Saturday, July 26, 2008

Movie of the weekend

I often hear that reporters have no time these days, and free time is even more precious with the workdays growing longer. And I always tell you guys to read as much as possible. But sometimes history books aren't that appealing and they're often long, so I've decided to start a weekend feature that spotlights a movie that will teach you something.

This weekend's choice: "Thirteen Days"

The Cuban Missile Crisis was one of the most tense moments in American history, and the signature event in JFK's presidency. Most of you weren't even born when this happened, and I know that many books don't capture the real fear we all felt back when the cold war was at its height. This is a terrific movie which offers a in depth look at this crucial period of the 1960's, with Bruce Greenwood offering one of the best portrayals of JFK ever. For you Desperate Housewives fans, the guy who played Rex Van de Camp plays Bobby Kennedy, while Kevin Costner rounds out a great cast.

Historical movies often lack tension since you know the ending in advance, but this film manages to keep you riveted. It's a great history lesson for any reporter.

Friday, July 25, 2008

How politicians manipulate reporters (without the reporter ever knowing it)

Growing up in the New York area, I quickly learned to carry money in my front pocket. Putting it in your back pocket makes it easier for a pickpocket to steal, and they're so good at it in the Big Apple you'd never even notice.

Politicians can be the same way, only they can deftly steal your objectivity. And you might not even know it's gone. A little charm, an exclusive or two, and suddenly you're in someone's pocket.

I took a few years off a couple of times to run political campaigns, and it was certainly interesting being on the other side of the fence. What gave me an advantage was that I knew exactly what reporters wanted, but more important, I knew how to make their lives easier. And I also knew one key fact that many successful political campaign managers have known for years.

Many reporters are lazy, and if you do their work for them, they'll let you.

I'll give you an example. On one occasion I knew that the person likely to be covering a political speech was a clock puncher, someone who didn't consider journalism a career or a calling, but just a paycheck. I wanted to make sure my candidate's message came across perfectly, so the day before his speech I sent a verbatim copy to the reporter. Sure enough, the reporter never showed up, but the sound bites from my speech did in the reporter's newspaper. I had done the reporter's job, and in doing so I controlled the media in that instance. Had the reporter bothered to show up he might have heard some other interesting sound bites that weren't in the speech.

On another occasion (when I was a reporter) a local businessman I knew decided to run for public office. Members of all the media organizations turned out, but left quickly, never getting anything of substance. He pulled me aside and asked me how he could make reporters stick around. "You only need to remember four words," I told him, remembering my first campaign. "Lunch will be provided."

He scheduled another news conference a few weeks later and pulled out all the stops. A sit down catered lunch and an actual band. Over the top, yes, but every reporter stuck around through the meal and was in a good mood when the candidate came around and did his interviews.

Sometimes it's the candidate who picks your pocket, sometimes a member of the campaign staff. You simply have to keep one thing in mind when covering politics.

These people all want something from you. Sure, they want good coverage and to make sure the right sound bites end up on the air or in the paper, but all of that pales compared to the top request.

They want you to like the candidate.

These days many national reporters and talk show hosts are so transparent about their political views you could read a newspaper through them. And so much is being made about media bias, that the general public has become wise to the tricks of the trade. Clever editing can make even the most eloquent politician look stupid. Bad lighting can make someone look scary. Opinionated copy can turn something innocent into a topic of discussion. During the early part of the Presidential campaign, one of the candidates had some strong words for a reporter. The anchor copy read, "the candidate lost his cool" but anyone watching it could see the politician was simply defending his stance on the issue and was being passionate about it.

Now, more than ever, objectivity is key. Even a hint of favoritism and you've lost your audience.

You can like a candidate all you want, and vote for anyone. But you must always strive to tell the public what you know, not what you think.

Keep your opinions in your front pocket, along with your money, and no one will have any idea how you voted on Election Day.

Friday's story ideas

Interesting pet story... white cats are highly susceptible to skin cancer, especially around their ears.

Speaking of which, several states have laws restricting minors from using tanning beds.

Lots of people are giving up bottled water in this economy, so how does the tap water in your market measure up?

Preparing for winter. Sure, it's July, but those high heating costs are heading at us like a freight train. What can people do now to prepare?

Some studies suggest oxygen therapy helps people with chronic headaches.

How is the economy affecting adoptions? Are people willing to take on another mouth to feed, or is the economy keeping more kids in the foster care system?

The high cost of college... can you get a better deal living off campus and avoiding dorm food?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mailbag: Shoot me, please (preferably in focus)

Dear wise and trusty Grape,

It seems as though you've worked with plenty of wonderful photographers during your time. You're always advising reporters to respect and treat them well, which I agree with 100%. However, as a reporter who takes pride in not only treating all my colleagues with respect, but going the "extra mile" to carry around tripods, bags; etc. I STILL find myself feeling as though I'm working against the photographers, rather than in conjunction with them.

This is a common complaint from reporters here.

The photographers are all older, complacent, lacking creative drive and all seem bitter for the most part. It's as though their only concern is getting through the day and merely getting the job done. Meanwhile, I work hard to ensure I'm presenting stories in a way that will SHOW our viewers why they should care, why the stories matter.

For example, I asked one photographer to make sure he got shots and Nat Sound that I planned to use, and instead of complying, he griped at me about how he was getting ready to make a call and smoke a cigarette instead. He actually got angry because I politely asked him to do his job.

Or, worse yet, they'll do their best to convince me not to do a stand-up... and Lord forbid I ask them to put the slightest bit of creative effort into shooting a live shot or tease.

I'm lucky if I get one Nat "pop" in my packages. Which they'll then brag about sarcastically if they manage to use any I script.

I'm not sure how common it is for me to be asking myself, "Where the heck am I, and how soon can I get out of here?" during my first gig in the business... but it's becoming a hazard to my overall health. LITERALLY. I ask myself that question multiple times every day.


Dragging photogs along like a ball and chain is taking its toll. How can I grow and become better, when the very people I'm suppose to consider teammates are presenting themselves as enemies?


Desperately Working to get OUT

Dear Desperate,

You're right, I've had the pleasure of working with lots of great photogs. I'll bet 95 percent were truly dedicated and took great pride in their work.

But I did work at one station at which only one photog really cared. Naturally the reporters all fought to work with him. The rest of the crew couldn't be bothered with tripods or anything creative. They were punching a clock and considered a camera a piece of equipment rather than an artist's palette. My appeals to the Chief and ND went nowhere. I moved on. Interesting... I have many tapes filled with my stories, but not a single one from that place.

Most times that attitude filters down from the Chief. So that where you should start, since obviously treating these guys nicely isn't getting you anywhere.

But here's the key... make sure you don't have the attitude that your current station is beneath you, or that it is a stepping stone. Sometimes older news people resent younger ones in their first jobs who are obviously headed onward and upward. Your chief request should be that you want to do quality work, not that you need better material for a resume tape. You might invite the Chief to dinner and chat in a relaxed atmosphere. Nothing frosts a Chief more than a rookie coming forward to complain about his shooters. Have the attitude that you're young, want to learn, and need the help of the veteran photogs... who know a lot more than you do... and you might make your case.

Also, don't tell a photog to get shots you need. Ask politely. While you're at it, ask for the photog's input on the story. Make him part of your team.

If that doesn't work, move on to the ND with the same approach.

But to start, bring a box of donuts to work and leave them in the photog lounge. Buy the cold sodas and coffee. That will generally take the edge of your relationship.

Thursday's story ideas

Airports are charging for WiFi access. Is anybody paying for this?

What does the mortgage rescue bill mean to homeowners in trouble?

Millions of gallons of gas are wasted by cars sitting in line to pay tolls. (Can you tell I spent the week in New York?) For those of you in markets with toll roads, are any legislators taking measures to eliminate tolls, perhaps with higher tag or registration fees?

What's the deal with wind power? Is is feasible in your market, and can the average homeowner take advantage?

Minimum wage goes up 70 cents today.

Blast from the past. Stores are selling school supplies for a nickel or a dime. How is this possible?

Since some contend that cell phone usage could cause cancer, does the same apply to a headset?

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hooks in the water


I am a reporter with four years experience in a medium sized market. This is my second job and I am hoping to move on to my third ASAP. My search is pretty selective, I am trying to get back closer to home. I've sent out about seven tapes so far... with not much luck. Is this the point where I need an agent, or should I try more on my own.

Two Months to Go

Dear Two Months,

Seven tapes is an extremely small number to send. Most people send forty or fifty to start... pick a dozen or more markets, eliminate the bad companies and the ones that use one man bands, and fire off the tapes. By sending only seven tapes, especially during a time of year when NDs are looking but not necessarily hiring (they tend to do that after Labor Day) you're really not putting enough hooks in the water to land a good job.

Do you need an agent? Sorry, no way to answer that question without knowing your current salary, talent level, etc. Most agents aren't taking clients unless they're confident they can place them at salaries of 50k or more. And be very, very careful when signing with an agent. Do your homework, find people who have used the agent, and don't fall for a slick sales pitch. You want an agent that will pitch your work, not just put your tape in a box with a dozen others, or give up on you after a month without results.

Your other problem is the timing... honestly, you guys should start sending out tapes six months before the end of any contract. Two months is a very short window to get all the stars to align. It happens, but you're making it difficult on yourself when you wait till the last minute.

However, take heart... I recently got a client who had four days left on her contract, and she ended up with a great job. But for future reference, take plenty of time for your job search.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

You can write your way into (or out of) a job

Dear Grapevine,

Long time reader, first time questioner. Would you care to comment on writing tests stations send you as part of the hiring process? I'm working on one currently, and it's a bit tricky. It'd be nice to know more about them, how important they are to getting hired, etc.?

-Writing Riddle


Oh, I loved giving writing tests when I was hiring people. And sometimes I got the results before the candidate even started writing. No sooner had I said, "I'd like you to take a writing test" than the beads of sweat would blossom on the candidate's forehead and the eyes would glaze over. These are usually given in conjunction with current events tests. Once an anchor candidate actually asked me, "Why do I have to know current events if I'm going to be an anchor?" You guessed it, she didn't get the job.

So the first thing you have to do when presented with a writing test, either in person or over the phone, is to react as if it is no big deal. Letting a ND know that you're not confident about your writing is a red flag.

You may also be asked to tie stories together, especially if you're applying for a producer's job where things like tease writing are critical. The ND wants to see if you are clever and can turn a phrase.

These days tests come in two forms, as part of the in-person interview or via email, in which you are given a certain amount of time to complete the exercise. Many NDs will give you three or four stories from the wire to re-write, to see if you can compose decent broadcast copy. As you do this, make sure you read your copy aloud to check the pacing. If you run out of breath before the end of a sentence, that sentence is too long. Cut it in half.

Let's practice on this story. Just re-write it to make it more conversational and interesting.

"Things are heating up on the campaign trail this week. Senator Barack Obama is busy campaigning for votes in California's wine country with his wife Melissa and their three daughters, while Arizona Governor John McCain and wife Cindy are on a bus tour through the South. McCain, a Navy pilot, stopped to visit the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida and talked with pilots about his ordeal in a South Vietnam prison camp."

You see, I, being the devious sort that I am, liked to give reporters copy to re-write that had factual errors; the kind of mistakes that no news person worth his salt would miss. If you didn't catch the four blatant mistakes in that story, it would raise a red flag that you are all style and no substance. So while you're not only being checked for your writing style, there might be a subliminal test buried in the copy you're asked to re-write.

Anyway, let's punch up that copy a bit...

"Things are bubbling up on the campaign trail this week, as Barack Obama pressed the flesh with those who press the grapes in California's wine country. Meanwhile, John McCain went back to school of sorts, visiting the Naval Base in Pensacola, Florida where he learned to fly."

See, same story, but more interesting as we've turned a few phrases. Instead of having copy to "read" the anchor is now able to "talk" to the viewer in a more one-on-one conversational tone.

I'm often asked if a person can be "taught" to be a good writer. Personally, I think great writers are born with that talent, but that anyone can work hard to become a good writer. It takes practice and study. Listen to the copy on the networks and major market stations, pay attention to their clever phrasing, and then grab the worst wire copy you can find and do it yourself. If you apply yourself it will become second nature, and a fun challenge for you to make even the dullest stories interesting.

Tuesday's story ideas

Getting a "cash discount." Most stores pay a credit card company 2-5 percent for all sales. But you can sometimes get a small discount by offering to pay cash, since you're saving the company the credit card fee.

Which car companies are offering the best financing in light of slumping car sales?

Do you book your Chirstmas travel now, or play the game and hope oil prices will go down?

Catfish farms are going out of business, as the cost of feed has skyrocketed.

How web-savvy are seniors these days? With those Wii games in nursing homes, are seniors turning more to technology?

Plastic shoes (like Crocs) are everywhere, and now some are being touted to help foot pain. Do they work?

Monday, July 21, 2008

Are you reading enough?

I once worked at a station where intelligence was valued above all else. Every day those who were done with their stories when Jeopardy was on would put fifty cents in the pot for the final answer... but you had to bet before you knew the category. Naturally if you knew a little about a lot of subjects you could do quite well.

So how do you get to the point where "General Assignment Reporter" doesn't mean "Equally ignorant in all areas?" To start, you have to read. A lot.

In my last few jobs I'd noticed that young people tend to read just the local newspaper, if they even read at all. But to be a well rounded reporter you have to venture out beyond your market; and in this internet age there's no excuse for saying you don't have anything to read.

Surfing the net is one thing. Sure, it's fun to watch some silly video online once in awhile, but you need to realize that you have basically a free subscription to every newspaper in America. I used to have to get my dad to mail me the New York papers because the local papers in some of the markets in which I worked were so bad; they simply ignored huge national stories and often had an attitude that if it didn't happen in town, it didn't happen. Now I can wake up and read my hometown papers and any others I choose.

The benefit of all this is that you'll not only be more informed, but you'll pick up story ideas that you can localize for your own market. Big city papers are often loaded with great stories you probably wouldn't think of if you're living in Podunk. Take those ideas and turn them into stories.

But reading is more than just a story source, it makes you well rounded and less susceptible to mistakes. For instance, right now you should be reading all the political stuff you can get your hands on. And with oil prices and a crazy economy, you should be well versed in all things financial as well as environmental issues. If you don't know a State Senator from a US Senator, if you can't tell me how to apply for a mortgage, if you don't know that property tax increases affects those who rent, then you're not reading enough.

You need to know how things work in this country, and around the world.

Start reading different newspapers, and start today. And don't just read the fun sections, really give yourself some exposure to as many topics as possible.

Then, maybe after ten or so years, you'll be ready to go on Jeopardy.

***Tomorrow afternoon... writing tests

Monday's story ideas

Honeymoons closer to home. Are newlyweds feeling the pinch of high airfares?

Starbucks more likely to close in warm climates. Are other sunbelt coffee shops in the same boat?

New York restaurants now post calories on menus. Would those who dine out appreciate this everywhere?

Discount and close out stores continue to do big business as shoppers change their habits.

The South has more obese people than any other region. What's the deal in your market and why?

Mass transit fares are going up along with ridership.