Saturday, August 2, 2008

Movie of the weekend: "The Paper"

Okay, I know, this is a film about a newspaper. But it is a very good movie about journalism, ethics, and something that affects the business more than ever: the bottom line.

The plot would easily work in a television newsroom, as the staff struggles with ethical dilemmas as stealing stories, being first versus being right, printing a story that is known to be inaccurate, and taking a stance because you simply don't like someone else in the newsroom. The movie also captures the wicked humor that only exists in newsrooms.

Despite an all-star cast, this movie didn't make a ton of loot at the box office, so chances are you may not have seen or heard of it. But it is a well crafted tale, and chances are you'll see characters that echo the personalities in your own newsroom. And it will make you think about the true bottom line in journalism, the truth.

It also teaches you about legwork, nailing down sources, and the fact that nothing trumps good old fashioned digging when it comes to getting a great story.

Check it out... I'm betting you'll be inspired and remember why you got into the business in the first place.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Paper trails: some are good, some can come back to bite you

When I was a kid the neighborhood bookie gave me some flash paper to impress my friends. Flash paper is stuff used by magicians; it's made out of white gunpowder and disappears instantly when you touch a match to it. Naturally bookies used it to write down their bets, and if the cops came to the door they could make their paper trail disappear in an instant.

These days everyone is looking for the smoking gun. And with anything and everything ending up on the Internet, paper trails are getting easier to follow.

There are times you need paper trails and times you wish what you'd written down would disappear like flash paper. That's why you need to be extremely careful what you put down on paper... or on your computer. Email is so easy to use, and yet it can get you in trouble in an instant. Something you thought was private can grow exponentially in a short time; and then you find your inner thoughts on the front page of the Internet.

That's why I discourage people from having personal pages that can come back to incriminate them. Sometimes seemingly innocent comments, pictures or web content can come back to haunt you. Things you thought you were sharing with friends can suddenly end up in the hands of management.

The point is, be very careful with anything you write on a computer or post on the Internet.

On the other side of the coin, we find the paper trail that can benefit you; it's called "documentation."

Many people find themselves in tough positions in this business. You might find yourself in a hostile work environment for several months, then find yourself out of work. You might need to offer documentation to anyone from a lawyer to an unemployment office, and if you haven't kept good records, you won't have a very strong case.

These are the things you need to write down, and on old fashioned paper that you take home with you, not on your newsroom computer. Were you harassed today by a co-worker or a manager? Write the time and date down, what was said, and take it home. You may never need it, but you might. Those types of paper trails are a lot more valuable than memory.

Managers are taught to do this in the event they need to terminate someone. You can't just arbitrarily fire someone without rock solid documentation. As employees, you owe it to yourself to do the same. Hopefully you'll never need that kind of paper work, but if you do it will come in handy.

Know when to write and when not to. And in either case, the computer is not your friend.

Friday's story ideas

Driving related skin cancer. It turns out that if you spend lots of time driving, you are prone to skin cancer on the left side of your face. So should you wear sunscreen in the car, or just tint the windows?

Skipping tolls. Drivers who already have to deal with high gas prices are finding ways around toll roads, which means states have less revenue to repair roads.

Flight delays are up even though the amount of flights continues to drop. How is this possible?

Car dealers are getting out of the leasing business.

Sales tax holidays. Many areas have back to school periods, so show consumers how to plan accordingly.

Study shows teenage girls who don't eat fruits and vegetables often have weight problems their entire lives.

Cell phone wars. Nokia has cut prices, will others follow?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Don't hate me because I'm average looking


I'm a good reporter. I'm fair, objective, know how to put a story together, know how to dig and enterprise. I'm easy to work with and the photogs like working with me.

I'm reasonably attractive but I'm not remotely a "news babe" and despite my efforts to find another job I find myself constantly losing out to those who are more suited to being contestants on America's Next Top Model.

So what's an average looking gal to do? (And please don't tell me to be a producer.)

-Dateless at the ball

Dear Dateless,

Welcome to one of the most unfair businesses in the world. Sometimes you can be the smartest, most accomplished reporter out there but if you haven't hit DNA lotto in the looks department the parade can pass you by.

As a guy who doesn't have the traditional square jaw or perfect hair, I had to get by on my ability. But, and this is a big but, guys don't have it nearly as hard as women. Guys can be average looking and still do well. Women are, sadly, held to a higher standard in the appearance department. (Remember how Katie Couric got slammed for wearing white after Labor Day?) Some old views are still in place; anchor teams must be comprised of an older distinguished man and younger, very attractive woman. You rarely see an anchor team in which the woman is older. Incredibly, in 2008, the business is still stuck in the past when it comes to the superficial stuff.

But don't give up, as there are plenty of NDs out there who value people on their ability. And I personally think that as more women become News Directors and General Managers, those old views will begin to fade.

Since you weren't blessed with the classic looks, you have to work harder and focus on the talents that you do have. We all know people who are average looking or even unattractive, but who become more attractive through the sheer force of their personalities. While you should always strive to look your best at all times, those who don't fall into the "classic beauty" category need to convey their personalities and smarts to the viewer. Many times plain old spunk and street smarts can make an average looking woman extremely attractive to viewers.

Content is still king when it comes to resume tapes. Send out killer stories, let your personality shine in your montage, and you'll move on. You didn't really want to work for the people who hired the models, now did you?

Thursday's story ideas

The number of homeless people has declined in this country. What is the reason for this?

What does the new housing bill mean to the average homeowner with a mortgage?

Americans are cutting back on credit card use.

People are unloading their land line phones. Can you maintain a security system without one?

Doctors are seeing a rise in kids with cholesterol problems. What foods would help them lower their levels?

Delta will double its fees to check a second bag.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mailbag: Is freelancing the future of this business?


I've noted a few larger markets are hiring people on a freelance basis. What's the deal, and is this a trend?


Dear Freebird,

It's more than a trend, it is a growing trend. I work on a freelance basis as a network field producer, and when I do so I'll bet 90 percent of the crew is freelance as well.

Many larger markets are using more and more freelancers, some five days per week. Obviously it is a two way street... the station doesn't have to pay benefits, and the employee has a good deal of freedom.

This works best if your spouse has great benefits (Mrs. Grape is a teacher, so I'm well covered). But even if you have to buy your own health insurance (not cheap, by the way), freelancing is a foot in the door of a big market. I've had one client start as a freelancer who was put under contract after a few months.

Many people like freelance gigs because it offers you the opportunity to have a very flexible life. Many women who want to do the parenting thing and still have a career are working freelance.

By the way, very often freelance jobs are not advertised. When contacting stations in larger markets, you'll often have to inquire if the station employs people on a freelance basis.

The upside for the station... if things don't work out, they simply stop calling you.

But if they like you they run the risk of losing you to the station across the street, so if you make a good impression you can sometimes carve out a permanent job for yourself.

Wednesday's story ideas

Earthquake insurance. You might be surprised what parts of the country offer this.

Congress agrees to ban potentially dangerous toxins from children's products.

The United States has a "foreign traveler deficit" primarily because it is so difficult for foreigners to enter the country. What's being done to help legitimate vacationers visit?

Lots of people are having problems with artificial knee replacements. Talk to a surgeon and find out what patients should know about the procedure.

Airlines are closing private lounges in some airports.

Restaurant chains are hurting with Bennigan's & Stake & Ale shutting down many of their restaurants. Are all restaurants feeling the pinch of the economy?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tuesday's story ideas

Voter registration is way up for what promises to be a record turnout. How are your local registrars handling things?

School will be back in session soon and systems will have to deal with a huge increase in the price of something simple... paper.

There is a shortage of dermatologists who deal with old fashioned skin problems rather than dole out botox shots.

Fruit drinks that are not 100 percent juice can give people a false sense of security that they're drinking something healthy. Show consumers how to read the labels and spot "juice" drinks that are basically corn syrup.

Deaths from medication mistakes (like the one that killed Heath Ledger) are on the rise. What can pharmacists and doctors do to fix this problem?

Can energy drinks dehydrate you? This is a concern of firefighters, who can suffer heat exhaustion very easily. Talk to a doctor and visit your local firehouse.

High gas prices mean the old fashioned foot patrols are coming back for some police departments. Some are mandating that officers spend a certain percentage of time walking the beat.

Feature: How to keep your hair looking good during sweltering summer humidity.

(Thanks to Melissa for those last three ideas.)

Got a story idea? Share it with the rest of the class. Send 'em to

Monday, July 28, 2008

The most important facet of any news organization

It's amazing how many stations use the word "trust" in their news department slogans, yet present news that is so obviously slanted there's really no credibility at all.

And once you've lost credibility with viewers, you've lost everything.

When I was a kid, Walter Cronkite was "the most trusted man in America." He was often asked to run for President. Most people believed what they heard and saw on television back in those days, at least until the Vietnam War made people distrustful of just about everything. As the years have gone by, the level of trust for reporters has continued to decline. Several years ago some organization did a poll and found out that reporters were trusted as much as car salesmen.


An old newsman once told me, "If the viewers have no idea who you're voting for, you're doing a good job." Truer words were never spoken.

On the other side of the coin, there was a young reporter at a station in which I worked several years ago, who stated, "How can anyone work in this business and NOT be a Democrat?" That reporter got a roll of the eyes from many in the newsroom, because despite the "liberal news media" tag we all endure, there are plenty of ultra conservative news people out there.

These days it is more than just providing equal time. Lately I've been paying attention to the body language of various reporters, and the way they deliver their copy. A quick smile here, an animated delivery there, and all of a sudden you know exactly what lever that reporter will pull on election day. Sometimes the way you ask your question can label you as biased. When a reporter prefaces a question with, "With all due respect" then you can be reasonably sure that reporter is voting for the other candidate.

As news people you must not only strive to deliver fair and unbiased coverage, but if you're on camera you must have a poker face as well. You may love the candidate you're covering, or simply despise him, but you can't let the viewers have even a hint of what you're thinking.

Last week we touched on how politicians can "get in your pocket." Once you let that happen, you've lost credibility. Without it, you can't expect the viewers to trust you.

Monday's story ideas

The Senate blocked a bill this weekend that would have helped low income families pay their utility bills.

We know that more and more students are taking classes over the Internet, but what is it like for teachers who conduct classes without ever meeting their students?

FCC gives go ahead to XM acquisition of Sirius satellite radio. What does this do to service, existing equipment, etc.?

California bans restaurants from preparing food using trans fats. What's coming in your state, if anything?

What's the latest with a la carte cable? Congress has been looking into it, and it would seem to be a clever campaign issue.

Cafeteria trays are disappearing on college campuses for fall, as schools seek to find ways to save energy. They'll save a small fortune not having to wash the things. (Sadly, this puts an end to cafeteria tray snowboarding at many Northern universities.)

A can of cat food now costs more (75 cents to 50 cents) than a can of tuna. Should you just feed Fluffy a can of Bumble Bee? Talk to a vet.