get there, they have to keep doing it to stay there. I continue to be amazed at how polite they are, as I really expected to be working with some big egos. But out in the field they're one of us, a member of the crew like anyone else. (Nasty News Directors take note... nice people seem to go far in this business. Hmmmm.)

The comment that really made my day was during that tornado coverage when a producer in New York called me and said, "We aren't paying you enough for what you're doing today." When you're tired and soaking wet, stuff like that is nice.

As for my 100 years of experience, I hope you mean dog years. Those of us on the back nine are a bit touchy about the age thing. Some waitress gave me a senior discount the other day without asking. Really ticked me off.


What's the deal with some stations and the "July book." I thought there were only three rating periods, now I find myself at a place where no one can take time off in July. What gives?


Dear Vacationless,

True, most stations don't care about the July book. Let's face it, one look at prime time television during the summer will tell you viewership is going to be down. (Though "Burn Notice" is a pretty cool show.)

Many stations use the July book in the hopes it will be a lot better than the "big" books. Let's say your station is in last place and, for whatever reason, you get a good July book. The sales people can tell their advertisers, "The ratings are trending up." If the July book is a clunker, they can just ignore it.

Books or not, you build viewers every single day, whether in the dead of summer or the middle of November. Managers never seem to "get" that concept.


I like the photogs I work with but their choice of music gives me a headache. What is the proper etiquette for picking the radio station in a news car? Don't I have any say in this?

-Rocked out

Dear Rocked out,

Unless you want to pull back a bloody stump, don't touch a photog's radio.

Friday's story ideas

I really like this story.... food banks are asking gardeners to donate their extra produce to help feed the hungry.

The supreme court gun ruling.... what does it mean in your market? And how easy is it to get a gun?

Highway deaths are down significantly. Is this due to people driving slower and new hands-free cell phone laws?

Thrift stores are getting more popular as people cut spending. And for those of you working Saturday, garage sales are everywhere as people look for a few extra bucks in the attic.

Cholesterol lowering vitamins. What makes them different and do they really work?

Real estate bribes. Another good story for you weekend warriors. Some people trying to sell homes are offering free gifts (bottles of wine) to anyone who tours the home.

Very cool feature. Check out and find out what you'd look like with plastic surgery. Could make for a hilarious standup.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Typical things you'll be asked on interviews

You've sent the tapes, you've gotten the call, now you have to close the deal. The interview is one of the hardest things to endure for a news person. After all, we're usually on the other end asking questions. While you should always just "be yourself" in any interview, there are some things for which you should be prepared. There are some questions News Directors will use to trip you up, and other seemingly casual questions designed to find out what truly lurks beneath your television exterior.

So here are a few standards to help you prepare.

"What got you interested in television news?" This was my favorite question, because if the answer was, "I've always wanted to be on TV," I knew the person had an ego problem and was more interested in self-promotion than in journalism. This question offers you the opportunity to talk about your interest in gathering stories, being part of a news team and community, making the world a better place by informing viewers. It's about the rush you get when you've got an exclusive and if you don't get it on the air you'll explode. It's about your passion to find the truth and present it objectively to the viewer.

"Where do you see yourself in five years?" This question has been around forever, and while the answer we're all thinking is, "A bigger market or the network," the more polite response would be, "Working at a place that keeps me happy and challenged. I don't know where it is. It could be right here."

"So, what did you think about the (big story of the day yesterday)?" This is a little test to see if you actually read newspapers and watch newscasts. If you're on a plane, use every minute to read as much current news as you can. If you go to a hotel the night before your interview, get up early, watch a newscast and read a paper. If you have no response to this question and have no idea what yesterday's top story was about, it will tell the ND you're a news presenter, not a news reporter.

"Tell me about yourself." An opportunity for you to show that you're more than just a reporter. "Well, I grew up in the New York area, worked in my father's delicatessen for eight years, but even when I was a kid I knew I loved to write, so my first job was at a newspaper. A customer in dad's store owned a radio station, and that's how I got interested in broadcasting. When I'm off the clock I love to watch baseball... and I'm hoping the station has a softball team. And I love to cook." A little history, a little about you behind the scenes.

"Ok, are you ready for the current events quiz and writing test?" You'll get one or both of these in many interview situations, so make sure your facial expression remains casual. Any show of fear isn't good at this point.

"Do you have any questions for me?" (Yeah, are you gonna offer me the job?) It's always nice to ask how the ND got into the business and his or her own history. And if you're young, you want to say something like, "You won't have to hold my hand, but I have a lot to learn. Do you often give feedback and are there some veterans in the newsroom who can be good mentors?" This tells the ND that you're not one of those college students who thinks, "Yeah, you're old and out dated and I know everything." Show a News Director you're open to suggestion and constructive criticism.

Do not bring up the subject of money or contracts. Let the ND do it. This shows you're more interested in the job than in the numbers, even though the compensation is very important. And when the ND does throw out an offer, remember that the first offer is almost always negotiable. You can politely ask for more money, perks, moving expense, contract outs, etc. But do that after you've had a chance to think about things and review the contract. You might get a "no" but it never hurts to try.

Thursday's story ideas

New housing legislation working its way thru Congress. What does it mean in light of the foreclosure crisis? Talk to your local member of Congress and a realtor.

Do it yourself solar panels. With so many areas of the country that don't have solar product dealers, can you install these yourself?

Diseases most prevalent among the poor are on the rise, many of which are easily preventable. What are they and what's being done?

Boating while intoxicated. Many people think there's no penalty on the open water, but they might be in for a surprise.

Death penalty for rapists. In light of the Supreme Court ruling, what's going on in your state?

How much can you turn down your air conditioner before you create a mold problem?

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mailbag: What's a field producer?


Your bio says you work as a freelance field producer. What exactly does that entail?

-Job Hunter

Dear Hunter,

Well, like any day in a local station, it is never the same. Sometimes it's a workout, sometimes a breeze. I'll give you an example of one from last year in real time, just like an episode of "24"

12:00 Noon: I get a call from the network desk asking if I can "jump and go" (code for "drop what you're doing") and head an hour out of town where a tornado has touched down and ripped the roof from a church. I accept the assignment, grab my pre-packed suitcase, and, because it is pouring, throw several towels, a bathing suit (I hate working with wet underwear) and a pair of Crocs (the ones with little holes in them... this is important)in the car. I'm on the road by 12:05. The photog, sat truck, reporter and network producer will meet me there.

12:30pm: I hear on the radio that the tornado has flipped several cars at a mall parking lot, so I call the photog. He's already gotten b-roll of the church, so he heads to the mall and tells me he'll meet me there.

1pm: I arrive at the mall. I put on my Crocs since I know I'm going to have wet feet, but I don't want wet socks and sneakers. The water will flow easily thru the holes. The photog shoots some b-roll, then we head back to the church after toweling off his gear. I get a call from the network that the reporter and his producer will arrive via plane at 4pm, and am asked to get as much info and interviews as possible.

1:20: We're at the church and set up an interview with the pastor, then get permission from the police to go inside. The photog shoots b-roll, then we interview the pastor. But we don't have an eyewitness.

1:40: We decide to split up and knock on doors to find a witness. After about ten doors I find one, so I call the photog on the cell phone and tell him where to meet me. He arrives five minutes later and we interview the witness.

2:00: The network calls and asks us to pick out some good bites and b-roll since the reporter will have very little time to put the story together, and also to feed the good stuff as soon as possible. It is still pouring buckets, so the photog starts logging tape in his car while I go back to the church in search of more info. The sat truck op calls, and we tell him where a good place for the live shot will be. He arrives shortly thereafter and feeds our tape as soon as he's got the shot in.

4pm: The reporter calls and tells me he's touched down at the airport, I give him all the info I've got and tell him we've got his bites and b-roll ready for him.

4:30pm: The reporter and his producer arrive and they start editing in the sat truck.

5pm: The network's morning show producer calls and asks if I can set up a live interview with the pastor for 5:30am. The producer on site cuts me loose, I track down the pastor and he agrees.

5:30pm: We're live on the network newscast. No problems with the package or the live shot.

6:15pm: We assume we're done and can go to dinner, but the network calls and wants a fresh package for a late feed. So I get in the car and go in search of take-out. One problem... the power is out all over town, it is still pouring buckets and most restaurants are closed. I finally find an open fast food joint with no customers. The manager takes pity on me and makes me a bag of chicken sandwiches.

7:00pm: The crew wolfs down the "dinner" in the sat truck, because it is now raining even harder. (Pretty sad being on an expense account and only spending 40 bucks on dinner for eight people.) The reporter and the producer go back to re-cutting their package.

9pm: Most of the crew is now heading to the hotel, which is 40 minutes away. The roads are nearly washed out, so I know we'll have to leave extra early for our morning show live shot.

10pm: I check in at the hotel, dripping all over the lobby. I ask the clerk for a 2:30am wake up call and get a puzzled look. It is also polite to ask for a room away from other guests, so the phone call doesn't wake them up.

2:30am: I get up, and make a pot of hot water in the room's coffee machine. Then I make a bowl of oatmeal (it's always in the suitcase) because I know nothing is open at this hour and I won't get to eat anything for a while.

3am: On the road to the sat truck. It is still pouring.

4am: The truck op puts up a tent since the weather report tells us there's no end in sight. We get the shot in, and we're set to go.

5am: Our guest arrives on time.

5:30-7am: A series of live shots. No problems other than the rain. The reporter is asked to put a package together before he heads back to the airport.

9am: We're done. We break down the tent (NOW it stops raining!) and the crew disperses. Some of us go to breakfast, some with long drives go back to the hotel to sleep.

9:15am: An open IHOP! A bunch of us stop for breakfast.

10:15am: I'm on the road, hoping I have enough caffeine and maple syrup in my body to keep me awake for an hour. Not a problem.

11:15am: I'm home and crawl directly into bed.

12 Noon: Telemarketer calls and wakes me up. My response is unprintable.

That's not a typical shoot, but just an example. The great thing is that all the freelancers are veterans who know what they're doing and are very friendly. Same goes for the network people. You can show up, never having met anyone on the crew, and everyone knows exactly what to do. Most times you get a call from the network on your way home thanking you for your help. (How often does THAT happen in local news?)

Wednesday's story ideas

***First, a note. I've been unable to allow comments to be posted the last few days, so please know I appreciate all the kind thoughts. If you got a "delete" or "reject" message, it wasn't my doing. Okay, on to the story ideas...

John McCain wants to offer a reward for anyone who can come up with a revolutionary car battery. Find a local "mad scientist" (every market has a few) and find out what experiments are going on.

Fuel surcharges. Package delivery services, pizza delivery, and all sorts of businesses are tacking on a few bucks to pay for transportation. Show consumers the companies that aren't slapping a charge on their services...yet.

Georgia law bans sex offenders from volunteering at church. With that in mind, how do churches keep tabs on their volunteers?

Weighing your luggage before flying. There are all sorts of new rules depending on the airline, so show travelers how to lighten the load.

Floods or droughts can bring illnesses to farm animals. How do farmers cope with the weather is extreme?

Fewer hotels are offering complimentary breakfast.

People are cutting back on driving, but how much do you have to shave off your yearly mileage to get a break from your insurance company? If you've switched to mass transit for your daily commute, might be quite a savings.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What George Carlin can teach you about the news business

Most of you are probably way too young to remember George Carlin's local news routine in which he tweaked the business for some of the silly things we put on the air. Al Sleet, the "Hippy Dippy" weatherman, had a forecast that went like this...

"Temperature at the airport is 88 degrees. Which is stupid, because I don't know anyone who lives at the airport."

Sleet would later finish his forecast with, "Tonight's forecast.... dark."

Then Carlin would morph into a sportscaster with this classic. "Here's a partial score... Pittsburgh, 37."

The man had a unique way of looking at the world, and if anyone invented the term "thinking outside the box" it was George Carlin. Someone who comes up with lines like, "Why do they lock gas station bathrooms? Are they afraid someone will clean them?" is a person who obviously sees things in a different light.

Which brings up two points... we need to get the "stupid things" out of our newscasts, and reporters need to think a different way.

One the my first tasks in my first management job was to "get the stupid things out of our newscast." While I don't remember the specifics, I have seen and heard a few gems on local news of late.

A radio newscaster after an ice storm. "Police remind you that today you drive at your own risk." (Any other day, accidents are no one's fault.)

A local meteorologist. "We're expecting plenty of wet rain tonight." (Yeah, that dry stuff can be a real pain.)

Or a graphic I saw this week about a poll in which 86 percent chose one option, and the other options totalled 4 percent. (Apparently some anchors just have to look good, not be able to add.)

And finally, this classic. "The FAA ruled that the cause of the crash was the fact that the plane's wings were covered by icing." (Chocolate? Vanilla? How many cans of Betty Crocker does it take to frost a 737?)

Carlin wasn't too far off, was he?

Many mistakes of this nature comes from the simple fact that anchors and producers aren't proofreading their scripts or double checking their graphics and supers. And hitting spell check doesn't always work... I guarantee you there weren't a whole lot of writers present when that feature was designed. The lesson here is to double and triple check your work, and more than one pair of eyes is always better. News Directors, if they aren't already, should always check scripts before they hit the air.

Now to part two of the George Carlin lesson... thinking differently. These days most resume tapes almost have a generic look to them. If you've watched dozens in the same day, after a while they all start to look the same. You, as a reporter, have to look at things the way George Carlin did. What's different about this story that no one else sees? What is a question no one else would think to ask? What is the third side to this story?

I'll give you a few examples. You're assigned to do a story on high food prices. You get the obligatory supermarket video, show the downsized ice cream containers, talk to consumers about how expensive things are. All because of high gas prices, so you show someone filing up at the pump. Is there another side to this story? Put yourself in the consumer's shoes... if you have little money and can't afford food... maybe it's time to grow your own. So you head down to the garden supply store and find out they've sold out of tomato plants for the first time ever.

Another example. You're sent to cover a drunk driving accident. You get the usual video, the info from the cop that the driver had two previous DUIs, the arraignment date, a sound bite with the tearful victim's family. You're covered, right? Now put yourself in the victim's shoes. Why was this idiot still on the road? What judge let him keep his license? Why does the legal system allow this, and can you, the reporter, raise awareness to help change things?

It's not always easy to do this, but you can train yourself to "see" instead of just "look." Photogs look at things in different ways, and you must do the same. But stretch your creativity and find those angles that no one ever considers. Step out of your reporter's shoes and put yourself in the place of those affected by the story. See someone else's point of view, and you'll have a better story.

Tuesday's story ideas

Summer school. Some systems are now charging parents who have to send their kids.

The federal government has drastically cut aid to food banks, forcing many to turn people away. How can your community help? Meanwhile, how are people on food stamps getting by?

Immigration enforcement should result in an increase in jobs for legal citizens.

Some law enforcement agencies are adding a "fuel surcharge" to speeding tickets.

Legislation targeting oil speculation is working its way thru Congress. Talk to the members from your market, as well as commodities traders to see what the effect would be.

Consumer piece... what's the cheapest place to mail a package these days with US Postal Service rates thru the roof? And do most people know that many private carriers offer free insurance up to $100?

Monday, June 23, 2008

What's your legacy?

I never would have guessed I'd get a TV News topic from my priest yesterday, and I don't as a rule get into religion on this forum, but he raised an interesting question at the end of his sermon. He touched on the fact that he'd watched many of the Tim Russert tributes, and asked us all to think about what would be said when we're gone. "What will be your legacy?" Short and sweet, but it sure made people think.

I'd actually been considering that last week, thinking it would be wonderful if people lined up to say nice things at a funeral. Of course, there's only one way to insure that will happen.

While doing good deeds and being a nice person are all well and good, this is a business in which "paying it forward" might outweigh other acts of kindness. And sometimes this is not something that is readily apparent to us in the early part of our careers. Or easy to do when there is competition in your own newsroom. Why should you bother to help someone who is your direct competition for that open anchor job? Why give away those reporter's tricks that have made you something special? And if you're a manager, why should you help that mediocre anchor get better when it is easier to just hire someone else?

Because, in addition to the fact that you're part of a news team, it's the right thing to do. And this is a very, very small business.

Yes, there are people who are not very nice in this business. Those who will trample the competition and eat their young to get ahead. But offering a helping hand, or paying it forward, is just like Karma.

If you've been around this business for awhile, think back to when you first started. Surely someone was kind and patient in showing you the ropes. Doesn't it make sense to do the same for the rookie in your newsroom?

Or, if you're a rookie reporter, why not offer guidance to that summer intern everyone is ignoring?

At some point in this career, you'll need help, a favor, a port in a storm. The more good you do now, the more good Karma you'll have in the bank when you need it. That intern you help might be a network anchor in ten years, and take you along for the ride. The kid reporter you mentor might be in a position to help someday when you find yourself out of a job.

We all have something to pay forward. If you want a legacy like Tim Russert, time to start making deposits in the bank of good deeds.

Monday's story ideas

Brand loyalty. Is it a thing of the past with grocery prices skyrocketing? Is the "store brand" now the most popular?

What is WiMAX? (A Wi-Fi hot spot that can enable an entire city.) Government could use it for things like reading electrical meters without any employees. And is it coming to your market?

Cell phone dead spots. Why are there still so many, and what are companies doing about them?

How has offshore drilling impacted communities in areas that it's been around for awhile?

Summer food safety. With more people eating outside this time of year, what steps are important to make sure you don't get sick?

New York State has passed legislation that will track incidents of cancer in order to determine if there is an environmental cause. Would that be useful in your market?

Sunscreen. Explain UVA, UVB, SPF, and any other sun related abbreviations. (Meanwhile, does anyone go to a tanning parlor anymore?

Fishing is more popular this summer. It's fun, and it puts food on the table. (How many sports can make that claim?)