Saturday, August 9, 2008

Mailbag: Convention preps, online resumes, and trust

Dear Grape,
I am a first year reporter in a 180 plus market in Colorado. As you know the DNC will be held in Denver this August. My station originally wanted to send two reporters to cover the event, as much as we could: working out of another stations SAT truck and working with limited credentials. I was fortunate enough to be selected to cover this event. However, the other reporter scheduled to go can no longer make it. My ND says he can't get more credentials on such a short notice. My worry now is, how do I go about covering such a huge event as a one man band with limited experience in the area? I started cutting DNC related articles and putting them in a folder as well as watching every news story I can on the topic. Any advise?

Worried at the DNC

Dear Worried,

Honestly, there is nothing more fun that covering a national convention. I did both the Democratic and Republican conventions in 1988, and looking back those were probably in the top five experiences I had as a reporter.

Of course 20 years ago, there were a lot more people covering these conventions. I remember when Mike Dukakis was confirmed in Atlanta, they dropped a ton of balloons. The news people were so crammed together that the balloons piled up on our heads as they were unable to hit the ground.

I remember one young reporter who came up to us one day holding a videotape. She told us she was a college student about to graduate, and wondered if the photog would be so kind as to shoot a standup. He was so impressed by this little bit of spunk that took her tape and shot a few standups for her. (Wish I'd gotten her name, as your letter made me wonder what ever happened to her.)

You should try the same. Photogs are by and large a friendly lot and usually willing to help young people who ask politely. (Ask for help with your camera and you'll really win them over.) And if you can get one shot in a skybox, well, those are always lit perfectly.

You should also take a ton of business cards and make as many contacts as possible. This is the Super Bowl of News; people love working events like this and it's a great opportunity to network and show people what you're made of. You definitely need to be "old school" at the convention, as many people who work it will be veterans. Your jaw will drop as you see network household names and broadcasting legends at every turn. They are real people, so don't be afraid to chat them up for advice.

And you'll need to do some legwork before the convention, though it sounds like you've already started. Touch base with several of the delegates and politicians from your market so they'll expect to see you in Denver. Get there early, find out the lay of the land and how to get to your delegation. Get all the cell phone numbers and hotel info for these people. Time is precious at the convention, and you don't want to waste it having to track people down.

And bring a still camera. You'll want some pictures for your scrapbook.

By the way, Hollywood celebrities love going to the Democratic convention. That's how I got to meet Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter.)

Meanwhile, your question means this week's "movie of the weekend" is "The Best Man" with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson. Yes, it's old and in black and white, but its a great look at political conventions.

I would love to hear your take on online reels. I don't feel comfortable posting my reel on youtube. I have tried photobucket, with their semi private accounts. Do you think anyone ever sees these, or is it a waste for time?


Dear Unreal,

A lot depends on the person doing the hiring. It never hurts to post online, as many managers like the convenience. But remember, when you post online you tell the whole world that you're looking for a job... including your current boss. I used to visit online sites just to see which members of my staff were looking. A lot of small and medium market managers as well as agents troll the online services to see who's out there.

These days it pays to keep as many hooks in the water as possible. Don't think that because you post with an online service that you're covered. You still need to send tapes and DVDs the old fashioned way.

Oh, and one word about DVDs. While I don't mind getting them, you guys need to set them up so they play immediately. Putting a menu system on these things just frustrates people who don't have time to figure out how to get the disc to play. When your DVD is placed in a machine or a computer, it should roll immediately.


Can I trust anyone in this business?


Dear Jaded,

Sure, but it is just like being arrested. Anything you say can and will be used against you.

Friday, August 8, 2008

What you can learn from Brett Favre (or, how to avoid anchoring at the broadcast equivalent of the New York Jets)

I ran into an anchor a few years ago who had been a household name in a big market. The anchor had been there for more than a decade, liked the station, the city and was happy. Even got along with the ND. Then the contract came up for renewal and an agent got greedy. Then the nice relationship deteriorated to the point where the ND simply withdrew the offer. The anchor was left scrambling and had to take a job in an undesirable market.

Yes, even though you work in broadcasting, you too can be like Brett Favre.

As a huge NFL fan, it pained me to see Favre undo such a wonderful image he'd spent 15 years cultivating. All because of what was probably a misunderstanding, the man went from hero to diva in the eyes of many fans. Playing poker against management is one thing, but doing so in the media is a huge mistake. Favre may never repair the damage to his image, especially among Packer fans. And while he may smile and think he's gotten his way, all he's done is end up with a team that played its only Super Bowl during the Nixon administration. Favre will soon find out what all New Yorkers know; there are no Jets fans, the people in the stands are Giants fans who can't get tickets to Giants games. He will also learn how incredibly tolerant New York fans are when he has one of his four interception games.

Which brings us back to negotiating. Unless you've been living under a rock, you have to know that the broadcast industry is enduring the hardest financial times in its history. So playing hardball isn't the smartest thing to do right now. And unless you are the top rated anchor in a market and have held that position for many years, any requests for more money ought to be reasonable and polite. In many cases, people are being signed for small raises, and in the cases of anchors who are already pulling down huge salaries, some are being offered pay cuts. And if you're a "one-market" anchor (someone who honestly couldn't get hired anywhere else) you should count your blessings.

And never, ever, play out any negotiations in the media. It's bush league and will end up costing you your reputation.

If you're determined to put the squeeze on your employer, you'd better be prepared to anchor for the Jets.

Friday's story ideas

Some areas are adopting new "green building codes" for new construction. What's going on in your market?

Are students from low-income families simply out of luck when it comes to attending college?

Political signs. They don't belong on city property or right-of-ways, but the laws are never enforced. Doesn't anyone want to get these ugly things off the landscape?

Is gas that is 10 percent ethanol safe for any car?

In light of the pollution in China, do those masks really do any good for those who live in very polluted areas?

NFL institutes fan behavior rules. What will this do to tailgating, and are colleges taking similar steps?

Study shows that some infertility treatments are ineffective. Considering the often high cost, what should patients know?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Thursday's story ideas

Many states and municipalities do not have the ability to preserve DNA for criminal cases. What's the deal in your market?

Stealing e-mails... what are the privacy laws regarding this?

How is the economy affecting pets? Are people visiting the vet less, or are Fluffy and Fido untouchable when it comes to the budget?

Shopping for scholarships. With the cost of college thru the roof, how can parents search for some financial help for the kid graduating next summer? Show your viewers how to start the process.

Negotiating your credit card interest. If you're paying a ridiculous rate, there are ways to get the rate reduced.

Making your own political commercial. Well, if Paris Hilton can post one, can the general public be far behind? And what might the regulations be?

It's flea season. What's the best and most environmentally safe way to treat your yard?

Netflix offers 12,000 movies on a thing called a RoKu box for a one time fee.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Trade deficit

Before money existed, the barter system was the means of exchange. You trade me a bunch of apples, I give you an egg laying chicken.

Seems pretty antiquated, but it is alive and well in broadcasting. The "trade-out" is a time honored sales tool that sometimes benefits both sides and TV station employees.

Or sometimes not.

I often advocate that people should ask for things like hair and clothing allowances when negotiating a contract, and many of you probably don't know that cash often doesn't change hands in these deals. Sometimes you can end up with good stuff, and other times the "allowance" can be worthless.

I learned of the trade-out system at my first radio station. The GM loved to trade advertising time for products, most of which we'd give away as prizes, some of which were used by the staff. When it came to prizes, the guy traded for everything from really nice clock radios to Caribbean vacations. He once traded with a candy company for hundreds of chocolate rabbits, which he stored in my office. (Big mistake on his part.) We tried to give away the rabbits for Easter, but people weren't that interested in driving to a radio station to pick up three bucks worth of chocolate. So the staff ate them all. (You never saw such a group on a sugar high.) At one point the GM had sold some advertising to a funeral home, which prompted his very sarcastic secretary to ask when typing up the contract, "Is this a trade?"

Which brings us back to your contract. When you are offered a perk on your contract, like a clothing allowance, you should find out the parameters of the trade-out.

In some stations you might be allowed to do your own shopping, then bring the receipts back to the station for reimbursement. You might be allowed to pick your own hairstylist. Those are the best trades. $1,000 can go a long way if you're a smart shopper. In other situations you might have to shop for makeup at a certain store, which might not stock the brand you like and whose exorbitant prices will eat up your trade allowance in no time. And finally, you might be sent to a store which designates certain items for trade... in other words, stuff they can't sell. And chances are if they can't sell it, you don't want it.

So sometimes those perks are great, and other times they're basically worthless.

When checking out a station, you can often find out where the trades are without asking, as many stations run a credit at the end of the newscast. If you see "Clothing provided by Macy's" then you know you'll be getting good stuff. If you see "Hairstyles provided by Joe's house of weed whackers" then you know you might be paying for your own haircut.

As for why stations trade, well, sometimes clients would rather pay with product (or unload stuff) than cash, and many times stations have unsold inventory. Years ago the IRS didn't even count it as income, but the feds got wise to the barter trick.

Now you know how the trade system works. So when a ND offers you perks, you might want to read the fine print, and, in the case of clothing and hair, check out the staff. Are they wearing great clothes and do they have great hairstyles? Or is the wardrobe garage sale material and does the anchor's hair look like it was cut with a machete?

Oh, and by the way, those "gifts" you guys get at the Christmas party? They're pretty much all trade items. Brings the term "re-gifted" to a whole 'nother level.

Wednesday's story ideas

Rental car companies are now giving people upgrades... to gas guzzlers. What are a consumer's rights when you reserve a compact car and get stuck with an SUV?

Credit card number hackers.... how can you protect yourself against them?

Airlines putting WiFi on flights... but will people pay ten bucks or so for the priviledge?

Some areas considering sales tax increases to deal with budget shortfalls.

The US is offering a sort of amnesty to illegal immigrants who turn themselves in. They'll be allowed to leave the country without jail time.

Home heating oil. Should you fill your tank for the winter now or hope the price goes down?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Ask the politicians what they don't want you to ask

For many of you, this election season will be your first real campaign. You're probably still at that stage in which you think politicians really have the public's best interests at heart. (Don't worry, you'll get over it.)

But regardless of your political coverage experience, you owe it to both yourself and the viewers to ask not only tough questions, but questions the politicians are probably not prepared to answer. Politicians are routinely prepped with stock answers to the common questions, the ones most likely to be asked. It's up to you to figure out what the candidate isn't prepared for, so that you get an answer that might offer some true insight. People want to elect real people, not robots who simply regurgitate answers formulated by their handlers.

I don't need to be a fly on the wall of the Obama or McCain campaigns to know that by the time the debate rolls around, both candidates will have prepped their answers on the economy, oil prices, Iraq, lobbyists, and a dozen other issues. Over the years, the best debate moments have come when a candidate rolls off the tracks into territory for which he or she is not prepared. (Gerald Ford on the subject of Poland is a classic example.)

So how do you come up with stuff that isn't covered in the campaign war rooms? Think simple.

Remember that scene in the 1992 campaign when George Bush (the first one) hadn't seen a supermarket checkout scanner? That spoke volumes about how "in touch" the man really was. Granted, we didn't expect the President to do his own grocery shopping, but stuff like that tells voters what kind of world politicians really live in.

Do Obama or McCain have any idea how much a gallon of milk costs? Do either of them know how to swipe a credit card and pump gas? Maybe they do, maybe they don't, but sometimes little stuff like that can tell you a lot about a politician.

So when you interview someone who is a "man or woman of the people" it is up to you to find out if the candidate really has his or her finger on the pulse of the voters, or is simply a puppet. Think of simple questions... stuff the average citizen could easily answer. Some of the answers might surprise you.

Tuesday's story ideas

Many fast food "kid's menus" are found to have too high a fat and calorie content.

JetBlue starts charging for pillows and blankets. Hit the luggage stores and show consumers all the fun products they can take on a plane, like inflatable pillows.

With the Olympics coming up it might be interesting to show people how steroid tests are done.

Back to school shopping.... where can you find bargains other than in stores? Ebay is loaded with new clothes, school supplies. Garage sales always have new children's clothes.

Speeding ticket revenues are down, as people are slowing down to save gas.

House approves medical leave bill for college students. What does this mean if it becomes law?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mailbag: Does the mommy track and the career track run on the same line?


I've been working in a newsroom for the past three years and just started at a great station in a new market. I love the nature of reporting, but I'm starting to have career doubts. I'm losing the passion for news and realizing I don't want to spend the rest of my life working nights, holidays and weekends. I thought I would look into changing careers when I had a family, and I just found out that is going to be sooner than expected. Any suggestions for a similar path but with a normal 9-5 day?

P.S. - Thanks for the daily column! I read everyday!

Mom-to-be in career limbo

Dear Mom-to-be,

As a guy, and one with no children, I'm not sure I'm the best person to give advice on this subject. The most parenting I've ever done is bottle feeding an orphaned Siamese kitten. But I've worked with plenty of women who have gone through their first pregnancies in the newsroom, so I'll share what I've observed. And from what I've observed, what you're going through is normal.

It seems that once female news people have their first child, they go in one of two directions; they either change careers to accommodate a normal parenting schedule, or they find a way to juggle both motherhood and broadcast journalism. The latter is often very difficult unless you have a very supportive spouse, but lots of people have done it successfully.

Several women I know have simply asked for a more normal shift, either anchoring morning, noon, or 5pm newscasts. Even working weekends will enable you to split parenting duties with your husband a little easier. It's a little more difficult for reporters, since you never really know when your day will end, if you have a live shot, etc.

Since you haven't had your baby yet, you need to talk with your spouse and then your ND to see what possibilities are available. (Since you work for a great station, the ND should be receptive.) But honestly, I wouldn't make any rash decisions until you've been a mom for awhile. Right now you've got too much on your plate to make a good decision, because you really have no idea how motherhood will affect you. Wait to see if your burning passion for journalism is still there. I've known a few hard core journalists who have simply chucked the career right after having a baby, and others who never missed a beat. I'm sure motherhood is as passionate as journalism, probably more so.

You might also talk with some other moms who work in the news business. (And those who read this blog, please chime in.)

Meanwhile, similar careers: Public relations, politics, (which offers a similar "rush") advertising, teaching Journalism or English. If you don't have a masters, you can work on one while raising the munchkin, then teach in college.

In any event, best of luck with the kid. Just don't give it one of those Hollywood wacko names.

Monday's story ideas

Internet political ads. Cheap to produce, free to run. Will local candidates start doing this? And (perish the thought) how much money will this cost local TV stations?

Oil prices have dropped 15 percent in the last three weeks. Gas prices have dropped 3 percent. Talk to the station owners and suppliers in your market to find out why.

Some correctional facilities are having to hiring more prison guards because inmates are getting longer sentences.

Congress passes bill which will make colleges open the books, and perhaps explain why higher education is so expensive.

Overweight pets. In light of the story about the 44 pound cat, how can pet owners put Fluffy and Fido on a diet safely?

Railroads claiming they are the "greenest" way to transport freight. Is this affecting businesses in your market?