Saturday, August 16, 2008

Movie of the weekend: "Charlie Wilson's War"

In light of everything going on in the Middle East, it might be nice for you to take a historical look at the situation twenty years ago. This one is based on a true story, and offers a good look at how things work in Congress and how big campaign contributors can have the ear of those in public office. (As if we didn't already know.)

Most people don't know the roots of the problems in the Middle East, and this film will give you some good insight.

Warning: if bad language bothers you, beware.

Friday, August 15, 2008

News Director's Playbook: The "do not call" list

Let me preface this by saying nothing irritates me more than people who don't return calls. In fact, when I get someone's answering machine, I generally hang up rather than leave a message. I'd rather just call later.


The rules are different when you're a News Director.

The most common complaint from job hunters I hear is that News Directors simply don't return calls. When I was a reporter I felt the same way. Then when I went into management the reason hit might square in the face.

It simply isn't possible. Not enough time, and emotionally draining.

Let me illustrate what happens when a job is posted. (And those NDs who fail to put "no phone calls please" at the end of the ad are just asking for trouble.) Despite the fact that the ad specifically tells candidates not to call, you'll get a call that always starts like this...

"I know the ad said no phone calls, but..."

And then you just shake your head because the person couldn't follow a simple direction.

But back to the unreturned calls topic. I would guess that the average response for any on-camera job opening is somewhere between 100-300 tapes. Along with the deluge of mail, you'll receive dozens of emails which you probably won't open because the station has a policy regarding internet viruses. And then there are the people who call. Even if the job ad says nothing about phone calls, there is absolutely no reason for a News Director to talk with anyone before seeing the tape. You might have the best phone manner in the world and a great voice, but unless that translates into on-camera work, there's no point.

Then there are the people who call after sending a tape, looking for a critique, thinking you will actually remember every tape you've looked at. "I sent you a tape and wanted to know what you thought of it." Remember, 90 percent of the tapes don't make it past 20 seconds. And if you've watched 200 tapes, the only ones you'll remember are those on the short list.

OK, now let's move on to the part of the search where the ND is narrowing things down. Let's say you've got six tapes that you like. Before you show them to the GM or send them to corporate, you need to know if the people are still available and what sort of money they are looking for. And you want to get a sense of the candidate's personality. So you call. This of course gets the applicant very exited, and also seems to give that person license to start calling the ND. And then the ND doesn't call you back. Some possible reasons:

-The ND hired someone else.
-Your tape didn't impress the GM or corporate and the ND was overruled. (This happens a lot.)
-Someone else of equal talent will work cheaper, or lives closer and doesn't need moving expenses.
-Someone already at the station was promoted from within.
-A hiring freeze or some budgetary change eliminated the opening.
-You drove the ND nuts with phone calls.

(Something else to consider: some stations send an application to everyone who applies. This does NOT mean they are interested, nor should it encourage you to pick up the phone.)

So before you think a ND is being rude, consider that point of view. Would you want to make dozens of calls to people who really have no shot at a job? And would you want to receive a call like this?

So once again, send it and fuhgeddaboudit. Don't sit around waiting by the phone, even if you've gotten a "short list" call. Assume nothing. Keep sending tapes.

Friday's story ideas

Some states are considering legislation to ban trans fats in schools and restaurants.

Immigrant integration is the new catchphrase in some states. What does it mean and how will it change things?

Young women who smoke are doubling their risk of suffering a stroke.

Dead zones in coastal waters. Some areas just don't support life. Talk to fishermen and find out what might be polluting things.

Can you treat acid reflux without medicine?

Fun feature for the weekend. A study shows that people who have been drinking feel that other people look more attractive.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Consider the source?

Let's face it, when most of you first heard the John Edwards scandal was being reported by the National Enquirer, you probably dismissed it as a sensational tabloid rumor.

Then it turned out to be true.

So what can you learn from this about political reporting? Probably what many veteran reporters already know. In any campaign, there's always someone who feels wronged, has an axe to grind, or simply works for another candidate and wants to take down the competition. The trick is to find those people...

Or, let them find you.

Several years ago I got an anonymous tip on the phone that sounded so bizarre it couldn't possibly be true. But the person calling was very articulate, and I just had a hunch there might be something to it. So I brought it up in the morning meeting, and of course everyone had a good laugh. The reporter who had that beat said he'd check it out, but I could tell by the look on his face that he wouldn't. A few days later it ended up on the front page of the local newspaper. The tip turned out to be true.

Do you think that "source" ever called me again? Of course not. He probably assumed I'd simply blown him off, and after not seeing the story on our station for a few days, moved on to the next media outlet.

So, two little lessons here. First, check out everything, no matter how ridiculous it may sound. You might just end up with something really good. Second, when it comes to politics, there are always skeletons in closets, and always someone who knows where those closets are. So when a campaign worker that you've dealt with suddenly leaves a campaign, you owe it to yourself to keep in touch.

Be open to any tips that come your way. Many will be bogus, but some will lead you to good stories. When sources know you are seriously interested and will follow up, they will continue to call you with good stuff. And if you don't check out a lead, trust me, there's always someone else who will.

Don't let your exclusive end up as the lead story on another station. And just because a news organization doesn't have a great journalistic reputation, don't discount any stories it does.

Thursday's story ideas

Get this... soldiers heading overseas are being charged to check extra baggage by some airlines.

Foster care adoptions are on the rise while adoption of foreign children is down.

Court case in Tennessee regarding the right to wear a confederate flag to school has many systems updating their dress codes.

High tech security systems lets you monitor your home via the Internet.

Study shows that eating eggs for breakfast may help you lose weight... but what does this do to your cholesterol?

As people cut back spending, many are feeding their pets table scraps and other "human" food... but some foods are deadly to pets.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Wednesday's story ideas

OK, oil prices have fallen considerably in the last few weeks. What products directly affected by oil prices have dropped a similar amount? And which ones haven't changed at all?

In light of a case in Louisiana, will stun guns be found to constitute "deadly force" by police? How effective and safe are these things. (And please, no more standups of reporters being stunned. You can get seriously hurt.)

With so many new people registering to vote, both parties are concerned with voter fraud. What steps are the local officials taking in your market?

Thousands of people are already on the waiting list for the Chevy Volt, the electric car due in two years. Visit the local dealership.
(Your sales department will be thrilled.)

In an effort to fight fast food chains, Dennys & IHOP are now offering meals to go. (However, you would probably anger the photog if you tried to eat pancakes in the news car.)

Study shows married men are healthier than single men. FInd out why and have some fun doing it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

News Director's playbook: The Montage


I'm struggling with what to put on the opening montage of my resume tape. Can't I just start off with my packages?


Dear R.J.,

Well, you could, but montages are a time honored tradition. The other obvious reason? A ND wants to know what you look like right off the top. Superficial, yes, but alas, this is a superficial business.

Think of a montage as a box of chocolates, a Whitman's Sampler if you will. (And, no, there's no Forrest Gump metaphor coming.) In every box of assorted chocolates you get caramels, chocolate covered nuts, those things that taste like Butterfingers and the dreaded creams that you give to your grandmother. By the time you've eaten the whole box you know what you can expect from the candy company in the way of quality.

A montage is the same. It needs to show you in a variety of settings and situations. Let's say we've decided to put six clips in your montage. We might end up with two live shots, two standups and two keywall intros. Or maybe some anchoring if you have it. And at least one of these (preferably the last one) should show your smile. Mix them up. Your order might look like this:

-Nighttime live shot

-Keywall intro

-Daytime standup

-Anchoring clip

-Breaking news live shot

-Feature standup

There's only one rule when putting together the montage. The first thing on the list had better be your absolute best work, or the ND won't watch much more. Don't make the mistake of thinking that the standup from the most important story needs to be first. First impressions count a lot in resume tapes.

"It" is what keeps an ND watching. Show that you're clever, write well, have a personality and can think on your feet in the field and the ND will probably start watching your packages. And "it" means different things to different NDs. But when your version of "it" matches the ND's, you'll get a call.

Oh, one more thing. Please, everyone, ditch the exotic pre-produced slates. Give me your name and contact info for ten seconds and then roll the montage.

Tuesday's story ideas

Proposed changes in the endangered species act... what does this mean for the environment and the creatures on the edge?

Candidates are trying to get newly released prisoners to register to vote.

New mortgage standards... what do you need today to get a loan?

New legislation is being discussed that could help small businesses get affordable health insurance.

"Energy star" windows... just when you thought glass is glass, now you have to consider all sorts of factors. What kind of glass blocks the sun in the summer and keeps the heat inside during the winter?

Campaign finance records. How can contributors find out where the money really goes?

Many magazines and newspapers are downsizing to a smaller size in order to cut costs.

Monday, August 11, 2008

How to ask a politician about an affair

Ah, the cheating politician, the staple of the tabloids.

Except when it's true.

This happens so often these days that journalism schools ought to have a course called "Covering the sleazeballs in an election."

About twenty years I was working as a feature reporter, and there were allegations of an affair about a politician running for a high office in the state. He was the prohibitive favorite at the time. The rumors broke just as the candidate happened to be in town for a luncheon. During the morning newsroom meeting his alleged affair was the main topic of discussion, and the Assignment Editor knew that whatever reporter asked "the question" would be shut out of the loop forever if the guy got elected. So he elected to "burn me" since I never covered politics anyway. Brilliant.

We arrived at the luncheon and I grabbed the candidate on his way out. I started out with some totally lame questions about the topics discussed at the luncheon, and then, when the crowd had surrounded him and he couldn't get away, I hit him with the question. "So, what's the deal about this alleged affair?" The guy turned white, gave me the death stare, and said, "I'm not even going to dignify that with a response." This of course was followed by the now traditional "stand by your man" news conference in which the wife dutifully stood by her husband's side (while every reporter knew she had a divorce attorney on speed dial.) And of course, after the election (which he lost) the wife dumped him.

Chances are pretty good these days that you'll eventually be assigned to cover a political affair. This has its stages, just like the five stages of grief. There's the denial period, in which the politician flat out looks into the camera and says the rumors aren't true.... in fact, they're outrageous, and how dare you even accuse me of that! Then there's the Tammy Wynette stage, during which the politician realizes the media has found the smoking gun, admits he "made a mistake" while wifey offers "support." (Just once I'd like to hear a question like, "So, Mrs. Spitzer, why don't you just haul off and slap him?") And finally, once the current election cycle is over, the quiet news that the politician and his wife are going their separate ways. (After that there are the books and the Lifetime movies, the exclusive interviews with the "other woman" and the tell-all articles, but that doesn't concern reporters.)

So how do you ask someone if he's cheated on his wife and get an honest response? It's not a typical question that you'd ask of anyone. If you want the good reaction, the great body language that is more telling than any sound bite, the color draining out of the guy's face so fast that he looks like a vampire, you've got to get the guy to let his guard down. In my case, getting the politician to think I wasn't going anywhere near the topic gave us a great piece of video. If that's not possible, simply acting friendly and casual can do the trick. The one thing that often doesn't work is ambush journalism. The politician sees it coming, is braced for it, and has a stock answer ready. What you want, since you work in a visual medium, is to see the reaction as you ask the question. That can often tell viewers more than any sound bite, or lack thereof.

When interviewing politicians, you have to keep one thing in mind: many of these people truly believe they are bulletproof and will never get caught, that the rules do not apply to them, that they are somehow entitled to things the rest of us aren't, that they are invincible. That arrogance has gotten many a politician in trouble. So make them let down their guard. Be friendly and ask the easy questions first. Lob a few softballs. Don't fire the big guns until they actually think you're on their side. Then when they least expect it, ask the question that will give you the money shot.

Monday's story ideas

Did you know that in many cases you can buy a foreclosed home and if the person who owned it comes up with the cash in a certain period of time they can get it back? Show consumers the rules of buying a foreclosure.

The latest diet claim is that something called "alpha lipoid acid" can keep weight off after a diet. What is this stuff and is it safe?

Drug companies are raising the cost of certain medications more than 100 percent. How can they justify this, and can anyone do anything about it?

Libraries are now "stocking" downloadable items.

Amtrak ridership is up so much that trains are getting overcrowded. Is it time for the US to bring rail travel up to the standards of Europe?

Veterans want funding for their medical benefits to be "politician proof." Talk to some vets and find out what they need.